August 12, 1964: Ian Fleming is dead of a heart attack at age 56.
It’s hard to know what to say about the man. Enslaved to vice: the smoking, the drinking – which his doc warned him about. Never mind you have a family, Ian – yeah, just do whatever you want. He was a world-class womanizer/slut. Affairs and flings with women married and not, before and during his own marriage. Sound like any famous super-spies of books and film you can think of? He was a misogynist. This I will assert based not only on the unapologetic sexism of classic Bond but also considering the casual comments about rape in a few of the novels.
He was also a war hero. He was a prime mover in the planning and leadership of 30 AU, a storied commando unit. Though never in the field, he was a bit of an adventurer. So, having the refined taste of an upper crusty, he could pattern Bond partly after himself and partly after all the spec ops-espionage types he knew from the war. He was a man’s man in many ways, and there’s nothing wrong with that. (Though, if you can model duty and loyalty in war, perhaps you could be expected to do it in your marriage. Not speaking from experience, but it doesn’t seem like a huge leap.)
Helluva writer, though. You can argue all you want as to whether or not it’s literature, but the Bond novels are gritty and evocative. It’s no mean accomplishment to have spawned one of the greatest movie franchises. His books even bolstered British self-image during the tough post-war years; Bond was tough, effective, pretty damn cool, and British. And constantly saving the Americans’ asses.
For my money, Fleming is most like Bond when taken as a whole: pretty great, but also, a complete dick. Look at Bond: capable, smooth, tenacious, resourceful, bold – yeah, of course I want to be like that guy – who wouldn’t? On the other hand: violent, lustful, self-indulgent. I mean, these things all look cool on film (not talking about the rape here, of course), but in real life? Those are the ingredients for a miserable marriage (or 2 or 5), estranged children, and dying alone of liver failure, cancer or… a heart attack. The movies finally got around to deflating some of that misogyny, but go back and read the books. It’s just like Fleming himself: a mixed bag.
Funny how people are like that.
So, you can’t put Fleming or his character on a pedestal, nor can you reject them completely. You have to nuance your judgement. Look for what’s good and worthy of imitation; reject what is destructive. Sure, I wanna be like James Bond, but not exactly like him.
Ian Fleming is dead. Long live Ian Fleming.
Here’s a great little BBC documentary about Casino Royale and the invention of James Bond.