April 4, 2014

The secret to James Bond’s chauvinism lies in Ian Fleming’s letters


Bond Girls: best when tragically dead. "Michael Gillette - Ian Flemming Covers" by cynthia silvestri via Flickr

Bond Girls: best when tragically dead.
“Michael Gillette – Ian Flemming Covers” by cynthia silvestri via Flickr

Pussy Galore, Holly Goodhead, Chew Mee… the names of female characters in James Bond novels tell you a great deal about the author Ian Fleming’s attitudes to women: he thought they didn’t even deserve decent puns.

But a new collection of love letters written by Fleming, and soon to be sold at auction, reveals more about his relationships with women, and show how his attitudes to his lovers and sex spilled over into his novels and into the characters of his Bond Girls. Writing in The Times, Ben Macintyre describes the letters as showing Fleming to be “at once tender and cruel, passionate and detached, violent and romantic”, but mostly, I would say, just cruel, detached and violent, with a penchant for whipping.

To one lover, the Austrian Edith Morpurgo, Fleming quibbled over the word “love”: “If I were to say ‘love’, you would only argue, and then I would have to whip you and you would cry and I don’t want that.” He then continued: “I would also like to hurt you because you have earned it and in order to tame you like a little wild animal.” Macintyre traces these tendencies through Fleming’s life and shows how they surfaced in his Bond novels:

Fleming’s interest in flagellation, which amateur psychologists like to trace back to his beatings at school, also played a part in his tempestuous marriage to Ann Rothermere, and there are several references to whippings in the Bond books: 007 periodically threatens to spank several women, including, rather bravely, Miss Moneypenny.

In these letters, Fleming also rehearses many Bond-esque comments which surely inspired the kind of flirtatious cheap one-liners Bond uses on the women he encounters. In one letter he remarks bluntly, “The direct approach to sex has become the norm”, which is certainly how Bond always goes about his business. In a more romantic, but no less dominant mode, he wrote:

“I’d like to sleep with you just once and do nothing to you, just wrap my arms around you and hold you tight and find you there when I wake up.”

Roald Dahl, who was the screenwriter of You Only Live Twice was apparently given a formula when it came to Bond Girls:

you put in three girls … Girl number one is pro-Bond. She stays around roughly through the first reel of the picture. Then she is bumped off by the enemy, preferably in Bond’s arms. The next girl is anti-Bond and normally captures him, but Bond will save himself by using his charm and sexual potency: she is normally killed mid-way through the film. Girl number three will survive and end the film in Bond’s embrace.

What’s clear now is how much Fleming’s own life experience influenced this formula. Macintyre notes how Fleming’s lovers often lost their lives in tragic circumstances, which also mirrored the times he was living in. Morpurgo died at Auschwitz, while another lover, Muriel Wright (who Fleming cheated on repeatedly during their relationship) was killed in the Blitz.

As one of Fleming’s friends remarked after her death, “The trouble with Ian is that you have to get yourself killed before he feels anything.” But Macintyre sees Wright as the ultimate Bond Girl, and he’s right: “fun, pliant, uncomplaining and then, abruptly and tragically, dead.”


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.