The real Jim Wright is an award-winning journalist and author of such books as, The Nature of Meadowlands, Jungle of the Maya, and Hawk Mountain. In addition to being a marsh warden at the Celery Farm Natural Area in Allendale, NJ, Wright is also the long-time birding columnist for northern New Jersey’s The Record.
His new book The Real James Bond, examines the life of ornithologist James Bond, who, when publishing his landmark book, Birds of the West Indies, could never imagine that it would forever tie him to one of the world’s most iconic fictional spies.
Before commencing work on your book, were you a fan of the James Bond novels and/or films? Which are you favourite(s)? Why?
I devoured all the 007 novels as a teenager, and loved the early Sean Connery movies. I am also a big fan of Daniel Craig’s 007 – he embodies Bond perfectly.
What started you on the trail of the ‘real’ James Bond, and inspired you to write this book?
I needed a subject for my birding column. I remembered reading how Ian Fleming took the name for his secret agent from a book about the birds of the Caribbean. I quickly learned that the real Bond was from Philadelphia, just like me, and I kept finding out fascinating aspects of Bond’s life. He was a fearless adventurer who liked to travel solo (like 007).
Where did the research take you? What were you most surprised to learn along the way?
I did a ton of research in Philadelphia, of course, but I also travelled to Maine, Jamaica twice, Cuba, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico. I didn’t realize how important Bond’s Birds of the West Indies was (and is.) It remained in print for more than six decades and introduced generations of travellers to Caribbean birds.
I was also surprised how handsome Bond was when he was younger.
How did the fictional James Bond get his name?
In early 1952, Ian Fleming was writing Casino Royale, and he needed a name for his secret agent. He was at his winter home, Goldeneye, in Jamaica, and he saw the name of the author on his birding bible and, as he told one interviewer, he “simply took it.”
Fleming describes James Bonds name as “the dullest name in the world“, and as being “brief, unromantic and yet very masculine“. Do you think the Bond novels would have been as successful, had Fleming chosen a different, equally, “dull” and “unromantic” name?
Would Sherlock Holmes have been as popular if Arthur Conan Doyle had chosen another name for his consulting detective? Probably. 007’s name is just one small aspect of the books’ and movies’ success. You start with a highly skilled writer and add a dashing hero, incredible arch-villains, beautiful women and international intrigue, and you have a terrific recipe for success.
Upon finding out that her husband’s name was being used for a fictional character, Mary Bond promptly wrote to Ian Fleming, stating that “he could sue you for defamation of character“. In his reply to Mary, and in interviews with the New York and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Fleming seems almost proud that he lifted the name ‘James Bond’ straight from the cover of a book without asking.
Why do you think Fleming got such a kick out of it? Why did he choose to disclose the source of his character’s name, knowing that a potential lawsuit could land on his doorstep? What value, if any, did it add to the character and novels?
Fascinating question. When Bond and his wife dropped in unexpectedly on Fleming at Goldeneye, Fleming immediately asked Bond if he was there to sue him, but my guess is that Fleming’s lawyers had already told him that such a lawsuit would be impossible to win. And Fleming was no doubt curious to meet the man whose name he had taken.
In addition to owning a copy of Birds of the West Indies, Fleming himself, was known to be an avid birder, even specifying that his Jamaican home GoldenEye, be constructed without glass windows, so that birds could fly in and out as they pleased.
How was Fleming’s passion for ornithology reflected in the James Bond novels?
One of the delights of researching my book was reading the Fleming thrillers again. I was surprised how many times birds appear in the books – from Dr. No to The Man with the Golden Gun, and how often they are targets for villains.
Ian Fleming passed away shortly after his first and only meeting with the real James Bond at his home GoldenEye, in Jamaica.
What do you think the relationship between the author and ornithologist would have been like had he not passed away so suddenly? Or was it, despite the two hitting it off, only ever likely to have been a one-off encounter?
I’d like to think that they would have become great acquaintances. The James Bond character became something of a curse for both Fleming and Bond– they were forever living in the shadow of this superhero, and they would have commiserated together one way or another.
When Jim and Mary Bond heard of Ian Fleming’s death later that year, Mary wrote: “There’d been a strong feeling of respect, affection, even intimacy with him during those short hours together on that February day at Goldeneye.”
We are well aware of the attributes of the fictional James Bond, but what type of man was the real James Bond?
Bond was something of a loner who in his younger days loved to travel to the West Indies and then look for rare birds on horseback and on foot. He slept in hammocks and huts. He was an excellent marksman. As I write in the book, the tools of his trade were a shotgun, arsenic and a pocket knife with a blade etched with “FOR FLESH ONLY.”
As noted in the book, “birdwatcher” in British slang means “spy”, and at least seven of James Bond’s contemporaries were affiliated with the OSS and military intelligence. Yet, no records exist to suggest that Bond himself was ever involved with espionage. Why do you think this is? Do you think he was ever approached?
