Ian Fleming Letters
9th December 2019
A rare collection of letters from the James Bond creator are up for auction
By MI6 Staff
Auction house Sotheby's will be putting a rare collection of Ian Fleming letters under the hammer today. The lot consists of 287 pages from Fleming to his wife Ann between the 1940s and 1960s and have a starting bid of £160,000. Although these letters have been accessed by biographers over the years, they remain largely unpublished. The winning bidder will take possession of the physical letters, but as with all personal letters, the copyright will remain with the author (in this case The Ian Fleming Estate) until they pass in to the public domain. For anything Ian Fleming wrote, that date is 2034 (70 years after the death of the author by current UK law).
A UNIQUELY SUBSTANTIAL AND SIGNIFICANT SERIES OF LETTERS: IAN FLEMING'S CORRESPONDENCE WITH ANN, THE GREAT LOVE OF HIS LIFE. This correspondence chronicles his relationship with his wife Ann from the erotic intensity of their early clandestine love affair to the embittered complexity of their final years of marriage. The collection encompasses intimate love letters, lively descriptions of travels around the world, gossip of rich and famous friends, their shared passion for the natural world, the writing of the James Bond novels and their phenomenal success, which dominated his final years. Almost none of Ian and Ann’s letters are dated and hardly any envelopes survive, so dating and sequence must be gleaned from internal evidence, but individual letters can almost always be easily placed in terms of the overall trajectory of the relationship.
Ian and Ann first met in 1934. She was then married to her first husband, Shane, 3rd Baron O’Neill, with whom she had two children, whilst Ian was working in a desultory fashion as a banker in the City of London, a well-paid job that allowed him to pursue his passions: love affairs, high living, travel, and golf. Fleming became friendly with Lord O’Neill but there was a strong sexual chemistry between Ian and Ann. When the O’Neills marriage collapsed in the later 1930s a complex set of relationships developed that endured throughout the war years: Ann and Ian were lovers, but Ann also had a relationship with Esmond, Viscount Rothermere, whilst Ian had a bachelor life with various girlfriends. Rothermere offered Ann stability even if their relationship lacked the passion of her love affair with Ian; the few surviving wartime letters by Ian reveal the intense eroticism of their relationship, with frequent references to the sadomasochistic play that they both enjoyed.
In 1944 O’Neill was killed in action and the following year Ann married Rothermere. Ann’s love affair with Ian persisted despite her marriage, and many of the surviving letters between Ian and Ann date from the second half of the 1940s. In these years Ian was finding his way in civilian life after his exciting and successful wartime career in Naval Intelligence, working as Foreign Manager for Lord Kemsley, owner of The Sunday Times and other titles, whilst Ann was adapting to life as the wife of a newspaper tycoon. He would pen love letters from his club, Boodle’s, or his office (“...All is quiet as the grave in this citadel of Freedom and Intellect [i.e. Kemsley House] and I am sure ‘The Chief’ will not mind if I use some of his time to write you a love letter…”). Her letters are equally frank in their eroticism: "I long for you even if you whip me because I love being hurt by you and kissed afterwards." Fleming, with his background in Intelligence, was less than impressed with Ann’s attitude to their confidential communications, which she kept with her underwear:
“…But listen, listen, listen, have you got something to lock up? Please fix it. I know how you leave things around like a jackdaw & I expect every day that it will be the end…”
The relationship shifted on its axis in 1948 when Ann became pregnant with Ian’s child, a girl who was born a month premature and lived only 8 hours. This tragedy took place when Ian was on a golfing holiday with the Rothermeres, and the collection includes a number of letters by Ian written to comfort his mistress after the spending the day golfing with her cuckolded husband (“...I have nothing to say to comfort you. After all this travail and pain it is bitter. I can only send you my arms and my love and all my prayers...”). Ann’s letters from this period mostly maintain the expected sang froid – as when she explains that she is feeling much better after the nurses prescribed a lunch of champagne and oysters – but she sometimes allows expression of a deeper sorrow:
“...This afternoon I forced myself to ask Esmond where she had been buried, I have been haunted by the thought for days. They christened her after me and put her next to my mother in the family churchyard at the edge of the sea at Aberlady […] while I was lying in a haze of morphia and you were playing golf…” (Warwick House, Monday evening, postmarked 7 Sept 1948)
The loss of their baby bound Ann and Ian together in a new way and they began to write about whether they could make a life together. Ann’s letters can make light of their situation (“…I wish a fairy would arrive with a wand and make everything alright, give Esmond a perfect wife and put me in your bed with a raw cowhide whip in my hand so as I can keep you well behaved for forty years...”) but it took several years for her to break with Rothermere. Ian weighed up the risks she would take, especially for her children, by marrying someone so much poorer and less domesticated than Lord Rothermere (“…I’m afraid I shall never settle down until I settle into the earth!...”). Ann warns eventually that “it is all over London that E is not going to tolerate us any longer”, and in 1951 the Rothermeres finally divorced. Ann and Ian married the following year.
