In Gregory Sallust, British author Dennis Wheatley created the world’s first womanizing playboy spy. But this prototype for 007 had dark and criminal roots.
“Before there was James Bond, there was Gregory Sallust,” wrote Pulitzer Prize winner, Tina Rosenberg. True enough. And before there was Gregory Sallust, there was Eric Gordon Tombe.
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Seducer, adventurer, and villain, Eric Gordon Tombe (or Eric Gordon-Tombe, as he preferred to style himself) was the friend and mentor of Sallust’s creator, Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley, who died in 1974, is largely unknown today. Yet during his lifetime, his historical fiction, satanic thrillers, and spy novels sold over 50 million copies, placing him second behind Agatha Christie as the UK’s most popular writer.
Maverick intelligence agent Sallust features in eleven Wheatley novels published between 1934 and 1968. He’s suave, steely, sophisticated, cynical, and so irresistible to the opposite sex he can afford to compile a long and persnickety list of traits that disqualify women from sharing his bed. Those who get through the selection process are, naturally, in for the thrill of a lifetime.
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Sallust’s adventures pit him against sadistic super villains such as Lord Gavin Fortescue—“A sinister type with a twisted body and a twisted brain.” His exploits contain generous servings of treachery, sadism, foreign travel, fine wine, fancy food, roulette, tuxedos, and steamy encounters with exotic ladies called things like Manon de Bois-Tracy, whose bosoms—never less than ample—inevitably heave at the sight of the hero. Little wonder that Ian Fleming—whose brother, Peter, worked alongside Wheatley in secret operations during World War Two—acknowledged Sallust as the blueprint for James Bond.
Fame and fortune was far in the future for Lieutenant Wheatley of the Royal Artillery when he arrived at his army training camp in 1917. Yet there he found himself sharing a barracks with a man who would shape his life forever. Eric Gordon Tombe was a veteran Irish officer who’d been wounded in France and made it plain he had no intention of going back for more. A gifted talker with a passion for literature and the high life, he could speak as fluently about Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Proust as he could of vintage Burgundy, black truffles, and the sexual techniques of the Kama Sutra. Wheatley quickly fell under his spell.
When the war ended, he took a position in the family wine firm in London. It was dull work for a 22-year-old with a thirst for adventure. Luckily, the man now calling himself Eric Gordon-Tombe was there to provide the thrills. He introduced Wheatley to serious literature, gourmet restaurants, fast cars, elegant clothes, and unfettered sex.
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The awkward and inexperienced wine merchant was dazzled. Decades later, he’d draw a cartoon depicting himself sitting naked at the feet of Gordon-Tombe. His friend has the body of a satyr—the Greek symbol of lust and hedonism. Wheatley is plainly the pupil, but the lessons he’s receiving from Gordon-Tombe are evidently not all scholarly.
Gordon-Tombe was what the British in those days called “a bounder.” The bounder had all the trappings of a gentleman—the well-cut suits, public school accent, immaculate manners, and easy wit—without any of his moral code. A bounder did not care about fair play. He had waved farewell to loyalty and duty. He could not be trusted around another gentleman’s money, even less his wife.
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The son of an Irish clergyman, Gordon-Tombe had no private fortune to sustain his lavish lifestyle. He spoke airily of "business," and took frequent trips to France, Italy, and North Africa. The money that Gordon-Tombe spent so wildly was obtained by fraud. It seems likely his trips around Europe involved setting up bogus employment agencies that offered to find people jobs in Britain in return for a fee. Once sufficient money was collected, the agency closed and Gordon-Tombe moved on to a new location.
In Britain, too, Gordon-Tombe was busy. He ran a scam submitting false invoices from fictitious companies to the British government for maintenance work supposedly carried out on military vehicles. His accomplice in this criminal enterprise was an old army buddy, Ernest Dyer.
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Dyer and Gordon-Tombe shared a passion for horse racing. They bought a stud farm at Kenley in Surrey, thirty miles west of London. They quickly insured the property for twice the purchase price. When the farmhouse burned down a few months later, Dyer’s attempt to claim the compensation was rejected when investigators found a stash of empty gasoline cans hidden in a barn.
On April 25th, 1922, Gordon-Tombe had a date with a girlfriend at Euston Station. He failed to show. Instead, Dyer turned up claiming his partner had gone overseas on business at short notice. He was never heard from again.
Wheatley would have noticed his friend’s absence, perhaps concluding that the playboy villain was seated at a card table on the Cote D’Azur, a glass ofchampagne in his hand, a handsome woman on his arm.
The truth wasn’t so glamorous. Gordon-Tombe was not playing blackjack on the Riviera. He was headfirst down a disused well. There was a gaping wound from a shotgun blast in the back of his skull.
The body was not discovered for over a year. It was so badly decomposed it had to be transported to the coroner’s office in a sack. Gordon-Tombe’s father could identify his son only by the engraved gold watch found in his waistcoat pocket.
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By the time the police found the corpse, Ernest Dyer was also dead. He’d been killed in a Yorkshire hotel—shot with his own revolver after a scuffle with police officers who’d come to question him about bad checks. In his luggage, detectives found the passport and check-book of Eric Gordon-Tombe.
The inquiry into Gordon-Tombe’s death was marked by the appearance on the witness stand of two anonymous veiled women. One claimed to be Gordon-Tombe’s fiancée. The other—the woman from Euston Station —described herself simply as, “a friend he frequently stayed with.” Though both remained veiled throughout, British reporters—always eager to combine sex and violence —concluded they were attractive with “shapely” bodies. The inquiry judged that Dyer had shot Eric Gordon-Tombe with the intention of posing as the dead man and emptying his bank accounts, from which around £2,000 ($2,800) had been plundered.
Dennis Wheatley remained silent throughout the affair, uneasy that police might uncover his own role in Gordon-Tombe’s life of crime. He was newly married to shoe-polish heiress Nancy Robinson, but, true to his mentor’s lessons, he was keeping a mistress. His high spending was taking its toll of his finances. The bankruptcy of the family wine business during the Great Depression would force him to turn to writing.
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Wheatley’s first best-seller, Contraband, featured Gregory Sallust. It begins with the debonair espionage agent making eye contact with a beautiful and mysterious woman in a French casino.
Though Eric Gordon Tombe had died childless, his DNA would be carried forward in fiction, first in Sallust, and then in Sallust’s direct descendant. The murdered scam artist was the grandfather of James Bond.