Ian Fleming: The Mind Behind James Bond
The Mind Behind the Novels
If you didn’t know already, Ian Fleming was the creator of the very popular James Bond novels commencing with Casino Royale in 1952. To follow up this amazing first success he wrote about one novel per year until 1964, the year of his death at 56 from a heart attack. The novels were parlayed into an enduring film series that has seen about eight different leading men portray the buff secret agent capable of easy familiarity with women, mastery of several languages facilitating world travel, an accomplished connoisseur of fine wines, food, art, history, and anything else noteworthy of high society, not to mention the facile nonchalance while dispatching enemy masterminds with a double entendre quip. It’s estimated that he sold over 100 million copies of these pot-boiler spy thrillers, their covers usually decorated with provocative females in push up bras saucily displaying the female form with a loaded gun somewhere in the background. In my early youth this form of entertainment found in the house would have been considered by society as somewhat louche, tawdry and ribald. What’s the secret to its popularity and who is the creator? What are his influences in life that might have led him to portray such a fantasy figure?
Ian Lancaster Fleming was born May 26, 1908 to a wealthy family connected to banking. His father was a member of parliament until he died on the Western Front in World War One while Fleming was only a boy. Fleming went to Eton, a posh private school (peculiarly called public schools by the English) near Windsor where the royal male children are educated. He went on to Sandhurst, an elite military college from whence come most of England’s trained officer corps, akin to the US version of Westpoint. Unfortunately, his mother forced him to withdraw from the college after he contracted a sexually transmitted disease. He later spent time in universities in Munich and Geneva. Most of this you can get from Wikipedia. The juicier bits come from other sources, sources that Fleming wouldn’t want you to consult.
We start with a biography by Robert Harling called ‘Ian Fleming: A Personal Memoir’, a blow by blow recounting of the details of their friendship of 25 years. Reading the first hundred pages of this memoir, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s more a biography of Robert Harling, who post facto, took the opportunity to portray himself in the light of a James Bond character. Harling fudges facts, it becomes obvious, especially when he recounts his sexual exploits in annoying juvenile fashion through supposed dialogues with Ian Fleming during their war-time meetings. In that sense, we cannot really put stock in the veracity of the account. As the defense attourney grills the witness, ‘So you lied to the police when you gave your statement. My question to you, Miss Gritchfield, were you lying then, or are you lying now?” Harling, as a historian, has injured himself with his boastfulness, evasion of truth and playfulness with facts, leaving us in doubt as to the true picture of Ian Fleming. When we cross check what Harling said against other sources we come only to a murky semblance of reality, but in the end much will remain conjecture.
Robert Harling: The Fleming Biographer and Friend
It is probably true to say that Robert Harling fancied himself as the model in Fleming’s imagination that spawned the James Bond character. If we remember, Bond is really Commander Bond, not an MI6 or Secret Intelligence Service rank designation at all, but a Royal Naval rank above Lieutenant and below Captain. It’s usually given to Lieutenants who have served at the post longer than eight years but are not Captain material. Harling himself was a Lieutenant doing convoy duty during the early years of the war. He had also gone to Dunkirk as a private sailor to rescue soldiers off the beaches during the evacuation of British troops. Harling was an interesting character to say the least. His pre-war expertise, that of graphics artist, then called typography, was his specialty that led him to meet Ian Fleming.
Fleming needed a wartime naval publication spiffed up (the Admiralty’s Weekly Intelligence Report) and was given the name of Robert Harling, currently at sea on convoy escort duty. Fleming had also known of Harling’s work because he was an avid book collector, (what they call a bibliophile). Book collecting was/is a pastime of the elite English in order to adorn their private libraries as a manner of expressing affluence. For his book collection, Fleming hired a professional advisor to tell him what books to covet. So, Fleming was already aware of Robert Harling as a publisher of a periodical devoted to printing style. Sounds bookish? It certainly does, but Harling was more a man of the world than this background would lead us to believe.
Room 39, a room about 20 by 20 feet in the Admiralty building in central London started life as a naval intelligence unit before World War One. Mickey Mouse by today’s standards when we look at the resources thrown into intelligence gathering today. During World War Two the room was responsible for locating and tracking the enemy’s naval assets, collecting information about the location of surface vessels, submarines, mine fields, torpedoes, radar and any other technical data useful to conducting the war.
