To the long line of queer lives stolen, degayed, and straightened by writers and filmmakers craving a broader audience, add László Almásy [seated], the Hungarian aristocrat, desert explorer and Nazi smuggler who may have spied for both sides in WWII, and is the protagonist of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. Almásy was gay and certainly didn't have a soaring romance with anyone's wife; he and a young German soldier named Hans Entholt were lovers and letters unavailable to the public offer proof that he also had sex with Egyptian princes. Born in what is now Austria, educated in England, he joined the Hussars in WWI, was shot down over Italy, continued as a flight instructor, and after the war was a winning speed racer. After driving along the Nile from Egypt to the Sudan in 1926, Almásy became interested in the area and led expeditions in search of the mythic Zerzura. His sponsor died and his wife perished in a mysterious plane crash the following year. In 1934 or 35, Almásy and another adventurer became the first whites to establish contact with the Magyarab tribe and earned the title Abu Ramla [Father of the Sand] from his Bedouin friends, developing desert skills then that would come in handy during WWII as part of Operation Salaam when he smuggled Nazi spies across enemy lines and drove 4,200 km across the Sahara. Yet when he returned to Budapest, he helped hide and save several Jewish families from being deported to death camps. After the war, he was arrested in Hungary, sent to a Soviet prison, was acquitted thanks to a bribe allegedly paid by MI6, was smuggled to Austria by British officials on a fake passport, and sent to Egypt where King Farouk got him named the technical director at the new Desert Research Institute. Visiting Austria in 1951, he contracted dysentery and died at 55.
The English Patient won the Booker Prize and the movie version won nine Oscars, including best picture. For a more accurate portrayal, read John Bierman's The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy: The Real English Patient.