The President’s Bond Girl

From Russia, with Love has just been re-released by The Folio Society as an illustrated collector’s edition! To celebrate, John Cork investigates how From Russia, with Love came to be on President John F. Kennedy’s top-ten book list, and the friendships of one ‘Oatsie’ Leiter with the Commander-in-Chief, and James Bond author Ian Fleming.

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‘Kennedy has confined himself mostly to nonfiction, but like many of the world’s leaders he has a weakness for detective stories, especially those of British author Ian Fleming and his fictitious undercover man, James Bond.’

—Hugh Sidey, ‘The President’s Voracious Reading Habits’ LIFE, 17th March, 1961

The story has been told far and wide. In the late 1950s Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels sold well in the UK, but in the massive US market, sales barely made a ripple. Not one single Bond title generated a second printing in either hardback or paperback in the United States. All that started to change in March 1961 when LIFE magazine published a list of the president’s ten favourite books, naming From Russia, with Love as one of them. It was, by far, the highest profile endorsement for which an author could hope.

How did From Russia, with Love get on the president’s list? Like so many things associated with 007, it happened with the help of a remarkable and strong woman.

She was born Marion Oates in Montgomery, Alabama, the Cradle of the Confederacy. Marion came from obstinate and ambitious stock. Her grandfather, William Oates, once fractured a man’s skull in a fight. He went on to be deemed a Confederate Civil War hero, having led a charge up Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg and then losing an arm at Fussel’s Mill. He returned to Alabama, was elected to Congress and served as a combative one-term Governor.

Raised to be a society hostess, Oatsie (as she was known) married Thomas Leiter in 1942.  Tommy was the grandson of one of Chicago’s great real estate barons and two of Tommy’s aunts married British nobility. Tommy’s father once attempted to corner the U.S. wheat market,  which is a fine gamble as long as one has family that can pay off the $10,000,000 of debt when it all goes pear-shaped. The night before Oatsie’s wedding, legendary Alabama-born actress Tallulah Bankhead explained the finer points of intimate marital relations to her. That was Oatsie’s world, and it was quite a place.

Oatsie and Tommy Leiter took up residence in ‘a most glorious apartment’ built inside the converted stables of the famed Leiter family mansion near Dupont Circle in Washington.

‘I knew both Ian (vaguely) and Ivar [Bryce – a close friend of Ian’s] in Washington during the Second World War,’ she recalled in 2000. After the war, Oatsie and Tommy started vacationing in Jamaica for what was known then as ‘the season.’ ‘We’d be there three months a year. Which was lovely. Really lovely.’  During her stay in 1949, she was dramatically re-introduced to Ian Fleming.

‘I’d gone to a party, and a great friend of mine was very much in love with Ian, or thought she was.  And he was treating her in the most atrocious way.  And with the arrogance of youth, I walked up to Mr. Fleming when I was introduced to him, and said,

“Mr. Fleming, I consider you’re a cad.”

‘And he looked at me and said, “Mrs. Leiter, you’re indeed right. Shall we have a drink on it?”’

They did and became fast friends. ‘Ian really had enormous charm…he was irresistible as a companion, as a guest, as a friend.  And he was an extremely good friend.’

In the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, Fleming borrowed Tommy Leiter’s last name for Bond’s CIA accomplice, Felix.  Naturally Fleming sent Oatsie and Tommy a copy and Oatsie, never one to mince words, quite enjoyed the book.

Oatsie and Tommy maintained homes not just in Washington D.C., but in Aiken, South Carolina and Newport, Rhode Island. Newport also happened to be where Jacqueline Bouvier grew up at Hammersmith Farm. After marrying John F. Kennedy, a newly elected young senator from Massachusetts, Jackie and JFK spent summer vacations there. Oatsie knew JFK and Jackie socially. In 1954, JFK called up Oatsie. ‘Oates, I’m sick,’ she recalled Kennedy telling her. ‘“Have you got anything to read? I can’t find anything in this house that I think is possible to read.” And I said, “Yes, do you like spy stories?”’

She sent over her copy of Casino Royale. ‘He was crazy about it. And he said, “If you get another one at any point, let me know.”’

Jackie Kennedy, on her husband’s recommendation, also took to reading the Bond novels, and she made another important connection for Ian. ‘I was introduced to Fleming’s books,’ noted CIA Director Allen Dulles, ‘by Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy herself. “Here is a book you should have, Mr. Director” she said.’ Dulles went on to praise From Russia, with Love as ‘one of the best of Fleming’s thrillers.’

In March, 1960, Ian Fleming arrived in Washington D.C. He was staying as the guest of one of the Sunday Times’ most renowned correspondents, Henry Brandon. On Sunday, 13th March, Ian went to see Oatsie who was now divorced from Tommy Leiter. ‘Ian and I were going somewhere, probably the National Gallery or something, and we were driving down one of the streets in Georgetown. And I saw Jack and Jackie walking down the street. As they started to cross one street, I stopped. And we yelled,’ Oatsie recalled. ‘I said, “Jack, this is Ian Fleming.”  And Jack poked his head in the window and said, “Not the Ian Fleming.” And I said, “Yes.” “Well,” he said, “bring him for dinner.”’

That night Fleming joined Oatsie at the Kennedy’s home. Also in attendance were the columnist and part-time CIA operative Joseph Alsop, John Bross (soon to be a deputy director at the CIA) and the painter and Kennedy confidant William Walton. ‘And somehow the conversation got around to Castro, which was not all that unusual in those days,’ Oatsie recounted.

Castro, not yet officially claiming to be communist, was nonetheless quickly nationalizing U.S. industries in Cuba and signing lucrative trade deals with the Soviets. Joseph Alsop wanted to know how James Bond would handle Castro. Fleming said ridicule was the proper response. ‘And Ian had us all absolutely hysterical saying that he had some plots that he thought would be wonderful if the CIA would play on Castro,’ Oatsie said.

Indeed, Fleming opined that there were only three things for which the Cubans cared: money, religion and sex. Thus, the first plot involved counterfeiting Cuban money and dropping it by the bushel from planes along with notes that read, ‘compliments of the United States.’ To take care of religion, Fleming proposed a massive Bat-signal of sorts that would put a cross in the night sky above the nation. The Cubans would stay up all night praying to the mysterious sign rather than worshipping Castro.

The last idea was the one that caused the greatest laughter. Fleming noted that beards were essential to the Cuban revolution and had become a sign of male virility on the island. The CIA, he declared, could promote the idea that nuclear fallout was collecting in men’s beards:

‘The CIA could just fly over Cuba and drop these leaflets, telling the women of Cuba that all the men wearing beards were impotent,’ remembered Oatsie. All the men would shave their beards, and with no beards, there could be no revolution.

At the CIA’s Monday staff meeting, John Bross told the story of his Sunday evening, relating with gusto Fleming’s plot to get Cubans to shave their beards. CIA Director Allen Dulles, who was a fan of the Bond novels and had dined with Fleming in London, was more alarmed than amused and wanted to know how to reach Fleming, immediately.

‘The telephone rang, and it was Allen Dulles,’ according to Oatsie. ‘“Oatsie, where is Ian Fleming?” And I said, ”I don’t know, I suppose he’s in bed at Henry Brandon’s.”  “Well, I have to get in touch with him.”’

Dulles called Brandon only to find that Fleming had already left for New York. There is no record of Dulles reaching Fleming on that trip, but Fleming’s story of the Cubans shaving their beards was not published in Alsop’s column nor propagated by Fleming in the many articles he penned during this era, and there may have been a good reason for that.

What Bross did not know was that the CIA was that very week preparing to present to the Eisenhower administration a plan entitled ‘Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime.’ This program would lead directly to the Bay of Pigs invasion, but it also contained plans, as President Eisenhower later stated, to ‘undermine Castro’s position and prestige.’ One of those plans involved dusting Castro’s boots with thallium salts. The idea was that the salts would get on Castro’s fingers, and when he touched his beard the poison would make the beard fall out in splotches, humiliating the revolutionary and making him look weak, impotent and sickly.

