Welcome to MI6 Headquarters

This is the world's most visited unofficial James Bond 007 website with daily updates, news & analysis of all things 007 and an extensive encyclopaedia. Tap into Ian Fleming's spy from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig with our expert online coverage and a rich, colour print magazine dedicated to spies.

Learn More About MI6 & James Bond →

What went on in the often dark world of Bond girls and Ian Fleming?

08-Apr-2008 • Literary

The creator of James Bond liked his women wealthy, double-jointed and able to make an incomparable Bearnaise sauce. What went on in the often dark sexual world of Bond girls and Ian Fleming? Ben Macintyre writes in The Times.

It is a mark of James Bond's cultural reach that, for better or worse, a “Bond Girl” has attained a specific meaning in modern parlance, with either positive or negative connotations depending on your point of view (and, perhaps, your gender). A Bond Girl is beautiful, for sure, and sassy and sporty; she is also sexually available, and unlikely to make a fuss when she is killed off, either literally or metaphorically, at the end of the last instalment to make way for new love interest.

She tends to be good at one-liners, but less inclined to intellectual conversation. In the books, at least, Bond's women are often damaged, in need of male protection, and with some small physical flaw. Like Bond's cars, they are attractive commodities, subject to modifications and improvements, but they can also be exchanged for newer, faster models without much regret. The Bond Girl is a very specific postwar fantasy. Fleming had enjoyed an expansive sex life before the war, and the war had loosened sexual mores greatly. Here was a hero enjoying sex, not merely outside marriage, but effectively without responsibilities or guilt.

Bond is the first major British thriller hero to lead an active sex life. Bond's attitudes to women caused outrage, titillation and amusement in roughly equal parts: they made a generation of men and boys very overexcited, and a generation of feminists extremely angry. But even those critics prepared to see Bond's bed-hopping for the fantasy it was found something chilly and unpleasant in Bond's sexual licence and emotional reserve. In the films, Bond's sex life attained levels of priapism that would merit serious medical attention or industrial supplies of Viagra in a real human being. The Bond expert Henry Chancellor has calculated that Bond sleeps with just 14 women in 12 books, between 1953 and 1964, of whom only five disappear between one book and the next, compared with an astonishing 58 conquests in the first 20 Bond films.

Bond's approach to sex grew directly out of Fleming's own distinctive attitudes to women, which in turn were shaped by the times he lived in, the class he occupied and his own psychological and sexual preoccupations. Fleming might have been an easy lay, but he was not an easy man. He has sometimes, somewhat unfairly, been characterised as a philandering lounge lizard.

The truth is more complex. Fleming was certainly attracted to many women; they were attracted to him, and he knew it. His charm, wit, vulpine good looks, wealth, mysterious war record and slight air of melancholy were powerfully seductive. He had many love affairs, often with other people's wives, including those of close friends. Certainly, he was more versed in seduction than courtship. “The direct approach to sex has become the norm,” he told one interviewer. His own approach was direct to the point of bluntness. He would ask a woman, often on slender acquaintance or first meeting, to go to bed with him; if she declined, he would simply move on, unashamed, unresentful and unembarrassed. He was successful as often as not - odds which he seemed to find perfectly acceptable. Sex was a sort of sport: “He looked on women as a schoolboy does. They were remote, mysterious beings,” said one family friend. “You will never hope to understand them, but, if you're clever, you can occasionally shoot one down.”

Fleming was tremendously interested in sex. Indeed, he studied and pursued the subject, in theory and in practice, with the same avid interest he showed in gadgetry, rocketry, science and politics. He assembled an impressive personal collection of erotica, which he liked to show to visitors, particularly female ones. Flagellation, which amateur psychologists like to trace back to his beatings at school, held a particular fascination. A certain amount of jocular whipping and slippering appear to have formed part of his marriage, and there are several references to these practices in Bond. Agent 007 periodically threatens to spank various women, including, rather courageously, Miss Moneypenny. Not one of the women seems remotely surprised by the suggestion.

More unpleasantly, Bond's apparently insouciant attitude to rape has long provoked debate. In Casino Royale, we learn of Vesper Lynd that “the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape”. Worse yet, in The Spy Who Loved Me, the narrator Vivienne Michel opines: “All women love semi-rape...” Fleming, under a barrage of criticism, tried to argue that The Spy Who Loved Me was an attempt to show young people that Bond was not a good role model. My own view is that Fleming was not seriously defending rape, or even semi-rape, but trying to shock by reinforcing the idea of Bond's essential cruelty: if so, he shocked far more than he intended, and he still does, leaving a tang of toleration for sexual violence that is very far from sweet.

Yet there was, as so often, another side to this careless sexual conquistador. Fleming's longer-term relationships were not with the cocktail party poppets and sexual silhouettes of the novels, but with older, married women. He cultivated a roué air, but he also longed for emotional stability. His relationship with his eventual wife, Ann Rothermere (another wife of a friend, whom he married in 1952), was long, intense, complex and fierce, but also supportive and, at times, deeply loving. At one tempestuous juncture in their stormy marriage he wrote to Ann: “What we both want is more love and warmth but that is a fire we both need to blow on if it is to burn.” Bond could never have said that. It is entirely possible that for all his skirt-chasing, Fleming did not in the end like very many women, and understood even fewer. The novelist Rosamond Lehmann acutely observed: “The trouble with Ian is that he gets off with women because he cannot get on with them.”

