One of the many assumptions regarding the James Bond phenomenon is that he was based on the actions of a real life character. And so he was - sort of. But was that real life character Ian Fleming himself?
Ian Fleming lived a remarkably uncompromising life in a world full of compromises. Born in 1908 as the son of Valentine Fleming, and the grandson of the wealthy Scottish banker Robert Fleming, Ian Lancaster Fleming grew up the member of a rare class of Englishmen for whom all options are open.
The privilege of class and respect came not merely from his grandfather’s money, as wealth alone in England does not guarantee open doors. The Fleming family earned their social stripes with service and blood. Ian’s father was a service-oriented land-owner in Oxfordshire and a member of Parliament.
When Valentine Fleming died in the Great War, Ian was 8 days shy of his ninth birthday. Fleming not only had to live with the ghost of his father, but also with the shadow of his brother Peter, who after his father’s passing filled the role of patriarch of the family. Peter excelled at Eton and later Oxford.
The knowledge of Ian’s late father’s looming wealth, and Ian’s lack of access to it was bound to make the young Fleming feel disinherited. So, it appears he became more determined to build his own empire, create his own identity within the family, and be lauded for his own successes.
Ian Fleming was educated at Eton. However, unlike the young 007, he was not expelled for a brief clandestine relationship with one of the school’s maids. Bond continued his schooling at Fettes, “his father’s own school” where “both academic and athletic standards were rigorous.” While Bond’s athletic prowess is on record - “he had twice fought for the school as a light-weight and had, in addition, founded the first serious judo class at a British public school.” - Fleming was not idle. He won practically every event at the school’s sports day in 1924, and as a senior he was “Victor Ludorum”, champion of the games, two years in succession, a feat not achieved by any other Eton pupil.
Fleming’s streak of independence and apparent need to make his own identity did not fit well with conventional military conduct. Officially, though, Fleming left after being caught out after curfew.
In due course, Fleming went to Europe to continue schooling. Fleming found a home in the small Austrian town of Kitzbuhel where his education changed drastically. In an environment totally unlike the strict and conventional campuses of Eton and Sandhurst, Fleming, under the tutelage of Forbes and Phyllis Dennis, finally found a place to create his own identity. At Kitzbuhel no other students knew Valentine Fleming, war hero, and many students did not know Peter Fleming, academic star. The students only knew Ian, rakish, handsome, cultured Etonian with a rapier wit and a certain cool lack of shyness with women.
While Fleming found his own identity at Kitzbuhel, he did not seem to find out what he wanted to do with his life. He wrote some short stories and some poems, but made no pretensions, it seems, about being an author. Eventually, Fleming set his sights on the foreign service exam, but to his grave disappointment did not make the grade. Nonetheless, Fleming had set a course for himself and worked hard to achieve his own goals. After the failure to join the Foreign Service, Fleming turned to his brother’s profession. Following in his Peter’s footsteps, Fleming became a journalist, joining Reuters.
Fleming’s greatest success in his brief Reuters career was the reporting he did on a spy trial in Russia. While Fleming did not scoop all of his competition, he did impress his fellow journalists, but Fleming also discovered just how little money journalists made.
When Robert Fleming died in 1933 leaving no money to any of his grandchildren, Ian once again saw the financial Rubicon, which he felt, limited his life and future options. The vast family fortune was unavailable to Ian until his mother died or re-married, and both options seemed unlikely. Fleming made his decision, leaving journalism. In one of his few compromises, Fleming, capitalizing on the family name, joined a London banking firm which he hoped would make him rich.
By 1939, it appears Fleming had become bored with the plodding a banker?s life. During his Reuters days, Fleming had made friends in the Foreign Office, and maintained them even as a banker. In 1939, Fleming oddly took on an assignment for the Times to return to the Soviet Union to report on a trade mission. It appears that Fleming, in fact, was all the time spying for the Foreign Office.
In May of the same year, Fleming started a more formal attachment to the intelligence service, working with Naval Intelligence. Soon, he was full-time assistant to the director, taking the rank of Lieutenant, and later Commander. Fleming became the right-hand man to one of Britain’s top spymasters, Admiral John Godfrey. The war was good to Fleming, while he schemed, plotted, and carried out dangerous missions. From the famous Room 39 in the Admiralty building in London’s Whitehall, Fleming tossed out a myriad of off-beat ideas on how to confuse, survey, and enrage the Germans.
In a 1940 trip into a crumbling France, Fleming supervised the escape from Dieppe, juggling the security needs of his country against the crush of refugees seeking escape from the Nazi machine. With Fleming flair, he spent one of his last evening eating and drinking some of the best food in the country, and one of his last days coordinating the evacuation of King Zog of Albania.
Fleming understood the business side of the war. He understood his practical job, and the tight constraints of man-power, money and supplies. He did not take his assignments lightly, always gravely aware of the real human risks involved. The “Fleming flair” also proved valuable in one other aspect: writing. As assistant to Admiral Godfrey, Fleming wrote countless memos and reports. His style and elegant arguments, plus his seemingly limitless knowledge of his subjects made the usual dry missives a pleasure to read. Eventually, Fleming wrote memos to William “Wild Bill” Donovan on how to set up the OSS, forerunner to the CIA. For that bit of work, Fleming received a revolver engraved with the thanks: “For Special Services.”
When his war was over, he would, with certainty, return to Jamaica, and not just as a tourist. Fleming set to work. He purchased property, designed a house, and set about doing paradise right. The house, Goldeneye, was like Fleming’s writing would prove to be: simple, direct, filled with panache, but never elegant, or opulent. There was no hot-water plumbing, no glass in the jalousied windows, no provision for air conditioning. Yet, the house quickly became one of the most envied on the north coast of Jamaica.
For 6 years Fleming traveled each winter to Jamaica, lounging in paradise, romancing women, chasing the sunset, but it was not until he faced the pressure of a married woman who was pregnant with his child did Fleming start the writer’s journey which would change his life and popular culture forever. The married woman, Lady Anne Rothermere, had for years been having an affair with Ian, and now pregnant, the time had come for Fleming, at almost 44 years of age to act like a grown-up and marry. As Fleming waited in Jamaica for Anne’s divorce to become final, he wrote the first draft of a novel, Casino Royale.
By this time, 1952, Ian Fleming’s circle of friends included some of the top literary names in England. Fleming knew Noel Coward, Eric Ambler, Peter Quennell, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Cyril Connolly, among others. Fleming had the charm and self-confidence to pick his friends, compartmentalize them, and the self-reliance to never depend on them. Fleming filled out the 12 years of Bond with great adventure journalism.
In 1964, Fleming suffered a severe debilitating chest cold, which combined with pleurisy, forcing a slow recovery. That summer his mother died, leaving behind her small fortune from Valentine Fleming’s trust. By this time, Fleming had already earned his own fortune, created his own identity, and ruled his own literary empire. His doctors advised him he was too ill to attend his mother’s service, but he went anyway.
Fleming tried to force his recovery, dictating letters in protest of his condition, as if by sheer will, Fleming could regain his health. In August went to St. Georges to meet with the golf committee. His heart failed him, and the night of August 11, Ian Fleming began to bleed to death from within. On August 12, 1964, Ian Fleming died at the age of 56. He is buried in Sevenhampton, near Swindon not too far from the Welsh border.
Ian Fleming is by no means the only British writer to have worked for the intelligence services: Christopher Marlowe, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Arthur Ransome all did their bit for their country.