The following interview with Ann Fleming was originally conducted on television by Pierre Berton and then transcribed and published in his book The Cool Crazy Committed World of the Sixties . It's one of the few major interviews with Fleming's widow and shows that Berton was either good at his research or a Bond fan himself. Enjoy!
MRS IAN FLEMING: WIDOW TO A LEGEND
“I thought I was marrying the Foreign Editor of the Sunday Times.”
She had no idea, of course, back in 1952, that she was marrying into the great cult of the Sixties. James Bond had not yet been invented, and her new husband—her third—was a journalist and an ex-Naval Intelligence man of impeccable background (Eton and Sandhurst) who collected rare first editions, enjoyed spearfishing, cards, and golf, and had a place in Jamaica where he spent two months of every year.
But the marriage had come only after a period of shattering personal complexity for both of them. Her first husband, Lord O’Neill, was killed in action in 1944. Her second, Lord Rothermere, the press baron, divorced her in 1952, naming Fleming as co-respondent. They were married at once, he for the very first time. Marriage, Ian Fleming was to write later, “is a very painful thing at the age of forty-four, so to take my mind off the whole business, I sat down and wrote a novel.” Its title: Casino Royale. Unknown to either of them, the seeds of the cult were germinating.
Of the Anne Fleming of these days, it has been written that “she provokes extreme reactions, like a wasp provokes panic. Her friends adore her. Others, intimidated by what they consider to be her ruthless vitality, are more reserved in their response.” Among those who adored her were: Lady Diana Duff Cooper, Somerset Maugham, Cecil Beaton, Noel Coward, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, and Sir Frederick Ashton. Her legendary literary dinner parties—“gastronomic sessions combined with intellectual punishment”—were scarcely part of Ian Fleming’s world. He shunned them, preferring bridge at the Portland Club. The diners, in their turn, paid him and his work little heed.
It was a little more than a year after Fleming’s death (queues for Goldfinger encircling Leicester Square) that on visiting London, in November, 1965, I thought of inviting the author’s widow to talk to me on television. She had been in seclusion, but I had heard that she was disturbed, if not a little embittered, over the red tape that had enmeshed his literary estate. She agreed to come down to the Westbury Hotel and appear before the cameras.
At fifty-six, I found her a still-handsome woman. She must once have been very striking indeed. It is possible to perceive the steel within her, but this does not mean she is not charming. Behind the wall of reserve, behind the very British tendency to hold herself in check, there emerges the driest of wits. She answered all my questions readily enough but, as the transcript shows, without a great deal of elaboration. I began, of course, by asking her opinion of James Bond.
MRS. FLEMING: I’m ashamed to say I never was a Bond addict.
PIERRE: You never were? Why not?
MRS. FLEMING: I thought he had very little sense of humour.
PIERRE: James Bond?
MRS. FLEMING: Very little sense of humour.
PIERRE: He’s not the sort of person you would have invited to dinner had he been real?
MRS. FLEMING: I don’t think more than once.
PIERRE: In spite of his known love for good food and fine wines? Things like that. Not much of a conversationalist?
MRS. FLEMING: I think I always get James Bond and Ian Fleming mixed up, and I think he did in the end, more and more with every book that be wrote.
PIERRE: Did he become a prisoner of his creation?
MRS. FLEMING: I think so. I remember consulting Cyril Connolly about that. I said: “Has any author invented a character that has got hypnotized by it and become like it?” And he said: “This has happened frequently. I’m very sorry for you.”
PIERRE: In what way did your husband become a prisoner of his character?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, when he was getting ill, and I was imploring him to stop writing the book, I spoke to Somerset Maugham about it, and Maugham said: “He’ll never be able to rest now because the public won’t let him, and he won’t really want not to satisfy his public.”
PIERRE: He’d had one serious heart attack, hadn’t be, before his death?
MRS. FLEMING: He had a very serious one six years ago.
