Recently we celebrated Ian Fleming’s birthday outside his old writing office in Mitre Court in London. Here, Fleming would return from his yearly two month sojourns to Jamaica to polish off the manuscript for his latest Bond adventure. In this elegantly decorated office with Regency-striped wallpaper, was a solid antique desk with a green leather top and a quill pen from his days in Room 39 at the Admiralty.
He was also assisted by his loyal secretary, the tall, white-haired Beryl Griffie-Williams who wore green-rimmed glasses. ‘Griffie’ as she was known was Fleming’s secretary for four years and in a letter sold at auction in 2008, Beryl referred to Fleming’s famous goldplated typewriter (visible in the photo on the right, which was sold at Christie’s South Kensington in May 1995 for £50,000):
“Actually it is a beastly machine,” noted Griffie-Williams, “and quite inadequate for the work I have to do on it … Mr Fleming says the type is too small for him to see!”
On the walls of his office hung artwork of some of the dust jackets for the American editions of his novels as well as a glass fronted oak bookcase with copies of his favourite authors – Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane and Jacques Cousteau.
Fleming maintained friendships with many of his literary peers but his love of Cousteau and diving provided him with first hand action experiences he would use for his novels such as Live and Let Die, Thunderball, The Hildebrand Rarity and ‘Octopussy’. He went for dives off Cousteau’s ship ‘The Calypso’ and snorkeled everyday while in Jamaica, exploring and spear fishing off the reef. His love of underwater exploration began in his youth when holidaying in St. Ives, Cornwall searching for amethyst crystals and this quest for treasure never left him.
After the war while he was working at The Sunday Times, he would often try to coordinate treasure hunting trips abroad, sometimes from tip-off suggested by his readers. In 1958, he visited the Seychelles in search of £120,000 worth of gold doubloons buried on the island of Mahe by an 18thC pirate, Olivier Le Vasseur. Near the same islands, there was the tale of the ‘Koenigsburg’, a German ship carrying valuable treasure. Both these experiences would ultimately appear in his article ‘Treasure Hunt in Eden’, which is only available in the Queen Anne Press’ volume ‘Talk of the Devil‘ as part of the complete works of Ian Fleming.
His time in the Seychelles would also provide the background for his short story ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’. For Live and Let Die, he researched rare gold coins to learn about pieces of eight, visiting Spinks of St. James and spent three days on the Norfolk coast with the Royal Engineers looking for a huge cache of silver reported from a sunken galleon, but with little success as Fleming joked:
“Our jokes about 18thC sardine tins ceased at an early stage.”
Another story of treasure hunting that fascinated Fleming according to Donald McCormick was the story of the Oak Island Treasure Pit, which Captain William Kidd was supposed to have buried his treasure beneath the single oak tree growing there. A one Franklin Delano Roosevelt had raised money in 1909 to hunt for it. In the 1950s, Fleming had learned of Captain Kidd’s treasure maps and piratical mementos that had been left to a housekeeper in Eastbourne and were up for auction, although it is unknown who bought them.
Back at Mitre Court in 1963, Fleming was visited by the journalist, author and anthologist Peter Haining, to discuss James Bond and the new upcoming paperback edition of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Yet on seeing the copy of Cousteau’s book, the discussion soon turned to a notorious case of buried Nazi treasure, named ‘Rommel’s Gold’ after Erwin Rommel nicknamed ‘The Desert Fox’. The story goes, that this a hoard of gold en route from North Africa to Berlin in 1942 on a ship, sunk off the coast of Corsica. German looting was rife and Fleming was well placed working in intelligence, to learn such cases, especially with the set up his 30AU commandos unit, charged with recovering German equipment and secret intelligence.
After a raid on the Tambach Castle in Bavaria by three of his 30AU commandos, they miraculously came across the complete German Naval Archives dating back to 1870 that was in the process of being burned by the Germans. There was so much of it, that Fleming had to charter a fishing boat to get it all back to London. This was where he discovered about Rommel’s gold.
Fleming tried in vain to persuade the Sunday Times to fund an expedition to hunt for Rommel’s treasure as it was deemed too expensive, but he did not give up, and found a way to use briefly this story in his own novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the novel, Bond meets the Corsican ‘Capu’ of the Union Corse Marc-Ange Draco and they discuss the Corse’s bloody history. In particular, Bond references two unlucky souls that were poking around the “mysterious business of Rommel’s treasure” off the Corsican coast. One was a Czech diver called Fleigh and the other a French diver called Andre Mattei found “riddled with bullets.”
The discussion between Fleming and Haining at Mitre Court was to change Haining’s life. Over 40 years later, he published a book called ‘The Mystery of Rommel’s Gold: The Search for the Legendary Nazi Treasure’ and would dedicate it to Fleming:
“In memory of Ian Fleming who introduced me to the mystery.”