How James Bond author Ian Fleming created a movie icon
How much did James Bond creator Ian Fleming resemble the fictional super spy? Those who assume Fleming was essentially writing from life may be shaken to learn that the author spent most of World War II in London far from enemy lines and, by the time he started writing the first Bond adventure, was about to get married, with a child on his way, and money problems on his mind. Those same folks would be stirred to discover that, like his creation, Fleming had a wandering eye, a fondness for alcohol and gambling, and an insider's knowledge of how the world's secret services worked. Perhaps it is best to view Fleming's summoning up of Bond as an act of wish fulfillment, but one enhanced and informed by his creator's own experiences.
"Fleming created Bond to be slightly the antithesis of himself in the sense that Bond was supposed to be the 'blunt instrument,' as Fleming called it, of the government," says Andrew Lycett, author of the biography Ian Fleming. "He was to be sort of emotionless, he wasn't to be part of the establishment. That was part of the thing about his name, it was just rather anonymous: James Bond. Nevertheless, Bond had several of Ian Fleming's characteristics, there's no doubt about that. He gave Bond the benefit of his experience during the war when, although Fleming wasn't out in the field himself, he was so much in touch with people who were. He also gave Bond a bit of his own character in that Bond was basically a womanizer, he drank heavily, he smoked cigarettes, he liked the high life, and he liked gambling particularly. So, basically, Bond ended up with many of the personal characteristics of Ian Fleming."
Fleming, who was born May 28, 1908, definitely was part of the British establishment. The author's father, Valentine, was a member of Parliament while Fleming's older brother, Peter, was an Oxford graduate and explorer who married Brief Encounter star Celia Johnson. Ian attended the tony Eton College and then the Royal Military College Sandhurst, but was forced to leave early when he contracted gonorrhea from a prostitute. After furthering his education at universities in Munich and Geneva, he worked for Reuters and then worked as a banker and stockbroker.
In the spring of 1939, Fleming joined the Naval Intelligence Division, an important wing of Britain's intelligence-gathering operation which became even more important after the start of World War II in September of that year. Fleming remotely oversaw clandestine sabotage operations on mainland Europe and at one point flew to America and met with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. He even took part in a raid on the German-occupied French town of Dieppe but stayed onboard his ship under orders from his boss, Admiral John Henry Godfrey, who is likely to have inspired Bond's secret service superior M. "[It was] basically a desk job," Fleming biographer Lycett says of the author's wartime role. "He saw all these secret agents arriving from interesting assignations and he sort of decided that he would have liked to have been more like them. He was really somebody who was stuck in the Admiralty for most of the war, so he stated thinking about writing what he told a colleague was 'the spy novel to beat all spy novels.'"
With the war over, Fleming worked as foreign manager for The Sunday Times, overseeing the paper's foreign correspondents as he had once overseen British agents. Fleming finally began writing his spy novel at GoldenEye, the author's vacation home in Jamaica, early in 1952. He was encouraged to do so by the fact that his fiancée and longtime lover, Ann, was pregnant and Fleming knew he would need money to support his family. He finished the book, which he titled Casino Royale, within two months.
The manuscript found its way to Jonathan Cape, founder of the renowned publishing house, who was unimpressed by what he read but agreed to put the book out partly as a favor to Fleming's brother, who had published travel books through the company. The novel was reviewed warmly in the U.K. and its initial print run of 4750 copies swiftly sold out. Several U.S. companies rejected Casino Royale, with Macmillan eventually published the book in March, 1954. The American public showed little interest in Fleming's creation, at least at first.
Fleming swiftly followed Casino Royale with Live and Let Die and then Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia with Love, Dr. No, Goldfinger, and the rest of the Bond library, averaging a book a year through the '50s and early '60s. In addition to gifting Bond many of his real-life characteristics, the author routinely named characters after real-life people, borrowing the moniker "Goldfinger, for example," from the architect Erno Goldfinger. (When the real Goldfinger subsequently threatened to sue Fleming, the author supposedly toyed with changing the villain's name to "Goldprick.")
Fleming was enthusiastic about Bond being adapted for the screen. In October 1954, CBS screened an hour-long version of Casino Royale, just seven months after the book was published in America. The show depicted Bond as American and at one point in the live broadcast audiences saw Peter Lorre, who was playing Le Chiffre, get up and walk away to his dressing room after his character had supposedly died. "Ian Fleming was desperate [for his books to be adapted] partially because he'd just had a kid," says Mark A. Altman, co-author of Nobody Does It Better: The Complete, Uncensored Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond. "The books were successful, but they weren't huge like they ultimately became. He was desperate to make a movie deal. In that sense, he was kind of ahead of his time. Because if you look at his contemporaries, they were only interested in the books and the literary pursuit. Whereas Fleming always had his eye on the prize, which was selling the lucrative rights and having it be a franchise."
In America, Bond received a major plug from President Kennedy in March, 1961, when Life magazine revealed that JFK was a fan of the womanizing spy. "Kennedy has confined himself mostly to nonfiction," wrote the magazine's correspondent Hugh Sidey in a lengthy article about the new commander-in-chief's reading habits, "but like many of the world's leaders he has a weakness for detective stories, especially those of British author Ian Fleming and his fictitious undercover man, James Bond. When CIA director Alan Dulles learned about this, he told Fleming and the next time Fleming came to the U.S., Kennedy had him over for dinner."
The last film Kennedy ever saw before his assassination was reportedly the second Bond movie, 1963's From Russia with Love. Of course, it was Bond's arrival on the big screen, starting with 1962's Dr. No, which really turned 007 into a publishing phenomenon. Fleming visited the set of Dr. No when the movie shot in Jamaica and later traveled to Istanbul to see some shooting on From Russia With Love. Both films were successful, but Bond-mania really got going with the third 007 adventure, Goldfinger, which doubled the box office gross of its predecessor and caused a dramatic spike in book sales. In 1965, the year the fourth Bond movie, Thunderball, was released, Fleming's novels sold 27 million copies in 18 languages.
The author would witness only a small part of his creation's extraordinary success. Fleming's health had been failing for some years and he had suffered a heart attack in 1961. On Aug. 11, 1964, he collapsed at his home in England and died later that night at the age of 56.
More than half a century on, the Bond phenomenon continues with the upcoming release of No Time to Die, the latest movie in a franchise which has grossed billions of dollars. Nobody Does It Better author Mark A. Altman thinks Fleming would not have been too surprised by 007's longevity. "I think there was an old-English, Eton boarding school arrogance," he says. "I think he would have said, 'Of course this thing is a huge success! It was my brilliant idea!'"
Read more from EW's 25 Days of Bond, a celebration of all things 007 ahead of the release of No Time to Die.