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  Ian Lancaster Fleming (1908–1964), by Sir Cecil Beaton, c.1960 Ian Lancaster Fleming (1908–1964), by Sir Cecil Beaton, c.1960
Fleming, Ian Lancaster (1908–1964), writer, was born on 28 May 1908 at 27 Green Street, in London's Mayfair, the second of four sons of Valentine Fleming (1882–1917), a wealthy, conventional banker who in 1910 became Conservative member of parliament for South Oxfordshire, and Evelyn Beatrice Ste Croix, née Rose (1885–1964), the beautiful, flamboyant daughter of a Berkshire solicitor. The family lived in style in London and in Oxfordshire, where their house, Braziers Park, was close to that of Valentine's father, , who had risen from poverty in Dundee to found the eponymous bank. Fleming was educated (in the shadow of his brilliant elder brother, ) at Durnford preparatory school and at Eton College. While still at Durnford, in May 1917, he was devastated after his father was killed in action in France. At Eton he showed little academic potential, directing his energies into athletics, becoming victor ludorum two years in succession, and into school journalism, notably, editing an ‘ephemeral’ magazine, The Wyvern. Since he was deemed unlikely to follow Peter to Oxford, his widowed mother arranged for him to attend the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. However, he was not suited to military discipline and left without a commission in 1927, following an incident with a woman in which, to his mother's horror, he managed to contract a venereal disease.

Considered emotionally wayward, Fleming was sent to ‘sort himself out’ at a quasi-finishing school for men in Kitzbühel, Austria. There, while skiing and climbing mountains, he came under the benevolent tutelage of Ernan Forbes Dennis, a former British spy turned educationist, and his wife, Phyllis Bottome, an established novelist. Forbes Dennis brought out Fleming's aptitude for languages and introduced him to literature, while his wife encouraged him to write his first stories. With a career as a diplomat beckoning, Fleming studied briefly at Munich and Geneva universities, where he had a reputation as a playboy. However, he failed the competitive examination for the Foreign Office, and only his mother's entreaty to Sir Roderick Jones, head of Reuters News Agency, secured him an opening as a journalist. After reporting from Moscow on the 1933 ‘Metro-Vic’ trial of six British engineers accused of spying, he was being groomed for higher things; however, bowing to family pressure, he opted to seek his fortune in the City. From 1933 to 1935 he worked for a small bank, Cull & Co. He then joined Rowe and Pitman, a leading firm of stockbrokers, where he was bored and ineffectual. In May 1939, with no obvious qualifications, he was invited to join the naval intelligence division as personal assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, the director of naval intelligence.

With his charm, social contacts, and gift for languages, Fleming proved an excellent appointment. Working from the Admiralty's Room 39, he showed a hitherto unacknowledged talent for administration, and was quickly promoted from lieutenant to commander. He liaised on behalf of the director of naval intelligence with the other secret services. One of few people given access to Ultra intelligence, he was responsible for the navy's input into anti-German black propaganda. He worked with Colonel Bill Donovan, the special representative of President Roosevelt, on intelligence co-operation between London and Washington before Pearl Harbor. In May 1941 he accompanied Admiral Godfrey to America, staying to help write a blueprint for the office of co-ordinator of information (the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency). In 1941–2 he oversaw operation Goldeneye, a plan to maintain vital intelligence if the Germans took over Spain. After Captain Edmund Rushbrooke became director in late 1942 Fleming's influence waned, though he controlled 30 assault unit, which operated behind German lines, retrieving scientific intelligence.

Already Fleming was telling friends of his ambition to write spy novels. (His brother Peter had enjoyed literary success in the 1930s with his travel books.) Instead, after being demobbed in May 1945, he joined the Kemsley newspaper group, which owned the Sunday Times, as foreign manager, responsible for its worldwide network of correspondents. He negotiated a favourable contract, allowing him to take three months' holiday every winter in Jamaica, an island with which he had fallen in love during a 1942 Anglo-American naval conference. In 1945 he acquired land at Oracabessa, on Jamaica's north coast; there he built a modest house, Goldeneye, named after his wartime exploit.

An early visitor was Fleming's long-time mistress, Ann Rothermere (1913–1981) [see ], the steelily intelligent wife of the owner of the Daily Mail, the second Lord Rothermere. Born Ann Geraldine Mary Charteris in 1913, she was the eldest daughter of Guy Lawrence Charteris, son of the ninth earl of Wemyss. After the death of her first husband, the third Baron O'Neill, killed in action in Italy in 1944, she had been expected to become Fleming's wife, but he stuck to his bachelor status, and she married Lord Rothermere. However, she maintained her relationship with the saturnine Fleming, with whom she had a stillborn child in 1948. In 1951 she divorced Rothermere and married Fleming in Jamaica on 24 March 1952. Their only child, Caspar, was born in London in August that year.

The prospect of marriage inspired Fleming to attempt the spy novel he had discussed. Over two months in early 1952, he wrote his first book, Casino Royale, a taut tale of a British secret agent, James Bond (007), who challenges the Soviet operative Le Chiffre over the roulette table at Royale-les-Eaux. The book was published to critical acclaim in April 1953. Thereafter Fleming used his Caribbean holidays to write a James Bond story every year until his premature death in 1964.

