James Bond in real life: where did Ian Fleming's inspirations come from?
Ahead of the new Bond film, its release now delayed until 2021, Henry Hemming introduces the real-life inspirations behind the lead characters in Ian Fleming’s staggeringly successful spy series
Some authors spend years on their first novel. Ian Fleming’s came in a matter of weeks. In January 1952, the middle-aged British journalist was enjoying a little winter’s sun on holiday in the Caribbean. One morning, after a swim and his usual breakfast of scrambled eggs and coffee, Fleming sat down to his battered Royal typewriter and hammered out the opening line of Casino Royale. Barely a month later, he had finished. James Bond had come to life.
Fleming went on to write a further 13 Bond novels, which have since sold more than 100 million copies globally. Big-screen adaptations have generated more than £5bn at the box office, making the Bond film franchise one of the most successful in history.
Bond is a phenomenon. It is rare to find a fictional character so intricately woven into one country’s self-image, and at the same time so hugely popular around the world. Diehard fans have ranged from the US president John F Kennedy to the North Korean despot Kim Jong-il.
These characters were not pulled out of thin air. They are an amalgam of traits that Fleming stole from a colourful cast of personalities he encountered in his own life
Bond’s extraordinary popularity is rooted in the world – and the characters – Fleming created: Bond himself, along with ‘M’, Miss Moneypenny and a rogues’ gallery of villains, including Scaramanga, Goldfinger and Blofeld. But these characters were not pulled out of thin air. They are an amalgam of traits that Fleming stole from a colourful cast of personalities he encountered in his own life. “Everything I write has a precedent in truth,” Fleming wrote. So who were the real people behind his most celebrated literary creations?
- Listen | Henry Hemming discusses the real historical personalities who Ian Fleming drew on to create 007 and other characters in the Bond novels
James Bond – How a respected birdwatcher became the spy world's “ultimate prostitute”
Fleming was a man of many interests, including birdwatching. That’s why he had on his bookshelf at Goldeneye, his Jamaican retreat, a well-thumbed copy of Birds of the West Indies, a field guide written by the respected American ornithologist James Bond.
Fleming later acknowledged this real-life Bond as the source of his celebrated protagonist’s name. But he did not choose it on a whim. Fleming wanted a name that was straightforward and trustworthy, and would reveal as little as possible about his character’s background. There may have also been an espionage inside-joke: ‘birdwatcher’ at the time was slang for spy. Many years later, the producers of Die Another Day (2002) made a knowing reference to this: when Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, disguises himself as a birdwatcher, he buries himself in a copy of the original James Bond’s guide to West Indian birds.
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Name aside, these two Bonds had almost nothing in common. The physical appearance of Fleming’s Bond was largely modelled on his creator. Both Fleming and Bond had blue eyes, dark hair and a “cruel mouth”. As the author admitted, however, his literary creation was much better looking.
Just as Fleming went to Eton, left early, was fatherless for most of his life, and during the war achieved the rank of acting commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, so did Bond. Fleming had a love of women, fast cars, gambling and martinis – as long as they were made the right way – and for some people possessed a certain coldness or reserve; again, characteristics all ascribed to Bond.
At the same time, Fleming and Bond were very different. While the author spent most of the Second World War behind a desk, his creation was a man of action. “Bond is not in fact a hero,” Fleming explained, “but an efficient and not very attractive blunt instrument in the hands of government,” and “a meld of various qualities I noted among secret service men and commandos in the last war.” Much of Bond’s rugged adventurousness can be traced back to Fleming’s wartime encounters with intrepid soldiers and spies, including the guerrillas of 30 Assault Unit, the maverick commando group he had helped to create and run.
Ian Fleming had a love of women, fast cars, gambling and gin martinis – just like Bond
Some of those who may have directly inspired Bond’s character include Patrick Dalzel-Job, a fearless member of 30 Assault Unit; Fleming’s dashing brother Peter, who took part in covert wartime operations; and the British spy and expert skier Conrad O’Brien-ffrench, who befriended Fleming in Austria before the war.
The soldier, writer and politician Sir Fitzroy Maclean (one-time member of the SAS) and Wilfred Dunderdale, the MI6 head of station in Paris during the early part of the war, have also been put forward as possible real-life Bonds. Fleming later described Sir William Stephenson, MI6 head of station in New York, as not so much a direct model for Bond, who was “a highly romanticised version of the true spy”, but “the real thing”.
Most revealing here, perhaps, is the sheer number of people thought to have inspired the character of James Bond. Fleming made a point in his books of revealing as little as possible about the personality and background of his protagonist. The great spy writer John le Carré described Bond as “the ultimate prostitute”, in the sense that his appeal was rooted in readers never knowing too much about him, and instead being able to project their own fantasies and desires onto him, until they feel as if on one level they are him. This might explain why there is always such heated debate about which actor should next play Bond. We need it to be someone in whom we can see a part of ourselves – which is testament, ultimately, to Fleming’s achievement as a writer.
- Listen | Henry Hemming describes the adventures of Sir William Stephenson, a British spymaster who plotted to bring the United States into World War Two
M – Authentic spymaster or family matriarch?
At first, the inspiration for M – the spy chief and Bond’s boss – appears to be straightforward. During the war, Fleming served as an aide to the director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey. His role involved coming up with bold deception plans, and this was the first job at which Fleming excelled, partly because he was able to put his imagination to good use, but also because he developed a good relationship with his curmudgeonly superior.
In demeanour, Godfrey was identical to M. Even the door to Godfrey’s house matches Fleming’s description of M’s door with its brass bell from a ship instead of a doorbell. The relationship between Bond and his boss is also similar to how Godfrey and Fleming collaborated.
Why did Fleming call this character M? Naturally, he wanted Bond’s boss to sound like an authentic spymaster. The head of the agency for which Bond nominally worked, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – popularly known as MI6 – was called ‘C’. But as MI6 still did not officially exist, giving him this name might have resulted in a stern message from the Treasury solicitor.
Instead, Fleming went for another letter of the alphabet. He was possibly inspired by Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins, a leading figure in the Special Operations Executive, who signed his letters ‘M’. But more likely this was a nod to the best-known M in the secret service at that time: the MI5 spymaster Maxwell Knight. Since 1931, Knight had called himself ‘M’ while running his own ‘M Section’ and giving his agents codenames starting with the prefix ‘M’.
Yet there may have been another explanation. In 1917, when Fleming was still a child, his much-loved father was killed on the western front. Valentine Fleming had always been known to his children as ‘Mokie’, and some have suggested that M may be a veiled reference to him.
But could M have referred to someone else in the family? Ian’s mother, Evelyn Fleming – a strong presence in his life – was often known to her children as ‘M’. As he struggled to find a school or job that suited him, she was the one who moved him from one institution or office to another. During the 1920s and 1930s, Evelyn arranged a string of new placements and jobs for her beloved second son, many involving overseas travel, and it is easy to imagine each one resembling a fresh mission in the future author’s eyes.
Miss Moneypenny –From unrequited crush to longest flirtation in history
She may have had no more than a minor role in Fleming’s books, but after Bond himself, Miss Moneypenny is probably the most recognisable character in Fleming’s world. Appearing in every film bar two certainly helps, as does having an unforgettable name – not to mention being one half of the longest-running flirtation in film history.
The most likely model for Miss Moneypenny was Kathleen Pettigrew, secretary to C, the head of MI6, when Fleming worked in Naval Intelligence. Another possible source was Victoire ‘Paddy’ Ridsdale, who worked in the same office as Fleming. While Fleming might have wanted to have the same teasing relationship with both women as Bond did with Money-penny, there is no evidence that he achieved it. Instead, it seems Moneypenny was a (hugely successful) example of the author projecting a real-life fantasy into fiction.
Q – The lethal origins of a lovable eccentric
A fact well-known to Bondologists (less so to everyone else) is that the lovably eccentric quartermaster Q – responsible for everything from exploding tubes of toothpaste to a machine gun disguised as a set of bagpipes – never actually appeared in any of Fleming’s books. However, the novels did feature a ‘Q Branch’, and this, we know, was copied directly from real life. During the Second World War, undercover British agents bound for occupied Europe – including some of those in Fleming’s 30 Assault Unit – would pay a visit to Q (short for Quartermaster) Branch, where they were often kitted out with devices known as ‘Q gadgets’. Usually these were everyday objects adapted to contain some kind of tool or weapon, such as golf balls containing compasses; pencils hollowed out to hide silk maps; hairbrushes with saws inside; garlic-flavoured chocolate for British agents heading to France (in the hope that the smell on their breath would allow them to blend in more easily with the local population); and a shoelace that doubled up as a garotte.
The enterprising figure behind the real Q Branch was Charles Fraser-Smith. Before the war, Fraser-Smith had been a missionary in Morocco, where he and his wife ran a farm and an orphanage in the foothills of the Atlas mountains. Soon after the outbreak of war, Fraser-Smith took a job at the Ministry of Supply, where his main task was to source clothes for undercover agents travelling to Europe. But he also devised his ingenious ‘Q gadgets’, and soon had several hundred specialist companies across London. It was at this point that he met a fellow civil servant called Ian Fleming.
The villains – How Fleming got back at the bad guys
If Bond, Q, M and Moneypenny were composites of people Fleming had encountered in real life, so too were his villains. But in this case, the emotion firing the author’s imagination wasn’t so much admiration as a thirst for revenge. This certainly appears to have been the case in the creation of Ernst Blofeld and Francisco Scaramanga – the former, Bond’s nemesis in no fewer than nine films (including No Time to Die); the latter, the brilliant assassin in 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun.
So why the names Blofeld and Scaramanga? The most convincing explanation is centred on Fleming’s nephew, Nichol Fleming, who told his uncle shortly before Ian began work on the novels that he was being bullied at school by two prefects. One of these bullies was called Blofeld – a relative of the legendary cricket commentator Henry – while the other was called Scaramanga. It turned out that Scaramanga senior had been at school with Fleming, where they had had several fights. Fleming, it seems, decided it was time to get even in print.
Fleming may also have had revenge in mind (though of a different type) when creating Auric Goldfinger, the gold-smuggling antagonist of the eponymous novel and film (released in 1959 and 1964 respectively). Like many postwar Londoners, Fleming was not fond of the work of Ernö Goldfinger, one of the modernist architects responsible for the efflorescence of tower blocks across the capital. The real-life Goldfinger was furious at the use of his name and tried to halt publication – without success.
During his career as an intelligence officer, Fleming crossed paths with a succession of large-than-life personalities, but surely none were more extravagantly weird than Aleister Crowley. And it was Crowley – sadomasochist, occultist and “wickedest man in the world” – who is thought to have inspired Fleming to create Le Chiffre, the mathematical genius with the blood-weeping eye, who appeared in the first Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953) and the 2006 film of the same name.
Fleming would have known about Crowley anyway, but the occultist came to the author’s attention personally after the unexpected arrival in Britain, in 1941, of the senior Nazi Rudolf Hess. As Fleming and others wondered what to do with the German, Crowley – who knew that Hess was fascinated by the occult – offered himself as an interlocutor. Although the idea was not as mad as it sounds, it came to nothing.
Shortly before the Second World War, Fleming met a naval officer with a moniker for the ages: Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax. It was from this extraordinary collection of titles that the author came up with Hugo Drax, the villain who plotted Bond’s downfall in the 1955 novel and 1979 film Moonraker. Drax failed, of course, and – as he’s been doing since Fleming first brought him to life in 1952 – the world’s most celebrated spy lived to die another day.
Henry Hemming is the author of six works of non-fiction, including M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (Preface Publishing, 2017)
This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine
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