Thrilling City – 007 in New York

Article by F. L. Toth

Ian Fleming might not sing it out the way they did, but a good case can be made that Ian, like the Schuyler sisters, thought New York City was the “greatest city in the world.”

Just look at how much space he devoted to it. Bond is known for jetting around the entire world, but of Fleming’s twelve major works, two, Live and Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever, have major scenes in NYC. And most times Bond takes BOAC from London, heading to the United States, the reader is treated to a description of the flight, the landing, or the airport, rather than just shifting the scene to the new locale. 

In Thrilling Cities, looking at the chapter titles, one would think NYC was just another in the thirteen cities Ian visited for the work. However, Ian treats New York very personally; while the listing for Tokyo spends a good deal of time describing a massage, the entry for New York describes the city in more physical detail. Ian has twenty-nine New York restaurants to recommend, and fifteen hotels. Tokyo’s entry mentions mostly styles of cuisine rather than individual restaurants and only has five hotels named. 

It is interesting how hard Ian works on not liking NYC in Thrilling Cities. He says, “I enjoyed myself least in NY… “and talks about the long gone pleasures. Then again, that is something Ian could do in NYC that he could not do with most cities. He had a long and faithful relationship with New York; other than London, probably he spent more time there than any major city, from 1937 when he visited as a stockbroker, to 1964 when he had his last dinner at the 21 Club, making his relationship with NYC longer lasting than that with Jamaica, or, for that matter, with his wife.

You might say that Fleming’s relationship with New York precedes his birth by many years. His grandfather, Robert, who invested brilliantly in American railroads and was often in New York, made the Fleming fortune. He had, in fact, travelled there with another young Fleming, Ian’s brother Richard, as late as 1934. (Richard showed more love for the world of making money than his older brother and the Fleming bank still does business at the same location.) The Fleming family was well aware of where their money originated, so even before Ian Fleming was in New York he would have been well aware of its importance and of its noteworthy locations, more so than just the casual awareness any educated person would have for New York as one of the world’s great cities. 

Book Bond fans will remember the fabled 21 Club was featured as the dining locale for James Bond and Tiffany in Diamonds Are Forever, and contributes nicely to the persona of Bond as aficionado of fine dining. He is appreciative of the 21, but plays it cool, allowing Tiffany to be overawed. “You know what they say about this place? All you can eat for $300.” (at publication, 1956, that was about a week’s salary in the United States). The 21, most fittingly and sadly became another victim of COVID, stopping operations during the pandemic and announcing its closure in 2021. It may be reopened under new management, but Bond’s 21 is gone. The fine meals of Bond and Case, and of James Bond and Felix Leiter, as well as Ian Fleming and David Niven, are gone. (Niven, it is observed, is the one Hollywood actor You Only Live Twice’s Bond Girl Kissy Suzuki could endure, and he was a friendly acquaintance of Fleming’s. Bond film fans will know Niven from the 007 farce Casino Royale.)

The 21 Club, NYC | Photo: Wikipedia

Besides the 21, James Bond and Felix Leiter ate at Sardi’s, and while Fleming makes a point of Sardi’s being an actor’s and writer’s “eatinghouse,” a place to gather and be seen while having a meal, he also praises the food itself, particularly the steak. 

In Thrilling Cities Ian mentions no fewer than twenty-nine restaurants and eateries, but he saves his finest praise for the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. Before COVID, I would have written simply that it is still there, still excellent, but with a long waiting list. At the time of writing, the Oyster Bar is closed. We can only hope it will reopen, as it is a long-standing tradition.

The website still has this description: 

The oldest restaurant in Grand Central, this landmark has one of the largest and freshest seafood menus, [sic] including in the city. Here, you’ll find 25 types of fish and up to 30 varieties of oysters, along with other seafood specialties. All of this matched with an award-winning wine list featuring 80 selections by the glass. Open Monday thru Saturday for lunch and dinner. Reservations are recommended. Come on in. The seafood’s fine.

Photo: https://www.afar.com/places/grand-central-oyster-bar-new-york

I have written a good number of articles advising readers how they, too, can take in some 007 glamour, or at least breathe the rarified air in an area once enjoyed by Ian Fleming. As I write this, sadly, I do not know when it will be advisable to casually drop in on an Ian Fleming site. Some locales are closing, such as the 21, and others are closed “for now” but no one knows whether they will ever reopen, such as the Oyster Bar. I can say, though, that several Fleming haunts still exist, and recognisably so. 