PIERRE: But this didn’t stop him?
MRS. FLEMING: It didn’t stop him writing. But he should have stopped playing golf and he should have stopped drinking, but he wouldn’t stop either…
PIERRE: Did he know that his years were numbered, at this point?
MRS. FLEMING: If he’d been sensible they needn’t have been.
PIERRE: Then he must really have enjoyed writing the Bond books, or he wouldn’t have kept on.
MRS. FLEMING: I think he enjoyed it enormously. He enjoyed all the research he did in the months before he went to Jamaica and settled down to write, and then he used to get through the book, the plot, and come home and correct it for the next six months.
PIERRE: Were you much involved with these books yourself? Did he talk to you when he was writing them?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, he started by talking to me about them, but be stopped because, I remember—I think it’s the book where two thousand sharks are eating someone—I said: “I think it would be much more exciting if there was only one shark; it’s worse.” This was supposed to be the wrong kind of criticism. But I understand, from talking to other writers’ wives, that it’s far better not to discuss books at home.
PIERRE: You’ve been asked this question, I’m sure. In what ways did Ian Fleming resemble James Bond? For instance, was he the gourmet that James Bond was supposed to be?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, he was very fond of scrambled eggs, probably you know from reading the books. I don’t think he liked very elaborate meals; I think he liked rather simple things extremely well-cooked. He was very fussy that his boiled eggs should always be just three and a half minutes. That was Bond.
PIERRE: Was he fussy about wines?
MRS. FLEMING: No. He liked any kind of red wine. He called it “infuriator.” That’s what they call cheap red wine in the Navy. I don’t think he minded very much what sort of red wine it was.
PIERRE: Did he invent that cocktail that James Bond drank, with vodka shaken up, not stirred?
MRS. FLEMING: As far as I know this he invented completely.
PIERRE: I wonder if this wasn’t a bit of the Walter Mitty in Ian Fleming? If this wasn’t a projection of his dreams?
MRS. FLEMING: I am sure it was. I think he very much enjoyed being in the Naval Intelligence during the war. What he did there he wouldn’t have dreamt of telling me. Nor was it possible to find out because John Pearson, who’s writing Ian’s life, is finding it quite impossible to get anyone in Naval Intelligence to tell him anything at all. But I think this was a projection of that, and a projection of a way of life which he thought was ceasing to exist He didn’t care for a sedentary existence. He liked traveling and he liked adventure.
PIERRE: How did the Bond idea come about? I would be interested to know, for instance, if you knew he was going to write spy thrillers before he actually sat down and wrote the first one—Casino Royale.
MRS. FLEMING: I hadn’t the remotest idea. 1 thought I was marrying the Foreign Editor of the Sunday Times.
PIERRE: Did anybody know?
MRS. FLEMING: He told about five of my best friends and three of his that he intended to write the greatest spy story in the world. But he never mentioned it to me.
PIERRE: He was right, wasn’t he?
MRS. FLEMING: He was right.
PIERRE: He wrote once, himself, towards the end of his life, that “the gimmickry grew like bindweed.” This was all the business of the guns, the cars, and the very special products that surround James Bond. Were you aware of this?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, he got very excited by this. He took enormous trouble over the book jackets, which I think are extremely good.
PIERRE: Yes, they are. I remember half-way through the series he changed guns because, apparently, the gun that Bond was using originally wasn’t a very good gun. Were you involved in this?
MRS. FLEMING: I’m ashamed to say I’m so uninterested in ballistics that a lot of this used to pass me by. But there were unending conversations about guns, certainly.
PIERRE: At what point did you actually read the Bond books? Or have you read them all?
MRS. FLEMING: I have. But I get them a bit mixed up in my mind sometimes. But I have read them all. I read them, usually in Jamaica, when they were first in manuscript.
