Ian Fleming: Nobody does it better

Ian Fleming. His days in Kitzbühel create the world’s most famous spy.

Picture this: A chalet high in the Tyrolean alps, rough hewn timber walls, a roaring fire, a bearskin rug, and a sexy couple making love. Suddenly the man stops. He hears a tick. Its source? His Seiko digital watch. “007 REPORT TO HQ. IMMEDIATE. M.” In a flash the man—whose hair is perfectly coiffed—slips into a banana-yellow Bogner, clicks into his skis, and splits. He rips down a heli-ski piste with homicidal, submachine-gun-wielding Soviet spies making chase. When he’s not doing backflips or sliding smoothly through couloirs, he’s killing his pursuers with a ski pole that doubles as a gun. Just when you think the chase is over, he launches off a 3,300-foot cliff and pops open a parachute sporting a Union Jack. Yes, it’s James Bond skiing through the opening scene of1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. And, as Carly Simon insists, nobody does it better.

Fast forward to Winter 2015. It’s a chilly March night in Kitzbühel, a medieval town sitting like a jewel in a crown of sparkling Austrian peaks. Under a moonlit sky, the town’s casino is bustling with a crowd of sharply dressed men and women busily playing blackjack and buying gaming chips. The scene is straight out of a 007 flick.

Two men entering the casino flash Walther PPK handguns, Bond’s firearm of choice. One looks like Le Chiffre, the elegant dark-haired villain from the 2006’s Casino Royale. The other, a much beefier bloke with a large nose and slick hair, could well be KGB. Yet another patron is channeling Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s archenemy: He’s dressed in a collarless Tyrolean jacket and stroking a plush white cat. At the blackjack table is a dashing young couple from Munich—the long-legged woman dressed to kill in a form-fitting white dinner jacket; the man decked in full Soviet military regalia… could it be 007’s Cold War nemesis, General Gogol?

This gathering may seem like a 007-themed party at Halloween, but it’s not. Tonight is the start of The Ian Fleming Challenge, a ski race and social meeting of 007 fans that takes place each March in Kitzbühel to celebrate the world’s most famous spy, the author who created him, and their mutual passion for alpine skiing.

This season these Bond-ites have a little more to celebrate than usual. Local shooting has recently wrapped for SPECTRE, director Sam Mendes’s latest Bond film. Set for world wide release in November, parts of the movie were shot with Daniel Craig, not in Kitzbühel but close… in near by Sölden. The selection of Austria for Bond’s return to snow country in SPECTRE is no coincidence. Both 007 and Fleming have deep connections with the small alpine nation. What’s more, many believe Kitzbühel is the place the character was conceived, and as the author said himself, “Everything I write has a precedent in truth.”

 

Indeed, Kitzbühel appears regularly in Fleming’s writings. In Octopussy, a short story published in 1966 after Fleming’s death, 007 hunts down the murderer of Hannes Oberhauser, a ski instructor whom Bond considers his second father. Oberhauser’s hometown just happens to be Kitzbühel. As it happens, one of the main characters in SPECTRE, is named Oberhauser. Without giving too much away, let’s just say Bond’s relationship with the Oberhauser clan is a key element of the new film.

Kitzbühel makes more appearances in Fleming’s work. In the 1963 book On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 007 finds romance, bad guys, and mad avalanche skiing on the marshmallow slopes of Mürren, in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland. At the end of book—and later, the flick—Bond witnesses the brutal murder of his wife Tracy
on their honeymoon, en route to a little Austrian town called…you guessed it, Kitzbühel.

Why Kitz? Because this skiland of designer boutiques, posh restaurants, old-world cafés, and of course, the Hahnenkamm, ski racing’s most famous—and most dangerous—World Cup race, was a first love of Ian Fleming’s. The affair started in his teens…

It’s 1920’s England and Eve Fleming is mortified by the scandalous behavior of Ian, her teenaged son. Out of Eton—school of royals—there are reports of truancy and illicit, male-female trysts. Queen Victoria has been gone for more than 25 years, but her icy version of morality still has Britannia in its grip. There’s no
room for naughty boys who get their hands caught in the nookie jar. The solution: finishing school in a foreign land.

In the summer of 1926, Fleming’s domineering mother sends him off to a private school in Kitzbühel to cram for entry into Sandhurst, Britain’s Royal Military Academy. But not long after entering Sandhurst, more scandals ensue—involving girls and late-night field trips. Fleming’s time at Sandhurst comes to an abrupt halt. A very frustrated Eve Fleming ships her unruly 19-year-old son back to Kitzbühel, this time to study German, literature, philosophy, and the fine art of staying out of trouble.

 

The school, set up in a small country hotel called the Villa Tennerh of at the foot of the Kitzbüheler horn, is run by two people who will forever change Fleming’s life: Ernan Forbes Dennis,a former British secret service intelligence officer, and author Phyllis Bottome, his wife. The duo plants the seeds for the James Bond character in their young student’s head.

