Thrilling City: Retracing Ian Fleming’s Trip to Los Angeles

By Matthew Chernov

“Never say ‘no’ to adventures. Always say ‘yes’, otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”

– Ian Fleming

200px-ThrillingCitiesIn 1959, at the behest of The Sunday Times’ features editor Leonard Russell, Ian Fleming set out on a five-week, all-expenses-paid trip around the world.

One of his first stops was the city of Los Angeles.

Fleming initially declined the travel offer, claiming that he was a miserable tourist who “often advocated the provision of roller-skates at the door of museums and art galleries.” But Russell wooed the reluctant author by suggesting that he could potentially gather material for a future Bond novel in the process.

“All my life I have been interested in adventure and, abroad, I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide, well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns. It was perhaps this habit that turned me into a writer of thrillers.”

– Ian Fleming

Thus on November 2, armed with a stack of visas and a “round-the-world suit with concealed money pockets,” Fleming set off from London to Hong Kong. Three days later he flew to Tokyo, then Hawaii. And shortly thereafter, he arrived in Southern California.

His journey was chronicled in a series of articles for the Times, and eventually collected in a non-fiction book titled “Thrilling Cities.” Published in 1963 by Jonathan Cape, the text includes his subsequent visits to Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva, Naples and Monte Carlo.

I first encountered Fleming’s stylish travelogue when I was too young to fully appreciate it. Having already devoured most of his Bond adventures, “Thrilling Cities” baffled me. Where was the plot? What was so thrilling about foreign hotels? Did any of these places still exist?

Eventually, I tucked it away and moved on to the remaining novels in the 007 series.

Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities 1964.But over time, as my fascination with the author eclipsed my hero-worship of Bond, I returned to “Thrilling Cities” as a way of communing with Fleming himself. The book’s zestful, erudite essays offer valuable insights into the man and his obsessions.

Earlier this year, a chance conversation with a colleague about a literary tour she took of Agatha Christie’s ancestral estate led me to consider a project much closer to home. Since I live in Los Angeles, one of Fleming’s thrilling cities, why not follow in his footsteps and recreate the journey myself?

“The cities may have changed minutely, this or that restaurant may have disappeared, a few characters have died, but I stick to the validity of the landscape painted with a broad and idiosyncratic brush.”

– Ian Fleming

The Arrival

Though he colorfully describes the airports of Hong Kong, Tokyo and Honolulu at the start of those chapters, Fleming begins his Los Angeles essay in a Yellow Cab on the way to his hotel.

Still, I headed to the Los Angeles International Airport first, since that’s where he arrived.

Known for its glowing glass pylons and the 32-foot-high “LAX” letters that greet drivers upon entering the terminal, today’s L.A. Airport is a sprawling, oval-shaped loop with five lanes of traffic headed in a single direction. Overrun with a non-stop convoy of hotel shuttles and rental car vans, it’s as charmless and inefficient an airport as you’re likely to encounter. Despite near-constant construction, improvements to the terminals seem long overdue.

Visually, the most impressive sight at LAX is the astonishing Theme Building located in the center of the loop. The free-standing structure’s space-age design is a prime example of the mid-century modern style known as Populuxe.

Airport Theme Building

Airport Theme Building

Unfortunately, the UFO-shaped marvel wasn’t opened until 1961, two years after Fleming’s visit. Had he seen it, he surely would’ve been dazzled by its futuristic aesthetic.

The iconic building can be spotted briefly in the film adaptation of “Diamonds are Forever” when Bond and Tiffany Case arrive at LAX from Amsterdam, and again in the film “Moonraker” when Bond and Corinne Dufour leave LAX by helicopter.

Fans of the film “The Spy Who Loved Me” might notice an uncanny resemblance between the Theme Building’s 135-foot-tall parabolic arches and the underwater base of villain Karl Stromberg, though I’ve yet to discover a specific link between the two.

Designated as a historic cultural monument by the Los Angeles City Council, the Theme Building was recently home to a restaurant called Encounter, which closed in 2013. The observation deck remains open, however, on weekends from 8:00am until 5:00pm.

In the Cab

Fleming’s first impressions of Los Angeles are delivered from the backseat of a taxi on the drive to the Beverly Hills Hotel.

“The Yellow Cab driver was smoking a big cigar at eight o’clock that morning. He didn’t want to talk. Neither did I.”

