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Alexander Korda, the movie mogul who spied for Britain

Alexander Korda and his then-wife, the actress Merle Oberon, leaving Buckingham Palace following Korda's knighthood in 1942
Alexander Korda and his then-wife, the actress Merle Oberon, leaving Buckingham Palace following Korda's knighthood in 1942 Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis Historical

Securing an appointment with Alexander Korda was one of the toughest jobs in the movies. “Come see me Thursday,” he’d say, through a haze of cigar smoke, dooming some screenwriter or starlet to hours of fruitless waiting.

On March 26 1946, however, two men arrived at his Hollywood office and were buzzed straight in. Marcus Bright and Harold Trapp did not want an audition, or to pitch a script idea.

They were special agents from the FBI. They had come to discover if Korda – producer of Things to Come (1936) and The Thief of Baghdad (1940), divorced husband of screen goddess Merle Oberon, movie mogul with offices in London, New York and Los Angeles – was a spy.

That day in 1946, Bright and Trapp quizzed Korda on his relationship with two suspected agents of a foreign power. Their names were Rudolph Ellerman and Max Salvadori. The power was not Russia, but Britain.

Korda was resentful of the questions, but admitted that he had briefly employed both men. Salvadori had sent him some movie ideas from Mexico; Ellerman had helped to distribute.

Korda on the set of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) Credit: Hulton Archive

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) – the raucous, smutty costume drama on which Korda’s reputation was founded. But the producer assured his visitors that he was not running an illegal espionage operation on American soil. A man in his position, he argued, was too conspicuous for such a job.

This, however, was a lie. And in the course of making a new radio documentary, we discovered how big it was.

Alexander Korda – born Sándor László Kellner in what, in 1893, was Austria-Hungary – lived a life of necessary intrigue. In 1919, he became head of the film directorate in Hungary’s short-lived Communist government.

When Admiral Horthy took power, Korda narrowly escaped execution in the violence known as the White Terror. By 1932 he was in Britain, where, as head of London Films, he raised millions to build Denham studios and signed up Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Charles Laughton.

Less visibly, Korda was also building political alliances, through which the money to do this flowed. He recruited Winston Churchill from the wilderness to write scripts, none of which were ever produced. (Among them was a history of aviation and an imperial epic entitled The Reign of George V.)

He also developed a relationship with Claude Dansey, head of the Z Organisation, a secret subgroup within British intelligence that was preparing for conflict with Nazi Germany.

Denham was built with a loan from the Prudential Assurance Company, arranged by their mutual friend Sir Connop Guthrie. As Hitler gathered power and territory, London Films became a hub of anti-Fascist thinking and a safe haven for refugee talent.

War brought some of this work out of the shadows. In early 1940, Korda used a budget underwritten by the treasury to make Britain’s first propaganda feature, The Lion Has Wings (1939). The following year he moved to Hollywood and put That Hamilton Woman into production. It starred Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh – then the planet’s two most glamorous inhabitants – in a story of love and British naval courage that offered a coded plea for US entry into the war.

Isolationist senators summoned Korda to Capitol Hill for a grilling. If they had known the truth, they would have turned the heat higher. The British state valued Korda as a propaganda filmmaker. But it also used him to fund a global network of covert Allied operatives.

Korda produced a string of successful films, including Orson Welles's The Third Man (1949) Credit: Everett Collection/Rex Features

On June 3 1942, as the US Navy prepared to ambush the Japanese at Midway, a young New York interior decorator took time out from her Park Avenue business to get married. But Eleanor Taggert’s new husband, who signed the register as Rudolph Ellerman, sailed immediately for Chile, where he ran a chain of cinemas.

Eleanor knew he had some connection to Korda; when she finally contacted the producer’s office to ask after her husband, Korda’s secretary told her a secret. Ellerman was doing work of a “confidential nature” for the British Government.

From August 1942 to September 1943, a $360 cheque made out to Ellerman was dispatched monthly from Korda’s office to the Hotel Crillon, Santiago (and each time, Korda was quietly reimbursed by Britain’s LA consulate). Chile was a British intelligence target: it maintained diplomatic relations with Berlin until January 1943. So what was our man in Santiago up to?

One clue lies in Mrs Ellerman’s next move: she went to Reno to get a divorce. There, she boasted the gold crowns embossed on her luggage were her husband’s crest. His name, she claimed, was Baron von Etzdarf.

When the FBI questioned Korda three years later, he too said “Ellerman” was an alias, and that his ex-employee’s real name was German (though Korda refused to divulge it). So perhaps the Baron’s mission was to infiltrate Santiago’s substantial German-Chilean community, some of whom were assisting Nazi spy networks.

In December 1942, an FBI source reported that Korda had three agents “working in British Government interests” in Latin America – “one a German baron, one an Italian count and the third a European refugee.”

If “Ellerman” was the first, the second – or third? – was Salvadori. By the time he went to work for Korda, this young Shrewsbury-born Italian academic had already spent three years running a secret pro-democracy organisation inside Italy, which won him a stretch in a Fascist prison.

Later he recruited agents in Canada for Special Operations Executive missions into occupied Europe. When, in May 1942, Korda hired him as his representative in Mexico, the FBI was watching.

Korda managed to evade FBI scrutiny and win the gratitude of Winston Churchill for his work Credit: Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

In letters to establish Salvadori’s credentials, Korda wrote that his representative would be hunting stories for a Mexico-set movie and “checking and controlling distribution of my pictures in Mexico”. Salvadori did dispatch such reports back to Hollywood, but this was cover for more urgent work.

His SOE file shows that he was busy analysing Mexican politicians’ attitudes to the British, even sketching how his masters might install a pro-Western president.

He monitored pro-Vichy Frenchmen, assessed the chances of a Spanish government-in-exile, recruited refugees for missions into the Europe they had fled. The historian, Roderick Bailey, drawing on Salvadori’s private papers, reports that on a previous mission into Mexico he orchestrated the sabotage of a radio station suspected of communicating with U-boats.

When Korda summoned him to Hollywood, Salvadori confessed that he’d used his time in Mexico to organise against Nazi schemes. Korda, Bailey observes, “probably knew exactly what he’d been up to”.

Special Agents Bright and Trapp knew some of it. Their investigation into Salvadori had brought them to Korda’s door. But they never worked out the complete picture. Korda’s job was charming difficult stars, temperamental directors, cautious financiers.

He had a talent for evasion and diplomacy. He had also escaped death at the hands of one dictator, and helped win the war against another, both as a master propagandist and a trusted servant of the secret state.

He would die in 1956, with a knighthood, Churchill’s undying friendship, and The Third Man (1949) and The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954) on his résumé.

Fobbing off the FBI was all in a day’s work. Easy to imagine him watching Bright and Trapp leaving, leaning back in his chair and thinking, close, but no cigar.

Alexander Korda – Producer, Director, Exile, Spy is on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday May 19 at 6.45pm