How Ian Fleming came to write “the spy story to end all spy stories”

On September 29, 1939, Admiral John Godfrey, Britain’s director of naval intelligence, issued a document comparing wartime deception of an enemy with fishing. “The Trout Fisher casts patiently all day. He frequently changes his venue and his lures. If he has frightened a fish he may ‘give the water a rest for half-an-hour,’ but his main endeavour, viz. to attract fish by something he sends out from his boat, is incessant.” According to historian and author Ben McIntyre, and now accepted largely as fact by most everyone, the memo was signed off on by Admiral Godfrey but was written by Godfrey’s assistant, Ian Fleming. Fleming hadn’t been working for Naval Intelligence very long at the time the memo was issued, having only come on as a full-time employee in August of 1939, at which time he was given the codename 17F.

Fleming was not the sort of man who seemed fit for a particularly promising military career. His position at Naval Intelligence was granted him largely as a favor to his mother, Evelyn Beatrice St. Croix Rose, who became Evelyn St. Croix Fleming — Eve for short — when she married Scotsman Valentine Fleming, the son of an extremely successful banker. A graduate of Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford, Valentine quickly rose to prominence, becoming a member of Parliament in 1910. He was a popular politician, being described by one fellow parliamentarian as “”one of those younger Conservatives who easily and naturally combine loyalty to party ties with a broad liberal outlook upon affairs and a total absence of class prejudice…a man of thoughtful and tolerant opinions, which were not the less strongly or clearly held because they were not loudly or frequently asserted.”

The couple had four children, all boys: Richard, Michael, the black sheep Ian, and the star of the Fleming clan, Peter. At the outbreak of World War I — a war notable for the number of upperclass society members who enlisted to fight — Valentine joined the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars. He was killed on May 20, 1917, by German bombardment in Picardy, France. His obituary was written by his close friend, the same man who had called him “a man of thoughtful and tolerant opinions,” Winston Churchill. His will bequeathed Eve and their sons with a sizable estate and fortune — provided she never remarry (Eve complied, though she didn’t think much of the stipulation). She did, however, carry on a long-term affair with the painter Augustus John, with whom she had a daughter, Amaryllis Fleming. Amaryllis became a cellist of no small renown and even had an (admittedly awkward) compliment paid to her by her half-brother Ian in his short story “The Living Daylights,” in which James Bond muses, “There was something almost indecent in the idea of that bulbous, ungainly instrument between her splayed thighs. Of course Suggia had managed to look elegant, and so did that girl Amaryllis somebody. But they should invent a way for women to play the damned thing side-saddle.”

The school of life

Young Ian Fleming was not a model student, though neither was he idle. With his friend Ivar Bryce, who became Ian’s lifelong friend (not to mention the man responsible for the long passages about guano in Dr. No — the Bryce family money had come from guano farming), Ian started a magazine called The Wyvern, which featured poems and artwork (including art from Augustus John, father of Ian’s half-sister) as well as forays into political thought. Among its more controversial assertions was one in favor of the British Fascisti Party, which had been horrified by the events of Russian Revolution and inspired by the uprisings of, among others, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Benito Mussolini. Fleming never graduated from Eton. Nor did he graduate from his next school, the Sandhurst Royal Military College, which he departed under an air of scandal regarding something to do with a lady. He didn’t graduate from his next two universities either, though his studies during that time took him to Austria, where he befriended a former British spy named Alban Ernan Forbes Dennis and his wife, novelist Phyllis Bottome. His relationship with these two planted the seeds for both of Ian Fleming’s future careers.

Acquaintance with Bottome might have also taken the edge off Ian’s early pro-fascist sentiments, as she herself was a committed anti-fascist and, later, an outspoken opponent of Hitler and the Nazis. Her 1938 novel Mortal Storm was adapted into a movie in 1940 starring Jimmy Stewart as a German who refuses to join the Nazi Party. Production studio MGM was nervous about the movie. The United States was not yet in the war, after all, and Germany was still a viable and substantial market for movies. The studio did what it could to obscure the political message of the film, being vague about it being set in Germany and making sure never to overtly state that certain characters were being persecuted because they were Jewish. The half-hearted concessions didn’t pay off. The Nazis banned the movie, and in further reaction, banned all MGM movies.

