‘The Real James Bond’ Review:
The Birder and the Spy
The ornithologist James Bond—like the secret agent who shares his name—was handy with ﬁrearms and able to work around ofﬁcialdom.
The ornithologist James Bond.
By Dominic Green
April 3, 2020 James Bond found the man who stole his identity at his island lair. On February 5, 1964, he went in for the kill. “I don’t read your books,” Bond told Ian Fleming. “My wife reads them all, but I never do.” Fleming had been expecting Mr. Bond—for 12 years, since the day when, searching for a blunt and masculine name for his newly invented fictional secret agent, the author had plucked Bond’s name from the spine of a volume called “Birds of the West Indies.”
As in the Bond novels, the villain (“short-sleeved black guayabera shirt, matching slacks, and open-toed sandals”) was confronted by Bond (in “a loud patterned shirt that shouted ‘tourist’ ”). Fleming showed Bond around his secluded lair, Goldeneye, then confessed everything. After a swim, Bond, accompanied on this mission by his wife, Mary, sat down to lunch with Fleming and his wife, Ann. Before the Bonds left, Fleming inscribed a copy of his new novel, “You Only Live Twice”: “To the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.”
“They couldn’t have been nicer about my theft of the family name,” Fleming reported. “They said it helped them get through customs.” It is not known whether Fleming said “Goodbye, Mr. Bond,” but he never saw Bond again. Six months later, Fleming died from a heart attack. His last words in the ambulance: “I am sorry to trouble you chaps.”
In the slim and elegant biography “The Real James Bond,” Jim Wright spills the secrets of Jim Bond (1900-89), the ornithologist from Philadelphia who had more than a name in common with his fictional double. Both Bonds were sons of privilege whose early lives were ruined by tragedy. Jim grew up on the Main Line, the child of stockbroker Francis Bond and his wife, Margaret Tyson, who was cousin to John Singer Sargent and granddaughter of John A. Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. James Bond lost his parents in a mountain-climbing accident; Jim Bond’s sister died in childhood, his mother died young and his father turned to drink. James was expelled from Eton; Jim, like Winston Churchill, was sent to Eton’s rival, Harrow, in 1913. At Trinity College, Cambridge, Jim “honed his marksmanship” in the Pitt Club, an “exclusive dining club and hunting group” whose future members would include the spies Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess.
Mr. Wright, long the birding columnist for New Jersey’s Bergen Record, makes clear that birds were always Jim’s passion. But the creatures tended to die violently after too long in his company. He first shouldered his double-barreled shotgun with a view to a kill in 1925, on a mission to the lower Amazon for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. In 1926 he launched the first of more than 100 expeditions to the West Indies, roughing it in the Massif de la Hotte mountains of Haiti, the Zapata Swamp of Cuba and elsewhere. “I find it difficult to keep up with him,” his superior noted in 1931, “as he never tells me anything of his plans.”
In 1936 Bond published “Birds of the West Indies,” the first book to “cover nearly all the nonmigratory birds” of the region. (It was still the standard guide in 2002, when Pierce Brosnan picked up a copy at a Havana hotel in the film “Die Another Day”: “I’m just here for the birds,” he told Halle Berry—“ornithologist.”) Jim and Mary Bond married in 1953; they had met in the 1930s, when Mary was researching an article for Audubon magazine. Jim made the martinis—“I just let fly with the gin and in the end I just give it a touch of vermouth.”
In Britain, “bird-watcher” is slang for “spy.” Jim Wright identifies further overlaps between the “twitcher” and the spook. Both are professional observers, handy with foreign languages and firearms, and able to work around officialdom (like Jim Bond wangling a firearms permit in Jamaica). Notable spook-twitchers have included Kim Philby’s father, Harry, who worked to bring the oil-rich house of Saud under first British and later American influence; Maxwell Knight, the spymaster suspected of inspiring Fleming’s “M”; onetime CIA director James Schlesinger; and Richard Meinertzhagen, the ex-Harrow pupil who devised the “haversack ruse,” planting false information for the enemy to discover.
In 1943, while working for British Naval intelligence, Ian Fleming adapted the haversack ruse for Operation Mincemeat, in which a submarine deposited a corpse on the Spanish coast, with documents suggesting the Allies were about to invade Greece, rather than Sicily. Espionage also brought Fleming to Jamaica: a wartime mission to investigate rumors of a secret German U-boat base in the Bahamas. Mary Bond suspected that Fleming had been trailing her husband and “picking up some of his adventures.” According to her, Jim Bond agreed. “After reading your Dr. No,” she wrote to Fleming in 1961, “my JB thought you had been to Dirty Dick’s in Nassau and talked with Old Farrington and got from him the story about the ‘Priscilla’ and a wild trip of Jim’s collecting parrots on Abaco.”
Was Jim Bond more than a “birdman”? He had four decades of Caribbean experience, and he appeared in “peculiar places at peculiar times,” Jim Wright notes. Bond was in the Dominican Republic in 1930 when Trujillo took power. In Haiti just before Pearl Harbor, Bond searched out a German who had “built an airstrip high on the ridge and would not allow anyone to go up there.” During World War II, Mr. Wright notes, “at least six of his contemporaries affiliated with natural-history museums worked for OSS, and a seventh worked for U.S. Army Counterintelligence.” In 1961, Bond was in Cuba just before the Bay of Pigs invasion. The CIA says it has no material that acknowledges an “openly acknowledged CIA affiliation.” Though Mr. Wright is unconvinced that the twitcher was a spook, he assembles the “circumstantial evidence” to suggest it might have been so. Agent “Goldfincher”?
Mr. Green is life & arts editor of the Spectator (U.S.).
The Real James Bond, By Jim Wright, Schiffer, 144 pages, $24.99