Thursday, May 05, 2011

Guest post from M.L. Malcolm: The Real James Bond Wore Lipstick

I'd like to extend a warm welcome to M.L. Malcolm. She's stopping by Reading the Past today to talk about discovering the female James Bond, one of the many fascinating characters in her latest historical novel, Heart of Deception.

M.L. Malcolm will be speaking and signing books at the upcoming Historical Novel Society conference.  Her talk, "Going from an Indie to a Big House," is scheduled for 8:30-9:30am on Saturday, 6/18.

The Real James Bond Wore Lipstick

By M.L. Malcolm

One of the main characters in my latest novel, Heart of Deception, is recruited to work as a spy for the Allies at the very beginning of World War II. This dashing Hungarian’s name is Leo Hoffman, and knowing my characters as well as I do, I knew that Leo (being Leo) was going to develop at some point during the story a romantic interest in a very fascinating woman.

I also knew that this lady was going to be a spy. For one thing, during the war many spies working closely together did fall in love—there have actually been studies about how people are more likely to fall in love when they meet in situations where their adrenalin is pumping—and it’s unlikely that Leo would get close to anyone who wasn’t also a spy; that might interfere with his real goal, which was to earn his American citizenship, get back to the States, and find his daughter.

I wanted Leo to fall for a real historical figure, someone who’d actually been a spy, so I went on a scholarly quest to find his lady love. Call it authorial match-making; I read everything I could find about the women who served in the British spy service, the Special Operations Executive, and the American spy corps, the Office of Strategic Services, looking for the right woman.

That’s when I discovered that Julia Child had worked in the OSS. (This was long before “Julie and Julia.” Historical research takes a lot of time, you know.) After duly considering Julia (née McWilliams) as a possibility, I realized there was one insurmountable problem with the match. That’s right—to use Julia’s own words, “TOO TALL.” And, Julia was essentially a clerical worker, frankly not a sufficiently exciting position for the paramour I had in mind.

After a lot of study, considering and then rejecting many potential candidates, I found myself leaning toward Virginia Hall. The youngest daughter of an American who’d made a fortune in the shipping business, Virginia was rich, well-educated, attractive, adventurous, and quite the world traveler. Unfortunately when she was just twenty-six she accidentally shot herself in the foot while on a hunting trip in Turkey. The wound became infected, and her leg was amputated at the knee; she named her wooden prosthesis “Cuthbert.” (Score points for her sense of humor.) However, the injury meant that Virginia had to abandon her dream of working for the American Foreign Service, which at that time would not hire anyone who was missing a limb. Really.

Luckily Virginia’s career in espionage did not depend upon good marksmanship. She became a spy by being in the wrong place at the right time; she was working in France when Germany invaded, made her way to England, and volunteered to work for the SOE. Her first assignment was in Lyons, France. Her cover? She was hired as a reporter for the New York Post, and in that capacity she succeeded in getting money and assistance to the those French who were trying to resist the Nazis, in addition to getting valuable information back to the U.S. via her coded cables.

She left France (rather hurriedly) in November of 1942 when the Allies invaded North Africa and the Nazis put an end to the “independence” of Vichy France. However she was back by 1944, sending clandestine transmissions, recruiting resistance fighters, and causing such a problem for the Germans that they posted “wanted” posters of her all over France, labeling her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”

So Leo’s love interest was going to be Virginia Hall. Until I discovered Christine Granville.

Krystyna Skarbek, more widely known by her British alias, Christine Granville, was the daughter of a Polish count. She and her husband were living in Kenya when Poland was invaded in 1939. They immediately came to London, and soon volunteered to work for the British government. Christine offered to travel to Budapest, and then go from there to Poland to do reconnaissance work. She said she would get there by crossing over the Tatra Mountains. On skis.

Skeptical at first, the SOE eventually agreed. Christine was an excellent skier; accompanied by one former member of the Polish Olympic ski team, she made it over the mountains and began engaging in undercover reconnaissance and recruitment. During the trip to Hungary her male companion began what became a common trend; he fell madly in love with her by the time they made it to Hungary, and threw himself off a bridge when she refused him. He was so distraught he didn’t notice that the river had iced over, and he only broke his leg.

At some point she was brought back for training at Beaulieu, one of only sixty-five female agents to be trained at that Stately-Home-Turned-Spy-Camp, in subjects ranging from how to kill silently, how to use explosives to blow up strategic targets, personal disguise, forgery, and the use of black propaganda.

All of which made her even more lethal than the average femme fatale. Men were quite simply mesmerized by Christine Granville; as one ardent admirer explained, “Even though she was very quiet, there was something about her that put other women in the shade.”

Very interesting…

Then I learned that after the war, Christine Granville had a brief affair with Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books.

Fleming supposedly told a close friend that Christine "literally shone with all the qualities and splendors of a fictitious character,” and he eventually used her as one; it’s now generally agreed that Christine was Fleming’s inspiration for the first Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. “Vesperale” was Christine’s nickname when she was a child, because (just like Vesper Lynd) she was born during an evening thunderstorm.

Moreover, Fleming’s description of Vesper is similar to that of Christine, both physically (dark hair, wide mouth, little make-up) and in terms of her personality: “She was thoughtful and full of consideration without being slavish and without compromising her arrogant spirit… She would surrender herself avidly, he thought, and greedily enjoy all the intimacies of the bed without ever allowing herself to be possessed.”

Christine’s accomplishments during the war far surpassed those of Fleming, who actually never engaged in front-line espionage. Like Julia Child, his responsibilities lay primarily behind his desk.

Vera Atkins, who was the second-in-command of the SOE section responsible for helping the French resistance, described Christine as “a woman of quite unusual character. She was very brave, very attractive, but a loner and a law unto herself.” Sound like any other famous spy you know?

And like James Bond, fidelity was never her strong suit.

Fleming always maintained that Bond was a “compound of all the secret agents and commando types” he’d encountered during the war. Given all I learned about her, I think Fleming’s composite also included one spy he met after the war. I believe that Christine was more than just the inspiration for the first Bond girl; Fleming also incorporated her abilities and attributes into the actual James Bond character.

So the real James Bond wore lipstick; and that made her the perfect match for Leo Hoffman.

M.L. has won several awards for her fiction, including special recognition in the prestigious Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Competition, and a silver medal from ForeWord Magazine for Best Historical Fiction Book of the Year 2009. A “recovering” attorney and freelance journalist, she has also amassed an impressive hat collection (and yes, she does wear them). Her novel, Heart of Deception, was just released by HarperCollins.


  1. Anonymous9:22 AM

    I was very surprised to learn that Krystyna Skarbek was a historical figure after I finished reading "Heart of Desire".

  2. Sigh. So Fleming was involved with a woman who had a more responsible position than he did, and yet he created fiction in which women are secondary to a central irresistible male.

    If he'd created a smart, sexy, patriotic character with a wooden leg, maybe he would have become a real writer.

    Very interesting post.

  3. Even though I wasn't wild about this book, I was thrilled to see Christine Granville show up and get some more attention -- she's a favorite of mine -- so glamorous!

  4. Audra, they've been talking about making a book about her life for years, called "No Ordinary Countess." A Canadian production company, I believe, bought the rights to the biography written about her from the author, Madeleine Masson, but no progress as yet, although a play has been produced about her in Poland, I think it's called "The Flower of War." Sorry that you didn't care for the book!

  5. I wonder what the James Bond franchise would be like with a woman at the center of it. That would have been way cool!