Spy, womaniser, cad: the writer who created James Bond

From The Economist:

It was a chance invitation to a dinner party that changed Ian Fleming’s life and legacy. In 1960, Fleming, the author of some modest-selling books about a spy called James Bond, was on a trip to Washington, DC, as foreign manager of the Sunday Times. The dinner was with John F. Kennedy, who had just declared himself a presidential candidate and was a James Bond super-fan. As the conversation turned to the problem of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary Cuba, Kennedy asked Fleming, “What would James Bond do?” Fleming replied that Bond would make Castro look ridiculous, rather than important.

That Kennedy should have sought Fleming’s (and Bond’s) advice on how to bring down Castro was not as odd as it might seem. Fleming had a wartime career as an officer in British naval intelligence. In 1961, when Kennedy had become president, he told Life magazine that Fleming’s “From Russia, with Love”, the fifth Bond novel, was one of his ten favourite books. The endorsement introduced a relatively unknown English author to American readers. Fleming’s publisher scrambled to relaunch five Bond books ahead of the publication of “Thunderball”.

As Fleming’s literary agent in New York put it, “the gusher burst”. In the remaining two years of his short life, Fleming became an international celebrity. James Bond made his first big-screen appearance in “Dr No” in 1962, launching what would become the longest-running—and one of the most valuable—film franchises of all time.

Well over 100m copies of Fleming’s 14 James Bond books (12 novels and two short-story collections) have been sold. With 27 movies in the can, global box-office revenues are around $20bn in today’s prices. The search is currently on for the eighth actor to play 007. Whoever is chosen for the part may do it for around 15 years, about the same length as Daniel Craig’s tuxedo-clad tour of duty.

The Complete Man” is only the second biography authorised by Fleming’s estate since the author’s death in 1964. (The first, by John Pearson, a Sunday Times colleague, was published in 1966.) But Nicholas Shakespeare’s is the most comprehensive picture yet of Bond’s creator and offers insights into how his wartime career shaped his fiction.

Fleming’s childhood and early adulthood were privileged but defined by loss. His grandfather was a self-made Scottish financier, who disapproved of Ian’s mother, Eve, who he thought was a social climber. Fleming’s father, Valentine, the mp for Henley, was killed by German shelling in 1917. (Winston Churchill wrote his obituary in the Times.)

Valentine left the equivalent of about £15m ($18.2m) today to care for his widow and four children. With his war-hero father dead, mother in control of the purse strings and brilliant older brother groomed as the male head of the family, “the mould was set…like Peter Pan, part of Ian remained frozen at the age of eight,” Mr Shakespeare writes.

After a miserable time at prep school, Fleming left Eton early for Sandhurst, a military academy. He contracted gonorrhoea, an early sign of the womaniser he was to become. Next came a spell in Switzerland, where Eve hoped learning languages would get him into the Foreign Office. While there he fell in love, but not with someone grand enough for Eve, who threatened to cut Fleming’s allowance if he married her. He capitulated, a decision that would affect his relationships with women for the rest of his life.

Failing to be accepted into the Foreign Office, Fleming worked as a journalist until his family pushed him into stockbroking. Fleming’s City connections recommended him as an assistant to John Godfrey, the director of Naval Intelligence (who would become the inspiration for “M”), when the second world war broke out.

Fleming proved an innovative administrator, who used his ruthless charm to get results. He helped devise “Operation Mincemeat”, a successful ruse to deceive the Nazis with a dead body bearing bogus intelligence, and set up a spying network in Spain. He was one of a trusted few tasked with drawing America into the war. Mr Shakespeare argues (controversially) that Fleming was “one of the three main spearheads” who contributed to the establishment of the Office of Strategic Services, which morphed into the CIA.

The commando unit known as 30 Assault Unit (30au), formed to seize enemy documents from targeted enemy headquarters, was also Fleming’s creation. One of 30au’s triumphs was to capture a German inventor, Dr Hellmuth Walter, at his rocket-motor works in Kiel before the Russians could get to him. A co-operating Walter revealed a trove of advanced weapons including the forerunner of a ballistic missile submarine. In “Moonraker”, the third Bond book, the villain Sir Hugo Drax employs a “Dr Walter” to build a nuclear missile to destroy London.