Six months later, according to some sources, CIA-backed operatives entered the Hotel Theresa in Harlem (where Castro and his entourage were staying for the opening of the UN General Assembly) and dutifully dusted Castro’s boots with powdered thallium salts. Other, possibly more reliable, sources, claim the plot was never carried out. Regardless, Castro’s beard remained. In 1977, Castro railed against the CIA plots, telling interviewer Fred Ward, ‘I could write a book [about the CIA plots]! Exploding cigars, poisoned cigars, powder to make my beard fall out! Bazookas! Grenades! Incredible!’

John F. Kennedy won the election in November 1960, and in March the following year, LIFE ran their article on Kennedy’s reading habits. The inclusion of From Russia, with Love stood out among the scholarly biographies and histories, most many decades old. Some have maintained that Kennedy was repaying Fleming for the entertaining evening by including From Russia, with Love on the list of favourite books, which could certainly be the case. Others say that he wanted a book on the list that showed he was not so much of an egghead that he couldn’t enjoy popular literature, and Fleming happened to be the one he chose.

Henry Brandon told a different story. He said that he knew for a fact that a White House staffer compiled the list by talking to others like Jackie and William Walton, and that Kennedy, far too busy with the nation’s business, never approved it. Regardless, the public proclamation that Kennedy was a fan gave Fleming’s American publishers an important tool to promote the James Bond novels. Dulles himself acknowledged this in an essay he penned after Fleming’s death:

‘The Kennedy interest in James Bond gave Fleming’s books a great lift, and Ian well knew it. But,’ Dulles added, ‘there is something more than that in his success.’

To a casual observer, it may seem like that ‘something more’ is luck. Without a well-placed friend like Oatsie Leiter, a chance dinner invitation, and a White House staffer’s audacity, From Russia, with Love would have never appeared on the list in LIFE. These things, though, did not happen by luck or chance. No, Fleming appeared on the list in LIFE because when called a cad, he was cool under pressure. When he sat down to write a novel, he created a thrilling and unique tale that engaged readers and was easily recommended. When he found himself at dinner with his most influential fan, he rose to the occasion. Fleming appeared on the president’s list in LIFE because of his talent and the sheer force of his personality. In that, Fleming embodied so many of the qualities we admire in 007.

As to the wonderful woman who brought Kennedy and Fleming together, she is known as one of the most charming and respected scions of Newport. She befriended many presidents, senators and diplomats over the decades with her irreverent humor, her lack of pretension and disarming grace. In her nineties, she said outliving so many of her friends like John F. Kennedy and Ian Fleming is a curse of sorts. Yet, looking back on her remarkable life, she expressed only a few regrets. A small one was her chance at immortality on the pages of a Bond novel.

‘I said to Ian once, not long before he died, “Ian, I’m really terribly hurt, you’ve got every friend you’ve ever known in those books,” because all the characters in his books are taken from his friends.  And he said, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly use Oatsie. It’s far too distinctive. You know, it just wouldn’t do.” And I said, “Come on, Ian, anybody who can use Pussy Galore can use Oatsie.” …He said, “Alright, I’ll use you in the next book.”  But that was…’ She trails off, her eyes filling with memories eventually punctuated by a shrug. ‘He died shortly after that.’

Andrew Lycett’s Ian Fleming, John Pearson’s The Life of Ian Fleming and Peter Grose’s Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles were all invaluable resources in rounding out and confirming Marion ‘Oatsie’ Leiter’s recollections. Thanks too to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for its amazing archive of photos and information.

John Cork is an author, award-winning screenwriter and documentary filmmaker, and undoubtedly an avid Bond fan. Amongst many other achievements, he has produced numerous featurettes and interviews for MGM’s DVD releases of the James Bond films.

The Folio Society’s beautiful illustrated collector’s edition of From Russia, with Love is available now, click here to find out more. For more information on From Russia, with Love and its other current editions, please click here. The following illustrations are by Fay Dalton, taken from The Folio Society collector’s edition of From Russia, with Love.

Illustrations by Fay Dalton from The Folio Society edition of From Russia with Love © Fay Dalton 2016. Used with the permission of Fay Dalton and The Folio Society. www.foliosociety.com

Banner photo courtesy of Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Photo of President Kennedy in the rocking chair courtesy of Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Photo of President and First Lady Kennedy, 1963, courtesy of Robert Knudsen.

Photos of Oatsie and Ian Fleming courtesy of Marion Charles

LIFE Magazine is published by Time Inc