This sort of thing never happened to James Bond.
One night in 1941, a member of British Naval Intelligence stops by the Estoril Casino in neutral Portugal. He is Lieutenant Ian Fleming, stopping over in Lisbon, on his way to secret talks in Washington. But tonight, he’s in his civilian clothes and trying his luck at the baccarat tables. He notices two players at another table, and recognizes them as Nazi Intelligence agents. Fleming, a gambler with a high opinion of his skills, has a sudden inspiration:
He decided to play them and take them for all of their secret funds.
Instead of taking the Nazis, however, the Nazis took him, and Fleming sheepishly had to ask his chief for more travel money.
When he used the incident in the first of his novels twelve years later, the story had a different ending. His fictional hero, James Bond, wiped out his villainous opponent.
The story, as Fleming told Post writer Geoffrey Boca, was typical of the difference between Bond and the man who created him. Boca saw little of the superspy in the retired Naval officer he met in 1963:
Each winter, he retreats from the London whirl and writes a new Bond novel at his beach house in Jamaica. Every afternoon he lies face down in the water, looking at the fish through his faceplate. In this manner he thinks out the plot, and contemplates the trick he has been playing ever since Bond was born.
The trick consists of having led his readers to believe that Fleming has modeled Bond on himself. Like Bond, Fleming is a former naval commander. The creator and his creation share a taste for vodka martinis, custom-made cigarettes, and, until Fleming’s marriage, unattached women. Dust-cover photographs of Fleming with a gun help the illusion.
In fact, Fleming has created a character who is the opposite of himself. Bond, Fleming writes in every book, is “cruel.” The essence of Fleming’s personality is his gentleness. He abhors violence.
Fleming is so softhearted, in fact, that he finds it hard to reject a stranger’s request for money. And when a friend is ill he feels compelled to fill the hospital room with flowers.
Fleming also has interests that Bond would scorn. Bond has never read a book, but Fleming is one of England’s principal authorities on rare books. He is publisher of the London Book Collector, perhaps the leading magazine in the world on the subject.
Fleming has an almost infinite number of quirks, prejudices and dislikes. Some are apparent in his form of dress, which he has not changed since he was demobilized from the Royal Navy in 1945. In London he invariably wears a dark-blue suit with cuffs on the sleeves, a spotted bow tie loosely tied, a blue shirt with short sleeves, and loafers. “Wearing the same clothes saves me from having to wonder what I shall wear today,” he says rather defensively. “I hate buttons, studs and laces. I wear short-sleeved shirts because I cannot stand dirty cuffs.”
Fleming protests constantly that he is not a gourmet like Bond, and that his favorite meal is scrambled eggs, but he cannot resist an adventure in exotic eating. The food does not have to be good, so long as it carries the spice of danger.
Many readers complain of the torture scenes which keep bloodying his books. Fleming replies that these are exactly what happened to Allied agents during the war. He should know. He worked with Allied agents during the war.
After D Day, Fleming took control, from London, of No. 30 Assault Unit, which was to become more celebrated among its members as F. P. N., or Fleming’s Private Navy. This was a group of some 300 Royal Marines who advanced with front troops to try to seize secret enemy equipment, codes, and so on.
In 1939 the Admiralty—at that time perhaps the most alert of Britain’s fighting services—decided that it needed men like Fleming: multilingual, imaginative, fit. Called home and commissioned as a lieutenant, he worked as personal assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence. Much of his wartime work is still secret today, and most of the stories Fleming tells are farcical rather than daredevil.
On one memorable occasion when he and an assistant were required to question a capture U-boat commander to find out which routes the U-boats were taking through the British minefields in the Kattegat, Fleming had a flamboyant idea. Instead of grilling the commander in a grim prison office, why not soften him up by bringing him to London and questioning him over good food and fine wine?
The German and his first lieutenant, of unmistakably Teutonic bearing, were escorted to Scott’s Restaurant in Piccadilly in civilian clothes. Fleming and his aide were in uniform. Everyone spoke German throughout. Fleming ordered a bottle of Rhine wine and another and another. While the Englishmen were getting progressively drunker, the Germans stayed rigorously sober revealing nothing. In the end Fleming gave it up and blearily took a taxi back to the Admiralty.
“Dammit, Fleming, what the devil have you been up to?” demanded the director of Naval Intelligence. “I have only just saved you from being arrested. You have tied up half of M.I.5 and the C.I.D.—listening to you all afternoon.”
“Baker, the maitre d’ hotel, had reported that we had been behaving suspiciously,” Fleming recalls. It showed an alert and proper attitude on his part, and I have patronized Scott’s ever since.”
Fleming has often mentioned during the war that he might write a novel some day. He finally settled down to the task in 1952, rolling a piece of paper into his battered portable, and started.
He began with the words, “The scent and smoke of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired…”
It took him just two months to write Casino Royale. Over the next 12 years, he produced 12 novels and 9 short stories with Bond.
Fleming moves in a small society of talented friends who think he can and should do better than write spy novels. Fleming listens to the criticism with a sardonic grin, fits another cigarette into his holder, and goes his own way.
What he thinks of his own work, he does not say, but he shows no sign of changing. He much prefers laying face down in the Caribbean, with a hot sun beating on his back, his mind far away.
He died just one year after the Post interview. His last words, addressed to the ambulance drivers hurrying him to the hospital were,
I am sorry to trouble you chaps. I don’t know how you get along so fast with the traffic on the roads these days.
Hardly the last words you’d imagine coming from James Bond.
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