Of course these letters provide a much broader insight into Ian Fleming’s life and world than just the trajectory of his relationship with Ann. There is much gossip about mutual friends, from the divorce of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to the effects on Ian of an unusually intellectual dining companion (“...I am full of old goose & white wine & exhausted after 2 hours of Edith Sitwell with no William P[lomer] or Rosamund [Lehmann] to help…”) The world of newspapers naturally figures prominently in the correspondence, ranging from differences of views on the quality of Ian’s Atticus gossip columns in the Sunday Times, to Ian’s delight at engineering an exclusive interview with two of the Cambridge Spies after their defection to Moscow (“…Its terribly funny Dick Hughes getting Burgess and Maclean. I had such a fight to get him to Moscow and the saboteurs were after me until the day I left. I told him to hell with interviews with Bulganin and to keep after the diplos and nothing else…”)
Ian and Ann’s shared passion for the natural world was evidently a bedrock of their relationship; repeatedly in these letters the writer will describe a scene of natural beauty and wish that the other had been present to share it. The most lyrical passages in Ann’s letters are when she writes, for example, of an English winter or the Irish landscape: “I have just come back from duck flighting – there were no midges and plenty of ducks, and the sky and the river were olive green and presently a huge red harvest moon and I wanted you to be there”. Ian was also sensitive to the beauties of the British Isles, as when he writes to Ann from Lord Kemsley’s country house, Dropmore Park in Buckinghamshire: “This afternoon I walked in the woods which are high & wet & full of jays and I saw you dressed up as a golden pheasant.” However, Ian reserved his greatest love for the vivid colours of the tropics. Many of the letters are written from Jamaica, beginning with his first season at Goldeneye and his energised enthusiasm about the abundant sea life he was discovering from his beach:
“…This morning we shot four big parrot fish which are delicious and all colours of the rainbow – weighing eleven pounds! So you see. Finally we had to stop because there were too many big barracuda about and they have the nasty habit of biting off ones balls. They are really horrid looking – long and grey and very quiet with great underslung jaws and THREE rows of teeth…”
Three events occurred in 1952 that changed everything: Ann and Ian married; their son Caspar was born (an event Ian that celebrated with the purchase of his famous golden typewriter); and Ian wrote Casino Royale. These events impact on the correspondence in innumerable ways. Most simply, as they now lived together there were fewer occasions to write – although in fact they always spent much time apart, increasingly so as the marriage came under strain. Caspar himself naturally becomes a regular topic in the letters. To a man like Fleming it was always unlikely that Ann, as a wife and mother of his child, would have quite the same erotic appeal as she had when married to someone else; as Ann later complained when responding to a comment by Ian: “you mention ‘bad old bachelor days’ - the only person you stopped sleeping with when they ceased was me!” Bond was in his way also a product of marriage: Ian wrote Casino Royale in the face of matrimony, both as an outlet for libido and imagination and also in an attempt to make money for a woman who was used to being unthinkingly rich. The writing of an annual Bond book also soon gave a shape to the year that was to persist until Ian’s death in 1964, as he would spend the first months of each year at Goldeneye writing the latest adventure.
