Never meet your heroes they say. Well, in some cases it’s no bad thing. For Ian Fleming, it was a thrill to meet ‘the real James Bond’, whose name many argue was the inspiration for his titular hero, taken from the birding book – Birds of the West Indies.
A new book about this meeting by Jim Wright called The Real James Bond: A True Story of Identity Theft, Avian Intrigue, and Ian Fleming was recently published by Schiffer Books and we caught up with Jim to discuss.
What started you on the trail of the ‘real’ James Bond?
I wrote my newspaper column about Bond in 2015 and became fascinated by his adventures and accomplishments. Like the real James Bond, I am from Philadelphia. My name is James, but I go by Jim. I’m part Scottish. I’m 6-foot-2. I like birds. My middle name even begins with a B. I guess I was destined to write this book.
Where did the research take you?
All over the place. I am based outside of New York City, and I went to Philadelphia several times to review the Bond archives at the Academy of Natural Sciences (where Bond worked from roughly the mid-1920s to the mid-1980s) and the Free Library there.
I also visited the National Archives in Maryland to research seven of Bond’s colleagues who were spies during World War II. (They had some amazing exploits that I recount in the book — sometimes for the first time.)
I visited Goldeneye and Jamaica twice, Cuba and the Bay of Pigs, Bond’s summer place in Maine and elsewhere, trying to retrace Bond’s footsteps.
What did you uncover about his friendship with Ian Fleming?
They became friends late in Fleming’s life when Bond and his wife dropped in on Fleming unexpectedly at Goldeneye in 1964.
Bond’s wife, Mary, had discovered that Fleming had appropriated her husband’s name for his 007, and Fleming invited them to stop by next time they visited Jamaica. They dropped in unexpectedly, and once Fleming realized they were not going to try to sue him for stealing Bond’s name, the two men hit it off. Bond and Mary stayed for lunch and had a splendid time.
Upon hearing of Fleming’s death that August, Mary wrote:
“Despite having met him only once, there was a curious feeling of intimacy as if during that short day together in Jamaica, the two men had enjoyed a complete understanding of — and respect for — one other.”
How did Fleming use ornithology in the novels?
One of the many enjoyable aspects of researching my book was going back and re-reading the 007 novels and short stories. Birds popped up a lot more than I had recalled, and — spoiler alert — were usually killed in a blaze of gunfire by the villain. Agent 007, on the other hand, never shot a bird.
Also, Fleming described birds beautifully. My favorite: the opening to the short story “For Your Eyes Only.”
“The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamertail or doctor hummingbird. The cock bird is about nine inches long, but seven inches of it are tail – two long black feathers that curve and cross each other and whose inner edges are in a form of scalloped design. The head and crest are black, the wings dark green, the long bill is scarlet, and the eyes, bright and confiding, are black. The body is emerald green, so dazzling that when the sun is on the breast you see the brightest green thing in nature.”
When the storyline took Bond to the West Indies, birds often appeared prominently. The Man with the Golden Gun is a prime example. I especially love the Kling-klings in The Man with the Golden Gun. Alas (spoiler alert again), they have an unfortunate encounter with Scaramanga. The mischievous blackbirds also crashed the interview that Fleming did with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. the same day that Bond visited. And when I visited the Goldeneye two years ago, the Kling-klings were plating with the napkins at the waterside bistro.Any other revelations?
There has been speculation that Bond himself worked for the forerunner of the OSS, and one big surprise was that the real James Bond traveled to the West Indies about a luxury cruise ship in May of 1941. At least two Nazi spies posed as crewmen on that ship, and on the cruise.
Bond also visited the Bay of Pigs before the 1961 invasion.
The other thing I learned is that although most public photos of Bond showed him to be a tweedy, pipe-smoking, nerdy guy, he was anything but — especially in his youth. Bond was an explorer who lived on a shoestring, slept in hammocks, traveled on rum runners and banana boats. The tools of his trade included a double-barreled shotgun, arsenic and a penknife with a blade etched with the words ”For Flesh Only.”
Bond led a remarkable life, including his landmark book Birds of the West Indies — even if Fleming hadn’t stolen his name. I was surprised how many other people have been dubbed “the real James Bond.” There’s only one, and Fleming put it in writing when he inscribed a book to Bond on the day they met: “To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity.”
Are you happy with how the book turned out?
I’m very proud of the book, not only for the research and writing that went into it but also for the more than 100 wonderful color and black-and-white images that I included.
Schiffer Publishing did a beautiful job on “The Real James Bond.” As a book lover, I couldn’t have asked for more.
Jim will be the keynote speaker at the first-ever virtual Cape May Spring Birding Festival later this month in Cape May, NJ, one of the best-known birding spots in North America on Saturday (May 23) He’ll e talking about Bond, a nest of spies, birds and more.
[Editor’s note: James Bond’s wife Mary Wickham wrote write “How 007 Got His Name,” in 1966, in which she tells the story of her husband. This collection consists of Mary Wickham Bond’s collection of information regarding her husband, her own works on the writing, publishing and promoting of her books about her husband, and David Contosta’s writings about her husband.]