James Bond was the 20th century's most famous spy and -- almost as certainly -- one of its best-known literary characters.
Had he lived, 007's creator, Ian Fleming, would be 100 years old today. A number of new books have been timed to the centenary -- including the 15 volumes under review here -- and London's Imperial War Museum is staging an exhibition, "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond," which explores the numerous connections between Bond and the author's real-life experiences, particularly those that occurred during his service with British Naval Intelligence in World War II. The exhibit continues through March.
Handsome, charming, witty and sophisticated, cultivated but unpretentious, Fleming imbued his literary alter-ego with many of his own sybaritic tastes, including an abiding pleasure in the company of beautiful women. There were certain departures -- Bond's extreme fondness for scrambled eggs, for example, while his creator relished the haute cuisine of France. They shared, however, a prodigious appetite for distilled spirits and cigarettes, of which Fleming smoked about 80 a day. The combination is generally blamed for his early death in 1964 at age 56, attributed variously to heart failure or complications of pleurisy brought about by an ill-advised round of golf (another passion) in foul English weather.
All the Bond books -- 12 novels and two collections of short stories -- were written over a dozen years, beginning when Fleming was 44, and all were composed during his annual three-month sojourn at his beloved retreat on the Jamaican coast, Goldeneye. (The name was borrowed from a particularly ingenious intelligence operation Fleming conceived during the war.) There, each day, the author rose early, went for a swim in the cove below his home, then went to work on a portable Remington typewriter for three hours. Cocktails and lunch were served on the terrace with its spectacular views, followed by an hour more of work and the completion of each day's quota: 2,000 words. The rest of the day and evening were spent in the glittering company of friends -- Noel Coward, first among them, but also W. Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Eden and a "Who's Who" of British literature and politics.
As one biographer put it, Ian Lancaster Fleming, the second of four brothers, was born into one of those privileged British families to whom "all roads seem open," though they never quite are. His father, Valentine, heir to a banking fortune, was a widely admired member of Parliament who enlisted in a fashionable cavalry regiment during World War I and was killed in France. Valentine's fortune was bequeathed to his wife, Evelyn, in a trust, one of whose conditions was that she forfeit the entire thing if she ever remarried; another specified that his sons were not to receive any of it until her death. (Eve, as she was known, made her own accommodation with circumstances and, though she died Valentine's widow, bore a daughter to the painter Augustus Johns.)
Ian attended Eton and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst but was dismissed from both for indiscretions with young women. His mother sent him to the continent to learn French and German in hopes he could pass the Foreign Office exams, which he failed. Fleming took up a career with Reuters, including a stint in Moscow covering the show trials, which left him with a profound revulsion for communism. He subsequently worked as a stockbroker, making a handsome enough income to cut a fashionable figure in the upper reaches of London society, while building what ultimately became an internationally famous personal library devoted to first editions of books that revolutionized the scientific and intellectual landscape.
By 1938, he'd returned to journalism -- though probably as cover for his new vocation, espionage. Just before the war, he enlisted as a subaltern in the Black Watch but quickly was recruited as personal assistant to Adm. John Godfrey, the Royal Navy's director of intelligence. Fleming had what the British like to call "a very good war," ultimately rising to the rank of commander. Early on, he engineered the escape of Albania's King Zog from occupied France, an operation that made time for a spectacular French meal just hours before the Nazis arrived in Dieppe. He ultimately took over supervision of a daring commando unit, whose dashing field commander -- Patrick Dalzel-Job -- was a major inspiration for James Bond.
After the war, Fleming returned to journalism, built his famous house in Jamaica, which he'd discovered during the conflict, and resumed his life in society, including his affairs, one which left his longtime lover, Lady Ann Rothermere, pregnant. He wrote his first James Bond novel -- "Casino Royale" -- while in Jamaica waiting for her divorce from her viscount husband to become final, so that they could marry.