“Ernan Forbes Dennis, whose wife Phyllis Bottome was a novelist, ran an establishment at the Tennerh of for difficult, troubled teenagers and young men,” explains Fleming’s niece, Kate Grimond. “They were very interested in early ideas of psychotherapy. Ian was troubled and having difficulty finding his way in life, so he went to Kitzbühel and it sorted him out. He owed a lot to his stay there, and he was inspired by Phyllis Bottome to write stories when he was there. His introduction to skiing and climbing was in Kitzbühel. I’m sure the skiing and climbing you find in the literature and films were definitely and unquestionably inspired by his time in Kitz.”

Villa Tennerhof—now Hotel Tennerhof—is a luxurious five-star Relais & Châteaux establishment owned by Luigivon Pasquali, a debonair Austrian noble whose ancestors include William The Conqueror. At the Tennerhof, which has always been owned by one von Pasquali or another, stories about Fleming are legend. Luigi recounts them well. “My grandmother, Charlotte Pasquali von Campostellato, knew Fleming,” von Pasquali says. “He was kind of a naughty boy—drinking, girls… all that. His mother sent him to Kitzbühel to calm down, but apparently he found some beer and ladies here too. I think he had quite a good time!” Good time, indeed. Legend has it Fleming’s imagination bloomed in the fertile soil of Kitz. The man went on to create rather colorful female characters: Pussy Galore, Holly Goodhead, and Plenty O’Toole.

Naturally, Fleming’s real life women were always at one with danger. In the book, The Life of Ian Fleming, author John Pearson recounts a story told by one of Fleming’s Kitzbühel ski pals, the British writer and publisher Ralph Arnold: “Ian was always contriving situations, and then making life fit into them. He’d suggest hiring a car and taking a couple of girls off somewhere for the day on a trip and he’d invent a plot for us. We were being pursued down the mountain road by a carload of dangerous international agents and we would finally destroy them because it turned out that we had a gun concealed in the exhaust pipe of our car.”

But it didn’t stop with schoolboy shenanigans. As the specter of war began to loom over Europe, the dangerous
international agents lurking around Kitzbühel in Fleming’s fantasies began to materialize in real life. Nazi spies and their British counterparts often crossed paths on and off the slopes of Kitzbühel in the years preceding World War II. One of these spies was Conrad O’Brien-ffrench, a British Secret Service agent, code name Agent Z3. O’Brien-ffrench ran a travel agency called Tyrolese Tours as a front for his clandestine activities. He also just happened to be one of Fleming’s skiing and drinking pals in Kitz. O’Brien-ffrench
is believed to be one of the key inspirations for James Bond, and an early role model for the author’s own career as an intelligence officer during WWII.

Flash forward to 2015. After a night at the casino and a day at the races on Kitzbühel’s sunny slopes, the James Bond ski pilgrims meet up for the highlight of the weekend—Thunderball, a black-tie soirée that traditionally takes place amidst the Tyrolean Alps—how Bond-esque. The location of this year’s Thunderball happens to be Hotel Tennerhof. Remember it?

Amid the splendor of the Tennerhof—carved wood ceilings, antique furnishings, walls covered with antlers and assorted 19th-century hunting palace chic—a rag-tag assortment of Austro-German nobles, financiers, doctors, ex-ski racers, ski instructors, and 007 fans are mingling. They clink champagne glasses and joyfully hoist crystal ski trophies captured in the name of Fleming and Bond.

In the center of the room stand a pair of elegantly dressed ladies. One is Fleming’s niece, Kate Grimond, the other is Corinne Turner, the managing director for a mere 27 years
of Ian Fleming Publications, the author’s literary gatekeeper. Both have come to the Ian Fleming Challenge for the first time, and both want to ensure the memory of Fleming is
treated with respect.

“The fact that so many people want to get together to celebrate Ian and his link to Kitzbühel is wonderful,” Turner exclaims. “It’s just really good fun, and that’s what it should be—that’s everything that Ian was about. He said you should never say ‘no’ to adventure. I’m sure if he’s seeing this somewhere now, he’s got a big smile on his face and is wishing he was here.”

“He would be amazed that nearly a hundred years on, from when he was in Kitzbühel, that he was being honored in this way,” adds Grimond. “He would have been astonished that he created this character James Bond, who’s gone on for years, and years, and years—and he’d be amazed at its global reach. I think he’d be thrilled that he’d given so much pleasure to so many.”

As the late-night snowcats groom the star-lit slopes of the Kitzbühelerhorn just above the Tennerhof, the last of the party’s elegant dancers make their way back to their rooms. Another Thunderball is in the books. A small army of waiters are busy bussing an endless parade of trays covered in empty martini glasses—yes, the martinis were shaken, not stirred.

One of the organizers, Michael “Gugu” Tyszkiewicz, a tall man with a noble Roman nose and smooth-fitting tux, lifts a large portrait of Ian Fleming off the wall. The photo depicts the late author elegantly smoking a cigarette. It has a distinct otherworldly vibe: half of Fleming’s face is covered by a veil of cigarette smoke; the other half portrays a piercing look of confidence only the man who created the world’s sexiest, deadliest secret agent could cast.

It’s been a half century since Ian Fleming passed, and almost double that since the 007 author first set foot in the medieval ski town of Kitzbühel. Yet in this part of the world, it’s clear the man who once wrote that “you only live twice,” actually lives on.