It can be (and has been) argued that the death of Valentine Fleming left little Ian completely shaken and stirred. Without a father, especially a father such as Valentine, Ian became un-moored and began searching for a suitable replacement. Throughout his life, he found many, from the senior officers he served with to his older brother. By in large, each man helped to create the composite figure of M — an amalgam of various influences and British stereotypes. As such, it’s not true or even practical to speak of one “real” M. Still, it’s fun to guess which figure might have played the greatest role, and below are some of the most likely candidates.
Admiral John Godfrey
Admiral Godfrey, who was Commander Ian Fleming’s boss in Naval Intelligence during World War II, has long been the favorite for the real M. The old seadog knew it too, and later in life, after the popularity of James Bond had taken off across the globe, Godfrey remarked that his former assistant (Fleming) had “turned me into that unsavoury character, M.”
Like M, Admiral Godfrey has often been described as, in the words of author and BBC America contributor Samuel West, “skeptical, cantankerous, and practical.” “Curmudgeon” would also be an apt description, and like M, Admiral Godfrey was not too keen on babying his charge, even despite the fact that he was the one responsible for pulling Fleming into intelligence work in the first place.
With his typically British stiff upper-lip and no-nonsense style, Admiral Godfrey, like M, was the personification of imperial Britain’s class of career military men. It’s not hard to imagine Admiral Godfrey giving a man like Bond orders, although it’s a tad difficult to envision him as someone who’d get so bent out of shape about cheating at cards that he’d send Bond in to investigate in a manner similar to Moonraker.
Sir Stewart Menzies
The Chief of MI6 during the Second World War and the early stages of the Cold War, Major General Sir Stewart Menzies was another tough officer who sometimes hid his Etonian refinement behind a gruff exterior. A veteran of both world wars who had actually signed up for the army years before the recruitment rush of 1914, Menzies was for years the top man in British intelligence, and as such he sported a single letter monicker (instead of “M,” Menzies was “C”).
The only black mark on Menzies’s record is the fact that he oversaw MI6 during the time when Kim Philby and other Soviet agents had deeply infiltrated the inner workings of British espionage. Furthermore, according to a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, Menzies was an “amateur at a time when his adversaries were professionals.” Like Fleming himself, Menzies was a throwback who preferred luxury items and the life of a Scottish laird to the workaday stiffness of the modern office.
Sir Mansfield Cumming
His full name and title was Captain Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming. A middle-class son of overseas traders and a Navy man (Fleming was, if nothing else, eminently loyal to his service branch), Cumming was the very first director of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), the ancestor to today’s MI6. It has been proposed that Fleming came up with the idea of naming his character M as a reference to “Mansfield,” Cumming’s preferred first name. From a certain view, this makes sense.
To Bond, M is close to ancient in terms of age, manners, and outlook. Cumming would’ve come off to Cold War warriors in much the same way, for Captain Cumming was an aristocratic officer who cut his teeth during World War I and the subsequent attacks against British hegemony, such as the Anglo-Irish War. Like M and Bond both, Captain Cumming was in charge during a time when the foundations of the British Empire began to shake and maintaining order was left up to a select few civil servants. Also, it should be noted that Cumming had a sense of humor, for when his agents discovered that semen was a good substitute for invisible ink, he gave his men a new motto: “Every man his own stylo.”
Maxwell Knight, OBE
Maxwell Knight is without question the most controversial man to ever be associated with Fleming’s universe. A passionate naturalist who was also a spy, Knight spent the interwar years as a member of Rotha Lintorn-Orman’s British Fascists, the first British organization to proudly sport the imported ideology of Fascism. Until 1930, Knight was the group’s spymaster and by most accounts it wasn’t just another job for him. His ex-wife, the spy Joan Miller, once called him a “rightwing, anti-semitic homosexual.” Knight has also proven to be a magnet for conspiracy theories, such as the long-standing one concerning how the British Fascists had used Knight as a counterweight to the dealings of Aleister Crowley, the decadent and depraved English occultist whom many claim was in actuality an agent for the British government.
Whatever the true case may be, Knight was recruited by MI5 during the interwar years as a counterterrorism specialist because of the success he and the British Fascists had had in infiltrating various Communist groups in the U.K. Knight spent the war in Great Britain as a great case worker and expert in the machinations of Fifth Column groups. Although Knight’s connection to MI5, Britain’s domestic spying agency, and his lack of military experience ought to rule him out for being M’s real-life double, stranger things have happened.
