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Ian Fleming Biography

28th May 2008

One hundred years since the birth of James Bond's creator, MI6 looks back at the life and legacy of British author and journalist, Ian Fleming

MI6 logo By MI6 Staff
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Ian Lancaster Fleming was born on May 28th 1908 and raised alongside his three other siblings by his mother, Evelyn St. Croix Fleming at the family estate in Oxfordshire. Quickly, a fierce competitive nature grew between Ian and his elder brother Peter. With a distinct dislike for what he would regard as snobbish family gatherings and political debate, Ian was kept in his brother's shadow for the early years of his life.

His father, Valentine Fleming, was a Conservative MP, but he uprooted his family in 1914 when war broke out and the politician was drafted to the army. When of an appropriate age, Ian and eldest brother Peter were sent to Durford boarding school where they would receive the occasional letter from their father, but nothing from Evelyn. Valentine's cards ceased in April 1917 and on May 20th 1917, Major Fleming was killed in action.

On turning 13, Fleming was enlisted in Eton - the only proper school for wealthy children of his lineage to attend. Again, young Ian was trapped by the things his most despised: snobbery and his brother's overwhelming ability to better him at education. Much to the disgrace of his family, Ian rebelled at Eton, and years later when crafting James Bond's obituary, Fleming noted Bond's period at Eton was short and undistinguished - Fleming's tenure was neither.

Ian Fleming

Name: Ian Lancaster Fleming
Born: 28th May 1908
Died: 12th August 1964
Published: 1953-1966
Bond Publications: 14
Beyond Bond: Author of Sunday Times' "Thrilling Cities" travel memoirs & children's fantasy novella, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"

His actions among his fellow pupils were observed as eccentric and even admired somewhat - arriving late for breakfast or many of his classes without proper presentation. It was clear that Fleming was bright; he had a brilliant capacity for language and wit, yet everyone could see Eton was not for him.

Fleming was eventually withdrawn from Eton in order to enter Sandhurst school and prepared for the Military examination. Fleming did not enjoy his experiences at Sandhurst, but a rigid discipline was drilled into Ian while he studied - something of which would echo throughout his adult life. On taking the exam, Fleming passed with the 6th highest score in the country and was automatically admitted to the training programme - whether he wished it or not.

Ian Fleming, James Bond creator

Before his term within the military began, Fleming journeyed to Austria in order to spend a period at a summer school where Ernan Forbes Dennis, the facilitator of this Austrian retreat, encouraged outdoor activities. Here, Ian gained an extensive experience and skill skiing, rock-climbing and swimming.

Returning to the comparatively dismal life of a cadet, Fleming despised Sandhurst even more than his last run-in with the military It was here that he famously remarked that he "agreed with whoever said horses are dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle." When Sandhurst got too much for Ian, he abandoned his family's ambition for him to have a noble career and returned to Forbes Dennis an Austria where he studied a variety of more pertinent subjects that would somewhat appease Ian's ethos.

Fleming's interest lay in social history, science, technology and languages - which he indulged in fully. Years later he would refer to these as the golden times: loving the Tyrol, skiing and especially the girls. In 1930 there came a time where Ian could no longer exhaust his days with sun and exercise and, realising he would have to make an "honest living", Fleming returned to the UK where, with the help of his mother, he gained a position with Reuters.

Ian Fleming

Fleming worked a hard internal research position for three years before being asked to journey to Moscow to report on the trial of six British engineers, charged with espionage. He jumped at the chance of a change of scene and an expenses paid trip to Russia, impressing Reuters officials with his captivated report that opened with the line: "When the big hands of Moscow's 300 electric clocks reach the hour of six".

In August 1935, Fleming's Grandfather passed away but when his assets were divvied up, Ian stood to inherit none of the $12 million estate.

A disheartened Fleming temporarily abandoned his career as a reporter to set up a merchant banking lobby, and together with a few friends the "Circle" club. The Circle would meet many nights a week to play bridge or at the weekends, take their gambling habits to the golf course.

Out of his experience at bridge nights, Fleming was able to devise the horrendously complicated bridge hand from his third novel, "Moonraker". One of the Circle would later remark that Fleming's bridge was too risky to be a reliable player - Fleming would always test each scenario weather it meant winning or losing.

Fleming's lust for women developed in Austria, but was fuelled by his time with the Circle, however, after a failed engagement Fleming vowed to tread more carefully with female commitment. That's not to say Ian was shy of womanising or the subject of sex. Friends recall that he would frequently suggest such to those he'd known for barely an hour.

In 1939, Fleming was requested to serve his country in a unique and thrilling way. He returned once again to Moscow - but although his papers would claim him to be a reporter for The Times, Fleming would be reporting to the Foreign Office.

After returning from the Russian capital, Fleming's love of language and the success of his work in Moscow lead him to a meeting with Rear Admiral John Godfrey: director of Naval Intelligence. Fleming impressed the Admiral with a dedication to the cause, keen interest and skills surrounding reporting and languages and his overall demeanour of authority.

