'Ian Fleming – The Complete Man' by Nicholas Shakespeare has just been published. Lady Mary Clive (1907-2010) remembers a disastrous 1938 holiday in Capri with a sunburnt Ian Fleming
From autumn 1937 to May 1938, I dined with Ian once a week, and was absolutely fascinated by him.
Every time he was different and every time one said, ‘This is the real Ian.’
It was like peeling an onion. You peeled off layer after layer and, in the middle, there was nothing. He was an enormously difficult crossword puzzle. He was glittering but had no heat; he was elusive; he was lovely but useless, like a Christmas tree ornament.
Ian was the best-looking man I have ever seen, with a broken nose and a damned soul/fallen angel expression. He was slightly round-shouldered but with marvellous legs – only appreciated in bathing dress.
I had a walk-out with him – although, throughout our acquaintance, sex never did rear its ugly head. He turned his best side up when talking to me, but he found it a strain and could not keep it up for very long.
By the time I got to know him in the 1930s, he had become a stockbroker in Rowe & Pitman. Ian was thoroughly ashamed of being a stockbroker as he thought it a ghastly profession.
He would tell me stories — nearly always stories about himself and a girl, and they were so vividly told that one could see everything happening.
His attitude to his affairs was ingenuous excitement during the pursuit, naughty triumph and then contempt and repulsion. Like many Don Juans, Ian did not like women, and they brought out the worst in him.
He wanted women to behave badly - to punch his nose in a masculine way and to be slippery in the way he was himself. He was very feminine and needed a masculine-style partner.
In the spring of 1938, we had a row and I wrote telling Ian that I only liked him as a substitute for the man I was really in love with (Meysey Clive, later my husband). It was typical that he enjoyed this row – indeed any row – and he never asked the name of my real passion nor anything about him.
He wasn’t interested in people or my private life. After the war, when I mentioned the novelist Anthony Powell was my brother-in-law, he was very surprised, having never heard of my sister Violet. He never asked how many children I had, nor did he enquire about them. He liked small, odd, impersonal facts.
He corrected the proofs of Brought Up and Brought Out [Mary Clive’s 1938 memoir]. This he was quite excellent at, being very quick to detect lapses into whimsy, misspellings, grammar mistakes and errors of fact. He knew that the right name for the people who inquire into the occult was ‘The Society for Psychical Research’. He would have appreciated it if I had dedicated it to him, but his reputation was so bad that I did not want my name connected with his and no one knew we were having a walk-out.
In spring 1938, he went to Capri to recuperate after appendicitis. I had been planning to go on a Nazi ‘Strength Through Joy’ cruise (of all things!) as a journalist, but it fell through – mercifully, it seems now – so I went to Capri instead.
When I was getting in Ian’s wagon-lit, looking at the placards for Hitler and Mussolini, I knew the expedition was a failure. I had a headache after sitting up all night. When I took a couple of aspirin, Ian made a fuss. It amused him to play at pretending aspirin was a sinister drug, but it struck me as too stupid.
Our respective attitudes to Abroad were poles apart - mine taking it as bathing, to float in and enjoy; him as a game of Red Indians.
On Capri, there were two places to have dinner. In two days, one had exhausted all the possibilities. The company was dingy in the extreme. A frozen calm descended.
Besides being intensely bored, my position was made difficult by Ian being insanely jealous and possessive. Though I gave him complete freedom, Ian resented me talking to anyone or even my going sightseeing or appearing to enjoy myself.
Particularly disagreeable was an expedition to Vesuvius, chiefly owing to Ian behaving as though he were climbing Everest or crossing the Sahara.
The only compensation for the boredom of the month was looking at Ian in a black and white dressing gown with a wide red sash, against the blue sea, his face more fallen angel than ever, burnt nearly black.
The war began and Ian, with that instinct for self-preservation which ran parallel with that instinct for burning his fingers, got attached to the Navy.
By this time, we had very much drifted apart. I went round to his flat once. Ian seemed very excited and enjoying himself and amused to know a lot of secrets. I did not see him again until long after the war, but I heard he was much appreciated in wartime by his chief, being able, according to custom, to fascinate middle-aged men. He also had quite a lot of naval characteristics, being punctual, tidy and accurate.
During his Jamaica honeymoon in 1952, he wrote Casino Royale - an idea that had been swimming in his head before the war. It was published the following spring.
The last time I saw Ian, he was very excited about it. He had made himself into a company in anticipation of enormous sales (I pityingly thought it unlikely). He said ‘It’s heady stuff,’ referring to this literary enterprise, making no attempt to conceal his delight.
I have just read the bed scene in The Spy Who Loved Me. The differences that strike one between Bond and Ian are (a) when Ian went to bed with a girl only once, it was because he was disgusted by sex and despised the girl he slept with; (b) his forte was entangling women emotionally, quite apart from bed, so that they were fond of him for 20-30 years.
Bond is a daydream of absolute irresponsibility. A world where nobody civilises you. None of the girls is annoyed; none of the girls has a baby. He can even get married without having to get married. There are no repercussions. A dream of power without responsibility. Everything, anything you do is perfectly splendid, just because of you. How could I ever be friends with a man who wrote such an absurd book?
When one of Ian’s films was shown at the cinema at Piccadilly Circus, I congratulated him on having his name in lights and he said, come and see him and Ann, his wife. But the invitation wasn’t on really; warm but vague, leaving me to take the initiative. And, after that, he died.
Apart from being ill and quarrelling with his wife, Ian must have hated the prospect of growing old. We all do but, to a ladykiller and man vain of his appearance, it must have been especially bitter. Till he was forty, he was a live wire stirring up the old fogies. And to be an old fogy himself!
Ian was not a snob but couldn’t resist the advances of the rich and the grand. If you wanted to interest him in a girl, you wouldn’t say she was a duchess in her own right, or a millionairess. You’d say she was the niece of Stalin’s mistress.
He was a life-enhancer at one moment, a killjoy at another; a romantic who wanted life to be a fairy story. Generally ultra-conservative, he could do enterprising things. Generally parsimonious, he could be generous. If he had married a nice girl, he might have settled down to humdrum domesticity – but he would never have married a nice girl.
Ian’s great attraction (besides being exigeant) was his super-cosiness. You felt you had met a soulmate, a twin stolen from the cradle, someone with whom you could really relax, be natural and tell all.
The next time you met, he would be so aloof that you would have to search for topics of conversation. It was infuriating - he understood one completely, but knew nothing about one.
He liked being top dog but wasn’t really a leader, or even bossy. He was the natural prey of tigresses but cherished dreams of dollies - the girls in his books are all adoring slaves. Sex nauseated him - other people’s affairs shocked and disgusted him. Girls who didn’t fall for him felt antagonistic.
The best side of him was idealistic and unworldly but it was too small a side to build his life around.
He could not resist the world when it came after him. He was sucked into Vanity Fair though he despised it. He was false to his better self, which doubtless is what made him unhappy when success came.