The real James Bond

He spent many years living quietly in Jamaica, and his passion was birdwatching. James Ferguson explains how this innocuous gent became Agent 007

The real James Bond. Photograph by Jerry Freilich

What do a womanising, Martini-sipping, licensed-to-kill secret agent and a mild-mannered, upper-class ornithologist from Philadelphia have in common?

Very little, it has to be said, except their shared name: Bond. James Bond.

We know a great deal about 007, of course, created by Ian Fleming and variously portrayed by – amongst others – Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. That his appearance and accent (and lately his sense of humour) have changed so much over the years hardly seems to matter. With his suave mannerisms and endless ability to frustrate such villains as Blofeld and Oddjob (as well as poor Miss Moneypenny), Bond is a screen icon and the mainstay of the most profitable cinema franchise in history.

Our leading man owes his name to the other, the real James Bond, about whom we know much less. This one, the ornithologist, was born in 1900, died in 1989 and was the author of Birds of the West Indies, first published exactly 75 years ago, in April 1936. The connection between spy and twitcher might at first seem rather obscure, until we remember that Ian Fleming was himself a keen birdwatcher and a long-term resident of Jamaica. On the bookshelves of Goldeneye, his house near Oracabessa on the lush north coast of Jamaica, sat a copy of Bond’s book.

By the time Fleming started work on the first of the series, Casino Royale, in 1952, the bird guide had established the real James Bond’s reputation as the leading ornithologist of the Caribbean region. He had got the birdwatching bug early in life, after accompanying his stockbroker father at the age of 11 on an ornithological expedition up the Orinoco in Venezuela. After an eminently British education at Harrow and Cambridge, he went into banking. But birds were his passion, and he quit the bank and started working for Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, going on expeditions and acting as curator of birds. Fortunately, his family wealth allowed him to pursue his interests freely, and he took no salary from the academy.

Bond’s research took him on many expeditions throughout the Caribbean, and he specialised in nesting habits. More importantly, he developed a theory that many Caribbean birds in fact originated in North America and not, as previously thought, in South America. Jamaica was vital to his theory, as he believed that it marked a dividing line between North and South American species.

His book covers every island except Aruba-Bonaire-Curaçao and, interestingly, Trinidad & Tobago – generally considered South American rather than Caribbean in terms of flora and fauna. It contains detailed observations on the appearance, habits and geographical spread of over 400 species, though only in later editions were there colour plates. It was the bible of local birdwatchers and nature tourists alike, providing invaluable data on local species such as trogons and todies.

It is nice to imagine Ian Fleming sitting on his verandah at Goldeneye watching the brightly coloured bananaquits and hummingbirds darting around the gardens. Perhaps he occasionally consulted the book. But even here Fleming’s mind was probably on something more pressing: what to call his secret-agent hero. We must assume that Bond’s work happened to catch his eye. Fleming later recalled: “It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born.”

Despite the appearance of eight novels, Bond the ornithologist was blissfully unaware of this early instance of identity theft until in 1961 a review of a revised edition of his Birds of the West Indies appeared in the Sunday Times, full of mysterious references to Smith & Wesson revolvers and esoteric sexual practices.  Once the shock had subsided, Bond and his wife Mary made urgent inquiries, and were informed of the existence of his namesake when their dry cleaner pointed them in the direction of a recent interview given by Fleming in Playboy magazine.  All was revealed.

Mary wrote to the author, complaining that his hero’s name had caused her husband social and professional embarrassment. Fleming replied graciously, “I must confess that your husband has every reason to sue me…In return, I can only offer your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit.” He added: “Perhaps one day your husband will discover a particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion by calling it Ian Fleming.”

The couple were eventually reconciled to their bizarre celebrity, and some years later Mary Bond, herself an established author and poet, wrote a memoir entitled How 007 Got His Name. She recalled how her husband would receive strange and sometimes inappropriate phone calls from female James Bond fans, which she would answer by saying “Yes, James is here, but this is Pussy Galore and he’s busy now.”

In February 1964, Bond and Fleming met for the first and only time at Goldeneye, when James and Mary dropped in unexpectedly at the author’s home while on a field trip. According to Mary, Fleming at first feared that they had come to present him with a writ and was suspicious, demanding that Bond establish his credentials by naming a few birds in the garden. Fleming was already seriously ill – he would die in August that year – and was in pain and stressed.

Even so, the meeting ended warmly with Fleming presenting the couple with a signed copy of his latest novel, You Only Live Twice, which he signed: “To the real James Bond, from the Thief of his Identity.”

James Bond’s bird guide is still in print, unlike Mary’s 1980 To James Bond with Love. This, her second book inspired by Fleming, is proof, if any were needed, that the ornithologist and his wife ended up enjoying their unexpected brush with celebrity. As for Fleming, his 12-strong James Bond series sold millions, and has been followed by various “continuation novels”, including one by Sebastian Faulks. It would be interesting to know how many of these Mary Bond read – and how many James Bond films she saw – before she died in 1997 at the ripe old age of 99.