While some believed that author Ian Fleming must have lived a life as exciting and adventurous as his famed literary creation, James Bond, nothing could have been further from the truth. Though certain lines of fact and fiction were definitely blurred - both character and author were consummate womanizers, though the latter was far more sadomasochistic - Fleming was a far cry from the super agent secretly dispatched to take care of Britain's more complicated Cold War problems. Even Fleming's own involvement with an intelligence agency during World War II was nothing more than glorified desk work. Fleming's life was a touch eccentric, however, what with his many affairs with women, late nights in French casinos and a relentless diet of booze and cigarettes. But it was an intense desire to live up to expectations far exceeding his abilities - coupled with an incredible thirst for high-adventure - that prompted the grandson of a Scottish financier to create the ruthless secret agent that graced the pages of his pulp novels in the 1950s. If nothing else, Fleming lived a vicarious life through Bond, one that gave the author an escape from the realization that his own existence was rather mundane.
Fleming was born on May 28, 1908 in London, England, the son of a wealthy Edwardian gentleman who became a Conservative MP for South Oxfordshire and later died in World War I. His mother, an overbearing woman more enamored with his more talented and intellectually superior brother, Peter, shuffled Fleming off to various schools, usually because of a social faux pas or fall from grace. He attended Eton College where he excelled only at sports, but was later expelled for carrying on with a maid. Fleming was shipped off to Sandhurst - England's equivalent to West Point - but quietly left on his own volition, amidst rumors he had gotten the clap from a prostitute. Sent away to Munich in 1929 by his mother to study German, Fleming continued his philandering while remaining seemingly oblivious to the political turmoil enveloping the nation. After failing the entrance exam for the Foreign Office - he scored an abysmal twenty percent - Fleming went to Switzerland and Geneva before securing a job through family connections at Reuters, which stationed him as a sub-editor and journalist in Moscow and Berlin.
Returning to native England, Fleming worked as a stockbroker with Rowe and Pitman in Bishopsgate. When war broke out in 1939, Fleming once again used family connections to secure a job as the personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence of the Royal Navy. Finally, the young man-about-town found something at which he could excel. Though stuck behind a desk in un-Bond-like fashion, Fleming nonetheless concocted elaborate and often dangerous operations, including a plan to capture the naval version of the Wehrmacht's famed Enigma encoder. He also headed a clandestine unit that was involved in black bag operations - lock-picking, unarmed combat and the like - but again, his duties were administrative, frustrating the young man who craved to be active in the field. Though he later claimed privately to friends that he once killed a secret agent while on a secret mission - his method of killing the man changed over time - Fleming failed to partake in any of the operations he helped to create. His one meaningful contribution - a blueprint for the Office of Special Services, which later became the CIA - went underappreciated throughout his life and postmortem celebrity.
Once the war was over, Fleming returned to his philandering, lay-about ways. He landed a plum assignment as Foreign Manager for The Sunday Times; a position he held for 12 years. Using his charm, Fleming managed to finagle three months vacation from The Times, which he spent at a house he named Goldeneye (after an operation he drafted to protect Gibraltar during the war) in an idyllic spot on the north shore of Jamaica. While his philandering ways continued unabated, Fleming did maintain a steady affair with Lady Ann Rothermere, the striking and ambitious wife of Irishman Lord O'Neil, who was killed in the war. She later married the wealthy proprietor of The Daily Mail, Viscount Rothermere, while maintaining her affair with Fleming. The two met sometime in 1935 and carried on a not-so-clandestine relationship until 1952 when, pregnant with Fleming's second child (their first died shortly after birth), Ann divorced Rothermere and moved into Goldeneye. The not-so-happy couple married soon after, causing Fleming great stress over losing his bachelorhood.
It was said by Fleming himself that he began writing at age 43 as a way to alleviate the doom caused by his nuptials. The reality, however, told a different story - Fleming had been planning an espionage novel for some time, even to the point of boasting to colleagues that he would write "the spy novel to end all spy novels." And so he began in 1952 at Goldeneye, where he churned out 2000 words a day for weeks at a time, completing Casino Royale - the first of many stories starring James Bond - in record time. Fleming's wartime experience, and the experiences of brother Peter, who explored the world as a travel writer, served him well. Fleming also incorporated his extensive list of female conquests into his new creation, though he portrayed Bond as being more protective of woman - perhaps an apology for the author's own sadomasochistic tendencies. In the process of fulfilling his boast of ending the spy novel, Fleming instead recreated the archetypal hero with James Bond, a cold, calculating assassin sent on Her Majesty's secret service to aid the Kingdom in its national interest.
Fleming followed up Casino Royale with 11 more novels and nine short stories, many of which were to become familiar to later generations as James Bond movies - Live and Let Die, Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only being a few of the titles to turn Fleming into a major celebrity. All the books sold well - millions of copies worldwide were purchased over the several decades following his death - though it took several years after the release of Casino Royale to catch on. But he became an international celebrity despite himself, even impressing President John F. Kennedy, who in 1961, proclaimed that From Russia With Love was one of his 10 favorite books. By the seventh or so novel, however, Fleming began running out of steam, becoming bored with writing about his "cardboard dummy." Fleming did branch out in 1964 with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a long-revered set of children's stories about a wacky inventor who creates a super car that can float and fly, taking his children on several adventures. But by then it was too late for change.
Fleming had longed to see Bond make it to film and got his wish when Casino Royale was turned into an hour-long program on American television. Then in 1961, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli obtained the rights to all but two of Fleming's books. Production began for the first of many Bond films, "Dr. No" (1962), with Scotsman Sean Connery in the role - not the author's first choice (which was David Niven), but one he accepted. Fleming got the chance to see only one more Bond film, "From Russia With Love" (1963), adapted from his 1957 novel - the author's health, which was under assault from years of heavy smoking and drinking, rapidly deteriorated. He died from a heart attack on Aug. 12, 1964, just weeks before the third Bond film, "Goldfinger" (1964), was released and at a time when Bond paperbacks were going through multiple printings, earning Fleming approximately $3 million a year.
In the decades since Fleming's death in 1964, James Bond's stature - both as a cultural icon and a mythic hero - reached unparalleled heights. One would have been hard-pressed to find someone in the world who had not seen a Bond film. But with increased popularity came caricature - the once-brutal hero of the pulp novels became a campy super spy enamored of high-tech gadgets and prone to cheeky one-liners. As Bond movies were churned out like burgers at McDonald's - 21 films by 2006 - the character himself changed, according to the actor playing the role at the time. Where Connery was charming and debonair, his one-time successor, George Lazenby, was quiet and forgotten. Following Lazenby was British actor Roger Moore, who introduced a sly camp to the role, particularly in his encounters with famed henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel). Moore gave way to Timothy Dalton in 1986, who gave Bond a darker, more serious edge. Dalton quickly handed the 007 reigns to the suave Pierce Brosnan, whose four turns revitalized an ailing franchise. After Brosnan's tenure ended in 2002, British actor Daniel Craig assumed the mantle in 2005, returning the Bond character to Fleming's original vision - that of a cold, complex and almost sadistic assassin.