Ian Lancaster Fleming created a pop culture icon of major proportions in his novels and short stories featuring James Bond, the suave British secret service agent, number 007, whose “double 0” designation gives him license to kill, if necessary, to complete his mission.
Fleming’s father, Valentine, died in World War I when his son was not quite nine years old. Fleming and his brother, Peter, later a writer of true adventure stories, were raised by his mother, Evelyn St. Croix Rose Fleming, in upper-class wealth, although her late husband’s will provided that she have access to his money only so long as she remained unmarried.
Ian Fleming’s writing career did not start until 1952, in the months leading up to his marriage to Anne, Lady Rothmere, who was pregnant with Fleming’s child and awaiting a divorce from her husband. Fleming later said he wrote Casino Royale as a way of easing his anxieties about the end of his bachelorhood.
He had no idea that it was any good and, when he sheepishly confessed to a friend that he had written a spy novel, had to be persuaded to submit it to a publisher. That book and the ones that followed would set off a much-imitated publishing phenomenon featuring the secret agent superhero.
Fleming had attended Eton, Sanhurst, and the Universities of Munich and Geneva, where he learned several languages. He worked for the Reuters news service in London, Berlin, and Moscow from 1929 to 1933, then back in England as a banker and stockbroker.
During World War II, he became an assistant to the director of British Naval Intelligence, Admiral John H. Godfrey, later the model for Bond’s boss, “M.” In 1941, while in Lisbon, Fleming talked Godfrey into letting him join a high-stakes card game with the idea of winning money from German officers to fund British intelligence activities. Fleming lost his money, but he had Bond use the idea more successfully against the Russians in his first novel. Like Fleming, Bond loses his first funds to the villain whose bank he is trying to break, but in the book he is rescued by an infusion of money from his counterpart in the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Felix Leiter.
“Although he is almost entirely a product of my imagination, I used various people I came across during the war–secret service men, commandos, newspaper men–as a basis for him,” Fleming said of his creation, as quoted by Jack Fishman, with whom Fleming worked in journalism circles, in For Bond Lovers Only (1965). “My experiences during the war and my knowledge of intelligence work led me to write about them in a highly bowdlerized way, and I simply used Bond as the central figure.”
After the war, Fleming resumed his journalism career, first as foreign manager for The Sunday Times of London, then vice president for Europe of the North American Newspaper Alliance, and finally foreign manager for Kemsely Newspapers. He built a home in Jamaica, where he would retreat for the first few months of each year to work on his next novel, and he continued producing the Bond stories for more than a decade. He also produced two nonfiction books, mostly derived from newspaper columns he wrote, and a single children’s book about a flying car and the eccentric British family it takes on a series of adventures.
The husband, wife, and two children encounter gangsters in those adventures, but they pale in comparison to those with whom Bond must deal. In the first Bond novel, the villains are merely Russian agents. Later antagonists included American gangsters, a rocket builder planning to launch a nuclear missile at London, a man obsessed with gold who tries to rob Fort Knox, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of a criminal organization called SPECTRE, with whom Bond must deal in three of the novels (Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice), much as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, had to deal repeatedly with the criminal Professor Moriarty.
The Spy Who Loved Me differs from all the other books in that its protagonist is a young woman who runs afoul of two gangsters in a remote motel. She narrates a tale of being rescued by Bond, who does not even appear until well past halfway through the book. Fleming originally conceived of Bond as an anonymous instrument of clandestine government activity and lifted the name for his character from that of an American ornithologist, the author of Birds of the West Indies, because he wanted the most plain and simple name possible. As the stories grew more popular, and Bond began taking on increasingly larger-than-life adversaries, the name instead became synonymous with glamour, high living, and being irresistible to beautiful women. Fleming was obviously having fun with some of the names he imposed on his women characters, from Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever to Pussy Galore in Goldfinger and the long-suffering Miss Moneypenny, the secretary in the secret service office who pines for Bond in vain.
In every novel except Moonraker, Bond gets the girl and often several girls. He becomes a connoisseur not only of dazzling women but also of Savile Row suits, vintage cars, the latest firearms, specially blended cigarettes, fine wines, and vodka martinis (“shaken, not stirred”).
“At first, I didn’t even give Bond a complete personality,” Fleming tells Fishman in For Bond Lovers Only. In my earlier books, you will find few of his later mannerisms, no real in-depth characterization of him. I didn’t even provide him with a detailed personal appearance. I kept him virtually blank. Then, as I got to know him better, I filled in mannerisms and characteristics. He started eating those meals and dressing a certain way so that he gradually became encrusted with characteristics, although much against my will.
In my earlier books, you will find few of his later mannerisms, no real in-depth characterization of him. I didn’t even provide him with a detailed personal appearance. I kept him virtually blank. Then, as I got to know him better, I filled in mannerisms and characteristics. He started eating those meals and dressing a certain way so that he gradually became encrusted with characteristics, although much against my will.
Fishman quotes Fleming further on Bond: The odd thing about him is that I didn’t think of him in the beginning as a “character” at all. I didn’t really mean him to have any characteristics except to be a blunt official instrument, but over the years he became a character largely exaggerated in the public mind.
The odd thing about him is that I didn’t think of him in the beginning as a “character” at all. I didn’t really mean him to have any characteristics except to be a blunt official instrument, but over the years he became a character largely exaggerated in the public mind.
Fleming’s Bond books got a well-publicized plug from President John F. Kennedy, who pronounced himself a fan, and were popularized even more by a series of tremendously successful movies based on them, starting with Dr. No in 1963. Even some of the Bond short stories were adapted to the screen. For Your Eyes Only collected “From a View to a Kill,” “For Your Eyes Only,” “Quantum of Solace,” “Risico,” and “The Hildebrand Rarity.” Octopussy, published posthumously, rounded up the remaining Bond short stories from their earlier magazine incarnations: “The Property of a Lady,” “The Living Daylights” (originally published as “Berlin Escape”), and “Octopussy” (published posthumously by the literary executors of the Fleming estate).
Fleming died in 1964, soon after his mother’s death. His last Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, was completed by others. His wife died in 1981, and their only child, Casper, succumbed to a drug overdose in 1975.
James Bond outlived them all, despite Fleming’s attempt to kill him off at the end of From Russia, with Love–which Fleming then had to explain away at the beginning of Dr. No, the next book in the series. New Bond novels have continued to be published under franchises with other writers; their number far exceeds the twelve novels and two short-story collections by Fleming.
Like Zorro, Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, James Bond has the distinction of being one of those pop culture icons recognized the world over. Other writers, such as Donald Hamilton (with his American Matt Helm series) and Len Deighton, are among those who have put their own stamp on the super-spy genre, but it was Fleming’s creation who paved the way for them all.