“Take a Letter Griffie”—The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters

Review by Revelator

This is a wonderful book, a long overdue one. For anyone who cares about Ian Fleming’s work, The Man With the Golden Typewriter will be a must-have reference, deserving to rest on the same shelf as Fleming’s biographies, Kingsley Amis’s Bond Dossier, Matthew Parker’s Goldeneye, and Henry Chancellor’s James Bond: The Man and His World.

Photo Credit: Ian Fleming Publications

Photo Credit: Ian Fleming Publications

This collection of Fleming’s letters does not substantially add to Fleming’s biography; instead, its true importance (and pleasure, for it is a joy to read), lies in its exploration of a side of Fleming we’ve seldom encountered. We’re familiar with the worldly Fleming of the Bond novels, whose narration turns knowledge into a form of toughness as he urbanely and soberly guides us through a glamorous but hard-boiled world. Less known is the Fleming revealed in these letters. He is a different man, whose most apparent quality is charm.

These letters show Fleming taking the role of an author cajoling his publishers into doing his bidding, or delightedly writing back to fans, eager to hear what they think about his books. His epistolary style has the elegance of the novels, but with a conversational tone and warmth alien to the brutal, glittering world of the Bond novels. Fleming in these letters embodies the ideal qualities of the British gentleman: even-tempered consideration, good natured teasing mixed with witty flattery, and ingratiating self-deprecation. It’s a side of him that has never been so effectively featured than in this book.

Most of the letters in The Golden Typewriter are grouped into chapters titled after the Bond books. Every letter relating to the publication and reception of Casino Royale, regardless of date, is therefore placed in the chapter “Casino Royale,” and so on. Editor Fergus Fleming notes that “chronological hiccups result” from this approach, since not all the letters relating to a specific book share similar dates. I would have preferred doing away with chapters and ordering all the letters strictly by date, but Fergus’s arrangement is undoubtedly easier for the general reader to digest. The exceptions to the novel-based groupings are chapters devoted to Fleming’s correspondence with Ernie Cuneo, Major Boothroyd, Raymond Chandler (whose letters are sensibly printed in full), and Yale Librarian Herman Liebert.

The book’s contents have been shaped by the mixed survival rate of Ian Fleming’s correspondence. Texts of the business letters are preserved in carbon copies, but Fergus Fleming states that several of the personal letters quoted in John Pearson and Andrew Lycett’s Fleming biographies “have proved untraceable.” Additionally, almost all of Fleming’s correspondence with his siblings has been lost. Distressing losses, and one is curious how they came about. Also unavailable are letters from the Thunderball court controversy, though Robert Sellers seems to have used a few of them in The Battle for Bond. Several letters to Ann Fleming are included, but they’re taken from The Letters of Ann Fleming, published in 1985. Ian’s unpublished letters to his wife will be included in a forthcoming book by Ann’s daughter, Fionn Morgan.

Ernie Cuneo

Ernie Cuneo

The Ernie Cuneo chapter draws upon an invaluable series of notes he wrote about Fleming. They include an exaggerated but revealing account of Fleming’s writing method: go traveling, take notes on various odd facts and details encountered throughout the day, type them out into 800 words in the evening, and at the end of year combine the hundreds of “daily memos” into a book. While discussing their attitudes on sex, Cuneo intriguingly mentions that Fleming had a “terrifying experience which he remembered with horror” and claims “it was psychologically traumatic, and modified, it appears as one of the incidents in his books.” Could that incident be Vivienne Michel’s humiliating near-loss of virginity, when she and her boyfriend were caught in a movie theater, in The Spy Who Loved Me? According to Lycett, Fleming based the scene on his own experience.

Curiously, the Bond films have little presence in this book, aside from Fleming’s stray remark on the adaptation of From Russia With Love (“The whole film is a tremendous lark”) and a report to his mistress Blanche Blackwell: “the man they have chosen for Bond, Sean Connery, is a real charmer—fairly unknown but a good actor with the right looks and physique.” Incidentally, there is only one letter to Blanche in this book—one wonders if more are in her possession. And while there are two letters to Harry Saltzman, there are none to Cubby Broccoli (could they be lurking in the Broccoli family’s archives?), though Fleming had sent him an important memo on how Bond should be transferred to the screen.