Bond reflected much of Fleming: his secret intelligence background, his experience of good living, his casual attitude to sex. He differed in one essential—Bond was a man of action, while Fleming had mostly sat behind a desk. Fleming's news training was evident in his lean, energetic writing (with its dramatic set-piece essays on subjects that interested him, such as cards or diamonds) and in his desire to reflect contemporary realities, not only politically but sociologically. He was aware of Bond's position as a hard, often lonely professional, bringing glamour to the grim post-war 1950s. Fleming broke new ground in giving Bond an aspirational lifestyle and larding it with brand names.

A clear break in Fleming's writing career came in 1958, when after six years of writing what he considered entertainments, he was viciously attacked by the journalist Paul Johnson for his ‘Sex, Snobbery and Sadism’. Harold Nicolson, commenting on Goldfinger in his diary in 1959, disliked ‘the underlying atmosphere of violence, luxury and lust’. It was, for him, ‘an obscene book, liable to corrupt’ (N. Nicolson, ed., Diaries and Letters, 3 vols., 1966–8, 3.371). Fleming, who was experiencing marital difficulties, went into a personal and creative decline. His next book, a collection of inconsequential short stories, For Your Eyes Only (1960), was followed in 1961 by a novel, Thunderball, based on a screen treatment co-written with two film professionals, and in 1962 by the explicit The Spy who Loved Me. Thunderball became a nightmare after he was sued by his co-writers for stealing their plot. In April 1961 he suffered a heart attack, which has been linked to his worries over this case. At this stage his career took off again. Soon after his retirement from the Sunday Times (where he had latterly worked as the columnist Atticus) his books became best-sellers in the United States after President John F. Kennedy listed them among his favourites. In June 1961 he signed a film deal with the producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, whose Dr No, starring Sean Connery, opened in the autumn of 1962 and was an immediate box-office success. Now a worldwide celebrity, Fleming returned to more traditional Bond material in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963). However, he was unwell, and was smoking and drinking heavily. His death from heart complications in the Kent and Canterbury Hospital on 12 August 1964 was not unexpected. He was buried at Sevenhampton, Wiltshire.

Fleming was a complex and often unhappy man, whose suave image was at variance with reality. He had a close circle of friends who enjoyed his quick wit. Yet normally he shied from company and relished simple, nursery food. He resented his wife's literary salon, attended by authors such as Cyril Connolly, Peter Quennell, and Evelyn Waugh, and would have preferred her in a more traditional role at their houses in London's Victoria Square, Sandwich (Kent), and later Sevenhampton (Wiltshire). As diversions, he liked motoring, golf, bridge, and swimming in the Caribbean. His collection of first editions of ‘books that made things happen’ (stimulating political or technological change) formed the nucleus of the ‘Printing and the mind of man’ exhibition (1963) in London.

Fleming wrote a book of his travel articles, a journalistic account of illicit diamond trading, a successful children's story (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was filmed), and a short study of Kuwait which did not meet with official approval and was not published. But his enduring legacy is his James Bond stories with their understated mythic quality, representing the forces of good fighting evil, and their brilliantly imagined and carefully crafted world of menace, intrigue, and escape.

In total Fleming sold 30 million books during his lifetime—a figure that doubled in the two years after his death. Nine times he was presented with his paperback publisher Pan's Golden Pan award for sales of over 1 million softcover copies of his books. More than half a century after Casino Royale was published, the entire James Bond œuvre remained in print. Few would deny, however, that this continuing success was a result of (and was overshadowed by) the even more phenomenal popularity of the James Bond films. Various actors—Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan—portrayed Fleming's fictional secret agent, each in slightly different ways. In the movie business Bond became the most successful ‘franchise’ of all time—not only in cinemas, but on video, laserdisc, and digital video disc. Up to the year 2000 Broccoli and Saltzman's Eon Productions had made nineteen Bond films, netting a reported $3.2 billion in box-office returns and $400 million in profits. In addition, two Bond feature films were produced outside the canon, while Fleming's own life was portrayed (both times in lacklustre fashion) in Goldeneye, starring Charles Dance (1989), and Spymaker: the Secret Life of Ian Fleming, starring Jason Connery (1990).

Andrew Lycett

Sources  

A. Lycett, Ian Fleming (1995) · J. Pearson, The life of Ian Fleming (1966) · R. Benson, James Bond bedside companion (1988) · The letters of Ann Fleming, ed. M. Amory (1985) · I. Bryce, You only live once (1984)

Archives  

Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library · U. Reading L., corresp. |  Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook


Likenesses  

photographs, 1958–64, Hult. Arch. · C. Beaton, photograph, c.1960, NPG [see illus.] · A. Villiers, oils, priv. coll.; repro. in I. Fleming, On her majesty's secret service, limited edn (1968)

Wealth at death  

£302,147: limited probate, 4 Nov 1964, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £21,650: probate limited to literary estate, 24 Nov 1964, CGPLA Eng. & Wales