‘The Special Relationship’: Ian Fleming and America

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 4.01.26 PMThere is a certain paradox about James Bond’s relationship with all things America. Devoted to the Anglo-American war against Communism, there is a level of contempt that runs through the novels during a time when the British Empire was winding up and the new American one was burgeoning. The contempt tended to be about material things, perhaps a veiled attack on America’s overt consumerism.

In life, Fleming was something of a fan of America. He loved his Studebaker car, holidayed in Vermont and New York; took many trips throughout the States for fun and research for his books and had many close American friends such as Raymond Chandler, Ernie Cuneo and even John F. Kennedy. Perhaps this is why the Brits and Americans are referred to as ‘Cousins’ and not ‘Brothers’.

When interviewed by Roy Norquist for a publication called CounterpointIan Fleming had this to say about the influence of America on him:

Two splendid American writers, the great masters of the modern thriller, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I was influenced by these writers, by their extremely good style and the breadth and ingeniousness of their stories.

There is some American detail. Of course, three or four of the books are set in and around America, and there’s a subsidiary hero, an American named Felix Leiter who’s with the CIA and later with a detective agency. But I do get into trouble with my Americanisms. People write in and say I’ve got things wrong here and there. Recently, in fact, I got an assistant librarian at Yale who passes on all my American scenes. I give him the book, and he very kindly goes through it and suggests where the American language could be improved. So I try to catch everything, but still —- well, it annoys me as much as it must annoy Americans to find America so clumsily depicted in English books.

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 4.02.06 PM

Similarly, the English are annoyed by mistakes Americans make about England. As an author, one should try to get the lingo totally correct. This applies most strongly to the gangster idiom (of which we have an exaggerated idea, perhaps largely due to Damon Runyon). Gangster language changes with the times, just like beat language, and it’s very difficult, if one isn’t living in America, to keep up with it. But I try my best, and I’m pleased to find that too many Americans don’t complain.

Yet the much lamented ‘snobbery’ aspect of Fleming’s writing is not helped with lines like this from For Your Eyes Only:

You can get far in North America with laconic grunts. “Huh,” “hun,” and “hi!” in their various modulations, together with “sure,” “guess so,” “that so?” and “nuts!” will meet almost any contingency.

But apart from some lazy prejudice at times, when Fleming spends time on writing about America, he does it justice with his intense enthusiasm and attention to detail. Remember, he summered most years up at his old pal Ivar Bryce’s farm in Vermont, where he came up with plot ideas set in America. In October 1956, Diamonds Are Forever came out in America and was well received. Even the The New York Times’Anthony Boucher—described by a Fleming biographer, John Pearson as “throughout an avid anti-Bond and an anti-Fleming man” noted that “Mr. Fleming’s handling of American and Americans is well above the British average”.

While William Plomer a friend and reader for Fleming’s publisher, Jonathan Cape, read the manuscript and singled out Fleming’s description of the racing stables in Saratoga as: “The work of a serious writer”.

O.F. Snelling supported this estimation:

While I have never thought that Fleming was at his best when writing about America and Americans, I believe that his Harlem chapters in the book [Live and Let Die] are some of his finest. ‘Seventh Avenue’ and ‘Table Z’ , while not entirely necessary to the atmosphere, his handling of urban negro dialect is, to me, completely convincing.

Fleming plays on this repressed desire of British people to remind Americans they don’t know everything and should be taken down a peg once in awhile. Felix Leiter serves this purpose. While Bond is very fond of him, Leiter takes his orders from Bond and cannot be shown to be tougher or more resilient. Perhaps this is why by only the second book [Live and Let Die], Leiter loses and arm in a horrific shark attack and is forever crippled. No way he’ll steal the show now. He’s more of a character used to add some humor to liven things up. In fact Leiter provides Fleming with an outlet to demonstrate his sense of humor, which is often not discussed very much. The Bond movies are never able to quite get Leiter right either cycling through 7 actors.