Perhaps the “newest,” or rather least familiar letters in The Man with the Golden Typewriter are between Fleming and Herman W. Liebert, a librarian at Yale University, Samuel Johnson scholar, and former member of the OSS. Liebert was so outraged by Fleming’s “Americanese” in Thunderball that he submitted a list of corrections and was invited by a grateful Fleming to vet the gangster dialogue in The Spy Who Loved Me (producing authentic but stagy results). Liebert’s erudite and punchy letters are among the most enjoyable in the book: “Middles are so much better than ends, in everything that counts: women, and bottles of claret, and cigars, books, age, life, and even earth.” One wonders if Cape asked Liebert to check the gangster dialogue in The Man With the Golden Gun after Fleming’s death.

Fleming displayed different sides of himself with each correspondent: intimate, pleading, and sometimes boozy with Ann; flattering and almost unctuous toward Somerset Maugham; schoolboyish toward his “Darling Mama” (“With stacks of love”); joshing with Cuneo; and suave and humorous with Sir William Stephenson—“No other news except the minor item that I think England is in the process of slowly sinking beneath the waves. She has had a very good run and I only hope she does her sinking gracefully.”

***

Editor Fergus Fleming is not only Ian’s nephew, but also a celebrated non-fiction author in his own right, and it would be difficult to imagine anyone else doing a better job. He has tracked down letters from both sides of the Atlantic, from universities and collectors, arranged them with care, and has contextualized them with biographical information and sprightly summaries of the Bond novels. Fergus has also inherited his uncle’s gift for elegant phrasing, notably on display in discussing Major Boothroyd’s tutorials (“From holster to grip, chamber to bullet, he parsed the mechanics of short-range death”) or Ian’s Asian travels with Dikko Henderson (“who guided him through the niceties of oriental culture with blasphemous gusto”).

Most impressive of all, he has done his research and seems to have read everything by Ian Fleming, down to the most obscure Sunday Times pieces, and can tell you how Ian’s Atticus columns explain his attitude toward shaking martinis, how his reports from the Seychelles inspired the sting ray whip “The Hildebrand Rarity,” how the giant squid in Doctor No arose from an article on the Cayman Islands, or how Fleming was acquainted with Sterling Moss (they collaborated on an article about the 1956 London Motor Show). The only editorial detail I was puzzled by was the description of Ian as the Spectator’s “Motoring Correspondent”—as far as I know he contributed only one article on cars.

***

“One day if you come to write a book you will realise what a delightful experience it is to have a letter from an admirer out of the blue.”

Hearing from readers gave Fleming “a warm glow,” even when they wrote in to point out mistakes. Some of those corrections were amazingly pedantic, forming a perverse tribute to Fleming’s contagious mania for facts and his all-knowing style. Even his friend Noel Coward got into the act, playfully teasing him for errors in the rules of baccarat. Fleming was often light-hearted in response—to a female reader who pointed out a mistake regarding a perfume manufacturer, he wrote “I suppose until I go to my grave sharp-eyed, sweet-scented women will continue to rap my bruised knuckles for this mistake, and I can only say that I rather enjoy the process!”

But some mistakes rankled: he was chagrined when letters demonstrated that his information about Smersh (sourced from a defector) was false. The error he seems to have been most embarrassed by, judging by the number of times he mentions it, was giving the Orient Express hydraulic brakes instead of vacuum ones. That chagrin is understandable after seeing the pains Fleming took researching his novels. This book reproduces his letters of inquiry about rare coins to Spink & Son Ltd., newsprint delivery to the Bowater Paper Corporation, rifles to an NRA officer, and germ warfare and Corsican dialect to the Writers and Speakers Research Agency. Fleming even invited experts to rewrite certain passages to strengthen technical accuracy and detail.

