Talking Ornithology and Espionage with ‘The Real James Bond’ Author Jim Wright

Other than perhaps Charles Dickens, it’s hard to think of an author more adept at crafting unforgettable character names than Ian Fleming. From Pussy Galore to Francisco Scaramanga, Vesper Lynd to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Fleming had a natural gift for naming his heroes and villains that few other writers have been able to match. Which makes it all the more surprising that he chose to pilfer the name James Bond from an unsuspecting American ornithologist.

Of course, we’ve all heard the tale by now that Fleming famously swiped Bond’s name because of how boring and ordinary it sounded. But that’s not the full story. Not by a long shot.

A fantastic new book titled The Real James Bond: A True Story of Identity Theft, Avian Intrigue, and Ian Fleming is being released this February from Schiffer Publishing, and it proves conclusively that the real James Bond was anything but ordinary. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Written by acclaimed author and birding expert Jim Wright, The Real James Bond is part biography, part adventure story, and part literary investigation that reveals the incredible true connection between Bond and Fleming for the very first time. Packed with never-before-seen photos, insightful analysis, and original interviews with Bond’s colleagues, this important addition to Bond scholarship belongs on the shelf of every serious 007 fan.

I recently spoke with Wright about his new book. Here are some highlights from our conversation…

JAMES BOND RADIO: Before we discuss your book, I’m curious to hear about your interest in the fictional James Bond. Are you a fan of the 007 film series?

JIM WRIGHT: Absolutely! Especially the movies with Daniel Craig and Sean Connery. They’re my favorites. I was a little kid when I saw From Russia with Love, and it was like an entire world opened up to me. It was just spectacular. I’d never had a movie grab me like that, so I’ve been a huge James Bond fan for a long time.

JBR: I assume you’ve read some of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels in preparation for your own book, correct?

JIM WRIGHT: Yes, I have. I’ve even got an article coming out in Great Britain at Bird Watching Magazine called “The Birds of 007.” In that piece, I analyze the birds that are depicted in each of the Fleming novels and what they represent.

Fleming in Jamaica

JBR: Since you’ve written and published a great deal about birding over the years, would you say that Fleming is a decent writer on the subject?

JIM WRIGHT: I have to tell you, I’m a huge fan of Fleming’s work. The more I read him as an adult, the more I admire him. Here’s a guy who writes spy thrillers, and yet he wrote a short story called For Your Eyes Only, and the first three-hundred words of it are about the red-billed streamertail. It’s the national bird of Jamaica, and it’s such a beautifully written passage that captures the bird perfectly. In his novel Live and Let Die, there’s a scene with a pelican hunting in the background, and it hunts fish so they can’t see its shadow coming. It’s a very knowledgeable observation. Anyway, Ian Fleming was terrific.

JBR: How did your new book come about? What prompted you to write it?

JIM WRIGHT: Well, I write a birding column for the Bergen Record in New jersey, and I’d heard this footnote in history about the real James Bond being an ornithologist. So, I started writing a column on the subject, and I found out that Bond was from Philadelphia, as am I. Something about that captured my imagination, and the more I dug into it, the more interested I became. 

The real James Bond

JBR: What type of man was the real James Bond?

JIM WRIGHT: He was a loner in the early part of his career. He was incredibly independent, to the point of traveling to the Caribbean on mail ships. He traveled around on banana boats, rum runners, you name it. I mean, this was a guy who was prone of sea-sickness, but he still went to the West Indies for decades. He traveled by himself, on foot, and on horseback. He slept in hammocks, and the tools of his trade were a double-barrel shotgun, arsenic, and a knife with a blade that was inscribed “for flesh only.”

JBR: That’s amazing!

JIM WRIGHT: When they showed it to me at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, I got goosebumps! James Bond had a blade, and etched into it was the phrase “for flesh only.” It sounds like the title of an Ian Fleming novel!

James Bond in the field with shotgun

JBR: In some ways, the real James Bond reminds me more of an Indiana Jones character than a secret agent.

