James Bond Between Fact And Fiction

His name is Bond. James Bond. The most celebrated spy in literature and film, he is seductive, patriotic and cold-blooded — and always has a few gadgets up his sleeve… But is James Bond only a fictional hero?

When novelist Ian Fleming decided to name his main character, in 1953, he opted for James Bond. “The dullest name I ever heard,” he later commented… Indeed, James Bond was not the product of his imagination, but an American ornithologist who famously identified more than 400 species of exotic birds. Fleming, a bird-lover himself, owned a copy of Bond’s book, and immediately adopted the name because he liked the sound of it. It is one of many connections between fact and fiction that seep throughout Fleming’s works.

Sean Connery and Ian Fleming on the set of Terence Young’s Dr. No, released in 1962. In the 1958 novel, the spy admits he has “a real passion for birds” — a reference to his actual alter ego. (Photo © United Artists/The Kobal Collection via Encyclopædia Britannica)

From Fleming to Bond

Building up his Bond character, Fleming first drew inspiration from his own life. Born in 1908 in a wealthy Scottish family, the to-be novelist studied in England’s top universities. Like James Bond, he was a handsome Scot with blue eyes, and was known to favor female conquests over school requirements… His time in university did not earn him much, save for an embarrassing venereal disease and existential doubts about how to run his life. After Fleming failed the Foreign Office entrance exam, in 1927, he became a journalist and a banker.

When WW2 broke out, Fleming was approached by John Godfrey, head of the Royal Navy’s Naval Intelligence Service. The contact was established in mysterious circumstances: why Ian Fleming rather than anyone else? Perhaps because he spoke German. Or because his family knew which levers to pull to land him a good wartime job. Anyway, Fleming started working at the Naval Intelligence HQs in August 1939, with hands-one secret service experience that would prove useful later… The 30-year old soon showed that he had a rather fertile imagination, publishing the famous ‘Trout Memo’ containing several odd suggestions on how to deceive German intelligence.

Fleming notably suggested an aviator’s corpse to be crashed, with offcial documents, in German sea territory — a plan which will be carried out in 1943 with the creative roll-out of Operation Mincemeat. (Photo via Durham University)

Fleming did not spend WW2 in the field — he was a man of creative genius, lurking in the shadows, but he was no spy. Hence the reason why, as soon as he was demobilised, Fleming decided he wanted to be an author. Spy novels fitted him like a glove: he merely had to dig through five and a half years of secret service experience! According to him, the character of James Bond was built as a digest of several British spies he had met over his career. As for the bad guys, he also drew inspiration from reality — using the names of people that he despised in real life, such as the architect ErnĹ‘ Goldfinger, or a former university mate.

When the CIA asked 007 for advice

Published in 1953, Casino Royale, the first novel of the 007 literary series, was met with great enthusiasm from the public. The recipe for success was pretty straightforward: exotic places, gorgeous female sidekicks, bad guys… as well as creative gadgets and weaponry. Here again, reality seemed to have gone a step further than fiction. All over the world, secret services have come up with inventive devices: take for instance the poisoned cigars used by the CIA to take down Fidel Castro, or the lipstick gun created by the KGB during the Cold War.

A Cold War gadget that seems to stem directly from spy novels: a shoe with a heel transmitter! (Photo © Spy Museum, Washington)

With such a prolific and inventive writer as Ian Fleming, it is no wonder that Allen Dulles, director of the CIA from 1953 to 1961, came up to him for fresh ideas. The two men met while the author resided in Jamaica, probably to stimulate the American organization’s creativity… According to recently declassified documents, Dulles has tried to create some James Bond’s gadgets for real, like the dagger shoe displayed in From Russia, With Love

The world according to Bond

There’s still one unresolved question: published in the heart of the Cold War, were Fleming’s works a creative attempt of Western propaganda? After all, it was a time marked by a strong ideological struggle between the United States and the USSR. In the preface of From Russia, With Love (1957), the Scottish author wrote:

Not that it matters, but a great deal of the background to this story is accurate. SMERSH, a contraction of Smiert Spionam – Death to Spies – exists and remains today the most secret department of the Soviet government.

When the book was published, in April 1957, the geopolitical context was indeed very tense. The Space Race was in full swing (with Americans lagging behind) and the Soviets were only weeks away from sending out the first intercontinental ballistic missile… Then James Bond happened, and achieved a decisive (although fictional) victory over Soviet counter-espionage. On top of that, President John F. Kennedy mentioned From Russia, With Love among his top ten favorite books, boosting its sales in the US. Was Fleming’s novel a warning, preluding the ‘Red Scare’ that would soon sweep over America? Perhaps the former intelligence agent, while he quitted his official duties in May 1945, pursued his patriotic mission…

Once, Fleming was asked by President Kennedy over dinner at the White House how the author would manage the Cuban crisis. Fleming replied that he would drop money all over the island (to destabilise the local currency) as well as leaflets stating that Fidel Castro was impotent! (Photo © New Bedford Standard Times/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

But the times were already changing, and so did 007. As the world pacified in the late-70s, the spy changed accordingly. In 1977, while the US-Soviet relations moved towards ‘DĂ©tente’, James Bond cooperated with the KGB (this was not Ian Fleming’s idea, however: the novelist had died in 1964). New books, new horizons also meant new enemies, probably influenced by current geopolitical needs and threats. In the late-20th century, James Bond grappled with bad guys from North Korea, China or the Arabian Peninsula. Fleming’s war never stopped.


Cover picture (c) The Storyteller’s Hat/Le Fil de l’Histoire.

Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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