Article by Frieda Toth
For armchair traveling, you can’t beat Bond, and there’s no more delightful pastime than retracing the steps of a fictional hero, especially knowing that there is no bad guy trying to kill you during your vacation.
In 1955, Diamonds Are Forever took James Bond to Saratoga Springs, New York. Here, Bond chases diamond smugglers rather than a magnificent villain and witnesses the torture of a crooked jockey by means of hot mud in the bathhouse where he is getting a treatment. But in addition to giving us intrigue Fleming treats us to the beauty and quirks of a lovely little city.
Bond starts in New York City, where he meets up with the faithful Felix Leiter, and they drive up the Taconic in a Studillac. The Taconic is no longer the main route up from New York, but is just as beautiful as Fleming describes it, possibly more so because of the lesser traffic than other routes. The Taconic allows only passenger vehicles—no truck (lorry) traffic. Be warned, though, no rest areas.
If you have no business in NYC while on your Bond trek, skip the Taconic trip and get a connecting flight to Albany Airport. It is pleasant and small and only about a twenty minute drive from Saratoga, rather than three hours.
Once in Saratoga, Bond praises the majestic elms. Sadly, Dutch Elm disease struck the Northeast and the trees that so impressed Fleming were already dying while he was here. Only about twenty of the magnificent elms remain, and some of these are diseased. (Once diseased, a tree will not recover.)
Leiter found a room for Bond in the Sagamore, which he calls a “swanky motel” walking distance from the track. There is, of course, no such thing as a “swanky,” motel, “swanky,” meaning posh, which motels are not.
Fleming was probably referring, by name anyway, to the Sagamore resort, which is in Bolton Landing, almost forty miles north of Saratoga. This magnificent hotel is on its own island in Lake George, accessible only by boat or by a narrow bridge. There was a motel in the Saratoga Springs City Directory which was walking distance from the track at the time Fleming was writing, and although it no longer exists, there are many motels in Saratoga. It seems literary license that Leiter could have obtained a room for his friend at short notice since, as Leiter says, Saratoga “goes hog-wild” during racing season. If you want to stay in Saratoga, don’t try to get a room the same night you arrive.
Fleming would not have needed to stay in a Saratoga Springs motel, since his friend Ivar Bryce had a home about a thirty minute drive from the track, in Cambridge, New York. So did their mutual friend Ernie Cuneo, and in his memoirs Bryce said it was Cuneo who took Fleming on a fateful drive to the baths of Saratoga.
Just as Fleming described it, Saratoga is full of horses, especially during the track season, but really, all year. The flat track runs only in an extended August season, but Saratoga is often a site of horse shows and the harness track runs almost year round, so “backstretch” workers are always present. Backstretch workers were referred to by Bond, who saw them walking the horses, grooming them, “ . . . everywhere the Negroes who, except as jockeys, are so much a part of American racing.”
Backstretch workers remain disenfranchised people. Where Fleming describes them as Mexicans and “Negroes”, the backstretch workers now hail from Guatemala and Chile as well as the United States and Mexico. The accurate but harsh reality that black people are not represented as jockeys is particularly cruel because in the beginning of the sport, black jockeys dominated.
Leiter also says that Saratoga, during the season, is “crawling” with Vanderbilts and Whitneys. Marylou Whitney Hendrickson, widow of Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney, still graces the track at age 91. She formerly used her sizable fortune to run a gala in August but now, heartwarmingly, uses that same money to provide education, health services, and other areas of support to backstretch workers.
If you don’t like to gamble but like the thought of racing, you can enjoy something Bond would not, a ride on a simulated race horse. Only ten dollars at the National Museum of Racing.
Leiter mentions a pond with swans that appear annually, and an “Indian” canoe. Although the swans are long gone, the pond and canoe remain, and the canoe gets painted, each year, with the colors of last year’s Travers winner.
Even if you choose not to go to the track or the racing museum, you will be rewarded with views of horses in Saratoga. In modern Saratoga Springs, all over town there are brightly painted statues of horses, in a nod to the track.
Fleming writes with his usual verisimilitude, and has Bond get his racing information from The Saratogian, which is still the daily paper in this small city.
No Bond tour would be complete without a good meal. Fleming does not give us names of his diners, which are ubiquitous in Northern New York. But while you are in Saratoga, don’t miss Sarge’s Triangle Diner for good homemade bread and huge portions. And Hattie’s restaurant, with its beautiful courtyard (and which was in operation when Fleming was here) also serves a Fleming favorite, amazing scrambled eggs.