Fleming tried his hand at becoming a diplomat but did not pass the requisite tests. All the while, his reputation as a womanizer and a bad egg grew, with a string of affairs with an assortment of women — some married, others not. His mother finally used her connections to secure him a job in journalism, a trade for which he showed some genuine talent and took him to the Soviet Union (where, perhaps, he acquired his taste for vodka). Ian’s career as a journalist, however successful, was overshadowed by the writing career of his older brother, Peter. Unlike Ian, Peter had been a star pupil at Eton and was more amiable to marriage (which was to the actress Celia Johnson, in 1935). But he also possessed the same restless spirit as his brother Ian, and in 1932 the following advertisement in The Times launched Peter’s adventure and travel writing career:

“Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June to explore rivers central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Percy Fawcett; abundant game, big and small; exceptional fishing; room two more guns; highest references expected and given.”

Percy Harrison Fawcett was a famous explorer and British officer (and the man many peg as the inspiration for Indiana Jones, though Indiana Jones has almost as many “this was the real life Indiana Jones” candidates as James Bond) who disappeared in 1925 in Brazil while searching for a lost civilization. Although an experienced explorer, Fawcett and two accompnaying men (including his own son), never returned from the expedition. An account of the calamity that befell them, of Fawcett’s life as a soldier and explorer, and of the speculation about what fate ultimately befell them, was recounted in the 2009 book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann. A substantial amount of evidence and many subsequent expeditions had shed more light on the disappearance by the time of Grann’s book, but when Peter Fleming and his expedition set out in 1932 to uncover Fawcett’s fate, it was still a mystery. Peter’s account of the comically disastrous expedition, Brazilian Adventure, was published in 1933 and became a major hit, quickly cementing Fleming as a preeminent writer of non-fiction adventure accounts.

Operation Fleming

Peter became a reporter for The Times, and in 1934 an account of his overland journey from Moscow to Peking was published as One’s Company. Shortly thereafter, he completed a similar journey from China to India, which was published by Jonathan Cape — the same company that would eventually published Ian’s James Bond novels — as News from Tartary in 1936. When the Second World War broke out, Peter enlisted, first with the Grenadier Guards infantry unit, and later as one of the organizers — along with his brother Ian — of the “Auxiliary Units,” a secret organization that would become resistance fighters in the event of a German invasion of the British Isles. As for Ian, his troubled continued even as his brother’s stock soared. Ian entered the banking business, which he did not care for and at which he did not excel. Finally, in 1939 and at the behest of the Governor of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman, Fleming joined Naval Intelligence under Admiral Godfrey.

Because of a mercurial temperament, Godfrey was not a particularly well-liked man, but his new assistant, despite no real qualifications for the job, seemed particularly adept not just at devising new schemes but at communicating them in a way that would get them accepted, no matter that many of them seemed little more than the fanciful machinations of an overly imaginative writer. The Trout Memo opened the door for a number of “dirty tricks,” the most substantial of which was codenamed Operation Mincemeat. Although the idea for Operation Mincemeat (which was part of a larger campaign of deception known as Operation Barclay) was officially credited to Captain Ewen Edward Samuel Montagu, it is generally assumed that the initial idea began with Ian Fleming (the 2014 biopic mini-series Fleming goes so far as to assert that the entire operation was devised by Fleming, and that Montagu and Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley of the RAF took the idea and claimed it as his own).

Operation Mincemeat, and the whole of Operation of Barclay, was designed to trick Hitler, Mussolini, and the Axis powers into thinking that in invasion of the European continent was going to come through Greece when, in fact, the plan was to attack through Italy with an initial invasion in Sicily (code named Operation Husky). In order to aid in the deception, which included fabricating the existence of entire armies, Operation Mincemeat transformed the body of a 34-year old Welshman named Glyndwr Michael into Captain William ‘Bill’ Martin of the Royal Marines. An entire backstory for the fake soldier was devised, including snapshots of a non-existent girlfriend (in reality, photos of Nancy Jean Leslie, a staff member at MI5) and an impressive assemblage of pocket detritus which included receipts, love letters, banknotes, and other such everyday pieces of personal ephemera.

