London, Oct.6 : A Spanish author has claimed that former British actor Leslie Howard was a secret agent during the peak of the Second World War.
Howard is best remembered as the obsessive love interest of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, but according to Jos Rey-X¡mena Howard had a secret meeting with General Franco, allegedly on a special mission for Winston Churchill, who wanted to get a secret message to the Spanish dictator.
He was killed when the German Luftwaffe shot down the passenger aircraft in which he was traveling in 1943.
"Thanks to him, at least in theory, Spain was persuaded to stay out of the war," The Guardian quotes Rey-X¡mena as saying.
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 Hitler and Mussolini, from joining the wartime Axis alliance, Rey-X¡mena said.
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-X¡mena the full story of Howard's visit to Madrid shortly before her death at the age of 95 last year.
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 Gimnez-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-X¡mena 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 rightwing dictatorship meant the country was widely shunned, caused a stir.
Howard enraged British officials in Madrid, however, by refusing to attend many events organised for him. This, Montenegro said, was because he was preparing to meet Franco behind the back of the British ambassador.
Rey-X¡mena, 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 then boarded a DC-3 passenger airliner bound for London. The plane was intercepted off Spain by German fighters and went down in the Atlantic, killing all on board.