As every Fleming fan knows, a heart stopping read in Diamonds Are Forever is when Bond goes to take a mud bath. Bond calls the place he visited “Acme,” but there is and was no such thing as “Acme” baths. Fleming was writing in the present and likely did not want to risk anger from the real bathhouse owners.
In Bryce’s memoirs, he says that Cuneo and Fleming took a trip from Cuneo’s home to “the” bath houses, turned onto a road that took them through the woods, and got the full and horrible bath treatment before they realized that the bath house they were really setting out for were further on, closer to the city of Saratoga.
There were several bathhouses in and around Saratoga at the time Fleming was writing. But none in living memory, in City Directories, or in available advertisements fits the description Fleming gives of Acme, “a cluster of dingy grey clapboard buildings.”
I was lucky to have an interview with a woman who, as a child, had worked at a Saratoga bathhouse called Eureka. Louise Goldstein’s job was to hose off people coming out of mud baths, and then dry them with towels.
It boggles the modern mind to have a ten year old in a bathing suit hosing mud off otherwise naked people, fifteen or twenty at a time, but that’s what she did.
“They would rise out of their mud coffins, and I would hose them off. There were people with terrible disfigurements, terrible, because we were just after the Holocaust. Between that, and bad medicine of the time, there were terrible disfigurements.”
Ms. Goldstein also talked about how lovely her place of employment was, how nice the working environment, how fluffy the towels. It was beginning to sound very little like Bond. I asked if she remembered any African-American employees, since those were the attendants Fleming described. Her answer was unequivocal.
“No. I don’t remember that at all. You see, my family were friends of the Weissbrots [the owners]. We were Jewish, and they were Jewish, so that is how I got the job.”
It seems classy and clean Eureka could not have been the bath house Fleming used as inspiration for that wonderfully horrible scene in Diamonds Are Forever. Even a quick look at a postcard of the place shows this. The Eureka baths are one large and well-kept building. Even allowing that the owners would pretty up the place for a postcard, it still doesn’t match the description of a multitude of dingy “clapboard” buildings.
Contemporary and modern stories about the owner of Eureka, Benjamin Weissbrot, depict a man proud of his work and a bath house that is decidedly upscale, nothing like “Acme.”
Yet local legend is resolute that Fleming was at Eureka, and Fleming has a guest of the bathhouse named “Mr. Weiss.” It seems likely, therefore, that after Cuneo and Fleming visited the down-on-its luck establishment depicted in DAF, they took a more careful route to Eureka.
The Eureka bath house burned to the ground in a fire labeled “suspicious” in 1958. Locals would quickly have forgotten that it was one building rather than the many in the book, and as a consequence the legend that Eureka was THE bathhouse, rather than one of the inspirations, would have grown quickly.
Although you cannot get a mud “bath,” you can still get a mud “wrap” at Roosevelt Baths, which did exist during Fleming’s visit. And if being engulfed in mud does not appeal to you, you may still enjoy a mineral bath. The naturally carbonated water, cool when it leaves the earth, is heated to a delightful temperature and the huge tubs are luxurious.
So what Bond experiences can you enjoy?
Downtown Saratoga being lovely—yes. Racetrack—yes. Presence of Whitneys—sort of. Read the same newspaper—yes. Diners with good coffee—all over the place. Mud baths—no, not really.
But you didn’t really want to re create that scene, did you?
The author is grateful for assistance in preparing this article:
Erica Wolfe Burke, Todd DeGarmo, Folklife Center, Crandall Public Library
Maryann Fitzgerald, Saratoga City Historian
Victoria Garlanda and the rest of the staff of the Saratoga Room, Saratoga Springs Public Library
Louise Goldstein, former employee of Eureka, Saratoga Springs
Karen Hilfiger, Reference Librarian, Crandall Public Library
Nancy Girard Underwood, Saratoga Program Director, Backstretch Employee Service of New York
Sheriza Serravento, Backstretch Employee Service of New York
Paul Perreault, Malta Town Historian
The interlibrary loan service of Southern Adirondack Library System
Ivar Bryce, You Only Live Once: Memories of Ian Fleming
Fergus Fleming, The Man With the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters
Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever (original printing)
Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming
Matthew Parker, Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica