Fifty years ago today, the world lost the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming.
Fleming suffered a fatal heart attack and died at the age of 56. When I was growing up, and read the Bond novels for the first time, and would read the short bio on the back of the paperbacks I had at the time, I thought 56 years was a pretty good lifespan.
With age however, it is clear to me that the world lost Mr Fleming way too early. When Ian Fleming died, the literary James Bond died with him. Yes, there have been a series of continuation novels, some of which are well written and entertaining. But they all lack the Ian Fleming sweep and flow. No matter how much the authors attempt to imitate his style, they are unsuccessful.
For one, none of the follow-up authors had actual experience in espionage, as Fleming did, which gave him the background to authentically pen these tales, slightly dramatized, of course. He was the one who had cigarettes made for him, he liked and drove the vintage cars, he had the liquor and food experiences, he saw the places he wrote about. In many ways he was writing his own inner monologue, which no one else has access to. His journalistic background taught him to be concise, descriptive, and keep the reader hooked.
All of that experience was lost when Fleming passed away, far too young.
Ian Fleming lived life on his own terms. While some of that likely contributed to his early demise, it can never be said that he didn’t live life to the full. He worked out an arrangement that so that his employer allowed him three months in the middle of each winter to go to his cottage in the tropics. He further worked out that he really only worked three days in his London office, before heading to his “weekend” home. He drank and smoked and womanized, played golf and cards, and generally did what he pleased. The wealth of his family enabled some of this lifestyle naturally, but he also charted his own course, and become wildly successful in his own endeavors.
He counted among his acquaintances the likes of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who was an admirer of the Bond novels. Kennedy and Fleming actually had quite a bit in common which likely explains the connection they had. Both were born into wealthy families with an overpowering patriarch. Both lived much of their lives in the shadow of their older brother, who set high standards of achievement. Both turned to sports in their teens to set their own marks. Both had very strong mothers who continued to bear influence on them throughout their lives, but which also likely caused them issues in their (numerous) relationships with women. Both came of age during WWII, Fleming at British Naval Intelligence and Kennedy, able to finally join the US Navy through its Office of Naval Intelligence and become a Lieutenant, served heroically in the Pacific, winning a Purple Heart medal after his exploits in command of PT 109.
Fleming and Kennedy both really matured in the 1950’s, Kennedy in the political world, rising through the US Senate, and Fleming in the newspaper business, becoming the powerful foreign manager of the Sunday Times and with the Bond novels. They both really reached their peak in the early 1960’s, with Kennedy becoming President and Fleming becoming a household name with the Bond novels. They both died within a year of each other, Kennedy at the hands of an assassin in November 1963, and Fleming at the grip of the Iron Crab on August 12th, 1964.
When Fleming died, the premiere of Goldfinger in the UK was still a month away. While he had visited the set of that movie, he never got to see the finished product, which was what really catapulted James Bond into worldwide super-stardom.
When people go to see James Bond movies today, do the majority of them even know about Ian Fleming? I doubt it. To them, James Bond is just that British spy who uses gadgets and a quick wit to take down villains and save the world (and the girl). When people watched the 2006 version of Casino Royale, which was actually a pretty faithful, if modernized adaptation of Fleming’s first novel, where they even aware that the martini, the torture scene, the anguished treachery of Vesper were all conceived 54 years prior?
The Fleming Bond novels give us a glimpse into a world that is no longer here. As I’ve gone through the process of “deconstructing” the writing and references of Ian Fleming, it only makes me appreciate his work even more. So many details within the books are likely lost on modern readers. It has been my goal to explain as many of these as possible so as to bring the 1950’s world of James Bond and Ian Fleming to the modern reader in as much context as is possible.
Would James Bond have continued had Fleming lived another 10, 20 years? I think so. Perhaps not on the same rate, but there would’ve been more exploits of James Bond. Fleming was continually writing notes and snippets of content. We’ve seen intriguing glimpses of notes about a Greek named Zographos who speaks to Bond about gamblers. At the same time, the tone of the last few Bond novels was significantly influenced by Fleming’s ailing health. You Only Live Twice reads like a journey of a man attempting to put his life in some sort of perspective. Fleming even includes an obituary of James Bond, perhaps in anticipation of his own pending demise. Had his health been better, perhaps these novels are totally different. What would The Man With The Golden Gun had looked like if Fleming was able to give it his usual thorough edits and rewrites? We’ll never know, and perhaps the fact that we lost Mr Fleming at the point in which we did has contributed in a way to the vast and lasting success the series has enjoyed.
Much of the world of the past fifty years would be unrecognizable to Ian Fleming. The views of the world have changed on so many topics. Think of all that has happened. The riots for equality and freedom across the globe. Man has walked on the moon. The hippie generation. An American President resigns his office. The nuclear arms races. The continuation of the Cold War right up to the point in which the Soviet Union collapses. AIDS. Ian Fleming wrote a book on Kuwait, which did not meet the approval of the Kuwait Oil Company which had commissioned the work; A war was fought over Kuwait in the 1990’s. The rise of computers and the internet. All of these things have happened since Ian Fleming passed away. What would he have thought of these things?
Fifty years seem like a long time. It isn’t. Younger readers take note; time goes by quickly. If you take anything from the life of Ian Fleming, it should be that each day is meant to be lived to the full.
4 thoughts on “A World Fifty Years Without Ian Fleming”
I enjoyed reading this very much. It’s hard to imagaine what Fleming would think of today’s world and all the history that has come to pass since his death. Who knows what kind of Bond novels he would have continued to write if he had lived to see the late 60s and 70s. Unfortunately, I think Bond played a role in escalating his poor health because of the Kevin McClory lawsuit and how his early attempts to get Bond on film led to some poor bussiness decisions. Some have argued that the legal battle over Thunderball really led to Fleming’s demise. If you haven’t done so, you should read The Battle for Bond by Robert Sellers. It’s a great book all about what went on with that. Sellers was also interviewed for the James Bond Radio podcast and that discission is well worth listening to for anyone interested in fleming and Bond . Check it out here: http://jamesbondradio.com/the-battle-for-bond-robert-sellers-interview-podcast-12/
Kudos on the essay. I really enjoy reading all the Fleming related pieces that are coming out for this anniversary,
Yes, I’ve read The Battle For Bond. I had actually gotten an advance copy when it first came out, so I have one of the first editions with the complete letters shown. You’re correct in saying the entire Thunderball/McClory affair absolutely took a huge toll on his health and hastened his death.
That’s awesome that you have a 1st edition of Battle for Bond. Those letters must shed a lot of light into Fleming and his state of mind at various points in his life.
Thank you for this excellent commentary. Today would have been a nice excuse for mainstream media to run some commemorative articles on the 50th anniversary of Fleming’s passing away. Unfortunately, it just so happened that this event was utterly and completely overshadowed by the death of late Robin Williams which has been inundating world headlines as of yesterday.