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Was Ian Fleming the real 007, asks author Ben Macintyre

05-Apr-2008 • Literary

The war heroes, spymasters and beautiful women who inspired Ian Fleming to create James Bond, writes Ben Macintyre for The Times.

One morning in February 1952, in a holiday hideaway on the island of Jamaica, a middle-aged British journalist sat down at his desk and set about inventing a fictional secret agent, a character that would go on to become one of the most successful, enduring and lucrative creations in literature. Ian Fleming had never written a novel before. He had tried his hand at banking, stockbroking and working as a newspaper correspondent. Only during the war, as an officer in naval intelligence, had he found a task – dreaming up schemes to bamboozle the enemy – worthy of his vivid imagination. By 1952, he had settled into a job as a writer and manager on The Sunday Times, a role that involved some enjoyable travel, a little work and a lot of golf, women and lunch. Even his best friends would have snorted at the notion that Ian Fleming was destined for immortality.

This, then, was the man who, after a morning swim to sluice out the hangover of the night before, hunched over the desk in his Jamaican home, “Goldeneye”, and began to type, using six fingers, on his elderly Royal portable typewriter. The opening line would read: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning…” Fleming wrote fast, the words pouring out at the rate of 2,000 a day. A month after he had started writing, he tapped out the words “…‘the bitch is dead now’.” Casino Royale was complete, and James Bond was born.

All novelists find inspiration in reality, but Ian Fleming, more than most, firmly anchored the imagined world of James Bond to the people, things and places he knew. The characters, plots, places, machines and situations in the James Bond stories are so firmly embedded in fact that it is often hard to spot where the real world of Ian Fleming ends and the fictional world of James Bond begins. Espionage is itself a shadowy trade between truth and untruth, a complex interweaving of imagination, deception and reality. As a former intelligence officer, Fleming thought like a spy, and wrote like one.

Like the character he had created, Ian Fleming was a great deal more complex than he seemed on first acquaintance. Beneath the sybaritic exterior, he was a driven man, intensely observant, with an internal sense of romance and drama that belied his public languor and occasional cynicism. Bond is, in part, Fleming, and the exploits of 007 grew directly out of Fleming’s knowledge of wartime intelligence and espionage: he would teasingly refer to the Bond books as “autobiography”. Like every good journalist, Fleming was a magpie, collecting material avidly and continuously: names, places, plots, gadgets, faces, restaurant menus and phrases; details from reality that would then be translated into fiction. He once remarked, “Everything I write has a precedent in truth.”

But Bond is also, in part, what Fleming was not. He was the fantasy of what Fleming would like to have been – indeed, what every Englishman raised on Bulldog Drummond and wartime derring-do would like to have been. Bond is a grown-up romantic fairytale, a promise that Britain, having triumphed in the World War, was still a force to be reckoned with in the dull chill of the Cold War. In the grim austerity of postwar Britain, here was a man dining on champagne and caviar, enjoying guiltless sex, glamorous foreign travel and an apparently unlimited expense account.

Thirteen more Bond books would follow Casino Royale. By the time of his death, just 12 years later, Ian Fleming had sold more than 40 million copies, and given birth to a multibillion-dollar film industry. Today, more than half the world’s population has seen at least one Bond film. Even at the height of his fame, Fleming maintained an airy attitude toward his books. “I extracted them from my wartime memories,” he remarked, “dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine, and there was the book.” This nonchalance was the purest bluff, something that Fleming, as a lifelong card-player and intelligence expert, was very good at. The idea for Bond had been gestating in his mind, and his personality, for at least a decade. Back in 1944, Fleming had told a friend in deep earnestness, “I am going to write the spy story to end all spy stories.”

And that is exactly what he did.