As a young man, Fleming hopped from woman to woman with few regrets, except perhaps one. Fleming met Muriel Wright while skiing in Kitzbühel in 1935. Aristocratic, sporty and fun-loving, “Mu” worshipped Fleming; in return, he was consistently and blithely unfaithful to her. Fleming's reputation was well known to Mu's horrified family, and her brother Fitzherbert even turned up at Fleming's home with a horse whip, intending to administer the traditional punishment for cads, only to find that the couple had vanished. When Mu was killed in an air raid in 1944, Fleming was traumatised and guilt-ridden. Muriel Wright was the original Bond girl, beautiful, simple, and doomed, and her sad fate runs throughout Fleming's fiction.

Bond would have married Vesper Lynd, in Casino Royale, but she kills herself. Ten books later, there are distinct elements of Muriel in the well-born, golden-haired Countess Teresa (Tracy) di Vicenzo, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Bond does marry Tracy, but soon afterwards she, too, perishes. Bond's distress over Tracy's corpse may be an echo of Fleming's anguish at Muriel's death so many years earlier.

A year before he had met Muriel, Fleming first laid eyes on Ann (née Charteris), the young wife of Shane, Baron O'Neill, and future wife of Esmond, Lord Rothermere, and the woman Fleming would finally marry in the same year he wrote his first Bond book. Ann was in many ways the opposite of Mu, being dark, highly intelligent, waspish, worldly, sophisticated, emotionally complicated and extraordinarily good company. Fleming's love affair with Ann started during the war; it continued after O'Neill's death and her marriage to Rothermere; and it lasted, tumultuously, until the end of his life. “We are, of course, totally unsuited,” Fleming predicted on the eve of marriage. “China will fly and there will be rage and tears.”

There were, indeed, ample tears and flying crockery. Ann could be wounding, referring to his writing as “pornography”; he, in turn, made no secret of his dislike for her literary friends. After two years of marriage, he was already complaining, only half in jest: “In the old days I demanded or perhaps pleaded for three things in a wife. She should have enough money to buy her own clothes, she should be able to make incomparable Béarnaise sauce, and she should be double-jointed. In the event I got none of these things.”

The rows grew furious, and the marriage colder. Fleming conducted a long affair with a neighbour in Jamaica, Blanche Blackwell; Ann did the same with Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party. She was jealous; he, characteristically, was not. When they were apart, they missed each other painfully. When they were together, they fought viciously and, as self-absorbed people often do, publicly.

Shades of Fleming's turbulent marriage are reflected in Bond's attitude to women. The “conventional parabola” of a Bond affair, described in Casino Royale, is a statement of unalloyed cynicism: “The meeting at a party, the restaurant, the taxi, his flat, her flat, then the weekend by the sea, then the flats again, then the furtive alibis and the angry farewell on some doorstep in the rain.” Bond points out that if he got married, he would first need to divorce himself from M and the secret service. James Bond has no children, no siblings, and no parents. He is the empty vessel into which the reader decants his or her expectations. Women, Bond declares, are for recreation; he has no desire to tote the emotional baggage that comes from a serious relationship.

The qualities Bond admires are physical, practical and culinary: in Bond's eyes, the ideal woman should be able to make a Béarnaise sauce as well as they make love though not, presumably, at the same time. Character or intellect are purely secondary in Bond's estimation: “Gold hair. Grey eyes. A sinful mouth. Perfect figure. And of course she's got to be witty and poised and know how to dress and play cards...” Fleming was something of a connoisseur of women's fashion, and often describes the clothing of Bond's lovers in lavish detail. The wit is an interesting requirement, since the Bond of the books is never remotely witty: the jokes and one-liners are purely an invention of the films.

Some critics have got very hot under the collar at Bond's sexual activity: “Sex, Snobbery and Sadism”, screeched Paul Johnson in the New Statesman, blasting the “mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent”.

Bond girls are all, of course, intensely attractive, but each bears some small imperfection, a mark of vulnerability: Honeychile Rider has a broken nose; Domino Vitali has one slightly shorter leg. Their names usually offer the hint of availability, and were often drawn from people or things that Fleming knew: Honeychile was the nickname of Pat Wilder, an American former dancer in Bob Hope's troupe who married Prince Alex Hohenlohe, owner of an exclusive Alpine skiing resort; “Solitaire” (Simone Latrelle in Live and Let Die) is named after a Jamaican bird.

Bond is heterosexual from his brogues to his haircut (which cannot quite be said of Fleming, who had many gay friends and could on occasion be fantastically camp). 007 does not approve of homosexuals (“unhappy, sexual misfits”), or sexual equality, or even votes for women. His books, Fleming declared, were “written for warm-blooded heterosexuals”.

Outside the more Jurassic corners of London clubland, it would be hard, these days, to find anyone with the same views as James Bond. “Doesn't do to get mixed up with neurotic women in this business,” M tells Bond gravely in From Russia with Love: “They hang on to your gun-arm.” All of this adds up to a very potent postwar daydream for a particular sort of old-fashioned gent. Having played a vital role in the war, women were asserting themselves in the home and the workplace; they were even becoming secret agents, and had been effective as such during the war, being rather better in that line of work than men. Male dominance was under threat wherever you looked, but not in Bond's world. Bond offered a reassuring fantasy, old-fashioned in tone but modern in sexual liberty: men were still the world's heroes, modern Saint Georges, who could slay the dragon and then fall into the arms of an adoring, beautiful, slightly weak woman, who would love him unquestioningly, and then whip up a terrific Béarnaise sauce.

Discuss this news here...

Open in a new window/tab