JIM WRIGHT: There’s a touch of that. When he went to Jamaica to hunt certain doves for the Academy of Natural Sciences’ collection, the man in charge of customs said he didn’t have enough stamps or whatever and wouldn’t let him into the country. So, he returned the next year disguised as a tourist, and showed the man at customs a tourism brochure that said Jamaica encouraged dove hunting. He basically went undercover with a double-barrel shotgun. Can you imagine that happening today?

Bond with bird specimen

JBR: Your book makes it clear that the real Bond could be quite ruthless when he needed to be. Can you give me an example of that?

JIM WRIGHT: Well, there’s an episode in the book where he kind of stabbed a colleague in the back. While this colleague was out in the field, Bond wrote a complaint letter to his boss that said he wasn’t using enough arsenic when he prepared his specimens.

JBR: That’s the second time you’ve mentioned arsenic. How is it used in birding?

JIM WRIGHT: When you collect birds for science, arsenic is used for preservation. All kinds of little mites and bugs get into these bird specimens, and you need to keep them out, so you use arsenic. In the history of ornithology, quite a few famous ornithologists have died from arsenic poisoning. It gets into a cut, or whatever, and it kills you. So, it was kind of ironic that Bond complained his colleague wasn’t using enough of it.  

Various editions

JBR: Until I read your book, I hadn’t realized just how important the real Bond was to ornithology.

JIM WRIGHT: Bond really was a significant ornithologist. Not only did he write Birds of the West Indies, which became Ian Fleming’s bible, the specimens that James Bond collected are still in museums across the United States. His collections are like time capsules. In some cases, they’re the best record we have of the existence of certain species. Remember, his book was in print for six decades. Everyone who traveled to the West Indies with an interest in birding knew his book.

JBR: In your opening chapter, you describe a scene where Fleming meets the real James Bond and his wife for the first time. Can you explain how that meeting happened?

JIM WRIGHT: Before the meeting took place, Bond’s wife – Mary Wickham Bond – started getting phone calls late at night. She’d answer the phone and hear a sultry female voice say “Hello, is James there?” Well, the Bonds couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then someone sent them a magazine interview with Ian Fleming that said he stole the name of this famous ornithologist. So, Mary decided to write Fleming and ask him about it. Well, Fleming joked and said “yes, I apologize, please come see me.” They then stopped by, unexpectedly, at GoldenEye, and the first thing Ian Fleming thought was that they were there to sue him for stealing the name. But when he discovered that they had no problem with it, they became friends. In fact, right now in some collector’s collection, there’s a copy of the novel You Only Live Twice, signed by Ian Fleming to the real – underlined “real” – James Bond. The inscription ends with the words, “from the thief of his identity, Ian Fleming, February 5th, 1964, a great day.”

You Only Live Twice, inscription

JBR: Wow! That has to be one of literature’s greatest inscriptions.

JIM WRIGHT: There’s a chapter in my book all about that particular copy of You Only Live Twice. Mary Wickham Bond had that book in her collection, and she donated it to the Free Library of Philadelphia. But when I went to look for it, the book wasn’t there. It turns out that she had actually taken it back at some point without telling anyone, and then sold it at auction for something like $72,000. It was purchased by an anonymous collector.

JBR: I love the photo in your book of Bond and Fleming standing next to each other at GoldenEye. Although the two men shared common interests, they couldn’t look more different from one another. They’re such an odd couple.

JIM WRIGHT: Yes they are. The other thing that’s funny to me is that Fleming is standing on a set of steps, so he appears much taller. He was in the commanding position. It was all fairly psychological. Of course, he also has two servants in the background as well.

Bond and Fleming

JBR: Over time, the real James Bond came to regret the connection he shared with the fictional spy. What prompted his unhappiness?

