Narrative feature

Ian Fleming: cruel? Selfish? Misogynistic? Nonsense, says his step-daughter

Comparing brothers Peter and Ian Fleming, Fionn Morgan wonders who was the better writer and who the better man

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

7 August 1964
4 Old Mitre Court, EC4

Darling Fifi,

A thousand thanks for your sweet letter & for Heaven’s sake don’t think of bringing me back anything from Brazil, except perhaps a Diamond as big as the Ritz if you happen to find one in your back garden.

When from my eyrie beneath the Christ Corcovado I looked closely at this (unusually) typed letter from Ian Fleming I saw that it was ‘dictated in his absence’ and that it must have been sent by the devoted ‘Griffie’, model for Miss Moneypenny. Scarcely surprising: five days later, on the 12th birthday of his only child Caspar, Ian — as much a father to me as a stepfather — died from a third massive heart attack. (‘I am sorry to have troubled you like this,’ he said to the ambulancemen who took him to Kent & Canterbury hospital.)

That too was not unexpected. Early in 1963 I left for Rio de Janeiro, where my husband John Morgan had been posted as commercial attaché. When I bade Ian farewell at 16 Victoria Square — the gilded cage in which this big beast felt he had been imprisoned by my mother Ann — I scarcely knew the man I loved: he was dark red of face, hectic of eye and not making that much sense. Wonderful, then, that his letters to Brazil were still full of the verve and imagination of the old Ian, as this one to my husband:

My dear John,

Your letter of 3 February [1964] with your sitrep on the Black Virgin was absolutely splendid — so much so that I read it out to a miscellaneous company, including Annie, who were entranced.

But Annie added one item to your dossier, which she got from her friend Steven Runciman. It seems that at some moment of the year the Virgin must have a lover, so all the best-looking young men assemble on the beach at midnight & swim out towards the moon. One of them must not come back because the Virgin has chosen him. (Though how he chooses himself for the honour and glory I am not quite sure.) But please press on with your researches, in between selling Leyland lorries to Brazil, and between us we may yet have a book.

But things were not well: three days after Ian’s letter to John from Jamaica came my mother’s, on the Goldeneye writing paper: ‘If only Ian were well, how much he would enjoy a Brazilian Adventure.’ Although she did not spell it out, my mother was referring to the book written by Ian’s older brother Peter, first published in 1933, which had had a Byronic success 30 years before Ian’s books were to eclipse it. So were these two fraternal writers rivals? And if not, who was the better writer and who the better man?

These were the questions which Duff Hart-Davis and I were supposed to discuss over lunch after the publication of Duff’s life of his godfather Peter. The lunch never happened, but rereading Duff’s biography 40 years later reminded me that this month sees the 50th anniversary of Ian’s death; and that only seven years later, Peter also died in August.

Ian and Peter both had unconventional wars. So much about Ian is now in the public domain that some may not realise that Peter also worked in intelligence in the second world war, and more actively than his brother. He served in Norway, Greece, Cairo and the Far East, and no one would ever have called him a chocolate soldier. But pour no scorn on ‘the chocolate sailor’ (Ian’s wartime nickname). Admiral Godfrey — ‘M’ to some — wrote an article in Encounter naming war winners, and Ian was one of them:

From the beginning, my idea was that I would tell Ian everything, so that if anything happened to me there would be one man who would know what was going on — he could ensure the continuity of the department.

Sir William Stephenson, who built up the British intelligence network in America and Canada, made the point that while Ian did not lack courage he did not have the right temperament to be an agent or genuine man of action. He had too much imagination.

After the war Ian and Peter continued to use their naval and military titles. Peter was ‘colonel’, and was thus known affectionately on his estate at Nettlebed in Oxfordshire; whilst Ian was ‘commander’, and was so called by my mother’s friends in England, but also particularly in his own domain, Jamaica, where to his cook Violet he was a hero. ‘The commander,’ she told the local paper the Gleaner, ‘was the best man I ever met, better than all the men in Jamaica and the rest of the world too’; and topping that, at the time of Anthony Eden’s visit, she said to Ian’s friend Blanche Blackwell: ‘The prime minister, he just the next man. I respect the Queen, but I obey the commander.’

Both the squire of Nettlebed and ‘the genial squire of the Caribbean’ — as Robert Harling, long-term editor of House & Garden, called Ian — were criticised as architects. Just after the war, Peter built himself Merrimoles. Evelyn Waugh wrote:

I went to call on Peter Fleming. He is very rich and has built himself the most hideous little Golders Green villa. He farms 2,000 acres and never has an egg or a pat of butter and lives on rations from the local Co-operative stores.

In Jamiaca, Noël Coward’s criticism of Goldeneye, the house Ian built, is well documented. But Paddy Leigh Fermor considered it the best tropical house he had ever stayed in. Perhaps the brothers were reacting against their grandfather, who destroyed an amiable William & Mary house and constructed in its place a 44-bedroom monstrosity, Joyce Grove.Well, it has been useful for institutions.