PIERRE: What were his working habits?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, six weeks in Jamaica to two months when be used to get it all down on paper. In the next six months, he used to obviously go over it, all over it all over again, elaborately; and it was shown to William Plomer, that charming writer, who used to read for him in Cape’s. William, I think, used to take out some of the more exaggerated effects.
PIERRE: Oh they toned him down a bit, did they?
MRS. FLEMING: Sometimes, yes.
PIERRE: There was a legend around, I don’t know whether it’s true or not, that the reason Bond was made into a gourmet was that he was eating so many scrambled eggs that somebody said: “Look, this isn’t proper for a secret agent. In fact, it would identify him too easily, a man who always eats scrambled eggs. Vary the menu.” Have you heard that story?
MRS. FLEMING: I think I have. I think it must have been William.
PIERRE: The same man?
MRS. FLEMING: I think so, yes.
PIERRE: How long would he write during a day? What were his work habits?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, in Jamaica it fitted in very well, because one can’t sit in the sun all day and do nothing—at least neither of us could. So he would have breakfast about eight—having swum before breakfast—and then he would type for three hours. Then he would reread that in the evening.
PIERRE: Not a bad existence.
MRS. FLEMING: He found it perfect.
PIERRE: Why would you say, then, that this contributed to his heart attack?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, because after his heart attack we had a steep staircase down to the beach there, very steep, about forty steps, which he should never have walked up and down. And he got pains whenever he went underwater swimming. And he should have given up all these things and golf, and he wouldn’t give them up at all.
PIERRE: There’s a great deal of golf and skin-diving in his books. These were a part of your husband’s life.
MRS. FLEMING: Yes, that’s it.
PIERRE: Your husband was also a gambler. In Casino Royale, Bond was very expert in gambling.
MRS. FLEMING: I never thought he was a real gambler in the serious sense of the word. He was Scottish, you know, and fairly careful. If he did gamble, he was rather good and usually won, but not for the enormous stakes you’d expect James Bond to play for.
PIERRE: But talking of gambling and talking of money, let’s talk about the estate. This is surely one of the largest literary estates in history—with the motion picture rights and everything else.
MRS. FLEMING: I think it is. From time to time Ian said if we left England we would be very, very, very rich, indeed, and I said: “I can’t bear leaving England so we won’t.” And he didn’t want to. Of course, Somerset Maugham’s estate was huge because he left England and went to France. But we stayed here, and then at a given moment the taxation was going to be so tremendous he sold the book royalties.
PIERRE: He sold all his royalties in the future?
MRS. FLEMING: All the book royalties forever and ever, keeping forty-nine per cent of the shares—a minority share, so that the estate gets a tax dividend whenever they choose to declare it, which isn’t a fortune, really. Taxation being what it is.
PIERRE: Do you personally get much money out of the Bond estate?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, it will probably take another three or four years to settle at the present rate. I’ve no idea. But there’s not very much at the moment.
PIERRE: Are you bitter about this? I’ve heard that you were.
MRS. FLEMING: I think if it’s there I might as well have some of it.
PIERRE: And you can’t get at it?
MRS. FLEMING: Not at the moment
PIERRE: Why does it take so long?
MRS. FLEMING: Estate Office, estate duty. I think they’re trying to work out estate duties on any films that may be made in the future, which seems to me rather hard.
PIERRE: You mean they’ve really got to guess? They don’t know what this estate is worth? It depends on how successful the films are?
MRS. FLEMING: The films are taken up one after the other. The film people would stop taking them up if they stop being a success. At the moment they are so successful that this is very improbable.
PIERRE: Do you own the rights yourself, or does the estate own the rights to the Bond books?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, the books and the films are quite separate. The films go straight to the estate and the royalties go to a man called Jock Campbell, the chairman of an enormous concern called Booker Brothers.
PIERRE: They bought the rights from your husband?
MRS. FLEMING: Yes.
PIERRE: But there’s forty-nine per cent of that left. Is that willed to you?
MRS. FLEMING: Forty-nine per cent of the shares go to the estate. Left all in a trust.
