Despite these brickbats, or perhaps partly because of them, the Bond novels became more successful, and when it came to review Goldfinger, the seventh book in the series, in March 1959, The Times noted that:
‘A new novel by Mr. Ian Fleming is becoming something of an event, since James Bond has now established himself at the head of his profession, a secret service agent who indeed plays for England but who has much in common with the highly sexed “private eye” on the other side of the Atlantic.’9James Bond was on a roll, and nothing could stop him. Fleming settled into his routine of writing his books in Goldeneye, his holiday home in Jamaica, and receiving editorial encouragement and criticisms from ‘my gentle Reader William Plomer’ (as he wrote in the dedication of Goldfinger). Plomer had always been Fleming’s champion and supporter behind the scenes, but in 1962 he briefly stepped into the limelight, when he interviewed Fleming for a radio programme. I’m currently trying to locate a recording of this but I have been provided with a copy of the complete transcript, which is held with Plomer’s papers at Durham University, and which makes for fascinating reading.
The interview was part of a series of programmes titled ‘The Writer Speaks’, which had been produced by The New American Library – Fleming’s paperback publisher in the United States. Other writers interviewed for the series included Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, Irving Stone, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones, CP Snow, Theodore Jones and Gore Vidal. The intention seems to have been for these interviews to have been offered free of charge to any radio station that wanted them, but it’s not clear if any took up the offer in this case: it may never have been broadcast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a rather cosy chat, and it covers a lot of familiar ground. Fleming tells the story of his visit to Estoril during the war that inspired the plot of Casino Royale, mentions the influence of Chandler and Hammett on his writing and says he started writing novels ‘to take his mind off the prospect of getting married’10. But some of his remarks are more revealing, and often amusing. When asked by Plomer where the best place in the United States would be for a rendezvous with a spy, he offers either the traditional park or a crowded public swimming pool, or this unusual solution:
‘I once had this discussion with Raymond Chandler and he said that, supposing it were a beautiful spy as opposed to a rather dull spy, the place to take her would be to the Rainbow Room at the top of the Rockefeller Center because he said that was a very attractive place to meet anyway, and also almost entirely used by out-of-town Americans and tourists, so that one would be unlikely to run into a friend or an acquaintance.’11Plomer also raises the question of Paul Johnson's damning review of Dr No in The New Statesman four years earlier:
‘William Plomer: Do you think your books are studies in sex, snobbery and sadism?Plomer also asks Fleming if he has any idea of how many books he has sold to date, to which Fleming replies:
Ian Fleming: Well, I don’t think they are studies in any of those quite proper ingredients of a thriller. Sex, of course, comes into all interesting books and into interesting lives. As to snobbery. I think that’s pretty good nonsense, really. In fact, we’d all of us like to eat better, stay in better hotels, wear better clothes, drive faster motor-cars, and so on, and it amuses me that my hero does most of these things. As for sadism, well, I think the old-fashioned way of beating up a spy with a baseball bat has gone out with the last war, and I think it’s permissible to give him a rather tougher time than we used to in the old-fashioned days before the war.’12
‘Well, that’s a very difficult thing to discover because they’ve been published in about thirty foreign languages. But I should say that my sales in England over my last ten or eleven books would be around two or three million, and in America I think they’re certainly that and possibly more. I think they may well be up to four million because they’ve gone into the New American Library paperback edition and been very smartly dressed up and seem to be selling like hot cakes in the States.’13This seems to be a rather obvious puff, so it may be that if the programme was not broadcast it was because it was felt to be a little too clearly promotional material. But it’s revealing nevertheless, because this interview was conducted before the first Bond film had been released, and the numbers are huge. The sales figures in the States were probably partly the result of an article about John F Kennedy’s reading habits that had appeared in Life in March, 1961, in which the president had listed From Russia, With Love as one of his 10 favourite books.14 Plomer asks Fleming how he had met the Kennedies:
‘Well, it was rather interesting. About a year before Mr Kennedy became President, I was staying in Washington with a friend of mine and she was driving me through, it was a Sunday morning, and she was driving me through Washington down to Georgetown and there were two people walking along the street and she said, “Oh, there are my friends Jack and Jackie,” and they were indeed very close friends of hers, and she stopped and they talked. And she said, “Do you know Ian Fleming?” And Jack Kennedy said, “Not the Ian Fleming?” Of course that was a very exciting thing for him to say and it turned out that they were both great fans of my books, as indeed is Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, and they invited me to dinner that night with my friend, and we had great fun discussing the books and from then on I’ve always sent copies of them direct and personally to him before they’re published over here.’15‘I think that was an historic encounter,’ Plomer replies. Fleming told his tale masterfully, but he did not mention the name of his friend. This wasn’t simply tact: to do so would have ruined the story, as the friend was Marion ‘Oatsie’ Leiter, whose surname Fleming had given James Bond’s friend in the CIA, Felix Leiter. Leiter had introduced Kennedy to the Bond novels, and had just stopped off at the Kennedies’ house to ask if she could bring Fleming to dinner that evening. They weren’t in, but on the drive away she and Fleming happened to see them walking on the street.16 But that wouldn’t have made as good an anecdote as JFK saying ‘Not the Ian Fleming?’
And it is perhaps the keen publicist that lurked beneath the drawling upper-class English veneer that helped catapult Ian Fleming’s thrillers to global success. In an interview in 1964, John le Carré said that for his first two novels he had ‘remained an anonymous and contented civil servant who reckoned on producing a book a year for a fairly small readership, and going on doing an honest and unspectacular job’17. Fleming was much more ambitious. He had realized very early on in his writing career that selling subsidiary rights, and particularly television and film rights, would be the key to financial security, and he had pursued them relentlessly. At the time of his interview with William Plomer for ‘The Writer Speaks’, those ambitions were finally coming to fruition, as the following exchange shows:
‘William Plomer: You know people often think your books ought to be films. Am I not right in thinking that the first film based on one of your books has just been made?And the rest, as they say, is history.
Ian Fleming: Yes, it has. It was filmed mostly in Jamaica this last winter. And it’s been done by United Artists through a subsidiary of theirs over here called EON Productions, and it’s been produced by the producer of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which was a very great success both here and in America.
Plomer: Have you seen a preview of your film?
Fleming: Yes, I have. I’ve seen the rough cut and I must say I think they’ve certainly managed to hit it off very well. They’ve got a very good star as James Bond, a man called Sean Connery, a Scotsman, who weight-lifts in Scotland and boxed for the navy and a very good Shakespearean actor and so on, and they’ve got plenty of excitement and gunplay and what-all in the film and I think it’ll probably be a very great success.
Plomer: Well, let’s hope it will be the first of a succession of films.’18
With many thanks to Caroline Craggs, Mike Harkness and Denise Condron of the Archives and Special Collections, Durham University Library.
1, 4, 5, 7. All quotes are from Jonathan Cape, Publisher by Michael Spencer Howard, Penguin, 1971
2. From Chapter 23, Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, Jonathan Cape, 1953.
3, 6, 16. All quotes and information from Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett, Phoenix, 1996.
8. The Case of Mr Fleming by Bernard Bergonzi, in The Twentieth Century, March 1958; and Sex, snobbery and sadism by Paul Johnson, in The New Statesman, 5 April 1958.
9. From The Times, March 26, 1959.
10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18. All quotes from ‘The Writer Speaks’, Ian Fleming and William Plomer, 1962, courtesy the Archives and Special Collections, Durham University Library.
14. The President’s Voracious Reading Habits, by Hugh Sidey, in Life, March 17, 1961.
17. John le Carré Brings Realism To Spy Fiction, Matinee Highlights, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, broadcast May 30, 1964.