JIM WRIGHT: I think he was just hounded relentlessly for having this connection to a fictional icon. Whenever he traveled, he’d go through customs and someone would inevitably say “You’re not declaring any firearms, are you Mr. Bond?” Between that and the calls at night asking for James Bond, it all just became too much. Remember, he was already famous and admired by the birding community around the world. And suddenly he becomes this lesser sidekick to a fictional spy. So, I think Bond grew tired of it. But his wife thought it was just great. She actually wrote a book called “How 007 Got His Name, by Mrs. James Bond.” She didn’t even use her own name!

JBR: When researching your book, did you work at all with the Fleming estate?

JIM WRIGHT: Not so much. I worked more with the staff at GoldenEye. I visited Fleming’s home in Jamaica twice, and they were a big help.

Goldeneye, Jamaica

JBR: What were your impressions of GoldenEye?

JIM WRIGHT: It’s such a luxury resort, and you see signs of Fleming everywhere. There was even a tree donated by Pierce Brosnan. Really, it’s an amazing place. I’d seen a 1964 interview with Ian Fleming that was done by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and during the interview he’s interrupted by these grackles called Kling Klings. They kept making all this noise and distracting him, and that’s because Fleming had his windows open all the time so the birds could fly in and out. So, while I was visiting GoldenEye, I had lunch there at the bistro, and I look over and see two Kling Klings at the table across from me rearranging the napkins! They were the same mischievous species they were during Fleming’s time. I just thought that was great.

JBR: I have to say, the care that Schiffer Publishing has taken with your book is quite impressive. In addition to being a superb read, it’s also a lovely object to hold in your hands.

JIM WRIGHT: Thank you for saying that. This isn’t your average biography. It’s got a hundred photos in there, and they’re all pretty compelling pictures. It’s a beautifully put-together hardcover about two authors and their remarkable books.

JBR: I especially love your cover illustration.

JIM WRIGHT: An artist named Molly Shields designed it. We call it the Bird Man, which I think is great. As soon as I saw it, I went “Wow!” It’s an iconic image.

From Schiffer Publishing

JBR: In one of the chapters, you talk about the connection between ornithology and spying. Apparently, the two pursuits have a history of converging at times. Why is that?

JIM WRIGHT: I think it’s because when ornithologists travel around the world they kind of embed themselves into the culture. They live there, and they need local knowledge to find birds. So, they study local customs, and they walk around carrying shotguns and binoculars. And no one thinks anything of it. They also have incredible observation skills and they’re meticulous note-takers, which makes them perfect spies. When I researched the book, I discovered that six of Bond’s contemporaries, people he knew and wrote about, were real-life spies. They were trying to stop the Nazis from getting uranium in the Belgian Congo! They were running counter-espionage operations in Thailand. They were risking their lives. It was pretty spectacular. One guy from the Academy of Natural Sciences that Bond knew went to Tibet on a secret mission for FDR and met the Dalai Lama when he was eight years old.

JBR: Considering how popular the 007 franchise has been for well over five decades, why do you think it’s taken this long for someone like yourself to finally reveal the true story of the real James Bond?

JIM WRIGHT: He’s sort of been taken for granted. He’s a crossword puzzle answer. A trivia question. No one really took the time to look into him. There was an excellent biography of the real Bond in the early 1990s, but it didn’t expand into the world of Ian Fleming and the world of birding. It was fine as far as it went, but I think I tied in a lot of new elements like the connection between spying and ornithology.

Bond and birds

JBR: After all of this work you’ve put into the book, what do you hope readers take away from the story of the real James Bond?

JIM WRIGHT: I’d love to bring these two cultures – birding and exciting fiction – together. I’ve been working with the Nature Conservancy for quite a while, and the Caribbean has been hit really bad lately by earthquakes. So, all of my speaking fees from the book are going to support the Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean initiative. And James Bond himself, the real one, was a huge conservationist. He actually testified to protect pigeons in Philadelphia. He pushed to have National Parks protect birds in the Caribbean, and he fought against hunters killing all of these valuable birds. He was just a huge force in the world of ornithology, and I really want people to know that.

 

For more info on “The Real James Bond: A True Story of Identity Theft, Avian Intrigue, and Ian Fleming,” visit Jim Wright’s book blog.

Matthew Chernov

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