International travel was a regular feature of Ian’s life after his marriage so the correspondence includes richly evocative letters in which he reports back to Ann from different parts of the world. He loved the “thrilling cities” of the jet age, from Chicago (“...Bang! Bang! Here I am among the ghosts of the gangsters high up in a suite looking miles across lake Michigan…”) to Hong Kong (“...went to Macao yesterday with Dick Hughes who is an excellent companion and spent the night in a FanTan gambling hall & dancing the Tango with Chinese houris. Today lunch with a gold smuggler & now back here…”). He noted Bombay’s “smell of mangrove swamps & scented burning wood” whilst in New York he found himself, with very British condescension, full of gloom from being at the heart of a nation that he saw as unprepared for its role as a supreme global power; he even reports back to Ann on Tangier’s gay subculture, announcing Francis Bacon's imminent arrival in the city, where his lover Peter Lacy was working as a restaurant pianist. Travel itself still had a glamour in the 1950s: Ian sailed to New York on the Queen Elizabeth in 1953, correcting proofs for Live and Let Die and admiring a passing pod of whales; however his cruise to the Seychelles in 1958 is damned by the company, which comprised “retired tea planters from Assam with washed out wives, a dreadful American oil man – a poor man’s Hemingway who talks like Humphrey Bogart & shows off continually […] a man who had had his leg bitten off by a tiger, an Australian surveyor for UN who has dissentry [sic] & so forth”.
Ian took more pleasure in Goldeneye than did Ann (especially after Ian began an affair with Blanche Blackwood, a neighbour) so the collection includes many letters from after their marriage written when Ian was in Jamaica and Ann in the UK. Ian’s letters repeatedly return to the natural beauties of the island, from a great shoal of goggle-eye fish and other news of their beloved coastal shore with its lobsters and barracuda, to descriptions of moments of beauty that they had been unable to share (“…There is nearly a full moon but it is behind the clouds which are the tail of a storm which came tearing along this evening out of a bright sky and muddied the water in the cove …”). Goldeneye became a place to visit for Ann’s remarkable circle of friends and admirers, from artist Lucian Freud to Hugh Gaitskell, the Leader of the Opposition (with whom she conducted a long-lasting affair). Noel Coward was a friend and neighbour in Jamaica, making the area a destination for some surprising guests:
“Truman Capote has come to stay. Can you imagine a more incongruous playmate for me. On the heels of a telegram he came hustling and twittering along with his tiny face crushed under a Russian Commissars uniform hat [...] he had just arrived from Moscow[.]”
Bond intrudes into Ian’s letters to Ann in a number of ways. Fleming always enjoyed taking names for his books from his life (a habit that brought him trouble more than once), so we hear, for example, that Blanche Blackwood has given him a small boat which “is very good for the reef and I have christened OCTOPUSSY”. More common are progress reports from Jamaica: “the book is half done and buzzing along merrily in the rain”. When work is going well he will occasionally admit to his thrill in creating these adventures, but on other occasions he is just exhausted by his hero's adventures. Only occasionally does he divulge plot details:
“Meanwhile the book is galloping along. I have written a third of it in one week – a chapter a day [...] The first half is about Russia & that has always interested me. They have decided to murder Bond. A beautiful spy called Titania Romanova is about to appear. Coo er!” (Goldeneye, Sunday)
Producers and screenwriters were quick to see the cinematic potential of James Bond, and Ian’s later letters contain several references to negotiations over possible adaptations. An early proposal for a TV series is judged “interesting but no gold mine at this stage”, but he senses the potential on a later trip to Hollywood when “people really seem to be after my books [...] its as usual a question of crossing fingers & waiting for someone to pry them apart & force some dollars between them.”
For all that the letters describe lives of glamour and privilege, the increasing unhappiness of their marriage is also a regular theme and the letters record moments of deep anguish: “In the present twilight, we are hurting each other to an extent that makes life hardly bearable” (BOAC stationery, “Thursday in the plane”). Ian can be clear-eyed on the profound differences that make co-existence so hard: “I envy you your life of parties and ‘the mind’ and you envy I suppose my life of action and the fun I get from my books … I am hopeless and like a caged beast in drawing and dining rooms and there is nothing I can do about it”. He worried about his wife’s spending and they went round in circles trying to agree a permanent home together. Each had to put up with the other’s infidelities, and Ian’s dislike of Ann’s social whirl often left him isolated (“…There is no one else in my life. There is a whole cohort in yours...”) Ian exhorted Ann that they must endeavour to bring each other less pain, complained of being “lonely, jealous, & ill”, but also worried about his wife’s “tragic switchback of pills which I implore you to stop”. Ann had forebodings about Ian’s heart as early as the 1940s (“…please be honest with me about your chest pains…”), but as ill-health took hold of Ian in his final years they drew closer to each other once more. Their relationship remained tempestuous to the end but Ann was a vital support to Ian in his twilight years as he watched Bond's phenomenal and growing success, which he was largely too ill to enjoy.