16 April 2016

The Man With the Golden Typewriter

by John M. Floyd

A couple weeks ago I did something unusual: I chose to ignore all the novels and short-story magazines in my towering to-be-read stack and bought a book of nonfiction. Or maybe not that unusual, since this was the third time this year that I've delved into NF. But the first two books were In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick and Cities of Gold by Douglas Preston, and I knew before reading those that I would enjoy them because they were true-life adventure stories, sort of like Unbroken and The Perfect Storm. I had doubts about this one.

The book turned out to be a good choice. It's called The Man With the Golden Typewriter, a 400-page collection of letters from and to Ian Fleming. The letters begin in 1952, when he started work on his first book, and continue until his death in 1964, at the age of 56. During that time he wrote two works of nonfiction, a three-volume children's story, twelve James Bond novels, and two collections of Bond short stories. All the Bond books were created at Goldeneye, Fleming's vacation home in Jamaica. The letters, compiled by his nephew Fergus Fleming, provide a fascinating look into the working life and the personal life of a bestselling author at the peak of his success.

To me, the most interesting of the letters were those to and from his publisher, Jonathan Cape of London, and the editors and agents who worked with him on the novels. Other exchanges included those with readers and fans; with friends like Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, and Raymond Chandler; and with film producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Here are some excerpts:

To Michael Howard, editorial director at Jonathan Cape, April 22, 1953:

"In the course of the innumerable editions of Casino Royale which will now, I presume, flow from your presses, could you please correct a rather attractive misprint on page 90, line 13, and make the 'Ace of Spaces' into the 'Ace of Spades'?"

To Sir Winston Churchill (along with a gift copy of Live and Let Die), April 1, 1954 :

"It is an unashamed thriller, and its only merit is that it makes no demands on the mind of the reader."

From friend and editor William Plomer, May 31, 1954:

"Dear Ian . . . I have been through it [Moonraker] with minute care and a pencil & have applied both to your punctuation and spelling . . . you have a tendency, as the climax approaches, to increase the strain on the reader's credulity . . . Not pleased with the title. I should like Hell Is Here . . . I think you should be careful about letting your characters grunt, bark, and snarl too freely."

To actress Claudette Colbert, April 28, 1955:

"I am very sad that you will not be in Goldeneye next winter . . . I have little hope of getting out to Los Angeles this year. I was there in November and I have absolutely no excuse for another holiday unless Hollywood decides to film one of my books."

To Michael Howard (who'd just designed the cover for Diamonds Are Forever), February 14, 1956:

"Forgive the tropic scrawl. I am sitting in the shade gazing out across the Caribbean & it is heroic that I am writing at all."

To Raymond Chandler, April 17, 1956:

"Dear Ray . . . You after all write novels of suspense--if not sociological studies--whereas my books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang kiss-kiss variety."

From editor Daniel George, regarding From Russia With Love, June 7, 1956:

"Similes should be used only when they are helpful . . . in the first chapter . . . you say the man's eyelids twitched suddenly like the ears of a horse. Up to that moment I'd visualized the scene perfectly. You destroyed my illusion by bringing in a horse . . ."

To Michael Howard, Feb 4, 1957:

"I have done nearly 40,000 of No. 6. . . Set near Jamaica. Called Doctor No, I think. A simple tale. It shouldn't be longer than 60, you'll be glad to hear."

To a complaining reader who knew his trains, July 19, 1957:

"Your quick eye has missed one grievous error [in From Russia With Love] pointed out by another train enthusiast. I gave the Orient Express hydraulic brakes instead of vacuum."

From William Plomer, June 28, 1958:

"My dear Ian, I have just finished Goldfinger, and it stuck to me like a limpet, or limpet-mine . . . I found the tension of the [golf] game tremendous. In fact I believe you could create extreme anxiety out of a cake-judging competition . . ."

To Plomer, March 29, 1960:

"I have just finished a giant Bond, provisionally called Thunderball . . . I have just begun correcting the first chapters. They are not too bad--it is the last twenty chapters that glaze my eyes."

To Robert Kennedy, June 20, 1962:

"Thank you very much for your charming note of June 1st . . . Over here we are all watching with fascination your gallant attempts to harass American gangsterism. If James Bond can be any help to you please let me know and I will have a word with M."

To William Plomer, regarding You Only Live Twice, September 11, 1962:

"I have no idea how Bond in Japan will turn out, but I have in mind an absolutely daft story in which Blofeld meets his match."