– Ian Fleming

I checked with Yellow Cab and they assured me that their vehicles are entirely smoke-free in 2015. However, there’s still no guarantee that your driver will want to talk to you. As for the cost, a ride from LAX to Beverly Hills currently averages $65. Don’t expect to find an Uber driver at the airport, though. At the moment they’re not allowed to pick up passengers at the terminals.

“I sat and glumly watched the procession of gas stations and hot-dog stands on the hour’s drive to the Beverly Hills Hotel.”

– Ian Fleming

Today, with carpool lanes and strategically located freeways, the same trip could take as little as 30 minutes, which might have cheered Fleming up a bit.

Though gas stations are still relatively easy to find, hot dog stands aren’t as plentiful in contemporary Los Angeles as they were in 1959. Other than the atrocious Wienerschnitzel fast-food chain, the largest L.A. hot dog franchise is probably ‘Hot Dog on a Stick.’ Opened in 1946, it’s been around long enough for Fleming to have noticed one of their colorful stands on his drive across the city.

Or maybe he spotted the world-famous Pink’s Hot Dogs on his way to the hotel? Established in 1939 and still in business today, it’s been a Hollywood landmark since it first opened.


“I noted the “Squeeze Inn. Steaks!” the “Golf! Stop and Sock!!!” a driving range, and the “Sunset Pest Control” hard by the famous Sunset Boulevard.”

– Ian Fleming

Sadly, the Squeeze Inn is ancient history. The nearest one is located almost 400 miles away in Sacramento and, according to their website, still serves steak sandwiches.

The driving range that Fleming mentions is also gone, but if you’re in the mood to practice your swing in L.A., try the Aroma Golf Range in nearby Koreatown.

Sunset Pest Control no longer exists, but it’s easy to imagine Fleming commenting on the eye-catching sign for Western Exterminators, located just off Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. The signature graphic of a top-hatted figure about to pulverize a knife-wielding rat with a giant mallet is exactly the kind of menacing detail the author of “Live and Let Die” would have loved.

Forest Lawn

While still en route to his hotel, Fleming mentions a sight that he’d encountered during a previous trip to Los Angeles in 1954.

“Via a detour, I renewed my acquaintance with America’s Waugh Memorial, the cemetery immortalized in The Loved One…”

– Ian Fleming

The pun refers to British writer Evelyn Waugh, a close friend of Fleming’s wife Ann, and a frequent guest at their Goldeneye estate in Jamaica. Waugh’s satirical novel “The Loved One” was inspired, in part, by his visit to Forest Lawn Cemetery during a trip to Los Angeles in 1947. Eighteen years later, the same cemetery was used as a shooting location for the book’s film adaptation.

Founded in 1906 by a group of San Francisco businessmen, Forest Lawn Cemetery is located in Glendale, which would have required a substantial detour on Fleming’s part. More than 250,000 people are buried there, including Clark Gable, Walt Disney and Elizabeth Taylor.

Forest Lawn 1I toured the 300 acre park on a quiet Sunday afternoon, camera in tow. The grounds are beautifully maintained and visitors could be seen laying flowers on the graves of their departed friends and family. While wandering, I happened upon a headstone that brought to mind the film adaptation of “The Man with the Golden Gun.”

Merely a coincidence, of course, as Sir Roger Moore is still very much alive!

One million guests tour this historic cemetery each year, and it’s easy to see why. With its rolling hills, immaculate lawns and stunningly ornate cathedrals, few spots in suburban L.A. are as peaceful.

Checking In

Fleming isn’t very specific about his stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, other than to suggest that he received a basket of fruit in cellophane from the manager. He does have this to say about it in general, however:

“The Beverly Hills Hotel… is still, despite the modern attractions of the Beverly Hilton, the friendliest hotel in town.”

– Ian Fleming

Beverly Hills Hotel - SignThis was my first visit to the hotel and I’m inclined to agree with him. The staff I encountered, from the doormen to the concierge to the bartender at the Polo Lounge, couldn’t have been more pleasant or accommodating.

Beverly Hills Hotel - exterior

Famous for its pink stucco façade and five-star amenities, the Beverly Hills Hotel opened its doors in 1912. Since then, it’s become virtually synonymous with Hollywood glamour, appearing in numerous films like “The Way We Were,” “Shampoo,” Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” and “American Gigolo.”

The album cover for The Eagles classic 1976 LP “Hotel California” features a moody image of the hotel’s exterior.

