Although the suave, womanizing secret agent who likes his martinis shaken — not stirred — is British through and through, James Bond is 100 percent Jamaican. Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, wrote the cloak-and-dagger Cold War thrillers during the two months that he spent in Jamaica each year from the 1940s to the 1960s.
In World War II, Fleming was an officer in the British Naval Intelligence Division where he developed Operation Goldeneye, a plan to protect Gibraltar from a German invasion. After the war, Fleming became an editor at the Sunday Times in London, which allowed him to take an extended vacation each year in the winter months.
Fleming spent those months on the North Coast of Jamaica, where he built a house overlooking Oracabessa Bay. Fleming called the house Goldeneye, and it is the setting for much of Matthew Parker’s new biography of Fleming, Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming in Jamaica.
“The house is pretty much unchanged from when it was built in 1946 — very simple, white, clean lines, huge windows, not particularly large, wooden floors,” Parker says from his home in London. “You go down the steps from the house and there’s a tiny beach, totally private with this beautiful water. About 20 meters out, you can go and see all these amazing things on the reef.”
In the 1950s, Jamaica was a favorite getaway locale for Hollywood royalty like Errol Flynn, Bing Crosby, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe. John F. Kennedy was also a frequent visitor, and his well-known love for the James Bond books helped propel their popularity in the United States.
“It’s now part of a hotel,” Parker says. “You can stay there for only $10,000 a night. The last time I was in Jamaica, Jimmy Fallon was staying there to celebrate his 40th birthday.”
Parker, who also wrote The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies and Panama Fever: The Epic History of One of the Greatest Engineering Triumphs of All Time: The Building of the Panama Canal, discovered Goldeneye and Ian Fleming’s story when he was in Jamaica researching for The Sugar Barons.
“What Jamaica offered for him were the obvious things — it’s hot, it’s beautiful, it’s exotic, it’s sensual,” Parker says. “But also, if you went to Jamaica in 1946, it could have been 1846. There were antique social structures there that had disappeared from Britain and from most of the rest of the empire, but in Jamaica there was still a deference toward white people and toward English people.”
In the books, James Bond carries some of the Britain-beats-all swagger into nationalist and even racist characterizations.
“There’s the aristocratic feel that Bond has—how to dress and the right thing to drink and what to order at a restaurant—but at the same time he’s not of that world,” Parker says. “He’s part of a more modern feel that’s just beginning in the 1950s and money is starting to flow again. He’s reflecting an aristocratic taste, but at the same time he’s plugging into a new aspiration toward consumer things.”
Parker says that Fleming had a complicated relationship with Americans. He admired the efficiency and modernity of the United States, but he was appalled with the idea that America replaced the U.K. as the top world power and with gregarious Americans like Errol Flynn who were not so buttoned-up as the British aristocracy.
“Errol Flynn was very much in Fleming’s view the tacky end of America’s modernity,” says Parker, who spoke to Flynn’s widow during his reporting for the book. “I asked Patrice what did Errol Flynn think of Ian Fleming, and she said Errol hated him. They didn’t get along at all—partly because they were the two most notorious authors and probably the two most notorious drinkers of the expat set on the island.”
Once you know learn that Fleming wrote all of the Bond books in Jamaica, you start to see Jamaica everywhere. In the opening scene of the very first book, Casino Royale, Bond is in a casino pretending to be a Jamaican aristocrat. In Live and Let Die, there is discussion of voodoo and the occult. Even the name James Bond is connected to Jamaica—Fleming named him after ornithologist James Bond, who was an expert on Caribbean birds.
“The underwater scenes, which is what Fleming loved more than anything about Jamaica, really are the best bits in the books. If you know Jamaica and you know the history and you know what was happening while Ian Fleming was there, it shines a light on this amazing character James Bond,” Parker says. “Also, with my interest in Jamaican history, it’s a slightly sideways approach to describing what was an absolutely fascinating couple of decades in Jamaican and British imperial history in the 1950s and early ‘60s.”
Scott Porch is an attorney and contributes to Kirkus Reviews and The Daily Beast. He is writing a book about social upheaval in the 1960s and '70s.