After the war, Fleming missed the derring-do of the clandestine world. He set up a network of foreign correspondents for the Sunday Times (some were probably recruited as mi6 agents) and found refuge in Jamaica, building “Goldeneye”, a house with steps down to the sea where he could scuba dive with sharks. It was there he mustered the self-confidence and found the time to write novels, starting with “Casino Royale” in 1952. All drew on Fleming’s wartime experiences.

Soon after Fleming opened his typewriter to write the first Bond book, he married Ann Charteris, a socialite with whom he had conducted an affair throughout her marriage to his close friend, Esmond Rothermere, the Daily Mail’s owner. Neither would remain faithful to the other. But Fleming was discreet in the many liaisons he carried on, which the author Roald Dahl, a friend, attributed to the fact that the women “were almost always married”.

Towards the end of his life Fleming was dogged by ill health. He suffered from a heart condition made worse by alcohol and the 70 cigarettes he smoked a day. He was also stressed by litigation related to accusations of plagiarism brought by an Irish director, who had worked with Fleming on a screenplay for “Thunderball” before the novel was written. Fleming felt increasingly trapped by Bond and resentful of the pressure to produce new books. He died at the age of 56, a few days after he played a round of golf.

While there have been at least seven other books written about Fleming, Mr Shakespeare’s is likely to be remembered as definitive, albeit overlong. What he does not do is make Fleming likeable. Despite Fleming’s patriotism and notable contributions to Britain’s war effort, the picture Mr Shakespeare draws is of an entitled, selfish misogynist.

Some think the same could be said of Bond as Fleming wrote him. 

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes the publication date is shown as March 12, 2024, and the date first available is listed as January 1, 1970.

The publisher is listed as Harper. The website for HarperCollins has a bit more information about the book than its Amazon listing, but not much.

A check of the book on Amazon’s UK site shows a different cover and a price in British pounds that is lower than Harper’s announced US price of $17.99 for the ebook- £12.99, which at today’s exchange rate is $15.90 US. The UK site already lists used copies of the hardcover for sale as well.

PG has no idea what’s involved in purchasing ebooks from Amazon’s UK site, but some thrifty Scots who have emigrated to the US might have the answer.

2 thoughts on “Spy, womaniser, cad: the writer who created James Bond”

  1. To buy from amazon.uk at the local prices, you’ll need to create an account on amazon.uk using a VPN to tell Amazon you are connecting from the UK, and always connect using a VPN, so Amazon doesn’t mark you as an American and adjust prices and available products for the US market.

    And probably not all VPN free services will work, as those IPs are usually blacklisted, at least when I tried that trick for Netflix to watch a show that wasn’t available in Spain it soon gave me problems. Maybe for books the common VPN IPs aren’t so actively watched to prevent using that trick.

    Myself, being Spanish I have access to UK editions and prices of American books, and have taken advantage of that when the price is better for the UK edition. In the past I used an amazon.com account to buy some books on sale in the US, but it’s been a lot of years since Amazon cut me out from that, classifying me as Spanish and not able to access sales. When Bookbub notifies me of a sale on a book I’m interested, if the book is exclusive to Amazon I don’t bother, fortunately other stores don’t verify that I’m not in the country I said, so I continue subscribed to Bookbub notifications, although my To Be Read mountain really says I shouldn’t.

  2. Another annoyance of dealing with Amazon when you are interested in different markets: you can’t have two separate accounts of Kindle4X (PC, Mac, Mobile…), so dealing with the different accounts to make a DRMless backup and upload your books to your device is cumbersome.

    Although given that they are cutting all the workarounds to have your own backup of your books and not rely on their servers for that, soon that’s going to be irrelevant and I won’t be able to read indie authors tied to Amazon on my Kobo.

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