Beverly Hills Hotel - EntranceThe three-story Mediterranean-style building is tucked away behind a thick wall of lush banana plants and towering palm trees, and contains 208 guest rooms. The main attraction, however, are the 23 unique bungalows located on the grounds. One of them comes with its own swimming pool, while another was decorated by Marilyn Monroe. Howard Hughes lived in a group of them for almost thirty years.

Beverly Hills Hotel - Bungalow SignA gracious concierge led me through a maze of tropical plants and bubbling fountains to an unoccupied bungalow that appeared like an oasis in the jungle.

Inside, I found a beautifully appointed sitting room, a distinctively deluxe bedroom and an exquisitely tasteful bathroom. Framed photos from the hotel’s bygone era add a touch of history to the recently-renovated décor.

Beverly Hills Hotel - Sleeping RoomWhile checking the well-stocked minibar, I pictured Fleming being shown to this same private bungalow and dryly commenting “This will do.”

Comfort doesn’t come cheap, of course, and a room at the Beverly Hills Hotel can cost anywhere from $700 to $15,000 per night.

The Good Life

The swimming pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel is the most posh I’ve ever seen. From the crystal blue water, the crisp white towels and the attractive waitresses delivering hand-crafted cocktails to smiling guests, the place seems almost unreal in terms of sheer luxury.

While I visualized Auric Goldfinger lazily sunning himself on a chaise lounge, the concierge informed me that, once-upon-a-time, sand from the Santa Monica beach was trucked in and scattered around the perimeter of the pool to give it a unique touch.

Though a sign at the pool’s entrance requested that no photos be taken, I discreetly snapped a quick shot for the sake of posterity.

Beverly Hills Hotel Pool

“The Beverly Hills Hotel, on Sunset Boulevard, has the atmosphere of a luxurious country club; excellent service and run by Mr. Stuart Hathaway, who visits London and the Continent every year.”

– Ian Fleming

Today the hotel is run by General Manager Edward Mady, but still retains its country club atmosphere. And nowhere is that more evident than in the world-famous Polo Lounge.

Polo Lounge Sign

Shaken Not Stirred

Legend has it that the Polo Lounge got its name because movie stars like Spencer Tracy and Douglas Fairbanks would drink there after weekend polo matches. Mia Farrow was supposedly banned from the establishment for wearing pants. Or perhaps that was Marlene Dietrich? Actually, it depends on who you ask.

Red velvet carpet leads you inside the peach-colored main room, where a pianist tickles the ivory for the dining guests. Dark green booths surround the interior, and each one features a plug-in phone jack, a nostalgic detail from the days of old Hollywood.

I took a seat at the empty bar and signaled for the bartender.

“Good afternoon, Sir,” he said. “What can I get for you?”

Before I could answer, he spotted the dog-eared paperback copy of Fleming’s “Thrilling Cities” in my hand and smiled.

“Vesper martini?” he asked.

He’d read my mind!

Vesper with Book

While he mixed my drink, I asked if he got many orders for Vespers.

“From time to time,” he said. “In fact, Pierce Brosnan came in not long ago and ordered one.”

I couldn’t believe it. Bond himself had ordered the classic Fleming cocktail in this very bar!

According to the bartender (whose name was Chris, I learned) Brosnan was in town to give a speech at a fundraising charity event. While staying at the hotel, he came in by himself and ordered the drink.

Vesper Martini

The Vesper was perfect. Strong, bold and expertly balanced. An ice-cold cocktail made to Fleming’s exact specifications. Easily one of the finest beverages I’ve ever tasted.

At $20, it was a bargain.

Dining at the Derby

After checking in to his hotel, Fleming grabbed a meal with a film executive who was interested in his work.

“At twelve-thirty I was having lunch in the Brown Derby with a producer who wanted to make a fortune out of me in exchange for a glass of water and a crust of bread.”

– Ian Fleming

Established in 1926, the Brown Derby was a restaurant shaped like a gentleman’s derby hat. Located on Wilshire Blvd, it eventually became a chain of similarly shaped restaurants, with branches in Ohio still operating today.

Famous for its whimsical design, the original Brown Derby that Fleming visited was eventually replaced by a mini-mall in 1980.

Brown Derby Plaza

“I was treated to the whole smart rag-bag of show-biz pressure-talk in between Eggs Benedict and those eighty proof dry martinis that anaesthetize the uvula.”