This is just a theory, but I think the idea of recruiting Bond was dismissed as soon as intelligence officials learned that Bond went to Trinity College, Cambridge, home of the notorious Cambridge Spy Ring. I think that if he went to an American Ivy League school, he would have been recruited in a heartbeat. He had everything they wanted in a spy based in the Caribbean – self-reliant, familiar with the terrain, the West Indies governments, the local customs and the people. Plus he was great with firearms.
How did the real James Bond feel about his name being used for one of the world’s most famous fictional spies? What impact did it have on his life and career?
Bond did not like it much. He told Fleming it helped get him through customs, but that was near the beginning of the 007 craze in the United States, and he had to put up with 007 jokes for another 35 years. You can imagine how tiresome they got – especially when he had been a noted author in his own right.
To many Bond fans, James Bond was an ornithologist and author of Birds of the West Indies. It turns out however, he was quite important to ornithology.
What were some of his most important contributions to ornithology and avian conservation?
Bond “discovered” the Bahama Nuthatch, now thought be extinct, he discovered a colony of parrots that had been thought to be extinct, he found the last documented Eskimo Curlew in the world – and on and on.
Bond also championed bird conservation in the West Indies – beginning with Birds of the West Indies. He wrote about the perils of destroying forests to grow produce, the wanton killing of birds by hunters and collectors, and much more.
After almost six decades of worldwide popularity, this is the first time someone has written extensively on the life and career of the ornithologist James Bond? Why is that? Why has it taken so long?
I don’t know, but I’m not complaining. The book took a ton of research, hours and hours in archives in Philadelphia, so it helped I live only two hours away. It also took a lot of determination to get permission to publish all of the incredible image in the book.
I would like to point out that the author David Contosta wrote a wonderful concise biography of Bond many years ago, but without the emphasis on birds, Fleming, and spies. Contosta’s well-researched book is The Private Life of James Bond, also a must-have for Bond book collectors. I can’t speak highly enough about Contosta.
The cover art of the book, features a Cuban Green Woodpecker dressed in a Harris Tweed Suit, designed by Molly Shields. Of all the birds in the West Indies, why choose this one? What is its significance?
Molly Shields says she picked the Cuban Green Woodpecker because he’s from the West Indies and he’s handsome. He also looks good in tweeds. I saw several when I visited Cuba. Molly’s cover design has already won a 2020 Independent Press Award – richly deserved.
In 2001, the Australian bird watching society, the Cumberland Bird Observers Club, published a James Bond inspired ad, featuring a tuxedo clad binoculars-wielding birder, surround by four female birders in stunning evening gowns, in a bid to attract new members and show that birding was more than spotting scopes and swamps.
What was it about the ad, and the Bond-connection, that contributed to an 8% membership increase? Could a fictional character really inspire the average person to pick up a new hobby, or revisit an old one?
I can only speculate, but I think that Cumberland bunch reminded people that birding can be great fun, and that clearly birders have a keen sense of humour. Heck, if birding was good enough for Ian Fleming, it’s good enough for me.
What do you hope readers take away from the story of the real James Bond?
I hope I’ve introduced a few folks to the birds of the Caribbean that both Fleming and Bond loved. I hope readers will see that birds and 007 make a nice combination. And I hope that I’ve shown ornithologists can kick ass.
My other goal was to raise awareness of the birds of the Caribbean and the need to protect them and their habitats to the great extent possible. That’s why I am donating all the proceeds from my talks about The Real James Bond to the Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean Initiative.
You’ve written numerous books on natural history, and are a long-time birding columnist for New Jersey’s, The Record. How and when did your interest in ornithology begin? What are your favourite bird(s) and birding location(s)?
I moved next to a nature preserve and went for walk. I saw so these really cool birds – kingfishers and herons – and wanted to know more about them.
I love owls (so mysterious). I became fascinated with a Jamaican hummingbird called a Red-billed Streamertail after reading Ian Fleming’s classic short-story, For Your Eyes Only.
Having now successfully uncovered this true story of identity theft and avian intrigue, what’s next in the pipeline for the real Jim Wright?
I have a “Real James Bond” website with all sorts of interesting items about Bond, birds and Fleming. I keep coming across new information, and I am able to include items that I couldn’t fit into the book.
I have several book projects in various stages of completion, and I am also enjoying talking about my current book, which seems to have found an audience despite arriving at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In mid-March, I didn’t know what a Zoom meeting or a Zoom book presentation was. Now I do several a week, and meeting folks I never would have talked to otherwise. Several have shared some great stories about the real James Bond and his wife Mary. Despite all my research, I learn more every day. I love it.
** Cross posted at our sister site Bond on the Box.