The life of writer Ian Fleming has fused somewhat with the lethal swagger of his overwhelmingly successful fictional character, James Bond, and that assumption carries over to those who were close to him. When Blanche Blackwell, his longtime mistress, died on August 8, 2017, certain obituaries suggested she had been the ultimate Bond girl, even claiming she was the inspiration for Pussy Galore of Goldfinger.
The truth was Blackwell personified a Bond girl no more than Fleming did a British secret agent with a license to kill. Her life, and their love affair, was much more subtle than that.
Fleming bought property in Jamaica in 1946 and rehabilitated a house that he dubbed Goldeneye. “As has been the case since the days of the sugar barons, Jamaica provided a home for British aristocrats, second and third sons of the aristocracy and rich misfits,” wrote Matthew Parker in his book Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica.
The category Fleming belonged in was perhaps the third, though he was not as yet rich. The middle son of a prosperous banker and politician, Fleming had floundered after Eton, overshadowed by a brilliant older brother. He poured his energy into the playboy life, drinking and seducing as many women as possible. After trying various careers, including being as he put it “the world’s worst stockbroker,” he found his calling in World War Two, as personal assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, director of intelligence of the Royal Navy. Commander Fleming functioned as an “ideas man and fixer,” according to the documentary The Real Casino Royale. He bought a home in Jamaica while working as a journalist, eager to escape the grimness of postwar Britain.
Blanche Blackwell came from a far different background. She was born a Lindo, one of Jamaica’s richest families and part of the “plantocracy.” They were Sephardic Jews from Portugal who had come to Jamaica in 1743 to make money from sugar, rum, and coconuts. Family lore has it that the Lindos made a large loan to Napoleon Bonaparte that was never repaid. Their fortune had decreased by the dawn of the 20th century, but the booming banana trade brought it back, and the family bought the island’s leading rum manufacturer.
Blanche was born on Costa Rico on December 9, 1912, later moving to Jamaica. She was very strictly brought up. She married Joseph Blackwell, an Anglo-Irish former Guards officer and part of the Crosse & Blackwell food empire. The couple had a son, Chris, and bought racehorses. Errol Flynn, who loved vacationing in Jamaica, became friends with Joseph Blackwell and was infatuated with Blanche. He said later that her laughter was “like the sounds of water tinkling over a waterfall” and he would have liked to marry her, but Flynn was already married.
The Blackwell marriage did end in divorce, and Blanche moved with her son to England while he went to school. She returned when Chris turned 18 and became good friends with playwright Noel Coward, who had bought a house on Jamaica after briefly renting Goldeneye from Ian Fleming. In the middle of writing his fifth Bond novel, From Russia With Love, Fleming and Blanche Blackwell met at a dinner party. “Ian found that Blanche was petite, with shapely legs and the dramatic, dark features of a Velazquez beauty,” wrote Andrew Lycett in the biography Ian Fleming.
Fleming was rude to Blanche that night, however. He was a famously difficult person. In an interview, Fleming described himself as “rather melancholic and probably rather slightly maniacal as well.” But a friendship did take hold, based on their shared love of the island. They both were passionate swimmers and endlessly interested in the fish and flowers of the island. They were also very attracted to each other. Blanche later spoke of his “rugged vitality.”
Fleming, however, was married. Around the time he wrote Casino Royale, he married Ann Charteris, whom he had been having an affair with throughout her marriage to Esmond Harmsworth, the owner of the Daily Mail. Their marriage was stormy. He disliked her society parties, deriding them as “gab fests,” and she was embarrassed by his Bond novels, which she called “pornography.” Neither was faithful, with Ann cheating on her husband with politician Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labor Party. She wasn’t that crazy about Jamaica either, where Fleming lived at least two months of the year while he produced his books.
Fleming and Blanche’s friendship deepened into an affair. She helped him to relax and catered to his moods, biographers say. He had found a more compatible companion but didn’t divorce his wife. Ann Fleming knew about his mistress and was furious about it, describing Blanche Blackwell as “Ian’s Jamaican wife.” Noel Coward wrote a play about the love triangle called Volcano, never performed in his lifetime.
In an interview, Chris Blackwell said, “The relationship they had, how she and Ian bonded, was that they were both into doing things: climbing these falls, going into those caves, swimming here, snorkelling there.” Blanche gave Fleming a small fishing boat, and he named it Octopussy.
After Dr. No, starring Sean Connery, hit the big screen, and Ian Fleming became famous and quite wealthy, Blanche remained an important part of his life. Chris Blackwell had been hired as location scout and production assistant for Dr. No and found work for his musician friends.
Ian Fleming had his first heart attack in 1961. Blanche spent time in England to be near him, as discreetly as possible since Fleming had assured his wife that their affair was over. His health continued to deteriorate, and he died on August 12, 1964. She was devastated but could not attend his funeral.
In her later years, Blanche Blackwell moved to England. She was interviewed by writer Ian Thomson for a book about Jamaica, The Dead Yard. She was asked about her two famous admirers. “Ian was an angel,” she said. “Errol was another angel. Both lovely men – both exceptionally manly and definitely not for domesticating.”
In 1976, reggae icon Bob Marley bought Goldeneye. His records were produced by Island Records, the music company founded by Chris Blackwell, whose personal fortune is estimated at $100 million.
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Later in the 1970s, Marley sold the house to Blackwell. He transformed Goldeneye into a luxury resort. His mother, Blanche, was known to be a regular visitor.
She died in London at the age of 104.