– Ian Fleming

Known today as the Brown Derby Plaza, the building retains its signature dome-shape, but now houses a Korean seafood restaurant and a coffee bar.

Law and Order

The majority of Fleming’s time in Los Angeles was spent in conversation with Police Captain James Hamilton, the head of the LAPD’s newly-formed Intelligence Division. Fleming had previously met Hamilton in 1954 while gathering research for “Diamonds Are Forever.”

“Since I was last there five years ago, the police headquarters has been moved to a new marble skyscraper, but Captain Hamilton has constructed for himself a replica of his former office, a grey box with no ornament but a heroin peddler’s pair of scales…”

– Ian Fleming

To call Parker Center, which was named after Police Chief William H. Parker, a “skyscraper” is a bit of a stretch. I’d never actually seen the building up close before, so when I ventured downtown and saw it in person, I was struck by how short and squat it was.

Parker Center 2 (2)

I say “was” because Parker Center is currently empty and abandoned. Using a chain of handcuffs, Police Chief Charlie Beck locked the doors to the controversial building in a 2009 ceremony. Though it served the department for over half a century, the antiquated structure couldn’t keep up with the needs of the modern LAPD, and a new office building was selected to take its place.

Today, Parker Center’s future remains uncertain, with some city officials in favor of demolishing it, while others hope to preserve it as a cultural monument. A long, costly legal battle will most likely decide its fate.

When Fleming visited it in 1959, the building was considered state-of-the-art. Over the years, infamous criminals like Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan and the Hillside Strangler were booked there. TV fans might recognize it from classic shows like “Dragnet,” “Perry Mason” and “Columbo.”

From Japan With Love

One of the most interesting places that Fleming mentions is The Hollywood Hills Hotel. Take Sycamore Avenue north above Sunset Boulevard and it’s just a stone’s throw from the world-famous Magic Castle. This restful retreat offers a uniquely Japanese atmosphere.

“It is Oriental in architecture and décor, has a beautiful Japanese garden setting, and though no food is served, drinks are offered on a large porch overlooking all the bright lights of Hollywood. The girls here wear kimonos.”

– Ian Fleming

Follow a sign pointing to the “Pagoda Bar” which leads you past a smiling Buddha statue. From there, you’ll see exactly what Fleming described, minus the girls in kimonos serving drinks.

Smiling Buddha - Hollywood Hills Hotel (1)

Pagoda Sign - Hollywood Hills Hotel (1)

This being L.A., however, ubiquitous helicopters buzzed overhead as I strolled the silent grounds, imagining Tiger Tanaka sipping saké while on holiday.

All That Remains

Fleming concludes his chapter on Los Angeles with a brief appendix called “Incidental Intelligence.” It’s an itemized list of hotels and restaurants that he recommends.

To make sense of it, I asked journalist and L.A. native Pat Saperstein to clue me in on what’s still in business and what’s no longer there. I’ve transcribed her words as she skimmed the pages:

“The Ambassador Hotel is now a high school, but the Biltmore Hotel is still open in downtown. As for the restaurants, The Frascatti Inn, The Captain’s Table, and the Tail of the Cock are all gone. I’ve never heard of La Rue’s, The Bantam Cock, Mediterrania, Stears, or Islandia. Lawry’s Prime Rib is still open on La Cienega Boulevard. Scandia on Sunset Boulevard was just torn down a few weeks ago. I think all that’s left of Perino’s on Wilshire Boulevard is the exterior façade. Chasen’s on Beverly Boulevard is just a few walls attached to a supermarket. The Friars Club is still there on Santa Monica in Beverly Hills, but it doesn’t look like much from the outside.”

Revisiting the world of Fleming’s Los Angeles allowed me to glimpse my adopted city in a new way, and for that I’m grateful to him. Regarding the essays in his travelogue, the author had this to say:

“I do not think they have dated to any serious extent and, re-reading them, they seem, to me at any rate, to retain such freshness as they every possessed.”

– Ian Fleming

Though many of the people and places are just a distant memory, “Thrilling Cities” will always retain its freshness.

Incidental Intelligence

Matthew ChernovMatthew Chernov is a film journalist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. His work can be read in Variety and his films have premiered on NBC, the SyFy Channel, Lifetime Network, Spike TV, and the Hallmark Channel.

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One thought on “Thrilling City: Retracing Ian Fleming’s Trip to Los Angeles

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