007 ways to a Felix Leiter

007 ways to a Felix Leiter

“It turned out that Leiter was from Texas. While he talked on about his job with the Joint Intelligence Staff on NATO and the difficulty of maintaining security in an organization where so many nationalities were represented, Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people and that most of them seemed to come from Texas.” (Casino Royale)

Christopher Hitchens on Fleming’s ‘the special relationship’ and Felix Leiter:

Ian Fleming was a ‘special relationship’ man by necessity, because of the imperatives of anti-communism […] But, like may with connections to ‘The Service’, he was by no means a special relationship man from the cultural point of view. Bond reacts with infuriated disgust, when Tatiana Romanova compares his good looks to those of a American film star (‘For God’s sake. That’s the worst insult you can pay a man!’) and, in a little remembered short story entitled Quantum of Solace, is privately sympathetic to the Cuban rebels whose cause he has been sent to sabotage.

A compromise is eventually reached by way of Bond’s gulf of affection for the brash CIA man Felix Leiter, but it is generally to be understood that British resolve and pluck and integrity are worth far more than their equivalent weight in Yankee cash and technology.

Good Bond villains are seldom American either in the novels and never English. One pops up as in the case of The Hildebrand Rarity. Milton Krest not only beats his wife Liz (English by the way), but kills hundreds of other fish with poison in order to get his one specimen. He ultimately gets killed – we never know by who – when the Hildebrand Rarity is stuffed down his throat, not before he and Bond discuss their ‘special relationship’:

Hildebrand Rarity‘Nowadays’, said Mr. Krest, ‘there were only 3 powers – America, Russia and China. That was the big poker game, and no other country had the chips or the cards to come to it. Civility and Servitude. You English make the best goddam butlers and valets in the world. Civil servant you say? I reckon were likely to get along fine.’

‘Your argument reminds me of a rather sharp aphorism I once heard about America. Care to hear it?’

‘Sure, sure’

‘It’s to the effect that America has progressed from infancy to senility without passing through a period of maturity.’

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 7.38.34 PMAnd they often tend to be ‘hoods’ such as in Diamonds Are Forever and Goldfinger, with almost cliched names such as The Spang Brothers and Shady Tree. Never quite the menace of other international villainy. Even the deplorable acts of Horror and Sluggsy in The Spy Who Loved Me have the menace dampened by overdone American affectation.

Fleming could handle the American idioms better than any English writer but as O.F. Snelling humorously points out:

Similar dialogue written by an American might appear: ‘Gorblimey ‘Orror, me ol’ mate. This bleeding cow’s guide a heyful, hadn’t she? Take a butcher’s at them there Archie Pitts!’

I think it must be my sensitivity to names which makes them all so ridiculous to me. I know that thee were real people names like that, but Fleming’s fictional Jed Midnight, Billy Bing, Jack Strapp and Mr. Solo appear to me to be trying to hard to be tough.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 7.28.41 PMBond’s women are often American and they never fit with the ‘traditional’ Bond girls of the other novels – whether falling in love and contemplating marriage as in the case of Tiffany Case or surprisingly ‘bonding’ with Pussy Galore to joining forces with Tilly Masterson to take down Goldfinger or Judy Havelock in the hunt for ex-Nazi Von Hammerstein in For Your Eyes Only.

The common theme with all these American Bond women, is that they are tough and resourceful. In fact, I’d have a wager on any one of them winning a fight with Felix Leiter!

Live and Let Die:
For Fleming was to maintain the slightly off-balance special relationship, he found he could do it with particularly with food – “Oh yes, I take potshots at a lot of things, including American food, which I find frozen to tastelessness.” he said. Quite brave considering the standards of British cuisine in the 1950s but he obviously felt that in his experience in America, they did not have too much to shout about either.

“As long as they got their steaks and seafood right, the rest could go to hell. and everything was so long frozen, in some vast communal food-morgue presumably, that flavor had gone from all American food except the Italian.”007 In New York:

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 3.33.16 PMBut before Fleming completely barred himself from ever stepping foot in an America restaurant or bar again, he did have nice things to say about their cocktails such as saying that American vermouth to be “the best he ever tasted.” The  famous “brizzola” that Bond eats in New York in Live and Let Die. In Goldfinger as Bond dines with Junius DuPont at Bill’s on the Beach including: cracked stone crabs with melted butter, racks of thick toast, Pommery pink champagne 1950, coffee – Bond describes this as the “most delicious meal of his life.” 

Sounds like a square meal to me – Anglo-American relations restored!

5 thoughts on “‘The Special Relationship’: Ian Fleming and America

  1. Pingback: The Baboons of YHWH | Rosamond Press

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