President John F. Kennedy was a fan of Fleming’s books. In March 1961, Hugh Sidey, published an article in Life Magazine, on President Kennedy’s top ten favourite books. It was a list designed to show that Kennedy was both well-read and in tune with popular taste. It included Fleming’s From Russia With Love. Up until this time, Fleming’s books had not sold well in the United States, but with Kennedy’s endorsement, his publishers decided to mount a major advertising campaign to promote his books. By the end of the year Fleming had become the largest-selling thriller writer in the United States.
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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, perhaps the most famous James Bond fan of all. With that in mind, let’s examine and review the ties between Ian Fleming and Kennedy.
The two met when Kennedy was running for President in 1960. The story is best told in John Pearson’s The Life of Ian Fleming (pages 321-23):
“When Fleming went to see his friend Mrs. Marion “Oatsie” Leiter on Sunday, March 13, she mentioned that she was dining with the Kennedys that evening. After lunch at her house she was driving Fleming through Georgetown in her white Chrysler when she spotted the Kennedys strolling along P Street. She stopped the car and asked them if she could bring a visitor to Washington to dinner with them that evening. As a matter of fact, he was with her right now.
“Who’s that?” asked Kennedy politely.
She introduced them. “Mr. Ian Fleming–Senator Kennedy.”
Kennedy studied Fleming for a moment and said as they shook hands, “James Bond? But of course, by all means–do please come.” [Fleming later embellished the story by having Kennedy say “THE Ian Fleming?”]
Kennedy studied the handsome Englishman, rather as puzzled admirals used to study him in the days of Room 39. Was he an oddball or something more? What ideas had mister Fleming in mind?”
“Ridicule, chiefly,” said Fleming. And with immense seriousness and confidence he developed a spoof proposal for giving Castro the James Bond treatment.
Early the next morning Fleming left Washington for New York, but the evening at the Kennedys’ was to have its own hilarious postscript. Half an hour after Fleming had left, Allen Dulles telephoned Henry Brandon. Already he had heard of the secret weapon for demolishing Castro and regretted that he wasn’t able to hear about Fleming’s ideas in person.”
As a matter of fact, Fleming went on to directly criticize American policy toward Cuba. In Chapter 12 of The Man with the Golden Gun, Scaramanga says:
As for Mister C, he seems to be going along all right. [Hurricane] Flora was a body-blow but, largely thanks to the Americans leaning on Cuba the way they do, he’s kept the country together. If the Americans once let up on their propaganda and needling and so forth, perhaps even make a friendly gesture or two, all the steam’ll go out of the little man.
This is a pointed rebuke of the schemes of the CIA and American government. As Fleming would later tell Playboy:
“many politicians seem to like my books, I think perhaps because politicians like solutions, with everything properly tied up at the end. Politicians always hope for neat solutions, you know, but so rarely can they find them.”
Fleming had no idea how momentous his meeting with Kennedy would become. As his biographer wrote:
On March 17  James Bond had received the biggest boost of his career. In an article in Life magazine on the reading habits of President Kennedy […] Hugh Sidey gave an authorized list of ten favorite books of the President.
It was an impressive affair, as it was presumably intended to be. Lord David Cecil’s biography of Lord Melbourne headed it. Buchan’s Montrose and Churchill’s Marlborough followed. And just beating M. de Stendahl’s The Red and the Black to ninth place was From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming. […] Arthur Schlesinger has hinted that it was little more than part of a publicity build-up of the new President, and it seems possible that when the presidential press secretary was compiling the list he slipped in From Russia With Love at ninth place to show that the President could be an egghead yet remain human.
Nevertheless, both the Kennedys had undoubtedly read and enjoyed the early Bond books. According to Allen Dulles it was Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy herself who introduced him to From Russia With Love with the words, “Here is a book you should have, Mr. Director.” [page 323]
“From that moment the American boom really began” concludes Pearson.
Andrew Lycett adds:
after the Life magazine article, Signet [which acquired paperback rights in 1957] weighed in with a major advertising campaign, and by the end of the year Ian had become the biggest-selling thriller writer in the United States.
In a 1962 letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Fleming wrote:
“I am delighted to take this opportunity to thank Kennedys everywhere for the electric effect their commendation has had on my sales in America.’”
Fleming even thanked Kennedy in the Bond novels. In Chapter 10 of The Spy Who Loved Me, James Bond and Vivienne Michel have the following conversation:
We need some more Jack Kennedys. It’s all these old people about. They ought to hand the world over to younger people who haven’t got the idea of war stuck in their subconscious.
Like many people around the world, Fleming partook of the idealism that surrounded Kennedy’s presidency. He even made Bond a Kennedy fan, albeit a covert one. The Spy Who Loved Me was written in early 1961, around the time that the Life article came out, and one suspects that Fleming wrote this shout-out after reading Kennedy’s endorsement.
By October 1961 Henry Brandon was telling a thrilled Fleming that “the entire Kennedy family is crazy about James Bond” (Lycett, 383). In the White House Kennedy would sometimes ask Brandon for news of Fleming.
“Kennedy,” said Brandon, “was fascinated by the line dividing Ian’s real life from the fantasy life that went into his books. He often asked me how such an intelligent, mature, urbane sort of man could have such an element of odd imagining in his make-up.” [Pearson, 323]
When the film of Dr. No was released (shortly before the Cuban missile crisis), Kennedy arranged a screening at the White House (it would fascinating to hear what he thought of the film and Sean Connery!). And it is said that From Russia With Love was the last film Kennedy watched before leaving for Dallas. The night before his assassination, both Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were said to be reading Bond novels. There might be some truth to this: the FBI’s files on Oswald reveal that two Bond novels – Live and Let Die and The Spy Who Loved Me – were among Oswald’s possessions. The page from the FBI’s file can be downloaded here.
For Fleming the news of Kennedy’s death came three days into the Thunderball court case. It must have been a great blow for him, arriving within an already stressful ordeal. In Fleming’s posthumously published Playboy interview, Fleming attempted to describe Bond’s appeal to Kennedy:
“I think perhaps that Bond’s sort of patriotic derring-do was in keeping with the President’s own concept of endurance and courage and grace under pressure.”
Since meeting his first meeting with the Kennedys, Fleming had maintained contact with the family, sending them inscribed copies of his books. In the spring of 1964 Bobby Kennedy thanked Fleming for a signed copy of You Only Live Twice. On a black-edged card he wrote: “I wish someone else could read it also.” [Pearson, page 323.]
Fleming went on to pay tribute to the fallen president in The Man With the Golden Gun, begun less than three months after Kennedy’s death. The passage is in chapter 7:
James Bond put ice in the glass and three fingers of the bourbon and swilled it round the glass to cool it and break it down with the ice. He pulled a chair up to the window, put a low table beside it, took Profiles in Courage by Jack Kennedy out of his suitcase, happened to open it at Edmund G. Ross (‘I looked down into my open grave’), then went and sat down, letting the scented air, a compound of sea and trees, breathe over his body.
It’s a fittingly hedonistic tribute, intended as a tribute from one writer to another.
John F. Kennedy was the closest any American President came to being James Bond: a cool, collected, hard-drinking glamorous playboy. Sophisticated, witty, handsome, and dashing, Kennedy was a President from the dream world of fiction, a Bond made Chief Executive. But like all dreams, Kennedy was not real. Far less sophisticated than his image, his womanizing was far more sordid than Bond’s. And though he emulated Bond, the results were fiascos like the Bay of Pigs.
His vigor and dynamism (an illusion conveyed by truckloads of prescription drugs) disguised the fact that his Presidency was a legislative disappointment. Yet Kennedy’s candid wit and glamour persist. And he displayed Bondian qualities where they counted most, in the Cuban missile crisis. As the lone voice of sanity among his advisers, he truly showed the “endurance and courage and grace under pressure” that Fleming praised.
And without Kennedy, what would have happened to Bond?
Fleming would not have become a bestseller in the US without Kennedy’s selection of From Russia With Love. That directly led to the creation of a receptive large audience for the first Bond film, Dr. No. Without that, the movie might have tanked, and Bond would not have survived. Without the interest created by Kennedy, United Artists might not have bankrolled Bond films in the first place. It was American interest, backed by American money, that made the Bond films possible, and without Kennedy that interest might not have been enough–there might not have been any Bond films at all.
So John F. Kennedy was not only the most famous Bond fan of all time—he may have been the most influential as well.
And yet he wouldn’t have been a fan of the Bond books, if it hadn’t been for Marion “Oatsie” Leiter (right). She had been an old friend of the Kennedys since her youth in South Carolina. Five years before Fleming met JFK, she introduced Kennedy to Bond by giving him a copy of Casino Royale to read while he recovered from back pain in Newport, Rhode Island. (Lycett, page 367.)
And Oatsie was of course a friend of Fleming–she and her husband Thomas Leiter got to know him in Jamaica in the early 50s (after befriended Ivar Bryce in Washington during the war). Fleming paid tribute to the couple by giving Felix Leiter their surname. According to an interview with her:
“Fleming had promised Oatsie that he would name a character in one of his thrillers after her, but he died in 1964 before he could make it happen.”
That interview was from 2006, when Mrs. Leiter had turned 87. If this remarkable woman is still alive, all of us owe her a debt. Without her, Fleming would not have met JFK, and the Life article might not have included From Russia With Love. So perhaps Oatsie Leiter is the most influential Bond fan of them all. In any case, she was certainly a true friend of Ian Fleming.
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