To Aubrey Forshaw, head of Pan Books, Ltd., May 20, 1964:

"I don't think much of Harry Saltzman's new jacket for Goldfinger. The golden girl looks like a man and there is far too much jazz about the film. Why the hell should we advertise Saltzman and Broccoli on one of my books? And on the back I see that Sean Connery gets at least twice the size type as the author."

The book is full of these little glimpses into the world of Fleming and Bond. I loved it.

If anyone's interested, here's a list of Ian Fleming's works:

Casino Royale (1953)
Live and Let Die (1954)
Moonraker (1955)
Diamonds Are Forever (1956)
From Russia With Love (1957)
Dr. No (1958)
Goldfinger (1959)
For Your Eyes Only (1960)*
Thunderball (1961)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963)
You Only Live Twice (1964)
The Man With the Golden Gun (1965)
Octopussy and The Living Daylights (1966)*
The Diamond Smugglers (1957)
Thrilling Cities (1963)
Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (1964-65)

*short-story collections

And here are the Bond movies, so far:

Dr. No (1962)
From Russia With Love (1963)
Goldfinger (1964)
Thunderball (1965)
You Only Live Twice (1967)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Live and Let Die (1973)
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Moonraker (1979)
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Octopussy (1983)
Never Say Never Again (1983)
From a View to a Kill (1985)
The Living Daylights (1987)
License to Kill (1989)
GoldenEye (1995)
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Die Another Day (2002)
Casino Royale (2006)*
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Skyfall (2012)
Spectre (2015)

*Casino Royale also appeared in 1954 as an episode of the TV drama series Climax! (Barry Nelson was Bond) and as a spy comedy in 1967.

Most readers know that Fleming picked the name of his hero from a real book called Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, but there are a Bentley-load of other interesting facts about him as well. And Fleming did actually own a gold-plated typewriter--a gift to himself for having completed his first novel.

Part of my interest in all this came from the fact that I had read all the Bond books when I was in high school--my mother made me hide them if the local minister came to visit (because, I guess, of the cover art)--and I've seen all the Bond movies, several times each. Apparently I'm not alone: In the book, Fergus Fleming says it has been estimated that one in five of the world's population has seen a James Bond film.

I now plan to re-read all the novels and re-watch all the movies, in order--I have all of them right here on my shelves--and I'm already halfway through Casino Royale. I don't have any caviar in the house or an Aston-Martin in the garage or any Turkish-and-Balkan-blend cigarettes to smoke while I read, but I do have a tux in the closet if I need it, and I try to imagine that my glass of orange juice is a medium dry martini with a thin twist of lemon peel.

And my OJ was shaken, not stirred.


  1. "...hydraulic brakes instead of vacuum" -- There's always some know-it-all to tell you (an author) what you goofed on, isn't there? And I'm sure that, even if you don't have cavier or an Aston Martin that you do have a gold computer that you gave yourself after your first finished project. -- Seriously though, great and fun piece, John! Informative too.

  2. He was certainly a lively letter writer- and with a good eye for the prerogatives of the writer. And nice to be reminded of the days when editors did line editing!

  3. John — Loved this post, and like you, a long-time Bond fan as well! Have you seen/read the new book Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born, out last year and up for an Edgar now? I've heard it's simply terrific, but haven't checked it out myself yet.

    Thanks for sharing some nice tidbits from the letters here!

  4. Thanks, Paul. FYI, I learned from the book that Fleming's gold-plated gift to himself was constructed by the Royal Typewriter Company and cost $174. He convinced the wife of a friend to smuggle it across the Atlantic to him by wrapping it in her fur coat. And Fleming mentioned the mistake regarding the brakes on the Orient Express several times--apparently it embarrassed him to have made such an error. (One wonders how many people knew, or cared?)

    Janice, he did indeed write interesting letters. Almost all were humorous and self-deprecating, and I was reminded not only (as you said) of the way editors used to edit but of the less-hectic pace of life, back in the days when almost all communication (personal AND business) was done via the mail.

    Art, I have not yet read the book you mentioned, but it's already on my TBR list--thanks for bringing that up. Fleming was a fascinating man, and I suspect that book is as good as advertised. Something I didn't specifically point out in my column is that all those Bond novels were written between January and March (the time of year that IF always went "on holiday" to Jamaica), beginning in 1952. NOTE: You can't help wondering what he would have thought of some of the later Bond movies, especially the Roger Moores.

  5. My stepfather owned most or all of the Bond novels and kept them on a shelf in the living room. One day when I was in high school, I picked up Casino Royale, planning to read just a few pages to see what it was like. I ended up reading it straight through, picked up the next novel and did the same thing, then kept going until I'd finished them all. I don't remember how long it took me, but I don't think it was long. Ever since, the novels have all been something of a blur to me, but I had a fine time.

