His Word Was His Bond

REVIEW: ‘Ian Fleming: The Complete Man’ by Nicholas Shakespeare

April 7, 2024

The first shocking thing about Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of James Bond creator Ian Fleming is that it is over 700 pages long and includes almost another hundred of notes. The second shocking thing is that all of them are necessary.

Shakespeare does go on a tangent or two, but in providing a complete portrait of Ian Fleming, he has also given us a portrait of the cosmopolitan elite after the Second World War—a time when it seemed everyone knew everyone else and one could run into a presidential candidate strolling in downtown D.C. Fleming worked in banking, journalism, publishing, and, during the war, the Naval Intelligence Division. The number and variety of people he knew is astonishing.

He went to school with George Orwell, Anthony Powell, and Harold Acton. He was friends with Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon, Eric Ambler, Alan Pryce-Jones, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, among others. He knew—and hated—the painter Lucian Freud. He and his wife lived above T.S. Eliot and John Hayward in the Carlyle Mansions for a time, and he immediately recruited Hayward to edit his antiquarian journal The Book Collector, which he had founded in 1952. Fleming met J.P. Morgan on an early trip to the United States and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Kennedy was a huge James Bond fan and had dinner with Fleming, apparently asking him how he would handle Cuba.

Winston Churchill was a family friend, and Fleming was close with Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA. When Prime Minister Anthony Eden needed a place to recuperate after the Suez Crisis in 1956, he went to Ian Fleming’s house in Jamaica. Other guests at Goldeneye, as Fleming named his Jamaican home, included Princess Margaret, Truman Capote, and Errol Flynn. He went diving with Jacques Cousteau in France and met Albert Einstein when he worked briefly at the League of Nations in Geneva.

On the surface it seems like a charmed life, but Fleming felt like a failure much of his life, never living up to the expectations of his mother and, later, his wife, who thought his novels were laughably lowbrow.

Born in 1908 to Valentine Fleming and Evelyn (Eve) Ste. Croix Rose, Ian Fleming lived his younger years and most of his adult life in the shadow of his elder brother, Peter, who excelled at Eton and Oxford and, later, as a travel writer and journalist. Ian dropped out of Eton, excelling only at athletics, and spent one year at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst before his mother—at a loss with how to deal with her stubborn and rebellious son—sent him to Kitzbühel, Austria, where he had previously spent a summer under the care of Ernan Forbes Dennis, a former intelligence officer, and his wife and novelist Phyllis Bottome.

The plan was for the young Fleming to learn German and French at Kitzbühel to prepare for the Foreign Office examination. Fleming’s stay initially did not go well. Forbes Dennis remarked that Fleming "was really quite impossible when he first came to us," but after a spat with Bottome and a subsequent ultimatum, things turned around for Fleming, and he spent three years at Kitzbühel, where he not only perfected his German (he translated Carl Jung’s lecture on Paracelsus) but greatly improved his French during a stay in Geneva. He was not selected for the Foreign Office, but his time on the Continent was transformative, and he returned home a changed man if one who lacked a clear direction in life.

Fleming’s grandfather, Robert Fleming, was one of Europe’s richest men, making his fortune in the American railroad system at the end of the 19th century. Ian Fleming’s father, Valentine, died in the First World War, and Eve subsequently put immense pressure on her sons to live up to an idealized image of her late husband.

After failures at Eton and Sandhurst, and after missing out at the Foreign Office, Ian got a job—with his mother’s help—at Reuters. He excelled at journalism but made very little money and left to work in banking. He was terrible at investing, but he enjoyed his salary and playing "the brittle, flippant … bachelor-about-town" while his brother made his mark on British letters. It wasn’t until war broke out that the younger Fleming found his footing.

What was a motley collection of experiences and skills—a stint in journalism, experience in banking, a solid knowledge of German and French, a long list of connections in British high society, and natural charm—made him perfect for the role of personal assistant to the head of naval intelligence, John Godfrey. While Fleming never talked about his role during the war, Godfrey remarked after Fleming’s death that he was indispensable—"a war-winner." According to Christopher Moran, who specializes in national security at the University of Warwick, Fleming "was not a desk officer, he was the desk officer. He knew it all, as a spy chief should, operating as a proxy spy chief for three to four years."

Fleming loved the work—so much so that after the war ended, when he returned to journalism (this time as the foreign desk manager at the Sunday Times), he used his network of journalists to provide information on the dealings of the Soviet Union—a great evil in Fleming’s view—to the British government.

He also negotiated with James Gomer Berry, the First Viscount Kemsley and the head of the Kemsley Newspapers, which owned the Times, to spend two months of every year in Jamaica, which he did from 1946 to his death in 1964. He wrote his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952, and it was published in 1953. It was a modest success, and Fleming wrote a new Bond novel every year for the next 12 years. From Russia, with Love, published in 1957, proved to be Fleming’s breakthrough work. John F. Kennedy named it as one of his 10 favorite books in a Life magazine article. The first James Bond film, Dr. No, was an unexpectedly huge success in 1962 and made Fleming an international star.

Fleming lived a playboy life until an affair with Ann Rothermere, wife of Lord Rothermere, led to a pregnancy and a divorce. Fleming dutifully married her, but it was an unhappy union. Ann was used to hosting parties for 400 people and she continued to do so, though on a smaller scale, hosting as many as "180 luncheon parties and 210 dinners" one year.

Shakespeare writes that Ian "was as allergic" to his wife’s literary parties as "she was to his Bond." She regularly mocked his novels and pushed him to write something more serious. While Ann entertained, Fleming spent time at the golf course with friends, but he found it increasingly difficult to do so because of his declining health. He died in 1964 at the age of 56 from a heart attack after lunch at Royal St George’s Golf Club. He had started one final Bond book before his death, which his son’s friend had discovered among his effects. When he showed it to Ann, she said, "Oh, Ian’s little booby," and threw it in the fire.

However much Ann may have hated Bond, Fleming gave readers—and particularly British readers after the war—a character who carried the flag of the British Empire still, even as it visibly declined, and could do anything with uncompromising style. He was a connoisseur, a man of the world, and through him, Shakespeare writes, "readers gain entry to a club that feels exclusive, of which they can be temporary members." (The real James Bond was an ornithologist—Fleming, an avid birdwatcher himself, happened to own his book.)

Fleming’s fans included Umberto Eco, Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, Roald Dahl, Anthony Burgess, and Philip Larkin. Larkin remarked that the books showed "a personality much more complex, much more intelligent, much more imaginative than Bond’s—the personality, in short, of Fleming himself."

Shakespeare manages to capture that personality, too—a complex man who wanted more than life gave him until he had it all, and it was too much.

Ian Fleming: The Complete Man
by Nicholas Shakespeare
Harper, 864 pp., $45

Micah Mattix, a professor of English at Regent University, has written for the Wall Street Journal and many other publications.