The Iconic Spy James Bond Lives On a Century After the Birth of His Creator

A museum exhibit pays tribute to the late British author Ian Fleming

British author Ian Fleming, who died in 1964.

British author Ian Fleming, who died in 1964.

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LONDON—"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning." With that simple declarative sentence, the mythic world of fiction's most famous secret agent was launched in 1953 with the book Casino Royale.

That's right, we're talking about Bond. James Bond. But don't cue the theme music. This isn't a story about the iconic spy 007. It's about Fleming, Ian Fleming, the upper-class British journalist who created Bond—one of literature's and filmdom's most enduring and successful characters. Indeed, Fleming literally and figuratively had a golden typewriter: More than 100 million Bond books have been sold, and the subsequent films have grossed nearly $4.5 billion.

Fleming died in 1964 at age 56, but this year is the centenary of his birth. To mark the occasion, Britain is pulling out all the stops—like so many Taittinger champagne corks—with a series of special events and memorials, including a Goldfinger golf tournament, a gala charity concert, and the issuing of six Royal Mail stamps featuring covers of some of the most popular Bond books.

What's most likely to get Fleming fans shaken and stirred, however, is "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond," a yearlong exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum. Using memorabilia—much of it on loan from his family, such as annotated drafts of some of the books—organizers hope to show how much Fleming's World War II experiences helped shape his famous protagonist. And there's plenty of fodder.

During the war, Fleming was a key aide to Britain's head of naval intelligence. Still, the closest he personally got to any action was in 1942, when he joined a commando raid on Dieppe, France—probably as a shipboard observer (the jacket he wore is part of the exhibition). As knowledgeable as he was about espionage, says Andrew Lycett, Fleming's biographer, "he was very much a deskman. So Bond was really a wish fulfillment."

But when it came to the nonspying aspects of Bond—the worldliness, the taste for expensive clothes, food, and drink, and the weakness for beautiful women—"that was very much Ian Fleming, really." The books were catalogs of luxury brands: Bond's personal car was a supercharged Bentley; he lit his handmade Morland cigarettes with a black-oxidized Ronson lighter; his watch was a Rolex. "Fleming was ahead of the emerging consumer culture," Lycett says.

Bond's high lifestyle provided exotic "escapist pleasures" to readers in Britain's gray, bankrupt postwar years, adds John Hughes-Wilson, an intelligence expert and writer. "Fleming, perhaps unwittingly, tapped into real need and provided a perfect cultural symbol of the age of the Cold War."

The son of an upper-class politician who was killed in World War I, Fleming was an Eton graduate who later failed the Foreign Office entrance exam. He worked as a reporter for Reuters and as a stockbroker before WWII started. After the war, he was an editor and columnist at London's Sunday Times. The Bond books were from the start a success but became megasellers after President John F. Kennedy noted that From Russia With Love was one of his favorite reads.

Fleming lived long enough to see only the first two Bond films, Dr. No (1963) and From Russia With Love (1964). They're the two that hew most closely to the Fleming novels. Later films often had little in common with their source books other than the titles. But Lycett doubts that Fleming would have much minded the changes because he accepted that movies are a different medium. It was the movies' updated plots and bows to changing times that enabled Bond to only live twice, first as the 20th century's über Cold Warrior, now as the 21st's battler of terrorists.

New adventure. Still, the next Bond book is also set in the Cold War. Next book? As part of the centenary celebrations, publisher Penguin Group is releasing on May 28 (Fleming's birthday) a new Bond novel, Devil May Care, written by author Sebastian Faulks (who wrote Charlotte Gray). It's also publishing new hardcover editions of the original 14 Fleming novels. It's "a genre which Fleming could claim—with some justification—to have, if not invented, at least popularized," Hughes-Wilson says, even if later writers wrote more accurately about spy tradecraft.