    And I hope everyone agrees that Sean Connery is the best film Bond and will never be surpassed.

  6. Hey Bonnie--thanks for the comment. I think I would've liked your stepfather.

    In re-reading the Bond novels, I'm remembering a lot of things I'd long forgotten, about them. (I'm well into Live and Let Die, as of late last night.) Most were fairly short, full of detail and brand-names, featured exotic settings and some of the zaniest characters in fiction, politically incorrect in almost every way, and absolutely thrilling.

    I agree wholeheartedly that Connery was James Bond. Period. After him, in believability, were (for me): Craig, Brosnan, Lazenby, Dalton, and Moore. Goldfinger remains my favorite of the movies, though From Russia With Love is probably the best.

  7. Nice piece, John!

    I read all of the Bonds as a teenager, and was really excited when the movies began. Dr. No (I always thought) suffered from a low budget but was otherwise faithful to the book. From Russia with Love cured the budget side of things and was also pretty faithful. Goldfinger began to stray from the Fleming story and I could see what was coming. The rest of the movies just don't do it for me, with one exception. I thought poor George Lazenby did very well in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and the movie itself stands out as one of the only filmed Bond adventures that pretty accurately tracks the Fleming story.

  8. Good thoughts, Dale. I too liked the first few movies, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service as well, and thought Lazenby did a good job. He is mostly memorable, I guess, for making the worst career decision in the history of cinema by voluntarily leaving the series. Diana Rigg remains one of my favorite Bond girls--but that's probably because I also liked The Avengers on TV. Yes, I realize I'm old . . .

  9. Dale and John, I'm glad you spoke up for On Her Majesty's Secret Service--few people have any kind things to say about that movie, but I liked it very much and thought George Lazenby was a fine Bond. (I liked Diana Rigg, too, John--and I too was a fan of The Avengers. So don't dare call yourself old.)

  10. I typed "young," Bonnie, and my AutoCorrect stuck "old" in there, for some reason.

    I truly thought OHMSS had everything a Bond movie should have: it stuck to the book (as Dale said), and had a good villain/bond-girl/allies/setting, great action scenes, one of the best soundtracks of any of the Bonds, and probably the most unexpected (and saddest) ending. And yes, most viewers didn't like it. (?)

  11. I'll add my own love of OHMSS. Lazenby may not be the best Bond but that's certainly the best Bond film. Glad to hear our group agrees!

  12. Art, the funny thing is, when I first saw it I didn't think I'd like it, and didn't really WANT to like it--I was, and still am, a Sean Connery fan. And then, after a good opening sequence--the attempted suicide, the rescue, and the fight on the beach--the new Bond looked right at the camera and said something like "This never happened to the other fellow." How could that possibly work??--but it did. I knew at that point that it would be a good movie. And even the plot--the biological warfare thing, with the brainwashed girls taking the agricultural viruses back with them to their home countries, etc.--was pretty believable. An underrated and unappreciated movie.

  13. Great post, John.

    Yes, I'm a Bond girl. Oops, I mean a Bond fan. I've read all the books (lifted them from my Mom) and seen all the movies. I just might have to get this non-fiction book. Sounds like a great read.

    My favorite Bonds are Connery and Brosnan. I was not happy when the Remington Steel people wouldn't let Brosnan out of his contract to play Bond at a younger age.

    P.S. Loved you latest Mrs. Potts story in Woman's World. I missed the clue so you did a great job hiding it. LOL

  14. Pat, if you're a fan of the James Bond world at all, you'd enjoy this book, and since you are, you will. One of the things that fascinated me were the exchanges between Fleming and his publishing house, on matters of editing, cover art, publicity, etc. At one point he was told that he was too fond of "there was" and "there is," and that he should phrase things more directly. And one reader wrote him with such a long list of "Americanese" that Fleming had misused in Thunderball (he'd had American characters saying things the British way rather than the American way), Fleming hired him as a consultant for The Spy Who Loved Me.

    I really didn't mind any of the Bonds except Roger Moore. I like him as an actor, but as Bond I thought he was just silly.

    Thanks for your kind words, about my latest WW mystery--I'm pleased that you liked it! Two more should be coming up soon, in May and June. Those are, as I think I've told you before, great fun to write.

  15. Wonderful post! I am an unashamed James Bond fan. B. K., I agree that Sean Connery is the best Bond, however, I do very much like Daniel Craig.

  16. Thanks, Catherine. We Bond addicts have to stick together.

    Yep, Connery put the face on Bond, and he'll always be my favorite too (he's the image I have in my mind as I'm re-reading the novels), but I admit Craig was a great choice, for these latest four movies.


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