Dark secret life of the original ‘M’: Spymaster who inspired 007’s boss was a closet gay that married three women he never slept with – before reinventing himself as a children’s presenter called Uncle Max
- Maxwell Knight spoke on radio and in books about wildlife and nature
- In previous career he planted spies among British Union of Fascists
- Destroyed wartime spy rings, detected Secret Service had been infiltrated
PUBLISHED: 01:27 GMT, 13 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:48 GMT, 13 March 2014
Troubled: Maxwell Knight was the role model for M. He is a thing of legend to spy enthusiasts
With his rich, mellifluous tones and friendly, avuncular manner, ‘Uncle Max’ was a great favourite with children who tuned into his afternoon radio programme Nature Parliament, in which he encouraged them to explore the natural world, looking under logs and in hedgerows to discover bugs, beetles and other wonders of nature.
‘He was part of the Sunday ritual — roast lamb and mint sauce, Maxwell Knight on the radio and then a wonderful exploration of a pond or a wood before tea,’ recalled one young fan from the 1940s.
His audience listened spellbound as he explained to them how to rear tadpoles, how to gain the trust of wild animals and how to tell what a creature had eaten from its droppings.
What none of his listeners could have guessed is that gentle ‘Uncle Max’ had been a ruthless spymaster, known to colleagues as ‘M’, and one of the characters who inspired Ian Fleming (with whom he briefly worked) in his creation of James Bond’s spy chief.
In his previous — and utterly secret — incarnation, he had run a network of spies, planting them among the British Union of Fascists as well as the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Those children would have been astounded to learn that the man who spoke so charmingly of newts and lizards, who kept a pet fox and mongoose, and who wrote A Cuckoo In The House, about a bird named Goo he had rescued and tamed, also dabbled in the occult and became a novice of the renowned occultist Aleister Crowley — whose sexual debauchery and denunciations of Christianity caused him to be proclaimed the ‘wickedest man in Britain’ — after the pair were introduced by an author friend of Knight’s.
As for those young listeners’ parents, they would have been astonished to discover that Knight was a closet homosexual who had had three unconsummated marriages.
The extraordinary career of Charles Henry Maxwell Knight has long been a source of fascination to spy enthusiasts. Not only did he succeed in destroying dangerous wartime spy rings, but it was he who first suspected the Secret Service had been infiltrated by the Soviets.
What makes him particularly fascinating is that he had two careers which, on the face of it, seem so completely at odds. Though his wartime achievements have gradually come to light in recent decades, few know that this hard-nosed spook was also the accomplished naturalist who beguiled a generation of radio listeners.
This side of him has only recently come to public attention with a recent lecture at the Linnean Society (an organisation dedicated to Natural History).
It revealed how the man who was skilled in identifying, training and running agents used these same skills to observe nature and tame a variety of wildlife.
Knight had been born into genteel poverty. His father spent all his money on mistresses, and Knight was partly brought up in the Glamorgan home of his uncle, a miserly tyrant.
Bernard Lee (pictured with Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny) played M in the Bond films before Judi Dench
Nature provided his refuge and he roamed the Welsh countryside collecting caterpillars and other insects, a passion that had to be put on hold when he was sent to sea in 1914, aged 14, as a cadet.
On leaving the Navy in 1918, Knight became a Latin teacher, living with his mother and sister in a small flat in London, which he soon filled with animals. There were white mice in the living-room, grass snakes in the bath, a parrot in the kitchen and ferrets in the garden. He adored jazz and played it to his animals.
But he yearned for a more adventurous existence. At a dinner party in 1925 he met Vernon Kell, then head of MI5, who thought Knight seemed a ‘good chap’ and recruited him as an agent, tasked with routing out communist spies.
That same year, Knight met and married a ravishing, wealthy redhead, Gwladys Poole. With her money they bought a flat on London’s smart Sloane Street into which Knight moved his menagerie. Gwladys was no fan of his many pets and she was further perturbed that, while affectionate, Knight had no interest in her body.
Seeking to invest some of her money, they bought a pub in Somerset that Gwladys ran during the week, while Knight worked in London. At weekends he travelled down to meet her — only to disappear fishing for hours.
Apparently rejected and humiliated by Knight’s failure to consummate the marriage, in 1934 Gwladys took an overdose of barbiturates and died, leaving her large fortune to Knight.
Her family accused him of driving her to suicide and rumours swirled that he had actually murdered her. The scandal threatened to end his career, but his reputation was rescued by his first great coup.
A young female agent he had recruited, Olga Gray, had infiltrated the Communist Party of Great Britain and discovered a plot to pass secret naval plans of anti-submarine bombs and detonators to the Soviets. The conspirators were caught and jailed.
In later years, Judi Dench portrayed the strong-willed role of M, in tribute to Maxwell Knight’s ability to destroy dangerous wartime spy rings, detect the Secret Service had been infiltrated, and manage spies
Uncovering what became known as the Woolwich Arsenal conspiracy was a triumph for Knight, who began to rise through the ranks of MI5.
