He is remembered as the obsessive love interest of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, but Leslie Howard should also be recalled as a British secret agent who died returning from a clandestine war mission, a Spanish author says.
Jose Rey-Ximena said that Howard, who was in a passenger aircraft shot down by the Luftwaffe in 1943, had just been to a secret meeting with general Francisco Franco, allegedly on a special mission for British prime minister Winston Churchill, who wanted to get a secret message to the Spanish dictator.
“Thanks to him, at least in theory, Spain was persuaded to stay out of the war,” Rey-Ximena said of the actor who portrayed the unattainable southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes in the 1939 film.
The alleged message conveyed by Howard was just one of the British attempts to keep Franco, who had come to power with the support of Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini, from joining the wartime Axis alliance, Rey-Ximena said on Sunday.
Howard used his contacts with a former lover, Conchita Montenegro, to get through to Franco and deliver the message, the writer said. Montenegro, a Spanish actor, told Rey-Ximena the full story of Howard’s visit to Madrid shortly before her death at the age of 95.
Montenegro, once dubbed the Spanish Greta Garbo, allegedly had an affair with Howard, whom she met while shooting Never the Twain Shall Meet in 1931. She later married Ricardo Gimenez-Arnau, who was in charge of foreign relations for the far-right Falangist party, which backed Franco’s military uprising against the Republican government.
It was through her husband’s family, whose members occupied several posts under Franco, that Howard managed to see Spain’s ruler, the actor said.
Montenegro told Rey-Ximena that Howard’s interview with Franco was supposedly about whether he would take the role of Columbus in a Spanish film. Franco was interested in cinema. The arrival in Madrid of a Hollywood star, at a time when Spain’s right-wing dictatorship meant the country was widely shunned, caused a stir.
Rey-Ximena, who has just published a book on the subject, has not revealed the full contents of the meeting. Howard left Madrid in June 1943 for Lisbon and boarded a DC-3 passenger airliner bound for London. The plane was intercepted off Spain by German fighters.
A rumor circulated that the Germans thought Churchill was on board. Howard’s manager, who also died in the crash, was said to resemble the British leader.
Rey-Ximena said Howard’s secret went down with the plane: “He has never been recognized either as a spy or as a hero.”
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