Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Meeting James Bond


I decided to confront James Bond the same way he met Ian Fleming, walk up to his front door unannounced.

Having obtained a copy of his book “Birds of the West Indies,” from the Princeton Antique Book Shop in Atlantic City, I used it as an excuse to get Bond to sign it.

I drove to Chestnut Hill, parked on the street, and went to Hill House, the only high rise apartment building next to the railroad station. The Bonds lived on an upper floor, so I took the elevator up and paused in front of the door with the simple nameplate that read: BOND.

I knocked lightly, and a few moments later Mrs. Bond opened the door hesitantly, opening a crack as I held up the book and asked her if Mr. Bond could sign it. She smiled, opened the door, and invited me in as she called out to her husband in the back room.

“Jimmy! There’s a young man here to see you.”

The Jimmy threw me off for a moment, making me think that perhaps I had the wrong man, before I realized that Bond is very American, and not the prim and proper Englishman we’ve come to know as “James.”

It being the summer of 1976, I was rather young, at 25, while Bond was 76.

Just insides the apartment, to the left of the foyers, among a wall of old, hardcover books, W. Somerset Maugham’s name jumped out at me. There on the shelf was “Of Human Bondage,” “The Razor’s Edge,” “Ashenden – The Secret Agent” and other hardcover books by Maugham.

I quickly scanned the rest of the roomy, modern apartment, peculiar for its lack of any ornithological art, as Bond himself walked briskly out of the back room where he had been watching a golf match on television.

A broad smile on his face, a cigarette in one hand and the other outreached to sake my own, Bond, tall and lanky, is unlike Fleming’s 007 in that he wears shores with laces and smokes a typically American brand of cigarettes.

“He wants you to sign his book, dear,” Mrs. Bond said as she stood off as I handed the book to him. “Let’s see what you have here,” said Bond, opening the book’s cover flap. “1961, a first American edition.”

Placing the book down on a small table, which also contained a row of each of the books that Bond and his wife had written, he quickly scribbled his signature while asking me if I had ever been to the West Indies.

“No,” I hadn’t, I said, “but I plan on going there someday, Jamaica and Cuba, and this book will come in handy.”

“There’s still a lot of work to be done down there,” Bond said, asking that I get back in touch with him so he could brief me as to where to go.

Mrs. Bond reminded him that the golf match he had been watching on television was still in progress, but he waved her away, saying he was no longer interested. It seemed that he really wanted to talk with this young stranger.

I told Mrs. Bond that I had also acquired copies of and read some of her books, and found them fascinating, particularly “How 007 Got His Name.”

Her eyes lit up as she said, “That book is very hard to get now Someone recently told me that it’s worth $75 a copy to collectors.”

I mentioned that I had paid $50 to Princeton Antique Books to find that copy of “Birds of the West Indies,” but kept silent about finding the same book at the used book store on South Street for under $10, already signed.

Bond seemed enthusiastic when he said he recently finished updating his book, and that a new edition of “Birds of the West Indies” would be published soon. Bond then walked me into another room in the apartment and pulled out an advanced proof copy of the latest edition, pointing out some additional illustrations and some places on the map in Cuba where some rare birds had been recently sighted.

When I told him I was a student of Cuban history, and planned on going there some day, he said, “Well, there’s a lot of fine work being done there, particularly by Czech naturalists.”

“When I was there, in the early ‘60s, everybody was suspicious. But I stayed out of politics,” Bond said.

Waylaying his own suspicions that I perhaps I was not interested in birds altogether, I told Bond that I had an apartment in Cape May Point, New Jersey, which is on the East Coast migratory flyway and is considered the birdwatcher’s Mecca.

The latest report from the Audubon Society outpost in Cape May was that a band from a Marlin hawk, tagged at Cape May Point, was found and removed from the bird in Cuba, and returned by a Freedom Flotilla refugee, as if it were some extremely important message.

Bond smiled at that and swamped me his own Cuban bird story. He said that he recently heard from some friends in Cuba with whom he corresponds with on occasion. They were perplexed by the behavior of a hawk they were watching that landed on the shoulder of one of the startled birdwatchers. “I knew right away,” Bond said, “that it must have escaped from a falconer and migrated with the wild hawks.”

Sitting there on the couch across from him in his living room, I told Bond that before I went to the West Indies I would be sure to stop by and get some advice from him. “You have to know where to go, and when” Bond said, “and I will gladly try to help you.”

After a short pause, Bond said something about even helping to finance a serious expedition, if it went to the right places.

I used that as an excuse to ask him about the Catherwood expedition in 1948.

He looked at me awkwardly for a moment and smiled, saying, “You know those millionaires and how they like to do things.”

Knowing how Bond seemed to enjoy sleeping in a hammock on a deserted island beach, rather than the millionaire’s preference for hotel rooms and tablecloths, I knew what he meant. When I mentioned Catherwood’s CIA ties, he shrugged and said, “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

Without any alarm concerning Catherwood’s CIA connections Bond mentioned some details of the trip that hadn’t been published in the news clippings, including the fact that the captain had died during the trip, making the rest of the voyage difficult. Catherwood’s CIA ties seemed to be of no interest to him.

I also brought up the subject of W. Somerset Maugham, mentioning the voyage they took together in 1938. “I didn’t meet him,” Bond said, “although we were on the same boat together. He kept pretty much to himself.”

Then as a tease, without elaboration, Bond said, “He was on his way to Devil’s Island, the French penal colony,” while raising his eyebrows in a dramatic fashion.

But Bond’s lack of interest in Catherwood and the CIA and politics in general, along with his passion for the birds, convinced me as I was sitting there with him that he had no connection with clandestine espionage operations, and I left him that night with that conviction.

Before leaving Philadelphia however, I drove through center city to South Street and stopped by the used bookstore where I had found a signed copy of “Birds of the West Indies,” thinking I might get lucky again. I did find another copy of “Birds,” as well as an interesting biography of Somerset Maugham.

Opening Maugham’s biography to the chapter where he was sent to Russia in 1917 by William Wiseman, I read how he accidently encountered some exiled partisan agents aboard the trans-Siberian express. Although they could have shared some valuable information, Maugham purposely ignored them to avoid blowing his cover.

I realized that even if James Bond were in fact a real spy, or had been one, he certainly would never readily admit it anyway, especially to a stranger who had sought him out.

I had no real proof, one way or another, that Bond was a spy. He did attend Cambridge University, where many British, as well as Russian spies were recruited, including Kim Philby, Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess and Sir Anthony Blunt.

Bond had sailed the Caribbean with British writer-spy W. Somerset Maugham, as well as CIA bagman Cummins Catherwood.

James Bond was at the Bay of Pigs shortly before the CIA invasion, and he knew Grenada well, so I would think that our intelligence agencies were probably negligent if they didn’t consult Bond before invading those places.

The facts at that point, were inconclusive as to whether James Bond was a spy, and we may never know for sure.

James Bond has contributed much to the body of knowledge about life on earth. He was a professional naturalist who sought no acclaim, and tried to complete his work of surveying the birds of the West Indies as much as possible before he died in 1989.

The consolation in not knowing the whole truth behind the mystery is the quiet contentment that comes with the knowing that there really was a James Bond. A real anonymous hero who merely went about his job as quietly and thoroughly as possible.

Perhaps it is best to leave James Bond where most of us first met him and memember him best, and as Ian Fleming so vividly portrayed him – sitting down at the bar of his favorite Caribbean haunt, lighting up a cigarette and ordering a double-dry vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.

No comments: