The Famous Unknown Man

The Famous Unknown Man

The music theme begins like an explosion. A man moves across the screen, then whirls and fires a gun straight at us. We are in the world of James Bond.

Amazingly, the movie version of Bond’s world has been with us more than 60 years, in 25 films: 1962 (Dr. No) to 2021 (No Time to Die), with Bond #26 already planned. The actors come and go, but each new version of Bond loves women and takes his martinis shaken, not stirred.  

Then there are the books. Many James Bond fans haven’t read them, and some have never heard of them. They were written between 1953 and 1966. In fact, until the early 1960s, most people in Hollywood considered the books silly and unfilmable.

Finally there is the author, Ian Fleming. He grew up in a wealthy British family, served in the military during World War II, and settled down after the war to write. He lived a fascinating life, beautifully researched and portrayed by Nicholas Shakespeare in his new biography, Ian Fleming: The Complete Man. Fleming’s writing career is described in the second half of the book.

The first half of the book comes as a bolt from the blue. It’s the astonishing story of Ian Fleming’s real life, before he ever thought of James Bond. Up to now those years have been virtually unknown, but they have been painstaking unearthed by author Nicholas Shakespeare.

Fleming’s friends and acquaintances knew him as a mid-level government employee. In fact, he was one of a handful of people who, during the war, created and ran MI-5 and MI-6, the British spy program. After the program was set up, the American government asked Fleming to help create their own version, the CIA, based on the British model. Fleming did so, working closely with the CIA’s founder, William “Wild Bill” Donovan.

Why didn’t we know about Fleming’s secret early life? Because of the Official Secrets Act of 1911.

All members of Britain’s spy program are required to sign the document. Under its terms, every employee and ex-employee is forbidden from telling people or writing about their time with the British spy agency. The penalty is prison for up to seven years.

Ian Fleming had already led a life full of adventure and intrigue by the end of World War II, when he was 36 years old, but he couldn’t write about it. So he dreamed up a character named James Bond who would have adventures based on—but not too similar to—his own wartime adventures.

This is not to say that Ian Fleming was James Bond—far from it. But Bond’s adventures gave Fleming an outlet, and us a glimpse, of his work and early life.

Also some pretty good movies.


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