LONDON — Any writer who has struggled to “do the words” would take heart from the self-effacing assessment written for himself by Ian Fleming, the raffish Englishman born 100 years ago this month who became one of the most successful authors of his time through the creation of the world’s best-loved spy, James Bond.
Fleming died in 1964, at 56, of complications from pleurisy after playing a round of golf in Oxfordshire though he had a heavy cold. But the real culprits were years of smoking up to 80 cigarettes a day, and a fondness for drink. Perhaps because of the difficulty he found in resisting life’s indulgences, he adopted a strict writing routine in his last 12 years, the period in which he wrote more than a dozen Bond novels that spawned the multibillion-dollar film franchise.
Rising early for a swim in the aquamarine waters in the cove below his idyllic Jamaican retreat, Goldeneye, Fleming tapped away at his Remington portable typewriter with six fingers for three hours in the morning and an hour in the afternoon — 2,000 words a day, a completed novel in two months, all the while keeping up the sybaritic lifestyle that led Noël Coward, a frequent guest at Goldeneye and no puritan himself, to describe the Fleming household as “golden ear, nose and throat.”
Fleming, who saw 40 million copies of his books sold in his lifetime but died before the Bond franchise went stratospheric, had no literary pretensions. He described his first Bond book, “Casino Royale,” as “an oafish opus,” and offered further disparagement in a 1963 BBC radio interview. “If I wait for the genius to come, it just doesn’t arrive,” he said. Asked if Bond had kept him from more serious writing, of the kind achieved by his older brother, Peter, a renowned explorer and travel writer, he replied: “I’m not in the Shakespeare stakes. I have no ambition.”
Fleming’s workaday approach to writing is among the revelations drawing crowds of Bond lovers to “For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond,” an exhibition that opened at the Imperial War Museum in London last month and runs through March 2009. For the museum, founded in 1917 and guarded by two 18-inch guns from a World War I dreadnought, there is something — well, raffish — in the staging of an exhibition about the glamorous, gadget-wielding, womanizing, devil-may-care Bond and his creator, for whom the superspy was in many respects an alter-ego.
The museum’s former curator, Alan Borg, whose 13-year tenure as director ended in 1995, encouraged innovative approaches by reminding his staff that “the three most off-putting words in the English language” were encompassed by the museum’s name.
“And we have to fight against that,” said Terry Charman, the museum’s senior historian and curator of the Bond exhibition. But judging by the enthusiasm of the visitors, concerns about the frivolousness some of Britain’s more sniffy critics have discerned in the Bond show seem misplaced.
The display explores the relationship between Fleming and Bond, examining how much of the fictional spy is built on the author’s character — the degree to which Bond was his “fantasy version of himself,” as Mr. Charman put it. As well, it shows how the debonair Fleming drew on his experiences as a man about town and as a prewar foreign correspondent, in the world of banking and investment, in his postwar sojourns in Jamaica, and as a World War II aide to the head of Britain’s directorate of naval intelligence, to give what he described as “verisimilitude” to Bond’s world of spies and villains and romance.
Of his Bond plots, Fleming, ever prosaic about his talent, said, “I extracted them from my wartime memories, dolled them up, attached a hero and a villain, and there was the book.” For M, Bond’s irascible, domineering secret service overseer, he had as a model Rear Adm. John Godfrey, his wartime intelligence chief; old school friends, golfing partners, and girlfriends also metamorphosed into Bond characters. Even his villains had real-life antecedents.
Auric Goldfinger, “a misshapen short man with red hair and a bizarre face” in Fleming’s description, had the author’s “flat golf swing” and the surname of a prominent Hungarian-born British architect, Erno Goldfinger, whose penchant for concrete tower blocks Fleming abhorred. Rosa Klebb of Smersh, “a dreadful chunk of a woman” and “a toadlike figure” to Fleming, had her likeness in Maj. Tamara Nikolayeva Ivanova, a notoriously sadistic K.G.B. agent. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, “with lips that suggest contempt, tyranny and cruelty,” got his name from a Fleming schoolmate at Eton. Odd Job, Goldfinger’s enforcer and “a uniquely dreadful person,” drew his deadly missile of a bowler hat from Fleming’s knowledge of the nefarious uses to which British intelligence services made of everyday headgear.
The disciplines Fleming absorbed as a correspondent for Reuters in the 1930s made him a stickler for accuracy, and the exhibition shows how this fed into Bond’s guns. A luxuriantly mustached British gun expert, Geoffrey Boothroyd, reproved Fleming in a 1950s letter for Bond’s “rather deplorable taste in firearms” — in particular the penchant of the early Bond for a Beretta pistol, which Mr. Boothroyd, later the model for Major Boothroyd, Bond’s secret service armorer, described as “a ladies’ gun.” At Mr. Boothroyd’s urging, the Bond of “Dr. No” and later novels progressed to a Walther PPK and what Mr. Boothroyd described as “a real man-stopper,” a Smith & Wesson 0.357 Magnum.
Bond himself, Fleming said, was “a compound of all the secret agents and commandos I met during the war,” but his tastes — in blondes, martinis “shaken, not stirred,” expensively tailored suits, scrambled eggs, short-sleeved shirts and Rolex watches — were Fleming’s own. But not all the comparisons were ones the author liked to encourage. Bond, he said, had “more guts than I have” as well as being “more handsome.” And he was eager to discourage the idea that he had been as much of a Lothario as Bond before his marriage to Ann Rothermere, whom he wed in 1952, the year he wrote “Casino Royale.”
But the exhibition suggests otherwise. A section of the show titled “Friends and Lovers” has one of a stable of prewar girlfriends, Mary Pakenham, saying of Fleming, “No one I know had sex so much on the brain as Ian.” And another entry records the disdain of Fleming’s mother, Evelyn St. Croix Fleming, widowed when Fleming’s father, Valentine, was killed at the front in World War I, after she found black boa feathers littered across the back seat of her chauffeur-driven Daimler on the morning after Fleming borrowed the car for a night out — and a backseat romp — with a nightclub dancer called Storm.