The makeshift marine also had on his corpse a letter from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff, in which were mentioned Allied plans for Operation Husky — the invasion of Europe through Greece and Sardinia — as well as a “fake” operation called Operation Brimstone, meant to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies would invade Europe through Sicily. With all this in place, the body of Captain Bill Martin was consigned to the sea, at a place where they could be certain it would wash up on the beach in Huelva, Spain, where local authorities would doubtless report its discovery to the local German Abwehr (military intelligence) agent, a man by the name of Adolf Clauss. Eventually, it percolated all the way to the top of the German chain of command.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels didn’t entirely buy it. Mussolini didn’t buy it at all. He was convinced that the attack would come through Sicily. But Hitler bought it, and that was ultimately all that mattered. Substantial German forces, including Panzer tank divisions commanded by the legendary General Erwin Rommel, were relocated throughout Greece and Sardinia. On July 9, 1943, Allied forces began Operation Husky, the invasion of Europe — by landing in Sicily. Even after weeks of fighting, Hitler was still convinced that it was all a feint, and that the true invasion would still be through Greece. By August 17, it was too late. The Allies had taken Sicily. However, something funny happened on the way to Italy. In advance of, and during the Allied landing, a number of local Sicilian resistance fighters had been harrying the German and Italian troops. They greeted Allied soldiers and served as guides, local liaisons, and guerilla fighters. It turned out they were members of the Sicilian Mafia, compliments of Lucky Luciano.

Goldeneye no time for sweetness

After the war, Fleming drifted back into journalism and, ultimately, into writing his first novel. When he retired to his modest villa, Goldeneye (“Goldeneye, nose and throat” quipped his neighbor, the entertainer Noel Coward, who was as unimpressed with Fleming’s abode as he was with the fare served to him when he visited) in Jamaica to write the novel, he didn’t expect it to be much more to society at large than a passing trifle. It was an attempt to make good on a desire that boiled up in him during his wartime service. It was also an attempt to keep himself occupied, his mind off his own anxiety regarding the one-time swinging bachelor’s impending marriage to his on-again, off-again girlfriend of many years, Ann Charteris. So from February 17 to March 18, 1952 — just one month’s time — Fleming went about the task of creating “the spy story to end all spy stories,” writing 2,000 words every morning. Titled Casino Royale and drawing upon Fleming’s real-life experiences, as well as those of many others with whom he crossed paths during the war, the book was about the exploits of a British secret agent named after an American ornithologist of whose books on bird watching Fleming was fond: James Bond (as Fleming would later write in a letter to the Manchester Guardian, “One of the reasons why I chose the pseudonym of James Bond for my hero rather than, say, Peregrine Maltravers was that I wished him to be unobtrusive. Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure — an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department.”).

Fleming referred to the manuscript as a “dreadful oafish opus.” A friend advised him to never attempt to have it published, or if he insisted on pursuing it, then to at least publish it under a pen name (Robert Markham, perhaps?). Fleming was insistent, despite his self-deprecating assessment of his own work. In April of 1953, the first edition of Casino Royale was published by Jonathan Cape, featuring a cover designed by Fleming himself. In his initial goal with the book, to “write the spy story to end all spy stories,” Fleming failed utterly. Rather than writing the spy story to end all spy stories, he had written the spy story that began thousands more spy stories. And films. And comic books. And records. And an entire cottage industry that revolves around documenting, analyzing, and exploiting the phenomenon.

The introduction of Kingsley Amis’ James Bond Dossier, one of the first serious critical looks at the James Bond novels, lays out Amis’ failure to prevent a 5,000 word essay from becoming a full book, noting, “For every point I made I discovered two fresh ones that needed making, so that at times I wondered if I was ever going to get to the finish.” “Part of my motive for writing about [James Bond],” wrote Amis, “was my conviction, vague at that stage but firm, that they were more than simple cloak-and-dagger stories with a bit of fashionable affluence and sex thrown in. I suspected that, on the contrary, I would find them to be just as complex and to have just as much in them as more ambitious kinds of fiction.” Amis was correct. After all, would we still be watching James Bond movies, reading James Bond novels, making television specials about Ian Fleming himself, and devoting untold numbers of words to discussing, analyzing, celebrating, and vilifying 007 if Fleming’s novels had really been nothing more than the thin, “vulgar exercises in sex, sadism, and snobbery” they are sometimes accused of being? James Bond far transcended the ambitions of Ian Fleming and the accusations of critics, becoming a cultural icon known, celebrated, and (as is the case with most cultural icons) in some cases reviled the world over. Every country, every culture, has their James Bond, or their spoof of James Bond, or their reaction to James Bond.

