The remarkable lives of Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl criss-crossed each other for many years; the impact of both have and will, be felt for many more years to come. Cut from similar cloth, they had a lot in common and enjoyed each other’s company with a dash of friendly rivalry thrown in.
Donald Sturrock author of ‘Storyteller – The Life of Roald Dahl writes:
“[Roald Dahl] had known Ian Fleming well. Both men had worked in espionage for William Stephenson during the war, and both had similar reputations as hard-drinking, gambling, womanizing sophisticates … He admired Fleming.”
Dahl – perhaps less generous overall to Fleming – did describe him as:
“a sparky, witty, caustic companion, full of jokes and also full of obscure bits of knowledge.”
Both men’s lives were to cross for a few more years to come.
World War 2 Irregulars
Starting in 1942, both Dahl and Fleming became involved in a special group of spies designed by Sir William “Intrepid” Stevenson on the orders of Winston Churchill, to destroy the isolationist movement in the U.S. and shape the political relations between the two nations in the war against Nazi Germany.
Dahl was a key player in a British spy ring in Washington, D.C., which found him striding confidently into the White House halls of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, playing tennis with the vice-president, boxing with Ernest Hemingway and dating Clair Boothe Luce. Some of Dahl’s work was done with the direct approval of FDR.
Roald Dahl was a wounded RAF pilot who had the intellect, grace and charm to open doors that would typically be shut to even the biggest political insiders. Even Fleming would have been envious of this kind of access and Dahl was a true hero of battle. Fleming was more of the eminence gris.
Another member of The Irregulars was Fleming’s old Eton pal Ivar Bryce who Lord Mountbatten on his distant uncle dryly said, “It’s terrible, the advantages he’s had to overcome.” Bryce of course, was behind the somewhat off-the-cuff idea of a forged Nazi map of South America, carved up into 5 vassal fascist states, that was planted for Roosevelt, to galvanize the American people and prepare them for war with Germany.
Incidentally, Dahl is quoted as saying that:
“a good 50% of the Bond thing – the luxury, the atmosphere – came directly from Bryce”
Also enjoying the fun was Scotsman, David Ogilvy. Ogilvy would go on, during the postwar years, to found Ogilvy and Mather, and become the world’s most famous advertising man. Well-known, witty, and gay British playwright Noel Coward was also active. You would think Her Majesty’s government was picking their members based on entertainment value alone!
In William Boyd’s excellent WWII espionage novel ‘Restless‘, much of the story line is taken directly from the experiences of William Stephenson’s BSC ‘Irregulars’, even using Bryce’s forged Nazi map in the plot.
It was still during this period that both Dahl and Fleming began to write seriously. Fleming was planning in his mind, the spy novel to end all spy novels, while Dahl was writing short stories mostly based on his wartime flying experience. Neither could have imagined they would both one day write children’s fiction. Fleming hunkered down at Goldeneye in Jamaica for inspiration while Dahl nestled into his garden hut in Great Missenden to continue his writing, which evolved from racy adult short stories to the greatest children’s fiction ever produced.
Literary Success After the War
Much has been suggested about Fleming’s motivation to write “the spy novel to end all spy novels”. The typical one cited was to deal with the loss of his bachelorhood. Dahl’s motivations were more complicated. A terrible accident in the war had spurred writing short stories about his experiences as a fighter pilot including Over To You; then the loss of his mentor and newspaper magnate, Charles Marsh. Marsh had been a big supporter of Dahl’s literary ambitions and as perhaps to return the favor of a vote of confidence to his old friend, Dahl worked even harder.
A story that was supposedly suggested to Dahl by Ian Fleming, while Dahl visited Fleming in Vermont at Ivar Bryce’s Black Hole Hollow Farm was “Lamb to the Slaughter” It was initially rejected, along with four other stories, by The New Yorker, but was ultimately published in Harper’s Magazine in September 1953. It was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
“Why don’t you have someone murder their husband with a frozen leg of mutton which she then serves to the detectives who come to investigate the murder?”.
Fleming on the whole though, was more generous to Dahl than the other way around and followed Dahl’s literary career more closely – perhaps out of jealousy – but he kindly told Dahl:
“My stuff is nothing, despicable stuff, but yours is literature.”
Both felt like outsiders to the English literary intellectuals; save for a shared praise of Graham Greene, and preferred the company of artists and actors. Dahl also had a run-in with Kingsley Amis at one of Tom Stoppard’s parties in the 1970s. I suppose the ‘friend of mine, a friend of…’ did not work for either of them!
Noel Coward on the other hand - a good friend of Ian Fleming – who Dahl had met during the war working for Willam Stephenson, was a fan, and invited him to his house in Jamaica called Firefly. To have been a firefly on the wall when those three got together would not be one to miss.
Another artist friend was Francis Bacon - one of Ann Fleming’s circle this time - whom Dahl had discovered in 1958, when the artist shared an exhibition with fellow artist Matthew Smith. Between 1964 and 1967, Dahl bought 4 Bacon canvasses costing no more than six thousand pounds.
Fleming the collector of rare books, Dahl the collector of fine art and antiques – both had an eye for beauty.
Off To The Movies
Dahl’s first foray into the the world of Hollywood was with Walt Disney no less. One of his short stories was about Gremlins – small, mischievous, fanciful creatures that RAF pilots swore would cause havoc on their warplanes. Before it was even published, it was brought to the attention of Walt Disney who thought it would be the perfect project for his animation studio that had been working on training films for the military.
Dahl came to the Disney studio to work on the Gremlin project. A children’s book was published of only 5000 copies in 1943. Walt Disney decided to pull his studio out of “The Gremlins” film as Dahl was starting to be displeased with they way things were going and Walt reluctantly decided to cancel further production.
Fleming was beginning to look to Dahl for a leg-up in the movie business too:
“If you got a chance of putting in a word with the TV tycoons for ‘Casino’ I shall be very grateful. Money’s despicable stuff, but it buys Renoirs” .
This proved a pre-cursor for further skirmishes with the movie business.
After Dahl’s wife Patricia Neal – a renowned actress in her own right – became ill, Roald needed a financial boost. That’s when Bond, James Bond; came knocking. It was Cubby Broccoli who approached Dahl about adapting Fleming’s brilliant but flawed book You Only Live Twice for the screen; presumably because of Dahl’s friendship with Fleming.
Dahl agreed but immediately found the task difficult once reading, describing You Only Live Twice variously as ‘tired’, ‘bad’ and ‘Ian’s worst book’.”
“You Only Live Twice was the only Fleming book that had virtually no semblance of a plot that could be made into a movie. The concept of Blofeld patrolling his garden of poisonous plants in a medieval suit of armor [sic] and lopping off the heads of half-blinded Japanese was ridiculous. When I began the script, I could retain only four or five of the original novel’s story ideas. Obviously, the movie had to take place in Japan. We kept Blofeld and Tiger Tanaka and Bond’s pearl-diving girlfriend, Kissy Suzuki. And we retained the Ninjas – those masters of oriental martial arts who use their talents to raid Blofeld’s hideout. But aside from those bits, I had nothing except a wonderful Ian Fleming title.”
He persevered and wrote the script in 8 weeks with a plot that barely resembled the book – in my opinion a missed opportunity – and bluntly stated it to be “the biggest load of bullshit I have ever put my hand to”. At least he was honest.
Ironically, the final movie version recollects a passage from Fleming’s non-fiction travel book Thrilling Cities (1963), about a rocket hidden in a hollowed out volcano in the Berlin chapter:
“With a whine of thousands of horsepower, behind a mass of brilliant machinery (brainchildren of Krupp, Siemens, Zeiss and all the others) the tip of a gigantic rocket emerges above the surrounding young green trees. England has rejected the ultimatum. First there is a thin trickle of steam from the rocket exhausts and then a great belch of flame, and slowly, very slowly, the rocket climbs off its underground launching pad. And then it is on its way.
Yes, it was obviously time for me to leave Berlin”
Broccoli liked it and re-hired Dahl once more for another Fleming adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For Dahl, that project did not go very well either and even Broccoli agreed this time, calling the work “a piece of shit” and not inviting Dahl to the premiere to meet The Queen. The ultimate snub for Dahl who went on to say:
“I have now produced two worthwhile original scripts for Cubby and as far as I can tell, have done nothing wrong”
Even Fleming’s early difficulties with Hollywood can’t compare to Dahl’s who even did not like the now classic, film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Love and Loss
Both men’s lives suffered loss. Fleming’s only son Caspar committed suicide, although Fleming had died before that happened. Dahl almost lost his son Theo in a car accident in New York City, and he lost his eldest daughter Olivia to a measles complication. He never quite recovered.
Spare a thought for their first wives Ann Fleming and Patricia Neal, who did not marry the easiest of men, but were deeply devoted for a time. Dahl died in 1990, outliving his old pal Fleming by 27 years. Who knows how their friendship would have evolved but we are just grateful that their lives crossed for those few years and gave us the great work, still enjoyed by millions.
Read ’007′s Oriental Eyefuls’ by Roald Dahl
The Secret Persuaders by William Boyd
Rare Roald Dahl interview from 1990 – How he became a writer