He married again, this time to a pretty young woman named Lois, ten years his junior, and installed her in the Sloane Street flat, which by now housed a white bull-terrier, a bullfinch, snakes, salamanders, an incontinent bush-baby, a bear cub, a baboon, monkeys, rats and several birds — including a blue-fronted Amazon parrot who took a virulent dislike to her.
Knight insisted they spend their evenings sitting in the dark because the animals were asleep.
Once again, he showed no interest in consummating his marriage, but surrounded himself with male ‘hangers-on’ at home, though he was careful to maintain the image that he was heterosexual because homosexuality was then illegal.
If his personal life was strained, his career went from strength to strength. Knight was given his own department of counter-subversion, codenamed B5(b), and he handpicked a team known as ‘Knight’s Black Agents’. One young female recruit, a beauty named Joan Miller, found him hypnotically charming and eagerly agreed to be an agent.
In what was perhaps his greatest coup, in 1940 she was able to infiltrate the Right Club, a pro-German, anti-Semitic organisation based in London.
She exposed a conspiracy between the Club and a treacherous American cipher clerk at the U.S. embassy, who had been secretly copying the correspondence between Winston Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty) and President Roosevelt — letters which ended up in the hands of the Nazis.
The exposure was another triumph for Knight, but his personal life was becoming ever more complicated. While still married to the neglected Lois, he wooed his agent Joan Miller with flowers, poems and trips to the zoo, where he taught her the calls of various birds.
He treated Joan as his emotional — but not physical — mistress, moving her into a country residence near Camberley in Surrey, which he used as a safe-house for spies while they memorised their cover stories.
He was a cuckoo enthusiast, and wrote a book about the species. It appealed to Knight because, like a spymaster, the cuckoo was both subversive – infiltrating its eggs into other birds’ nests – and ruthless
When Knight was not out fishing, he would spend happy hours on his hands and knees in pursuit of some insect or animal to adopt and tame. Wild animals were far more interesting to him than ordinary pets. Joan once found a nest of adder eggs in his pyjama pocket.
‘He always had something alive in his pocket,’ recalled a colleague, ‘you never quite knew what.’ He presented Joan with a Himalayan monkey that proved impossible to housetrain, a Great Dane named Gloria, and a white poodle. He kept ferrets in a cage, a pet fox and birds, including a garrulous grey parrot.
Joan was amazed that Knight who, she later claimed, once had an unreliable double agent despatched, could be so gentle with his animals. But he was not sentimental with her pets. When her kitten fell ill, he shot it with his revolver.
Like Gwladys and Lois, Joan was hurt and puzzled that Knight was physically unable to consummate their relationship.
The penny dropped when he started bringing a young motor mechanic home and spending hours with him in the shed. She realised that Knight, despite being avowedly against homosexuality in public, was himself gay.
At the end of the war, Knight’s counter-subversion department was disbanded and his reputation tarnished by one of his agents. A colleague suggested he try broadcasting
Knight was devastated when Joan left him — he had been fond of her company, even if not physically excited by her person.
To soften the blow, Joan found him a replacement to be his companion, a young girl named Susi who professed her hatred of sex.
His marriage to Lois long over, Knight married Susi, who helped him care for his birds, frogs, toads, snakes, parrots and Goo the cuckoo. The species appealed to Knight because, like a spymaster, the cuckoo was both subversive — infiltrating its eggs into other birds’ nests — and ruthless in the way it evicted the original eggs.
When Goo flew off to Africa, Knight mourned its departure, calling it the ‘most fascinating bird pet’ he had owned.
At the end of the war, Knight’s counter-subversion department was disbanded. It did not help that his reputation had been tarnished when one of his agents tried to frame an innocent pacifist as a Nazi spy.
At that point, a colleague suggested he try broadcasting, and when he was given a radio programme his charming, cultured tones and wealth of knowledge about nature proved a hit.
He wrote several naturalist books and was always kind to young fans, even inviting them to visit the ‘bug room’ at his home in Surrey.
Even so, he continued to run his agents long after he had officially retired from MI5, and increasingly warned about Soviet spies infiltrating the security services. He once said that fighting communism ‘was like breaking the tail of a lizard; it would simply grow another’.
Knight was also one of the first to suspect the traitorous art historian Anthony Blunt of being in league with the Russians, though his warnings went unheeded.
When Knight died in 1968, the short obituary praising his skills as a naturalist made no mention whatsoever that kind Uncle Max, friend of hedgehogs, birds and foxes, had also been M, nemesis of enemy agents — a troubled, complicated man and a supreme spymaster whose espionage skills had done much to help Britain defeat the Nazis.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2579722/Dark-secret-life-original-M-Spymaster-inspired-007s-boss-closet-gay-married-three-women-never-slept-reinventing-childrens-presenter-called-Uncle-Max.html#ixzz2wFPcwehC