Fleming: Inside the Life of James Bond's Creator

On first take, they seem unlikely bedfellows: a spy known as much for chalking up notches on his bedpost as for tracking down seedy international criminals coupled with a prestigious museum dedicated to honoring Britain's war dead. But London's Imperial War Museum has pulled off an enticing (and entertaining) coup with its latest exhibition "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond." The link is less tenuous than it would seem. Fleming, worked for British naval intelligence during World War II, and his experiences during that period were hugely significant not only to the war effort but in helping shape the world of 007. "Fleming knew so much about what was going on with clandestine and secret operations against Germany and the other Axis powers, giving him so much background and so many of the ideas that appear in Bond novels," says Terry Charman, senior historian with the museum.

Fleming, like 007, swirled in suave and sophisticated circles. Born 100 years ago in London's posh Mayfair, Fleming was the son of a member of Parliament and the grandson of financier Robert Fleming, founder of the Scottish American Investment Trust. The Bond creator was educated at Eton and Sandhurst, Britain's military academy, but left before he graduated. After a stint studying languages in Europe--and applying unsuccessfully for a place with Britain's Foreign Office--Fleming worked as a journalist for Reuters and The Times of London. He was considered by his bosses to be an intrepid reporter--indeed, there is a letter in the exhibition from Joseph Stalin turning down Fleming's request for an interview when the Briton was in Moscow covering an espionage trial. After a stint as a financier in the City, Fleming was recruited by Rear Admiral John Godfrey--Fleming's inspiration for "M"--to work as his assistant. Godfrey was the head of British naval intelligence, and Fleming's job allowed him a bird's-eye view into the world of intelligence. Without World War II, says Charman, there would not have been a James Bond. "Admiral Godfrey said after the war that in reality Ian should have been the director of naval intelligence and Godfrey should have been his assistant," says Charman. "That is perhaps overflattering, but Fleming was extremely inventive."

Fleming cut his innovative teeth--later used famously in creating some of Bond's wonderful spy paraphernalia--coming up with schemes for naval intelligence. One of Fleming's recommendations during the early months of the war was to have a pirate radio ship off the North Sea pretend to be a German radio station beaming subversive propaganda to the German Navy. At the time his idea was not taken up, but in 1941 a British propaganda specialist who was a friend of Fleming's organized the Atlantic Sender station to do just that. In 1941, before the United States entered the war, Godfrey and Fleming went to Washington and were asked to compile a memorandum detailing what a U.S. intelligence agency should look like. Fleming wrote up a series of detailed letters--also on display in the exhibition--which were sent to Col. William (Wild Bill) Donovan, head of the U.S. Army's Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the postwar Central Intelligence Agency. "Later in life, Fleming dined out on the story that he had in fact written the blueprint for what became the CIA," says Charman.

Fleming did a lot of dining out on such tales over the years. He and his wife, Ann, were part of a literary social set in London and in Jamaica, where the Bond character was created in 1952. The exhibition has Fleming's writing table from his Jamaican retreat, named Goldeneye, after a wartime operation, as well as photographs of their social circle that included Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. There is even a book featuring the source of Agent 007s name: Fleming's original copy of the book "The Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies" written by American ornithologist James Bond. Fleming later said he had chosen this name for his character because he wanted something bland.

Other items in the exhibit include Fleming's childhood Christmas stocking and bond certificates of his grandfather's holdings. There are also original manuscripts from most of the Bond novels, ticket stubs from casinos and bars where Fleming carried out research and concept drawings from the designer who created Bond's tricked-out Lotus Esprit from "The Spy Who Loved Me." Film props include a golden gun, the shoes that Goldfinger wore on the golf course and a champagne bottle used as a prop in "Dr. No." Even Britain's Queen Elizabeth II got caught up in the spirit--she has lent the toy James Bond Aston Martin car that Prince Andrew received for his 6th birthday in 1966.

But just as Bond presumably had more to him than a libido and a loaded gun, Fleming too had a gentler side. Later in life he seemingly tired of writing about the exploits of 007 and branched out, crafting the story "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" for his son. There are some marvellous sketches of the magical car that could fly and a handwritten manuscript of the story that would become a children's classic. "People tend to get fed up with their creations, and I get the impression this was happening to Fleming," says Charman. "Who knows, he might too have turned to children's fiction." Even Bond could be a softie sometimes.

Fleming: Inside the Life of James Bond's Creator | Culture