Ian Fleming’s shadowy career in Britain’s clandestine services during WWII spawned an impressive collection of essays, books, the most successful movie franchise in history, and a large body of erroneous assumptions. Blurry lines between Fleming’s actual life and his writings are perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the entire 50-year Bond phenomenon.
Many assume James Bond is simply a fictionalized version of Fleming himself. Not true. Fleming wasn’t so much a spy as a spymaster, much like John Le Carre’s fictional George Smiley and the American CIA’s real-life James Jesus Angleton. Fleming spent most of World War II flying a desk at The Admiralty in London, directing his field agents via coded messages and interpreting raw intelligence received via one-time cryptographic pad. Fleming was neither a legendary womanizer nor a secret agent. He never slept with the enemy and didn’t even drink dry martinis – shaken or stirred. So did James Bond spring forth wholesale from Fleming’s imagination, or is 007 based on a real character Fleming knew from the British Navy or Secret Service?
Fleming’s literary James Bond wasn’t, at least initially, so much the tuxedo-clad, skirt-chasing cartoon portrayed by Sean Connery, Daniel Craig, et al. Fleming’s Bond was a slightly wheezy, red-eyed former commando going rapidly to seed from excessive drinking and smoking up to 60 cigarettes a day. It was only after Hollywood producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli got hold of Bond that the British agent became a swashbuckling lady-killer (both literal and figurative). The cinematic Bond was considerably racier than the Bond of Fleming’s novels, but the influence of Hollywood crept quickly into Fleming’s body of work. In an odd case of bi-directional idea migration, several Bond novels (such as Dr. No) were reverse-engineered from Fleming screenplays, while many screenplays, like Thunderball, evolved in exactly the opposite direction – from Fleming novels.
Cinematic creations such as SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and the futuristic super yacht Disco Volante were all basically true to Fleming’s ideas. But Fleming’s James Bond certainly wasn’t Sean Connery, an alpha-male, body-building gym rat (unusual in 1960) who dabbled in acting. Fleming’s James Bond was somewhat of a geek, out of place amongst the muddled rules of the Cold War spy biz, much more likely to use brains than brawn to extricate himself from a dangerous situation because, like Fleming himself, the literary Bond had health issues.
One character appearing in Bond books and stories who did in fact spring directly from Fleming’s personal experience was the eccentric, rumpled “Agent Q” and the clever gadgets Q designed for Bond. By many different accounts, Fleming was enamored with the crude gadgets of the 1940-era spy business, and was always on the lookout for clever weapons and tools to help his field agents get an edge. Miniature cameras, portable communications devices, and clever murder weapons involving darts and the dispensing of poisons or toxic gas were particularly of interest to Commander Fleming. The mythical Walther PPK 9mm pistol carried by James Bond had the one feature most attractive to Fleming in a weapon: it was tiny, and therefore easily concealed.
On the other hand, unlike the cinematic James Bond, who was constantly in trouble with his superior “M” and operated as a barely-controllable rogue, real-life spymaster Fleming was a slick back office operator and an insider. Fleming was known to have been a very political animal, roaming the halls of The Admiralty sucking up to his superiors and projecting a dashing image of himself to his subordinates. He was well-connected and wore the right school ties.
During The Blitz, Fleming’s betrothed was killed by a buzz bomb as she was walking down a London street to meet Fleming for a social occasion. This real-life tragedy first made its way onscreen in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which George Lazenby’s Bond marries beautiful Theresa, only to see her killed by a stray bullet shortly after uttering her famous line “we’ve got all the time in the world”. Homage to the late Theresa Bond was worked into several subsequent Bond movies. For Your Eyes Only opens with Roger Moore laying flowers on Theresa Bond’s grave prior to the opening credits. Fleming’s late wife-to-be was a cool, sophisticated, slender brunette. Theresa Bond was portrayed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Diana Rigg (aka Emma Peel of The Avengers) one of the coolest, most sophisticated slender brunettes in cinematic history.
So where did the swaggering, tuxedoed, cinematic Bond get his physical daring and studliness if not from Fleming? The two most likely candidates for the Hollywood prototype of James Bond are a British Naval commando named Patrick Dalzel-Job and an Australian aviator named Sidney Cotton. Both were legendary, extremely successful field operatives, both knew Fleming quite well, and both were considered quite dashing and daring.