When Ian was in New York City, he often stayed with his friend Ivar Bryce, and sometimes in Ivar’s apartment without Ivar. This townhouse still stands, and although its exterior is simple, its last selling price was over twelve million dollars. Although Ian spent a great deal of time there, this house is not a substantial part of Ian of Bond lore, and anyone who walks to 161 74th street can get a look at and take a photo. Ringing the doorbell is tempting, but I’ve never tried it. 

007 IN NEW YORK
Artwork by George Almond

The Central Park Zoo (with no reptile house, just as described in “007 in New York”) is six and a half acres of the eight hundred and forty that make up the park, and at the Southeast corner. At this writing, visitors are allowed but must purchase tickets in advance and for a specific date. Central Park Zoo is less famous than its sister in the Bronx, and Central Park itself is so magnificent and so vast that if you have little time in NYC, perhaps a trip to the zoo could be skipped. 

Ian’s love for music took Bond to Harlem and Ivar Bryce said that Ian knew the music scene better than he himself did. While there is probably not a venue remaining that Ian enjoyed, as COVID vaccinations are more readily available, the night life should rise again. 

Speaking of entertainment, Broadway remains closed at this writing, and Bond seems not to have been a fan. Fleming, however, took in the New York theatre scene, even writing about ballet in his time as Atticus. 

An intriguing section in Thrilling Cities has James Bond complaining that he could not find brown eggs when he had his own small apartment in New York. Fleming fans will remember that Ian seldom wrote about things he did not experience, and when he wrote solely from his imagination, the description was flat or implausible. His best plots and most charismatic baddies often had a basis in reality. So would that mean Ian Fleming also had an apartment in New York? 

Try as I might, I have been able to find no evidence apart from Ian’s own writing that this was so. His addresses on his landing cards when in New York were either business addresses, Ivar Bryce’s house, or hotels. Thus far, no New York City Directory or phone book has had a listing that could be definitively Ian Fleming—although, if he were in New York as part of his work for Intelligence, it is reasonable that he would use, as so often Bond did, a bland pseudonym.

Ivar Bryce’s former House at 161 E. 74th St, NYC | Photo: F. L. Toth
Illustration © 2019 Fay Dalton from The Folio Society edition of Live and Let Die
Illustration © 2019 Fay Dalton from The Folio Society edition of Live and Let Die

The part that makes the Ian/Bond apartment idea so intriguing is the very specificity of the writing. Bond has a small apartment. He can’t find brown eggs. Only a person cooking for himself would be concerned with the quality of the eggs. A person cooking for himself probably would have a small apartment, no room for a housekeeper. Ian had to have rested his head somewhere during the longish time he was working in Rockefeller Center, and, curiously, where he lived at this time has not become a part of the Fleming lore the way his cross-country trip with Ernie Cuneo has. One day, I will find out where he lived. 

You can still stay at two of Fleming’s favorites, the St. Regis and the Roosevelt, the Roosevelt being more economical while still lovely, and although Ian deplored what it had become since the death of Michael Arlen (1956) Ian was staying there as late as 1961. But who was this marvellous Michael Arlen? This British essayist of Armenian origin was known for driving around London and New York in fancy cars—no wonder Ian Fleming was intrigued. 

Ian also mentions the Algonquin Hotel, and although he claims not to know it well, says that because it was the favoured haunt of Dorothy Parker, it must be “beyond reproach.” 

At this writing I do not know when we will freely be able to walk in Central Park, rest our heads in a hotel favoured by Ian Fleming, or take in a show. Thank goodness Fleming described his memories so well; we can only hope someone has done so for the NYC of 2020. 

Incidental Intelligence

F. L. Toth’s fascination with James Bond began when reading The Spy Who Loved Me in the little town of Lake George, New York and realising Bond had adventures where she had lived her whole life.A librarian of two decades experience, she has written multiple articles on Ian Fleming, specialising in his time in the United States, and is a regular presenter at SAMLA (South Atlantic Modern Language Association​) on the topic of Ian Fleming. Follow on Twitter @007intheAdirondacks @3Octaves.

You Only Live Once: Memories of Ivar Bryce and Ian Fleming

Lunch with Ian Fleming (The New Yorker)

*A newspaper article about Jo Bryce’s death listed her number at 161 E. 74th St. we know they lived there for many years; the number 161 is the one from Ian’s travel documents and also the number listed for her in 1992.

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