Fleming was the personal assistant to Admiral Godfrey of Room 39. This admiral would prove to be the inspiration for M, the gruff commander giving Bond his assignments. Fleming’s duties would cause him to write reports for the department, develop a private army for the collection of naval related intelligence, and give that private army known as 30AU (30 Assault Unit) its missions. In short, Fleming was really the brains and energy behind British Naval Intelligence during WWII.
Fleming lunched regularly with Harling and they discovered themselves to be simpatico in tastes. Tastes that included bawdy and casual sexual encounters. Fleming pressed constantly for intimate details of Harling’s love life and they very often shared louche details of their conquests. Incidentally, this is where Harling’s account appears to be tailored after the fact to make his image appear more Bond-like. Fleming soon asked Harling to join his 30 Assault Unit. Its main function would be to escort technical experts in the purloining of plans, maps, technical gadgets from recently vacated German headquarters or facilities. That unit, once acquiring booty, would return to England and hand over the goods to boffins for analysis. Harling can be forgiven for thinking he was the inspiration for the Bond character. Fleming sketched a likeness for a comic strip which Cubby Broccoli used, modeling how the hero should appear on film. The result is an amazing similarity between a rock-jawed Harling and Sean Connery. There the similarity ends. Harling was rail thin and not very tall. Connery over 6 foot 2, and a former one-time model for art classes. Fleming also had an older brother Peter, who was involved in behind-the-lines activities in Norway. Harling rarely mentions Peter, making it difficult to ascertain the level of influence the brother’s activities would have had on building the Bond character.
During Harling and Fleming’s time together, their list of acquaintances reads like a who’s who of contemporary high-society England. Harling’s account of his philandering ways with women must be taken with a grain of salt; he fell deeply into committed love with a beautiful woman and settled for child-rearing domesticity in a countryside manor. Fleming is another kettle of fish. Stories of his philandering ways can be believed, which is probably the basis for the sexuality depicted in the Bond stories.
It’s clear that Fleming enjoys gadgets, fast cars and faster women, all Bond trademarks. Fleming had been an admirer and lover of a married woman in his early twenties. She wouldn’t be the only one. The one that destroyed him we’ll talk about later on, but first we must look into this earlier of his affairs, the one he did not boast about to Harling. Her name was Maud Russel, the year 1931, when he was 23. She was forty and married. Juicy enough for you yet? They had an affair. She influences her husband to get Fleming a job in the family banking business. She also introduces him to members of high society, Clementine Churchill being one of them, Duff Cooper, General Ismay among others. She knows Prince Philip, Lord Louis Mountbatten, renowned artists, writers and a collection of glitterati.
Her aging and ill husband dies in 1941, when Fleming is already ensconced in Room 39. To pay her back for many favours received in his earlier life he gets her a volunteer job in Room 39, just outside the Admiral’s inner office, helping to produce German language propaganda broadcasts. She has talks with him and socializes on a regular basis and they discuss marriage a number of times but he’s reluctant. He says he wishes he were five years older for her. She pursues him but he declines. She probably doesn’t know about his ongoing affair with married woman number two. After the war, she gives him the money to build his dream home in Jamaica which he called Goldeneye - 5,000 pounds Sterling to be exact. In today’s terms that 5,000 pounds would have bought about 4 regular semi-detached homes in England. Goldeneye is where he penned all his Bond novels during 2 month winter breaks. Okay, I’m authoring a book, I need a name for a clingy, needy, jock-sniffing secretary who’s older than James, pines after Bond, and wants the body of our hunky hero in her bed, uhmm, what about Miss Moneypenny? Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Fleming's Idea of Bond
Ann Fleming, nee Charteris, at 44
Married Woman Number Two: Ann Charteris, O'Neil, Harmsworth, Fleming.
Now onto married woman number two whom he met at one of Maud’s parties, the sly devil. Ann Geraldine Mary Charteris, born June 19, 1913. Married Lord O’Neil, had two children and then began simultaneous affairs with Mr. Fleming and Esmond Harmsworth, son of press baron Lord Rothermere. In private dinners with biographer/friend Harling, Fleming admitted to being partial to having his bum spanked by a dominatrix, and Ann seems to fit the bill as the likely whip-bearing persona dramatis. She’s hard as nails emotionally and he can’t give her up despite the offers he gets from many more pliable females.