PIERRE: Have you any say over what happens?
MRS. FLEMING: I’m always trying to have more say than I ought to have now I’ve pulled myself together. I didn’t take much interest to begin with. Then I started fighting about it.
PIERRE: I read the other day that Kingsley Amis, who’s a great Bond expert, has been asked to continue your husband’s character, James Bond, in a new series of books. How do you feel about that?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, I was very angry because I know Kingsley fairly well. I thought he might have rung me up and asked me what I thought about it. And I also thought Sir Jock Campbell, whom I know, might also have rung me up and said: “What do you feel?” Whereas in fact they were pretty well ahead signing up when I heard about it.
PIERRE: You tried to stop it?
MRS. FLEMING: And with some aid, it’s been stopped at the moment.
PIERRE: Is this your doing or somebody else’s?
MRS. FLEMING: I was rather helped by uninvoked aid.
PIERRE: Why don’t you want the Bond character to continue?
MRS. FLEM1NG: It’s emotional at the moment, naturally. I feel rather emotional about it. I’m sure it couldn’t come off.
PIERRE: It’s never come off in the past. Sherlock Holmes…Fu Manchu really couldn’t have been continued.
MRS. FLEMING: No, well John Pearson, who’s writing Ian’s life and had all the letters from his office, found a very funny letter from Ian to Mrs. Sax Rohmer who had written to Ian asking if he’d continue Dr. Fu Manchu. I have never seen this letter, but I understand that Ian wrote a very funny reply—saying that he did not think this could ever be done.
PIERRE: Mrs. Fleming, somebody wrote that the violence in the James Bond books was part of the strange decadence that affects Britain today. Would you agree with that?
MRS. FLEMING: Oh, I do hope you’re not right. It’s a very difficult question, isn’t it?
MRS. FLEMING: Isn’t there a great deal of violence in America?
PIERRE: Yes, there is. Maybe it’s part of the strange decadence that affects the world, if indeed the world is faced by decadence.
MRS. FLEMING: I don’t know if it’s decadence. It’s a tremendous period of change…readjustment…newly educated people. I mean, vast masses of people are now educated. Look at Africa.
PIERRE: Tell me, would you have liked your husband to have written books other than the spy thrillers?
MRS. FLEMING: Yes. He wanted to write the life of a woman whose name I can’t remember. She shoved out all the brothels in Paris. She was a French cabinet minister. He wanted to write her life, but he then got so occupied. [The woman's name was Marthe Richard]
PIERRE: He once said, in the last interview with him, that if he had enough concentration, he could have written a book comparable to War and Peace. Is this possible?
MRS. FLEMING: I’m very surprised to hear that he said it. No, I’m sure he couldn’t
PIERRE: But do you think he had a sneaking feeling that he should write something else than spy books—or was he satisfied with this?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, he was very full of humility about it, at the beginning; and be was tremendously pleased and very excited when the first book was accepted. He didn’t expect it to be.
PIERRE: And, indeed, it didn’t do very well at the beginning.
MRS. FLEMING: I don’t think it did. I don’t think it sold very many. I don’t remember how many. He was overwhelmed by this rolling-stone success.
PIERRE: When did that happen? When were you aware suddenly that there was a kind of a mania going on about James Bond?
MRS. FLEMING: When you live with some growing legend, you’re never conscious of a particular moment. As far as the sales of Pan Books were concerned, it was after the first film. I think the director of the first film, Terence Young, was brilliant in that he managed to get ‘U’ certificates so that everybody could take their children, and he took out this hero-masochism a lot and made it a joke.
PIERRE: Did your husband take himself seriously?
MRS. FLEMING: He didn’t take Bond seriously, no, he didn’t.
PIERRE: He didn’t even like him, he said once.
MRS. FLEMING: I think he probably grew to think of him as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster at the end.
PIERRE: You have a reputation for holding literary salons. In fact, I think that this is part and parcel of your life, isn’t it? You have a great many literary friends.