Not only is there more to Fleming’s writing than he is often given credit for; one of the most interesting things he has done with his James Bond novels, even if it was unintentional, is to create a snapshot of a fantasy world that we can actually reach out and touch. Bond may be escapist, he may be wish fulfillment, but his world is not unobtainable. You can’t go to Westeros from George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones (and probably wouldn’t want to), or to The Shire. Sure, you can visit the locations used for cinematic adaptations of those places, but it’s not the same as the fact that, even today, you can sit down at the King Cole Bar in New York’s St. Regis Hotel and order a martini, just like Bond and Felix Leiter. Fleming’s obsession with actual locations and actual products may have seemed initially trite, indulgent, even snobbish. But it resulted in a detailed fantasy world that bleeds between its own universe and our own. Bond, or at least his travels and habits, don’t have to stay a vicarious thrill. Much of that world is still here. You can still go to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal. You can still pour yourself two fingers of Haig & Haig scotch whiskey, order an Americano at Florian’s, or pop the cork on a bottle of Tattinger while staying at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. The world of James Bond is not one that exists in the imagination, only accessible through fiction, only understood through critical theory and analysis. You can be part of Bond’s universe, something that is fairly unique among most popular film and book series.

Fleming, the prodigal son of an otherwise respectable and well-connected British family, was a man who, like Bond, had a tremendous appetite for the finer things in life while, at the same time, never seeming fully compatible with the respectable upper-crust who consumed such things. Once again, we find here a reflection in James Bond of the real life of Ian Fleming. Fleming, despite being a member of an influential family, was half-Scottish. That wild Scottish heritage would keep him from ever being considered a true elite of British society. He was like a member of the landed gentry, looked down upon by a royal. The landed gentry may be rich, he may powerful, he may beloved by all and consider an exceptional gentleman in every regard — but he has a job. How rustic of him. Similarly, Bond is not a “proper” Englishman. His heritage is even more disreputable than Fleming’s, being half Scottish and half-Swiss. He is both a pretender to upper class British society (of which, Bond’s boss M is a much more credible example) and someone who disregards it with a sneer. Bond drifts easily from the world’s rarest and most desirable champagnes to a bottle of Miller High Life, from the world’s most exquisite hotels to threadbare roadside motels in the middle of nowhere. While at home, like Ian Fleming at Goldeneye (where his meals were famously average, at their best; Noel Coward claimed he used to cross himself and ask for mercy before eating anything served to him at Fleming’s home, spending most of the meal dreaming about all those delicious meals he read about in the Bond novels), 007 eats relatively simple fare. Bond is also adaptable and willing to sample the local fare, rather than bring his Britishness with him like excess baggage. Raki with Darko Bey at a cafe in Istanbul, scotch with Felix Leiter in New York, vodka with M at the exclusive club Blades, but only then to annoy M (who considers vodka to be swill).

Fleming referred to the Bond series as “fairytales for adults,” and adults would appreciate the opportunity to occasionally experience such fairy tales in the real world. For Fleming, James Bond was a blank slate upon which reader could project themselves, imagining that Bond’s jet-setting, his opulent meals, his indulgent secret service expense account was their own. Such a vision would have been powerful indeed to a Britain still suffering from the brutality of the Second World War, still rebuilding the structures destroyed during the Blitz, still laboring under the austerity measures and rationing that England accepted as the price of victory. In 1953, the first of these austerity measures were lifted, and for the first time in years, Britons were able to consider the possibility that they might be able to soon enjoy butter, bacon, eggs. Coincidentally, Casino Royale came out that very same year. James Bond was more than just a mouth-watering bit of food and drink pornography to stimulate the taste buds of Britons who had long suffered under the meager, drab, rationed victuals of the war years. He was also a promise of things to come, of better and tastier days ahead. The lust with which James Bond tears into a plate of bacon and eggs is to food what Bond’s globetrotting was to travel; it was wish fulfillment, but it was wish fulfillment with the added bonus of being wishes that could, even if only on occasion, be granted in exactly the manner they were described by Ian Fleming.

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