He carried on this affair with her in unlikely circumstances. In 1944, her husband Lord O’Neil, was killed in action and she married Esmond Harmsworth, probably for his wealth since she still immensely enjoyed dangling our Bond creator, or certain parts of him, on a string. Eventually, after Ann became pregnant for the second time with the wrong man’s child, (the first miscarried, some would say illegally) Lord Rothermere gave her a divorce and 100,000 pounds Sterling. At this juncture she moved on to husband numero trois - Fleming. They had a son, Caspar, and moved into a London townhouse. Her tastes were far above the Fleming income and they soon came to grief. Fleming retired to his Jamaican hideaway to write his novels and they both started affairs. Harling says their marriage failed due to propinquity. When I looked that up, I discover that it means excessive closeness. My own opinion is that their marriage failed because each would do what a leopard with unchangeable spots is expected to do. What cemented the end of the relationship for Fleming was Ann’s desire to live in a manor and play high-society hostess on weekends. Fleming, not so much, since he knew the high-society get-togethers were a cover for his own unseemly dalliances with Ann when she was married to two other noble notables.
They purchase, probably with her divorce settlement, an old 31 bedroom mansion near Swindon, demolish it and rebuild a new abode and call it Sevenhampton. Ann decorates it to her tastes but Fleming is happier to stay in their London townhouse or travel to his golf club nearer to Brighton, a hundred miles away.
Ian Fleming's Experiences: The Bond Wellspring
After the war Fleming landed himself an editorship for a popular London newspaper and the job allowed him to travel. He also insisted on two months vacation so he could cobble together his juicy novels at Goldeneye. With a lavish expense account he’s able to sample some of the world’s finest culinary accomplishments. He smokes like a chimney and washes each cigarette down with a martini, where the gin must be ‘shaken but not bruised’. His newspaper friends say of him that he was able to suffer through anything except discomfort. He lives the lifestyle to prove the rule. Fleming says in interviews that ‘you wouldn’t expect me to write about any of these things if I hadn’t tried them first’. You can bet he sampled every indulgence that he wrote about, food, drinks, women, the lot. He was functioning head of a secret intelligence organization, directed men in the field from his desk and had a great imagination.
He also had the ability to write. When he was a teenager one of his earliest writing essays made it into a published Etonian anthology; a short story that showed he had excellent talents as a scribbler of fiction. I must admit I never read any of his works. I would have been too young when they came out and my parents would have considered the material less than wholesome. At that young age I was introduced to Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. But a book cover with a nearly naked woman with chiffon material precariously clinging to firm, nubile breasts with nipples peeking out would have elicited a reprimand for contravening the house moral minimums of decorum.
There is no doubt that Bond books were popular in their day. The author drew heavily on his own experiences and of those around him to develop his portrait of the above average male operative placed in danger, calmly dispatching enemies with a sneer, and using his sexuality to obtain clues from highly connected women, experiences not far removed from his own. Advancing his own career or social status while in the precarious position of undressing a socially powerful someone else’s wife, all the while smiling and raising glasses with the husband later, would be the touchstone of Fleming’s fictional characterizations.
His work heavily draws upon the teenage fantasies of a public schoolboy, a man who uses his wits, steely cunning and sporting physique to out-man the mortal enemies of the state, all the while having it off with one of their misguided, erotically deprived mistresses. The notion certainly hits the spot for the teenage sexuality of the average reader or viewer, regardless of their true age, as I can personally attest. My mother, upon first watching James Bond in action would say, after careful attention to the screen the moment Connery appears, “Ooh, now there’s a man!” Touché, Mr. Fleming, well done, you’ve taken the queen, however devious and underhanded the methods.
Fleming: The Final Chapter
Fleming continued to smoke and drink regularly after his first heart attack at 52. Being trapped in a dead-end, Byzantine maze relationship of his own crafting, he continued his philandering ways and poor lifestyle. At 56, he died of a heart attack suffered while visiting his golf club. He is buried in a churchyard only meters away from their house at Sevenhampton with his wife Ann, and son Caspar (who tragically died at 22 of a narcotic overdose). If you visit the churchyard you are forced to drive through the property so be careful of the small dog as the sign says. Dogs are so much nobler and deserve our undying respect for the way they conduct themselves. Dogs don’t get monuments, but after piecing together this biography, I certainly wish they did; they deserve them infinitely more.
Ian Fleming's grave
Sevenhampton, Ian Fleming's final resting place.
© 2020 Ed Schofield