Who was James Bond? Every acquaintance of Ian Fleming ran the risk of ending up in one of his Bond books, and almost every character in his fiction is based on a real person, even if only by name. He plucked these monikers from his social circle, his memory, his reading, his favourite newspaper, the Jamaica Gleaner, and his imagination: old school friends (and enemies), clubmen, colleagues in the City and Fleet Street, golfing partners, girlfriends and others found themselves transported into Fleming’s fiction. There are several theories as to the origin of the name James Bond. The most popular (and one that he publicly affirmed) is that Fleming, sitting down to work at his desk in Goldeneye, simply lifted the name from his bookshelves, his eye having alighted upon Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, the standard reference book.

People were named after things, and things were named after people. His lover in later life, Blanche Blackwell, gave him a small boat named Octopussy, which became the name of a man-eating pet octopus in the short story. In rather ungallant return, Fleming named the ancient guano tanker in Dr No the Blanche. The crime boss Marc-Ange Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is named after El Draco, the Spanish name for Sir Francis Drake – a reference picked up years later by J. K. Rowling for her Hogwarts antihero, Draco Malfoy. Rosa Klebb (the Russian for bread) was partly based on Colonel Rybkin of Soviet intelligence. Major Boothroyd, the secret service armourer, is named in honour of Geoffrey Boothroyd, the gun expert who provided Fleming with invaluable technical advice.

Like most fictional characters, James Bond is not one individual. “He was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war,” Fleming once declared. Chief among the contenders is, of course, Fleming himself. The physical descriptions of 007 recall his creator, with his “longish nose” and slightly “cruel mouth”. Fleming sometimes played up the autobiographical aspects of Bond, and sometimes downplayed them. “I couldn’t possibly be James Bond,” he told a friend. “He’s got more guts than I have. He’s also considerably more handsome.” Peter Fleming, Ian’s hero-worshipped elder brother, may have come a little closer to that model, being good-looking, cultured, tough and, most importantly, a secret agent, having been drafted into the world of military intelligence and irregular warfare early in the war.

Behind the Flemings follows a parade of swashbuckling types, each with a claim to a little of the Bond myth: Conrad O’Brien-Ffrench, a spy Fleming had first met on the Austrian ski slopes in the Thirties when the older man was gathering information on German troop deployments as part of an amateur spy network made up of journalists and businessmen. Another strong candidate is Patrick Dalzel-Job, who served in the intelligence commando unit Fleming helped to establish in the latter part of the War. Dalzel-Job was a superb marksman who could ski backwards, parachute behind enemy lines and pilot a miniature submarine. On assignment, he wore an airman’s jacket with a compass hidden inside one of the buttons, and smoked a pipe with a hidden map-chamber. Serving in Norway in 1940, Dalzel-Job revealed a Bond-like streak of rebellion when he disobeyed a direct order and insisted on evacuating 5,000 Norwegian civilians from the town of Narvik who were facing imminent Nazi retaliation. By the time Fleming met him in 1944, Dalzel-Job had won a reputation for bravery just this side of lunacy. Throughout his long life, Dalzel-Job was credited with being the model for James Bond. He never denied the association, but disarmingly pointed out: “I have never read a Bond book or seen a Bond movie. They are not my style… And I only ever loved one woman, and I’m not a drinking man.” Other contenders include Michael Mason, a fur-trapper and successful boxer who operated as an agent in Romania during the war. Also Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale, the station chief of SIS (MI6) in Paris, whom Fleming met in 1940. A regular at Maxim’s on the Rue Royale, exquisite in Cartier cufflinks and handmade suit, driving an armour-plated Rolls-Royce through Paris, Dunderdale had much of Bond’s style.

The real “M” may be easier to identify. The fictional Admiral Sir Miles Messervy KCMG is based, in large part, on Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming’s boss at the Naval Intelligence Department. M is grumpy, rude and every inch the naval martinet, with “damnably clear” bright blue eyes; his underlings are terrified and loyal in equal parts. All these traits were apparent in Godfrey. Fleming described him as a “real war-winner”. The admiral would eventually ask Fleming to write his biography (Fleming declined), yet it seems the inspiration for M was not entirely pleased to be immortalised as the boss of a cold-blooded killer. “He turned me into that unsavoury character, M,” Godfrey complained after Fleming’s death.