After the war Ian took me to Merrimoles, warning that there would only be Spam for lunch — which there was, possibly even from the Co-op. What he did not tell me was that Peter when very young had had a serious illness which had impaired his sense of taste. Even so, Peter could never have been a lotus-eater, and the Caribbbean, as he wrote to Freya Stark, would not have suited him. The colonel liked to ‘move ponderously along the roads’ — English roads — in his Rolls Royce shooting brake GF7500, while the commander preferred driving at high speed in his 1950s Ford Thunderbird. No wonder that William Plomer — poet, novelist and Benjamin Britten’s librettist — who gave the address at Ian’s funeral, said that he would always remember him on top of the world with his foot on the accelerator.

Peter with his wife Celia Johnson and their daughter Lucy
Peter with his wife Celia Johnson and their daughter Lucy

As a schoolboy, Ian had written a fan letter to Plomer. The result was a friendship which led to Plomer becoming a literary mentor. But another mentor was Peter. Far from envying the success of his younger brother, Peter rejoiced in it and offered the services of Dr Knitpick, an exacting proof-reader. Peter even set up what Duff descibed as ‘a secular shrine’ to Ian: a photograph of him in his Russian shirt, surrounded by the Bond novels.

But Ian was not lotus-eating in the Caribbean, he was working: ‘If I wait for genius to arrive from the sky, it just doesn’t.’ ‘My brains have been on fire, writing about 5,000 words a day.’ ‘Despite the presence of Truman Capote, the book is roaring along.’ Peter did think the Bond books tosh — but highly professional tosh. And the sneers of Annie’s intellectual friends were overturned by two very different poets, Philip Larkin and John Betjeman. The latter wrote: ‘The Bond world is as real and full of mystery as Conan Doyle’s Norwood and Surrey and Baker Street — this is real art. I look up to you.’

Theses have been written at American and Israeli universities about Bond the Ubermensch, and David Cannadine, in his studies of postwar Britain, pays much attention to Ian Fleming. But there’s the rub; for Cannadine implies that Ian was no gentleman — and I admit this occasionally was the case. From the Cunard White Star RMS Queen Elizabeth, Ian wrote to my mother about Sonia Orwell (who had briefly been married to George Orwell and was Ian’s senior by ten years): ‘I could nearly use her if I wasn’t so full of you.’ Use her? This is not language that we would have heard from the colonel.

Peter’s ‘secular shrine’ to Ian
Peter’s ‘secular shrine’ to Ian

And then there was Ian’s own mother — about whom he seldom spoke. But around the time that she became involved in a court case with the Marchioness of Winchester, he wrote to my mother: ‘That’s another bitch needs whipping.’ Oh dear. Perhaps Ian had never forgiven her for killing an important romance; but then she had done the same to Peter, and this is what the latter had to say about her after her death: ‘She was a splendid person. I reckon she did very well by the four intransigent brats of whom she was left in sole charge.’

But I come to praise my stepfather, not to bury him; so if I concede that he was not always a perfect gentle knight I disagree profoundly with the opinion of Douglas Rae, executive producer of a ‘fantasy’ biopic of Ian made for BBC America, that he ‘was cruel, particularly cruel to women. He was a very selfish man. He lived for himself.’

Nonsense. What does Douglas Rae know? But here’s someone who did know: Hilary Bray, a devout man and my mother’s favourite among Ian’s golfing friends:

Flags have been at halfmast, not for the writer with 35 million readers, the man with the golden pen, but for someone who, until his last day, remained stimulating and sympathetic, ironical and patient with his friends, but who had no margin left for himself.

We could leave it at that; but this is about Peter as well as Ian, and while Ian was delivering Bond after Bond, Peter published four serious historical studies. One of them, Bayonets to Lhasa, deals perceptively with men, politics and military matters in a way that Ian — who confessed that he had no interest in politics — could never have achieved. What is more, I wanted to know what would happen, and how it would end. It’s a thriller.

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Fionn Morgan is the daughter of Ann Fleming (née Charteris) and her first husband Shane, 3rd Lord O’Neill. She was 16 when her mother married Ian Fleming.

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  • Kitty MLB

    Oh I will have nothing said against Ian Flemming, he just had self
    determination and was a creative one else could have
    created that man of mystery the debonair James Bond.
    Oh I wonder if I were around at the time of Ian Flemming whether
    he would have considered the concept of a female Bond..I’d
    love it. But maybe not, his masculine charm was all part of the
    package. Maybe I could have been Moneypenny..she knew rather
    alot you know and understood Mr Bond.

  • Kitty MLB

    ‘he will always remember him on the top of the world with his
    foot on the accelerator’ brilliant..the best way to be remembered.
    You only live once.

  • Dr Cox

    The late Cecil de Sausmarez knew both Flemings in prep school days. He though Peter far preferable to Ian.

    • Kitty MLB

      Fine then! Peter Fleming was the nicest brother..good for him.