15 September 2023
For Their Eyes Only – the letters of Ian and Ann Fleming
We mark the exciting acquisition of a collection of letters between Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and his wife Ann.
Unlike Ann Fleming, who has had a whole volume of her correspondence published, Ian Fleming was not a habitual letter writer. So the British Library was delighted to be able to acquire this collection of almost 100 letters from Ian to Ann (and over 50 in the opposite direction) in 2021. This major resource for Fleming scholars has now been catalogued (Add MS 89670) and, from today, is available to access in the Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room.
The letters, most of which are unpublished and previously largely unseen, give an intimate and detailed insight into the shifting sands of Ann and Ian's relationship, from the complexities of the 1940s when Ann was still married to Esmond Harmsworth (in one letter Ian begs Ann to keep his letters well-hidden instead of leaving them in her underwear drawer), through the heartbreak of the death of Ann and Ian's daughter, Mary, just eight hours old, in 1948, their married life (they married in March 1952), and into the 1960s. It was at times a turbulent relationship and both had numerous affairs. The tension and strain of these affairs, as well as that caused by their long separations (even after their marriage, Ian spent three months every year at the house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica, he had built in 1945), is apparent in many of the letters. On the other hand, many other letters are traditional love letters, passionate and romantic, showing the depth of their feelings for each other.
Apart from their relationship, the subject matter of the letters ranges far and wide taking in the flora and fauna of Jamaica; the development of, and domestic arrangements at, Goldeneye; gossip from the newspaper world (Ian Fleming was foreign manager of the Kemsley newspaper group, the then owner of the Sunday Times, from 1945 to 1959 and continued to contribute articles into the 1960s) and discussion of his 'Atticus' column; their respective health, both physical and mental; the health, development, well-being, and schooling of Caspar, their son born in August 1952; and their international travels (India, Tangiers, Chicago, Miami, New York, Paris, Italy, Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Switzerland). They certainly took advantage of the advent of the jet age, but they also enjoyed the more leisurely pace of luxury liners such as the ‘Queen Elizabeth’, writing vivid pen portraits of their fellow passengers as they sailed.
The Flemings were inveterate gossips and a major thread in the correspondence is discussion of the figures within their social circles or passing through their orbit. The cast list of names that crop up – friends, acquaintances, guests at Goldeneye, fellow guests at others’ dinners and social events – is remarkable: Leolia Ponsonby, Blanche Blackwell (with whom Ian had a long affair), Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lucian Freud (“seems to have become world famous at last”), Micky Renshaw, Noel Coward, Truman Capote (“Can you imagine a more incongruous playmate for me… a fascinating character and we really get on very well” – Capote persuaded Fleming to try “a sinister pill called Mill Town”), Brendan Bracken, Hugh Gaitskell (with whom Ann had a long affair), Erica Marx, Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Edith Sitwell, Rosamund Lehmann, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Rex Harrison, Solly Zuckerman, Gladwyn Jebb, Joyce Grenfell, Pamela Churchill, Paul Gallico, Oscar Hammerstein, Charles Boyer, and Sidney Bernstein.
As would be expected, the letters are also littered with references to Ian Fleming's most famous literary creation, James Bond. He offers regular progress reports and occasional plot details, of mostly unnamed books: at one stage From Russia With Love, for example, is described as “galloping along. I have written a third of it in one week, a chapter a day”; another book “is half done and buzzing along merrily in the rain”. Fleming also alludes to some of the inspiration and sources for the stories and titles. For example, he mentions Blanche Blackwell's gift of a coracle, which he named Octopussy. The short story of the same name, written in 1962, would be published posthumously in 1966. 'Blanche' was the name of the guano-collecting ship in 1958’s Dr. No and Blackwell was the model for Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, published in 1959. Truman Capote is described as “twittering with excitement” while reading a proof copy of Diamonds Are Forever. Fleming writes of correcting proofs of Live and Let Die on-board the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ sailing to New York. There is even a reference to the gold-plated typewriter he bought while writing Casino Royale. However, there are also occasional allusions to Fleming's dissatisfaction with Bond as a character (“I have got so desperately tired of that ass Bond”) and with some of the stories (“just finishing a Bond short story of no merit”). Even so, his later letters make reference to possible television and film adaptations of his books, and on a trip to Hollywood, the positive reaction to his books gives him particular hope (“People really seem to be after my books... it’s as usual a question of crossing fingers & waiting for someone to pry them apart & force some dollars between them”). The first Bond film, Dr. No, would be released in 1962.
This is a truly absorbing collection, and there is something of interest on every page. Even the stationery the Flemings used is worth noting. So desperate were they to keep in touch with each other that if actual writing paper was not to hand they simply repurposed the endpapers of books, the back of a gin rummy score card, and even a hospital temperature chart!
We are grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for their generous support for this acquisition.
With thanks to Ian Fleming Publications Ltd, London for permission to quote from the letters of Ian Fleming.
Written by Michael St John-McAlister, Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager, who has recently completed cataloguing the Ian and Ann Fleming letters.
Add MS 89670.
Mark Amory (ed.), The Letters of Ann Fleming (London: Collins Harvill, 1985).
Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995).
Andrew Lycett, ‘Fleming, Ian Lancaster (1908-1964)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/33168.
Andrew Lycett, ‘Fleming [née Charteris], Ann Geraldine Mary (1913-1981)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40227.