The original M may, in fact, have been Z. “Colonel Z”, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Claude Dansey, was Deputy Chief of SIS and head of the shadowy Z network. The bespectacled Dansey was witty, spiteful, charming and slightly mad. He was first recruited as a spy during the Boer War, and ended up a pivotal figure in the British secret service. Two famous men who worked in wartime intelligence gave very different assessments of Colonel Z: Malcolm Muggeridge called Dansey “the only professional in MI6”; the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, however, considered him “an utter shit, corrupt, incompetent, but with a certain low cunning”.

Another contender as the original M was the strange MI5 spymaster Maxwell Knight, who ran a subsection of the security service responsible for rooting out potential subversives in Britain. Knight was one of the first to warn that the secret services were being infiltrated by communist moles. He was a man of many parts, most of them odd and quite incompatible: in addition to running a huge spy ring, he was a novelist, a jazz saxophonist who had been taught by Sidney Bechet, and an occultist who befriended and recruited the bizarre black magician Aleister Crowley. He was also an obsessive naturalist who kept snakes in the bath and wrote such definitive works as How to Keep a Gorilla. Maxwell Knight signed all his memos “M”, and was certainly well known to Fleming. After the war, Knight would move effortlessly from a career in spying to a new career as a naturalist, ending his life as “Uncle Max”, a much-loved BBC presenter of nature programmes for children.

There is one final intriguing hypothesis, advanced by John Pearson, Fleming’s first biographer, to the effect that M might conceivably be modelled on Fleming’s mother. Certainly, “M” was Fleming’s nickname for his mother from early childhood. She, like M, was by turns strict and indulgent, loved and feared.

The principal model for the much-loved Moneypenny character appears to have been a Miss Kathleen Pettigrew, who was the personal assistant to Stewart Menzies, director general of MI6, or “C”. In the first draft of Casino Royale, M’s secretary was “Miss Pettavel” or “Petty”, but Fleming clearly realised that was too close to reality, and changed it. Miss Pettigrew was something of a legend in espionage circles: anyone attempting to gain access to C had first to pass through his terrifying secretary, who was brisk, efficient and not remotely seductive. One former colleague described her as a “formidable, grey-haired lady with the square jaw of the battleship type”.

Vera Atkins, executive officer with “F” (French) Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the espionage and sabotage organisation organised by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze”, was described in her New York Times obituary in 2000 as “widely believed to have inspired the character of Miss Moneypenny”. Another strong possibility is Victoire “Paddy” Bennett, who worked as a secretary in Room 39 and knew Fleming well. Paddy Bennett once described her former colleague, somewhat tartly, as “definitely James Bond, in his mind”. She went on to marry Sir Julian Ridsdale, the long-serving MP for Harwich, and was made a Dame of the British Empire for her work with the Parliamentary Wives Club – a role that has a distinctly Moneypennyish ring to it.

Fleming’s villains, like his heroes, are patchworks of different people, names and traits. Le Chiffre, the Benzedrine-sniffing villain of Casino Royale, is believed to be based on Aleister Crowley, who gained notoriety in inter-war Britain as “the Wickedest Man in the World”. Crowley was a bisexual, sado-masochistic drug addict. A master of Thelemic mysticism (“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”), he specialised in mountaineering, interpreting the Ouija board, orgies and thrashing his lovers. The press simultaneously adored and hated him. Crowley made Le Chiffre seem positively sane.

Fleming plundered his school register ruthlessly in the quest for names. Hugo Drax, the villain in Moonraker, was named after the magnificently festooned Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, an old friend of Fleming’s. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the super-villain without earlobes, was probably named after another Old Etonian, Tom Blofeld, whose son Henry Blofeld is the much-loved BBC cricket commentator. Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, the triple-nippled gunman in The Man with the Golden Gun, was named after yet another school contemporary, George Scaramanga.