Cotton, like Bond, was an aristocrat utterly at home in a tuxedo. Cotton rubbed elbows with the rich and infamous, threw legendary parties, gambled like there was no tomorrow, and had beautiful young wives and mistresses stashed on five continents. On the average, Cotton married every ten years, always to a woman in her late teens or early twenties, until well into his 60’s. In 1939, Cotton had the daring and skill to manipulate his personal friend Hermann Göring, like Cotton a World War I flying ace, into taking off from Templehof Airport in Cotton’s private Lockheed 12, flying Cotton on a joyride around Germany over miles of sensitive, restricted airspace. Unbeknownst to Göring, the belly of Cotton’s plane was outfitted with secret downward-shooting spy cameras. Cotton sat in the co-pilot seat remotely snapping spy photos of factories and troop garrisons the entire flight. The photos wound up on Winston Churchills’ desk within a day. Cotton, however, was a teetotaler. And unlike Bond, Cotton was technically an RAF officer (not Navy), although a certain Naval Officer named Ian Fleming tried to recruit Cotton to switch services on several occasions. And finally, unlike Bond, who was British down to the British flag on his delta-wing parachute, Cotton was a man of dubious allegiances. He was arrested and convicted for running guns into Karachi during the first India-Pakistan war, and supposedly only the personal intervention of Churchill kept Cotton out of the klink. Interestingly, there were those who maintained that Churchill intervened because the scheme was clandestinely initiated and paid for by the British government, despite the fact that it was India, not Pakistan, which was England’s ally at the time. Cotton’s gun-running expeditions earned him a tidy 10 million pounds sterling, whereas Bond was a mere civil servant. Bond may have played Chemin de Fer in the casino at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo using Her Majesty’s funds, but his winnings were ultimately returned to The Royal Exchequer.
Patrick Dalzel-Job was born to a British middle-class family. His father was killed in WWI. As a teenager, Dalzel-Job and his mother found living in England difficult on her meager war-widow pension, so they moved to then-rural Switzerland, where living was cheap. Young Patrick became fluent in German and French. Scraping together money he earned working as a writer, Dalzel-Job purchased a small sailboat and sailed with his mother to Norway, where he spent most of his teen years exploring the byzantine Norwegian fjords where much of the Nazi navy, including Bismarck and Tirpitz, were to seek refuge years later in the early days of WWII. The Nazi High Command figured nobody at The Admiralty would have knowledge enough of these endless fjords to direct operations against Nazi warships on the lam, an assumption which proved famously wrong. Dalzel-Job not only spoke fluent Norwegian, but he had a close-knit intelligence network of friends and acquaintances throughout Norway. He worked his contacts tirelessly, in secret and behind enemy lines, for most of the war on behalf of King and Country. In the first few years of WWII, Dalzel-Job personally undertook dozens of secret nighttime missions inside Norway, dropped off behind enemy lines by a British attack boat much like the American “PT” of John Kennedy fame, observing Nazi naval operations stealthily, while living off the land.
Dalzel-Job actually worked for Ian Fleming for part of the war. In his autobiography, Dalzel-Job mentioned Fleming in a very unflattering way, calling Fleming a desk-driving bureaucrat, a somewhat affected poseur, in effect what a modern American soldier would refer to as a “REMF” – a Rear Echelon Mother Fucker.
Dalzel-Job was, like James Bond, a Naval commando, but he was not a hard-drinking womanizer. While a teenager sailing around Norway, he met a pre-pubescent local girl named Bjorg and the two became friends, taking sailing day trips together with Dalzel-Job’s mother. After the war, he tracked Bjorg down and, not having seen her for 5 years, married her on the spot. The two remained married for 40 years until Bjorg’s death of natural causes in her 60’s.
The final prominent spy from Fleming’s immediate circle who appears to have contributed to the mosaic of cinematic James Bond’s style was, stunningly, Roald Dahl. Dahl was a handsome, dashing, and particularly effective spy who later would pen Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and marry sultry Hollywood actress Patricia Neal. Dahl started WWII as a RAF fighter pilot, achieving “ace” status, but was badly injured attempting an emergency night landing in Egypt in 1941. Dahl wound up in Washington in 1942, spying on Americans under the direction of Canadian spymaster William “Intrepid” Stevenson of the British Security Coordination division of MI6. Dahl’s job was ostensibly to write and place propaganda in US media to keep Washington’s wavering focus on the European theatre of war.
In reality, the tall, aristocratic Dahl slept his way across Washington, partying relentlessly and trysting frequently so as to gather pillow talk from the wives and mistresses of key US political and military figures, passing information along to Stevenson.
Fleming both knew Dahl personally and knew of Dahl’s professional exploits through his relationship with Stevenson and fellow master spy David Ogilvy. Ogilvy, a savant in the then-nascent science of influencing public opinion via electronic media, would later go on to found the storied advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather and dream up such iconic ad campaigns as “The Man In The Hathaway Shirt”, “Only Dove is One-Quarter Moisturizing Cream”, and “Schweppervescence”.