The letters to Bond’s fans also show how OO7 began to emerge as a separate entity from his creator. At the start Fleming refers to the novels as “my autobiography,” but after supposedly killing his hero in From Russia With Love and receiving concerned letters, he began calling himself “Commander Bond’s official biographer.” Nevertheless, he was open to readers’ suggestions: we see a quote from Dr. G.R.C.D Gibson’s fateful letter suggesting an Aston Martin instead of a Bentley, and a Ms. Frewin suggested a romance between Bond and his secretary Loelia Ponsonby (which Fleming was less enthusiastic about).

***

FlemingLetters

A majority of the letters—the heart of the book, really—are to and from the staff of Jonathan Cape, which published the Bond novels, and central story of the The Man With the Golden Typewriter’s is of a writer’s relationship with his publishers, which were initially frosty at first—a question over royalties provoked a bitchy letter from Jonathan Cape himself—but eventually grew warm, undoubtedly aided by Fleming’s growing success (by early 1957 he had sold over a million books). Fleming knew the rules of publishing and was an obvious handful for Cape’s staff. The letters show him jockeying for exact figures of royalties, arguing for increased print runs, chastising sloppy proofs, giving detailed instructions on jacket design (he was always eager to contribute designs or critique them—“I feel a soupcon of cleavage would have helped”), demanding to know how the advertising budget was accounted for, and squabbling over who paid what percentage of advertising.

Fleming dealt less with Cape—who had little interest in thrillers—than with Editorial Director Michael Howard, who had been disgusted by Casino Royale and was unsure about From Russia With Love. Fleming gave a memorable defense: “I do think it is a good thing to produce a Bond book which is out of the ordinary and which has, in my opinion, an ingenious and interesting plot” and added “one simply can’t go on writing the simple bang-bang, kiss-kiss type of book.” Howard found Doctor No, “a first-rate formula model,” more to his liking, and to his credit he was enthusiastic about all the later books, even The Spy Who Loved Me, whose failure prompted Fleming’s extraordinary letter, reproduced in full for the first time, about desiring to “write a cautionary tale about Bond to put the record straight in the minds particularly of young readers.” This involved Vivienne Michel receiving “a long homily from the chief detective warning the heroine and the readers that Bond himself is in fact no better than the gangsters. And on that note the book closes.” But Fleming seems to have entirely forgotten that Vivienne thoroughly dismissed that homily on the last page. His motivations were more confused than he realized.

William Plomer

William Plomer

Cape usually came through for its star author, though it should have pursued Fleming’s idea for book about narcotics (“every guest [at Goldeneye] says ‘what does ganja look like?’), which would have been perfectly-timed for the second half of 60s. Cape also provided a superb pair of readers, Daniel George and William Plomer, who gave detailed stylistic advice that Fleming usually followed. Fleming’s biographers have told us of Plomer’s importance, but only now, through his letters, do we fully comprehend it. Without him Fleming might not have found a publisher, and after he did Plomer was invaluable for his attention to Fleming’s prose and “those little sardonic or mondain inventions or details you use so well.” He kept Fleming’s writing to a high standard, successfully urging him to cut cliched phrases like “wry sense of humour” and a “sickening thud.” We also have him to thank for dissuading Fleming from retitling Doctor No “The Wound Man.”

The letters also clarify the duo’s plans for The Man with the Golden Gun. “I have somehow managed to write a, nearly, book,” Fleming wrote, calling it “a miracle.” This was not the usual Fleming self-deprecation—the full letter has a fatigued, valedictory tone. Plomer’s concern for his friend ensured a mild response to substandard Golden Gun, but Fleming, who was serious about ending the Bond series, knew this finale was not up to par. He told Plomer he was “not yet up to correcting my stupid book” and proposed giving it “another year’s working over so that we can go out with a bang instead of a whimper.” To sit on a Bond novel for a year and subject it to prolonged revision would have been unprecedented. His interest in fiction had diminished with age. “I find I can now only read books which approximate to the truth,” he wrote to Plomer. “Odd stories just aren’t good enough. That’s most of the reason I shy away from Bond. Not good enough after reading ‘Diary of a Black Sheep’ by [Richard] Meinertzhagen”. Ironically, Meinertzhagen was later unmasked as a “colossal fraud,” to quote the subtitle of his 2007 biography.