Some people objected to seeing their names in a Bond novel, most notably Ernö Goldfinger, the distinguished modernist architect. Fleming is said to have disapproved of Goldfinger’s love of concrete and the destruction of Victorian houses to make way for tower blocks, and so used his name for one of his most memorable evil-doers:

Auric Goldfinger, the gold-obsessed treasurer of Smersh. When Ernö obtained a proof copy of Goldfinger, he was enraged: Ernö was a visionary 6ft architect and Auric is a murderous 5ft megalomaniac. There is also a whiff of anti-Semitism in Fleming’s depiction of a Jewish billionaire with a gold fixation. The real Goldfinger threatened to halt publication. Equally angry, Fleming thought his publisher should insert an erratum slip, changing Goldfinger to “Goldprick” throughout the book. Fleming’s publishers eventually agreed that, in advertising the book, the name Goldfinger would be coupled with the name Auric wherever possible. Even so, for the rest of his life Ernö Goldfinger was plagued by people calling him on the telephone and saying, in the voice of Sean Connery, “Goldfinger? This is 007.”

Bond’s women were echoes of Fleming’s women, and perhaps one woman above all. Muriel Wright was 26 and a fresh-faced English rose when Fleming met her in 1935. “Mu”, as he called her, was an expert rider, skied beautifully and was one of Britain’s foremost polo players. She came from the finest landed British bloodstock. With an explosion of blonde hair that earned her the nickname “Honeytop”, she was also exceptionally beautiful and refreshingly unconventional. She was rich enough not to have to work, but nonetheless made a good deal of money modelling sportswear and, almost scandalously, swimsuits on the beach at Monte Carlo. Muriel loved horses, dogs, parties, gossip and fun; but most of all she loved Ian Fleming, to the point of self-abasement. She would caddy for him on the golf links, and rush to collect his custom-made cigarettes when he ran out. One of his friends called her Fleming’s “slave”.

Fleming enjoyed showing Mu off to his friends, and annoying his family by introducing this slightly scatty beauty into weekend house parties. But he undoubtedly treated her very badly. Fleming was consistently unfaithful, and, unlike some of his lovers, she minded. It is said that her lack of intellect stood in the way of his commitment, but then there is no evidence Fleming considered brains to be an attractive quality in a woman, and quite a lot to suggest otherwise.

Then suddenly, like some character in a Bond movie, she was dead. On March 14, 1944, Muriel Wright returned to her flat in Eaton Mews (having just delivered Fleming his weekly package of cigarettes) and went to bed. That night, there was an air raid: a chunk of masonry hurtled through her window, striking Mu in the temple and killing her at once. Fleming was called from the card table to identify the body. He was distraught, and wracked with remorse at the way he had treated her. Mu, he reflected sadly, had been “too good to be true”.

The quality of being “too good to be true” is, of course, what distinguishes the Bond Girls. Muriel Wright has a claim to be the fons et origo of the species: pliant and undemanding, beautiful but innocent, outdoorsy, physically tough, implicitly vulnerable and uncomplaining, and then tragically dead, before or soon after marriage.

Fleming’s plots, like his characters, are rooted in reality, emerging in many instances directly from the Second World War and the Cold War. Fleming was quick to point out that the reality of the espionage game was stranger than any fiction he could invent: “My plots are fantastic, while often being based on truth. They go wildly beyond the probable, but not, I think, beyond the possible.”

The most pleasing irony is that MI6 itself is happy to blur the question of where James Bond ends and real life begins. The official MI6 website cannot bring itself to deny its greatest asset, pointing out that recruits will enjoy “a stimulating and rewarding career which, like Bond’s, will be in the service of their country”. James Bond is an MI6 recruiter. A real spy agency, harnessing fiction, based on fact, to recruit real spies: no one would have been more flattered than Ian Fleming.

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