Ian Fleming

Working alongside Godfrey would earn Fleming a range of skills and adventurous tales that would later be reflected in 007's adventures. The Admiral claimed that Fleming's knowledge of the systems of the Naval Intelligence Division was better than that of employees that had worked in the department for many years. Fleming was just that, bright and fast learner and with an unquestionable memory.

More and more, Ian was invited to contribute to discussions and planning sessions - his ideas incredibly off the wall, but always with an intriguing possibility. Admiral Denning, who worked with Fleming reported as such, and while many of the operations Ian was involved in remain secretive, the ethos of his time in the Naval Office is strongly reflected in Bond.

Fleming was tasked his first out-of-office assignment when he suggested that he personally handle the hand over of the surrendered French Admiral, Jean Francois Darlin. His plan was approved by his superiors, to Fleming's amazement. Fleming, however, was caught in a skirmish where Darlin was left to escape in favour of evacuating British citizens after a German raid.

In 1941, Fleming accompanied Godfrey and espionage expert Bill Stephenson to the US where he and Stephenson retrieved Japanese cipher codes from a hotel room - what was a straightforward operation for Stephenson proved the glamorised basis for James Bond's first kill.

When a change-in-ranks at the Naval Intelligence office meant Fleming's role was substantially minimised, he "jumped ship" in order to re-ignite his career as a journalist. Ian took a neat $14,000 salary with Kemsley Newspapers while spending a large proportion of his time traveling. Jamaica caught Fleming's attention, and soon he was spending two months of the year at his tropical sanctuary.

Ian Fleming, James Bond creator

With the spark of an idea to write "the spy story to end all spy stories", but mostly out of impatience and boredom began to write. With his impending marriage to Lady Anne Rothermere causing him last minute nerves and a want to do something productive with his time, Fleming began to bang out a tale on his old-fashioned typewriter.

His wife-to-be took up painting and refused to be bugged by a bored Ian, so while Anne dabbled with the palette Ian crafted Bond - the man with the boring name. Ian hadn't any ambition about what this manuscript might turn into, but it was clearly fascinating him. By the last page of "Casino Royale", James Bond had defeated Le Chiffre and the bitch was dead - now all that was left was his nuptials.

Noel Coward, Ian Fleming's famous Jamaican neighbour, was one of the few witnesses, wrote a charming calypso for the pair. One verse went: "Mongoose say to Annie, Now you get your decree, Once you lady of high degree, Now you common as me."

Back in London and with "Royale" in manuscript form, Fleming continued to work and save for his precious time in Jamaica, but was secretly testing the waters for his latest venture as a budding novelist. At lunch with William Plomer - a colleague from the Navy and now a literary agent - Fleming revealed that he had something. Although Fleming talked down his first spy-thriller, Plomer was intrigued and began to offer advice over the script Fleming handed him.

By August 1952, Fleming was a father, not only of a literary baby but a real one too. Plomer and Fleming by this time had exchanged multiple notes and annotations of the "Casino Royale" manuscript and the pair were ready to try their luck with the publishing houses. With the hope that becoming an author would bring a better income for his growing family, Fleming set about getting his book to the print-presses. "Casino Royale" hit the shelves to positive UK reviews but by May of the same year, Fleming had earned a mere £200 from his literary ventures - not nearly enough to support a family as he'd hoped. Nevertheless, the writing bug was all but inflicted and Ian Fleming began to plan a second novel starring his secret agent, James Bond.

Before finishing 1954's "Live and Let Die", Fleming turned his hand to some non-fiction in the form of Sunday Times' globetrotting reports. On one of his travel writing trips, Fleming reportedly observed a deep-sea selvage operation that heavily inspired the finale of Bond's second outing - neatly tying together Fleming's existing concepts for the book. Ian continued to talk down his work, remarking to Plomer that his latest penmanship wasn't much of a book, but might make a decent film.

Fleming received buy-out offers from a selection of filmmakers, ready to claim the rights to James Bond and his first adventure. Fleming accepted an offer of $6,000 US and to his wife's dismay, spent the profit on a Thunderbird sports car. "Casino Royale" aired as a CBS special in October of 1954 and Barry Nelson portrayed Bond as an American hero.

"Live and Let Die" was published by Jonathan Cape in April 1954, but Fleming received a disheartening note from his US publishers, Macmillan, which somewhat confirmed his own fears. "Mr. Bond will have to do better than this", the note read.

Fleming wrote to friend and fellow author Raymond Chandler explaining the predicament - Chandler replied with the offer of a testimonial for Ian's second novel: the comment was short and punchy and described Fleming as, "probably the most forceful and driving writer of what I suppose still must be called thrillers in England". Ultimately Macmillan accepted Bond's second adventure and "Live And Let Die" hit the US shelves in 1955.