***

Fleming was an ambitious author who knew his potential, telling Cape that “The field of thriller writers is extremely bare. There is a vacuum to be filled.” He was equally forceful about pursuing the big money of licensing Bond for the film television, but as these letters and the Thunderball court case show, he was opportunistic to the point of thoughtlessness. In 1959 he sanely placed his theatrical rights with MCA, but a year later went behind the agency’s back—his head had been turned by a pretty, charming outside agent, Ann Marlow, to whom he assigned Bond’s TV rights. He had to shamefacedly cancel the arrangement after Broccoli and Saltzman purchased the film rights, having failed to understand that no film producer would allow himself to be undercut by the potential sale of TV rights to a property they had optioned. Fleming’s apologetic letters to Marlow are the only ones in the book that have the oiliness of strained charm.

Major Boothroyd

Major Boothroyd

Fleming aggressively marketed Bond, but not himself. He strongly rejected a pitch for a TV program about himself (“I greatly dislike projecting my image any further than I can throw it”), turned down the chance of being profiled by Alan Whicker (in a gloriously read rude letter), and did not want his name used in product advertisements. Coupled with modesty was generosity: He ensured that Major Boothroyd became the firearms consultant for first bond films and offered to help sort out Raymond Chandler’s tax problems and arranged several journalistic assignments for him (which Chandler was unable to meet). He offered to quadruple Richard Chopping’s fee for painting the novels’ dustjackets, attempted to find further royalties for him, and surrendered any claims of copyright to the cover images. He sweetly tried to cheer up his ailing mentor Phyllis Bottome by asking a Sunday Times colleague celebrate her 80th birthday in print.

And having persuaded Cape to use a painting by his friend Amherst Villiers on a dustjacket, he added that Villiers “is not very well off and I think should rate a generous fee.”

All told, The Man with the Golden Typewriter succeeds in showing an Ian Fleming much different from the more remote personality that narrates the Bond novels. To his publishers he was demanding, but in a precise and velvety manner that earned their friendship. To his professional contacts and friends he was reliable, amusing, and generous. To his fans he was the ideal author to receive a letter from: courteous, witty, and appreciative. Even in his unhappy final years he kept up a jaunty façade to cheer up anyone concerned for him. In his last published letter, written while convalescing from illness, he sends regrets—“Alas, next week won’t work as with any luck I’m going to be allowed down to Brighton to play ring-a-roses with the Mods and Rockers.” Fun as that sounds, reading these letters has been an even greater pleasure.

Incidental Intelligence

Fergus Fleming

Fergus Fleming (right) is a freelance writer living in London and Gloucestershire. Educated at Oxford University and City University, London, he trained as an accountant and barrister and has worked as a furniture maker. Fergus is also the author of Amaryllis, a portrait of his aunt, and of several children’s books. His non-fiction books Barrow’s Boys and Killing Dragons are published by Granta Books.

Buy ‘The Man with the Golden Typewriter’.

The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Exclusive Interview with Fergus Fleming

Advertisements

4 thoughts on ““Take a Letter Griffie”—The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters

  1. What a great review from Revalator.
    I bought this a while ago and it’s in my ‘to read’ heap – this had given me the impetus to move it to the top.
    We are so lucky to have this site. The quality of the contributions is way above the normal internet fodder – long may it prevail!

    • David, thanks very much for your kind words, and my apologies for this late response (I recently returned from Turkey, having visited Darko Kerim’s hometown of Trebizond). ALR is indeed a special site (thanks to its editor) and I’m very happy to write for it. Fleming’s letters are a definite “must read” and show an ingratiating side of the man you won’t often find in the novels.

  2. What an absolutely brilliant review. Such detail. I have already read the book once and listened to an audio reading and this makes me want to go for a third attempt. Cheers.

Comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s