MRS. FLEMING: I enjoy literary friends, yes—very much.
PIERRE: Malcolm Muggeridge is one, isn’t he?
MRS. FLEMING: I haven’t seen Malcolm for a long time. I bitterly resent what he wrote about Ian. I don’t know if you happened to see it. It was quite awful. I have not seen Malcolm since then.
PIERRE: I was wondering what your other friends thought of Bond?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, Malcolm was really Ian’s friend—well, both our friend, but particularly Ian’s—so I thought it was not a very kind way to behave. I think he resents all success.
PIERRE: When you had these literary salons, did your husband attend?
MRS. FLEMING: Not often; but then a literary friend of mine called Peter Quennell, who’s written a good deal about Byron, you know, says it’s rather boring to be at a dinner party where everybody’s works are discussed except your own. Then there was a moment about three or four years ago when the highbrows got interested in Ian, which pleased Ian. He got reviews from a lot of them. Then, of course, Cyril Connolly wrote that parody which was brilliant.
PIERRE: What did he think of the Bond parodies?
MRS. FLEMING: He enjoyed them very much.
PIERRE: But Bond was not a subject of literary discussion at your salon?
MRS. FLEMING: Not, I’m afraid, until he became a success. I now think that phenomenal success interests everybody, whether they are highbrows or lowbrows.
PIERRE: It is interesting that the highbrows did not take over Bond until he became part of the social fabric. I suppose it became fashionable to pay attention to him then.
MRS. FLEMING: He became a figure one could no longer deny.
PIERRE: Are you astonished by the whole Bond business? There are Bond sweat shirts out, Bond magazines, guns…all sorts of different things.
MRS. FLEMING: Well, the lady who did my hair early this morning asked if I’d seen the James Bond car. I haven’t.
PIERRE: You don’t get involved much, then, in this sort of thing?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, I’m just intending to write to the merchandising people. I’d like them to send some of them free, perhaps, to give as Christmas presents.
PIERRE: Who owns the merchandising rights’?
MRS. FLEMING: I believe one-third goes to the film people, one-third to Jock Campbell’s company, and one-third I believe to Ian’s estate.
PIERRE: So in the end you may benefit from this?
MRS. FLEMING: I think so.
PIERRE: When it’s all settled.
MRS. FLEMING: I’m just about to write and ask if I couldn’t be told about it.
PIERRE: It would be nice to know, wouldn’t it?
MRS. FLEMING: Wouldn’t it!
PIERRE: Don’t you feel out of things’?
MRS. FLEMING: Well, I was too unhappy for a long time to care; but now I’ve got frightfully aggressive about it.
PIERRE: How does all this affect your thirteen-year-old son?
MRS. FLEMING: I try to keep him out of it, because I think all father images shouldn’t overshadow a child’s life. I think he’d better make his own life. He’s terribly interested in Egyptology and antiquities at the moment.
PIERRE: Are the Ian Fleming books in his school library?
MRS. FLEMING: He was asked about that. He was asked to write why they weren’t when he was ten. I was a little surprised. He was offered ten pounds to write fifty words. He said: “I can say it in three and I don’t want ten pounds. They’re too sexy.”
PIERRE: Since the Westbury Hotel, from where we’re broadcasting, is on Bond Street, it occurs to me to ask if it has any connection at all with James Bond; or if your husband was at all interested in the fact that there was a street named after his character?
MRS. FLEMING: Suddenly he was, after Bond became such a success. He played golf with a man who works in the College of Heralds office, so he found out all about the name. It was called after some family that apparently live in Somerset. I believe there was an origina1 Bond who was a well-known clubman. Ian then got very interested and found out what the family motto was: “The World Is Not Enough.” He was longing to adopt it for himself. It wouldn’t have been a bad motto for him really.
Edited by Revelator, 25 April 2016 - 10:19 PM.