Raymond Chandler
Above: Fleming's American parallel and close friend, Raymond Chandler

Fleming toured America in 1955 - from Saratoga and Chicago to LA and Los Vegas - researching his newest 007 adventure, "Diamonds Are Forever". Meanwhile, the printers produced a second edition of Casino Royale for the American market, this time rebranded as a popular fiction paperback "You Asked For It" in hopes of stimulating sales of the book and capturing a wider readership. "You Asked For It" proved a success in the USA and helped popularise Ian Fleming and James Bond across the expansive nation.

In preparation for his fan favoured fifth novel, Fleming journeyed to Istanbul, which he considered to be a perfect halfway point for SMERSH and MI6 to do battle. In Turkey, Fleming met the Oxford alumnus Nazim Kalkavan whom he took a great liking to and roamed the country with. Kalkavan gave Fleming the spirit and knowledge of his upcoming novel and the characterisation of Bond's Turkish ally: Darko Kerim. Fleming noted down a particular phrase Nazim had cause to raise over one of the many dinners: "I have always smoked and drunk and loved too much. In fact I have lived not too long but too much. One day the iron crab will get me." The iconic iron crab haunted Fleming until his own death; so much so that this tidbit from Nazim was embodied by Darko and given as advice to 007 in the prose of "From Russia With Love".

The success of Bond, and "From Russia With Love" in particular, allowed and inspired Fleming to grow increasingly creative with his work and far more dedicated to 007. "Dr. No" and "Goldfinger" followed easily after that and each moment Fleming spent with Bond, he grew increasingly fascinated by his own literary masterpiece.

To research "Goldfinger", Fleming turned to a friend from his time at Reuters, Bernard Rickatson-Hatt who was now a Bank of England employee. Through his association with Bernard, Ian was introduced to the top experts at the Bank and engaged himself in research and stories of the world of gold-smuggling.

In 1958, filmmaker Kevin McClory began touting libel and copyright issues relating to selected aspects of Fleming's newest novel: "Thunderball". McClory claimed Fleming may have "borrowed" aspects of a McClory screenplay he had chance to work on. The suit, which was active between '58 and '59, ended with a settlement that meant Fleming was entitled to publish his work intact but with credits given to the other contributors.

Fleming's work was gaining more positive attention and acclaim. "Dr. No" and "From Russia With Love" - two of his most widely read novels - were chalking up four and five-star reviews and gaining a popularity he had previously never dreamed of. In March of 1961 John F. Kennedy, via LIFE magazine, famously proclaimed "From Russia With Love" to be one of his top-10 novels of all time. In the LIFE interview, Kennedy reported how he "was fascinated by the line dividing Ian's real life from the fantasy life that want into his books."

Above: John Fitzgerald Kennedy - American President and Fleming fan

In 1961 the iron crab caught up with the James Bond author. During a Sunday Times editorial conference, Fleming was stricken with a heart attack and whisked to hospital. The doctors attempted to coach Fleming into a healthier style of living but he refused to make all but a few changes, saying, "since I have to be really rather careful about it, I wish to concentrate up the purest and finest liquor available". Many friends observed this stoic foolishness and wrote to the author to convince him otherwise, but nothing availed.

In the summer of the same year, Fleming was in talks with Canadian film producer Harry Saltzman who was determined to make a successful on-screen Bond adventure. The arrangement that was met was to the tune of $100,000 US plus a profit based fee of 5%. Fleming wrote to friend to Ivor Bryce on the subject of an actor to play 007: "Saltzman thinks he has found an absolute corker, a 30-year-old Shakespearian actor, ex-Navy boxing champion, etc., etc., and even, he says, intelligent." The message, of course, referred to Sean Connery. Fleming had long since predicted that 007 on-screen would be worth the big money and through Saltzman and Broccoli his dream was quickly becoming a reality.

Cubby Broccoli, Harry Saltzman, and Ian Fleming

'Dr. No' entered pre-production and Fleming returned to Jamaica to plan and pen "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", delighted with 007's on-screen prospects. Shortly after posting "Majesty's" to his editor, Fleming toured Japan to research the hard-hitting follow up, "You Only Live Twice" where he rendezvoused, quite by happenstance, with friend and Sunday Times reporter Richard Hughes.

The value of Bond rose steadily as 007's first screen adventure hit the box office and the book rights alone netted more than £250,000 ($700,000). In October 1963, Fleming joined the location shoot of the second screen adventure, "From Russia With Love" and was delighted with the atmosphere on set and reportedly pleased by the way EON Productions were portraying his creation. After his time with the crew, Fleming journeyed to Goldeneye for the very last time to begin work on his final 007 adventure: "The Man With The Golden Gun".

On August 11th 1964, Ian Fleming attended his last Royal St. George's golf club committee meeting where he was stricken with heart trouble and transported to Canterbury Hospital. Ian Fleming passed away in his hospital bed on the 12th of August 1964. His body was laid to rest in Sevenhampton Cemetery.

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