Sir Claude Dansey
Bespectacled men in suits aren’t known for striking fear in the hearts of nations, but not all bespectacled men in suits are Lieutenant Colonel Sir Claude Dansey. Codenamed “Z,” Dansey was the assistant chief of MI6 and a member of the London Controlling Section during the war. He was also one of the old timers who had seen British intelligence mature from a loose collection of well-heeled and well-connected individuals to an organized outfit capable of severely damaging enemies and their assets at home and abroad.
During his earliest years, Dansey had been a bit of a rebel. His father was ostensibly respectable as a Life Guards officer, while his mother, the offspring of nobility, was a drunk. Dansey therefore grew up in a dysfunctional household, and well into his teenage years, he maintained a certain air of angry disconnect from his social class. Supposedly, he was a member of Oscar Wilde’s circle, and it has been hinted at that they two had experimented with more than just friendship and admiration.
After leaving England, Dansey drank in colonial life as a soldier stationed in Borneo, South Africa (Dansey fought in the Second Boer War), Somaliland, and China during the Boxer Rebellion. While a member of MI5, Dansey went undercover in America and at home in order to halt the various plots of Irish nationalists, some of which included the dynamiting of Buckingham Palace. After World War I, Dansey left MI5 for MI6 and was went over to Italy in order to keep abreast of Mussolini and his blackshirts. Unfortunately, Dansey was unimpressed by MI6 and began to rely heavily on industrialists and private contacts in order to gather useful intelligence. Later dubbed the Z Organization, Dansey’s contacts helped to reshape MI6 into something worth fighting for, and for that M and Bond remain grateful.
Eve St. Croix Fleming
Although this article is called “The Men Who Were M,” it’s possible that the inspiration behind M wasn’t a man at all. Evelyn St. Croix Fleming was an English socialite and Ian’s own mother. After the death of her husband, Eve drove her boys hard and often lobbied on their behalf for jobs and admittance into respected schools. For Peter Fleming, Eve had to do very little. Ian was quite another story, and countless biographies of Fleming’s life never fail to mention that it was Eve’s pestering that got Ian into Sandhurst and his first writing job at Reuters.
As a boy, Ian not only called his mother “M,” but like all children he feared her. According John Pearson, the author of The Life of Ian Fleming, this fear, coupled with Eve’s sternness and her “insistence on success,” make her a viable candidate for Bond’s boss. Without question, M and Bond share a near-familial relationship that has an uneven distribution of power, so finding M’s origins in Eve shouldn’t be too shocking. Then again, Eve had a reputation for being a bit of a hellcat, as evidenced by her affair with the painter Augustus John, which produced the cellist Amaryllis Fleming. In truth, the M of fiction would’ve disliked this behavior greatly, so it’s best to think of Eve as a partial inspiration, not as the full monty.
In the end, M has no parent besides Fleming himself. He’s a fictional character born from the imagination of a man who lived life to the fullest and who wrote about the world like a real Romantic. We should never lose sight of this, even as we keep playing the guessing game in the comments section below.
Sir William Stephenson
The great spymaster at the heart of Jennet Conant’s 2009 book The Irregulars, Sir William Stephenson is the lone Canadian on this list. Under the codename Intrepid, Stephenson worked for British intelligence as the head of the British Security Coordination group in Washington, D.C. Alongside agents such as the dashing RAF pilot and future writer Roald Dahl, Stephenson and his men represented British interests in the heart of friendly territory and did much to align British intelligence operations with their American cousins. Below the surface, however, the real mission of the British Security Coordination was to pull America out of its isolationist lethargy. Under Stephenson, British agents in Washington pulled off a successful propaganda and schmoozing campaign that helped to change the climate in America from anti-war hostility to Lend-Lease intervention ahead of full military and economic deployment in Europe and Asia.
While much of Stephenson’s 1976 biography A Man Called Intrepid, is sensationalist palaver, it’s indisputable that Stephenson was one of the master spies of the war. Because of this, Stephenson’s name tends to be more associated with Bond than M, but given Stephenson’s role as the wartime head of a British agency, M might be more fitting.
Who else do you think M was modeled on?
Featured image of M Courtesy of www.007magazine.com