May 28 marks a birthday of a man whose life was almost as interesting as the immortal character he created: Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. If you’re only familiar with the movies, you’re not alone, but let’s take a brief look at the man whose own espionage exploits helped shape everyone’s favorite secret agent.
Fleming was born to a wealthy financier family in England in 1908. He bounced around from private school to private school, romancing girls and underperforming academically. Eventually his mother got him a job with the Reuters news agency, enabling him to spend time in Soviet Russia during the 1930s.
When World War II broke out, Fleming was drafted by the director of the Royal Navy’s intelligence operation to be his personal assistant. Fleming spent the war devising clever operations meant to dupe the enemy into revealing weaknesses. He was instrumental in establishing military commando units dedicated to capturing and preserving enemy intelligence documents and personnel.
After the war, Fleming became manager of the foreign correspondents of one of Britain’s major newspaper chains, where he worked for most of the rest of his life.
With all of Fleming’s experience in military intelligence during the war, it was no wonder that he dreamed of writing a spy novel. He finally started writing his first James Bond book, Casino Royale, in 1952. Eleven more Bond novels would follow.
The books are products of their time. Far more than the films, which have been produced sometimes decades afterwards, the novels reflect the post-war anxieties of a British Empire in rapid decline. Fleming gave his character the name of an American expert on birds of the Caribbean, where Fleming made his home. He imbued Bond with personality traits of some of the spies he had known and worked with during the war, including his brother Peter, as well as with some of his own preferences.
Fleming’s mix of intrigue, exotic locations, sex and savagery was well received by critics until about halfway through his run of books. Then a critical backlash began, accusing Fleming’s work of being empty, ugly and sadistic. Of course, some of those perceived negatives translated well onto an increasingly cynical silver screen, and Fleming became wealthier still.
But Fleming didn’t only write James Bond novels. At the prodding of a friend, he put down on paper the story he told nightly to his young son. That became the children’s novel Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang. You read that right: The same man whose vision brought you Sean Connery seducing exotic women and killing ethnic thugs by the bushel also brought you Dick Van Dyke flying around the European countryside, singing songs in a magical, sentient antique automobile.