Saturday, April 28, 2012

JFK & Ian Fleming


While John F. Kennedy was still a senator, shortly after being nominated as the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, he entertained Ian Fleming at his Georgetown home as a dinner guest with a number of other people.

While Fleming was in Washington, visiting his friends John and “Oatsie” Leiter, Fleming was driving around Washington with Mrs. Leiter when they came across Kennedy and his wife walking down P Street not far from their home.

In an interview with his friend William Polmer Ian Fleming recounted:

“Well, it was rather interesting. About a year before Mr. Kennedy became President, I was staying in Washington with a friend of mine and she was driving me through, it was a Sunday morning, and she was driving me through Washington down to Georgetown and there were two people walking along the street and she said, ‘Oh, there are my friends Jack and Jackie,’ and they were indeed very close friends of hers, and she stopped and they talked. And she said, ‘Do you know Ian Fleming?’ And Jack Kennedy said, ‘Not the Ian Fleming?’ Of course that was a very exciting thing for him to say and it turned out that they were both great fans of my books, as indeed is Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, and they invited me to dinner that night with my friend, and we had great fun discussing the books and from then on I’ve always sent copies of them direct and personally to him before they’re published over here.”

“I think that was an historic encounter,” Plomer noted.

Although Fleming discretely avoided her name, the friend was Marion ‘Oatsie’ Leiter. Apparently Mrs. Leiter had been invited to the Kennedy home for dinner that night, and they drove over to Kennedy’s Georgetown to inquire whether Fleming could accompany her to dinner, but Kennedy and his wife had stepped out for a stroll. So when they came upon the couple walking down the street they stopped and Mrs. Leiter introduced Fleming, who Kennedy recognized by saying, “James Bond?”

As for joining them for dinner, “By all means,” Kennedy said. 

Just as Fleming had taken the name James Bond from the American ornithologist and author of the book Birds of the West Indies, he had also appropriated the surname for 007’s CIA sidekick Felix Leiter from John Leiter, Kennedy and Fleming’s mutual friend and Kennedy’s Georgetown neighbor.

Other guests reported to be at dinner that night included William Walton, a painter and longtime friend of Kennedy, journalist and CIA asset Joseph Alsop and John Bross, who was said to be “from the CIA,” and indeed had served with distinction in Cold War Germany.

In recounting the dinner that night Fleming’s official biographer John Pearson wrote:
“During the dinner the talk largely concerned itself with the more arcane aspects of American politics and Fleming was attentive but subdued. But with coffee and the entrance of Castro into the conversation he intervened in his most engaging style. Cuba was already high on the headache list of Washington politicians, and another of those what’s to-be-done conversations got underway. Fleming laughed ironically and began to develop the theme that the United States was making altogether too much fuss about Castro – they were building him into a world figure, inflating him instead of deflating him. It would be perfectly simple to apply one or two ideas which would take all the steam out of the Cuban.”

“Kennedy studied the handsome Englishman, rather as puzzled admirals used to study him in the days of Room 39. Was he an oddball or something more? What ideas had mister Fleming in mind?”

What would James Bond do about Castro? In the best form of British sarcasm, Fleming replied, “Ridicule, chiefly,” and as Pearson related, “…with immense seriousness and confidence he developed a spoof proposal for giving Castro the James Bond treatment…” 

According to one account, “Fleming … in their conversation, …. told Kennedy that he had a way to get rid of Fidel Castro, the Communist leader of Cuba. This piqued Kennedy's interest, since Castro had been a thorn in the side of Kennedy. Fleming said that Castro's beard was the key. Without the beard, Castro would look like anyone else. It was his trademark. So, Fleming said that the U.S. should announce that they found that beards attract radioactivity. Any person wearing a beard could become radioactive himself as well as sterile! Castro would immediately shave off his beard and would soon fall from power, when the people saw him as an ordinary person. Kennedy had a good laugh about this bizarre suggestion.”

Bill Koenig visited the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where the Fleming papers are kept. He reported: “The Fleming-related material is hardly the oldest or rarest of what's here. But for a fan of 007, it is a treasure trove. Not only are most of Fleming's original Bond manuscripts here but a huge collection of people writing to Fleming and receiving correspondence from him. The letters are, indeed, of a different time, when people took the time to type out a letter and drop it in the mail, not just bang out a few lines of e-mail and forget it. The library has two collections of note. The first is comprised of fifteen Fleming manuscripts, purchased from Fleming's widow in 1970. (The library also acquired rare books collected by Fleming in his lifetime.) The other is a collection of letters gathered by Leonard Russell, the late literary editor of The Sunday Times of London and by John Pearson, Fleming's biographer.”

“Other letters show Fleming's relationship with more casual acquaintances -- except his casual friendships were with CIA directors or U.S. attorneys general. Allen Dulles, the one-time CIA chief, didn't know Fleming's address when he wrote a letter on April 24, 1963. "I have received and finished reading your latest ‘On Her Majesty's Secret Service.’ I hope you have not really destroyed my old friend and colleague James Bond, but I fear his bride has gone." More than a year later, in June 1964, Dulles writes again. "I see that ‘From Russia With Love’ is now a movie and although I rarely see them I plan to take this one in."

“By the time of the Dulles correspondence, James Bond was becoming big in the United States -- mainly thanks to President John F. Kennedy including From Russia With Love on the list of his 10 favorite books. Fleming acknowledges that fact in a 1962 letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. ‘I am delighted to take this opportunity to thank Kennedys everywhere for the electric effect their commendation has had on my sales in America.’”

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