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San Francisco Chronicle, September 16, 1963
The Case of the Painfully Pulled Leg
By Ian Fleming
Some Caen. Some Caen’t.
No harm in starting off with a really bad joke. Master, or rather Past-master Caen has several times exercised his lamentable sense of humor at my and James Bond’s expense and I am glad of this opportunity to strike back.
But a valid truism lies behind the execrable pun. To the uninitiated, it looks easy enough to be a columnist. What could be more simple than to sit down at the typewriter and ramble on about the passing scene—the human comedy?
After all, Boswell was no genius. He just wrote down what he saw and what he thought—commonplace· stuff. He was no Shakespeare, no Shelley—a competent reporter with ink in his veins.
Ah, but that's the point! You must have ink in your veins. You really must love writing and communicating in order to sit down and write around 1000 words a day in such a fashion that people will read them. And that is what a daily columnist has to do.
Every day, come hangover, come flu, come lack of inspiration, come ailing wife or bawling children, he must go confidently and with seeming omniscience on stage and show himself to the public in naked black and white.
No excuses! You are a columnist, and by God you’ve got to fill your column to the satisfaction of your readers and, though this may be rare, to your own.
I know these things because I once wrote a column myself. I did it for three years and chucked it about five years ago when James Bond came to my rescue.
I was Foreign Manager of the Sunday Times (the real one. Not yours!) and I thought that its gossip column, which went, and still goes, by the pompous name of “Atticus,” was so bad that I would have a bash at it in between coping with the future of the world and the marital tangles of my foreign correspondents.
I renamed the column “People and Things” by Atticus, because I am interested in Things, and got into business. It went down all right, though I received more kicks than ha’pence from an editor whose sense of humor differed from mine, and the from readers who appeared only interested in writing in when I made a mistake, and to this day I am proud of two paragraphs of undying merit from that long stint.
The first, through a careful study of the psychology of the drinking American, correctly forecast the winning Miss Rheingold for that year (You see how right the editor was. Perhaps .007 per cent of Sunday Times readers had even heard of Rheingold beer).
The second, revealing the existence of a Grimsby troglodyte who smoked kippers as they should be smoked, brought in 4700 letters (a record for the paper) and incidentally made a fortune for the old man.
Is there a common denominator between my modest achievement and Herb Caen’s majestic record? What’s all this about Fleming anyway? We want to hear about Herb. Patience! Pazienza! Geduld!
Yes, there is a common denominator. Every columnist, and Herb Caen is a shining example, must be interested in everything, even in those matters which are outside his readers’ ken, and he must communicate his enthusiasms to the reader, and secondly, he must have some vague social purpose—a desire to help and instruct his readers and if possible right an occasional wrong (rescue the kipper merchant for instance).
But above all, whether exposing a peccant mayor or police chief (a favorite sport in the United States, I believe) or just writing about the smog, he must at all costs avoid being a bore.
For half a generation, and from the evidence of this anniversary accolade, Herb Caen, writing for perhaps the most wideawake community in the United States, somehow has managed, day in, day out, to avoid being a bore. For what it is worth, we have not, in Great Britain, got one journalist with anything like the same record.
And, in conclusion, I will tell you something else which is even more to his credit, and something which may be news to you. Some time ago, amongst my cuttings (clippings), I received a column by Herb Caen which affectionately but devastatingly sent up James Bond, pulling the author's leg almost out of its socket.
A saboteur in the pay of SMERSH, I surmised, and tucked the author's name away in my “unfinished business” file.
When next in New York, I asked one of the hamlet’s most famous editors about this fellow Caen.
“He's one of America’s greatest columnists,” he said. “We’d all like to get him. Trouble is, nothing on earth will drag him away from San Francisco.”
Well, feed your captive well. He’s good for another 25 years at the coal face.
SF Chronicle, January 28, 1962
The Thin Cruel Smile
Well, you can imagine how excited I got recently when I read that President Kennedy’s favorite author of secret service thrillers is Britain’s Ian Fleming. In the twinkling of a trice, I felt closer to the lonely young man in the White House—perhaps even a step along the road toward solving the mystery of those hooded, opaque eyes (Mr. Fleming writes like that): there is nothing that bridges the gap faster than the shared experience.
My mind raced straight to fantasyland. “Well, Mr. President,” I was saying jovially as we lit our cigars over the after-dinner cognac, “what did you think of that scene in ‘Casino Royale’ where our hero is naked and strapped to that chair with no seat in it and—.” And we would talk far into the night, the President gradually shedding the awful cares of state, as we explored our uncommon bond.
Which, you will presently see, is the cleverest pun you will read between here and the end of the column.
Mr. Fleming, whose books sell in the millions, is the creator of James Bond, the classiest British secret service agent ever to purr down the pike in a Bentley convertible with two inch exhausts. Bond's exploits and sexploits are explored (all right, and sexplored! in a series of adventures with such compelling titles as “Moonraker,” “Goldfinger,” “Doctor No” and “From Russia, With Love,” to name only a few. His secret service designation is 007 (double-nought seven, please), the double-nought being reserved for agents who have killed, and will kill again, in the line of duty.
Mr. Fleming is a Mickey Spillane who went to Eton—snobbish, sadistic and inventive, with a fine eye for detail. Hence his James Bond wouldn’t be caught dead in anything so obvious as a trenchcoat; when Bond is caught dying (but soon to make a miraculous recovery), you can be sure he will be wearing something from Savile Row, tastefully old.
Bond is in his mid-thirties, with a thin, vertical scar down his right cheek. Handsome, of course, but with “a hint of cruelty in his smile: that both frightens and attracts the ladies. I had him pictured as a combination of the young James Mason, the early Cary Grant and the Ronald Colman of “Bulldog Drummond” days. It was slightly disappointing to discover, in one of the books, that he bears a resemblance to Hoagy Carmichael.
President Kennedy and I could talk for a long time about James Bond. For one thing, Bond is a perfect physical specimen, although we read at one point that “he lit his 70th cigarette of the day” (the cigarettes are his own special brand of “Balkan and Turkish, mixed for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street,” with three gold rings around the paper). He carries them in a slim gun-metal case and lights them with “a black oxidized Ronson,” which seems to be a false touch, even though the lighter operates with “a snakelike flick. I sort of see Bond with a Dunhill.
He dines more or less exclusively on pate de foie gras and langouste (when he breakfasts at home, it is on brown speckled eggs, for he has an aversion to white ones). And, frankly, I wouldn’t want anybody in MY secret service to drink as much as he does. “A dry martini, in a champagne goblet,” he says, looking carefully at the barman. “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shake it very well until it is ice cold, then add a large, thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
“Yes, SIR,” says the bartender, hopping to it. Chances are he has noticed the slight bulge under Bond’s exquisitely tailored left arm, caused by the flat .25 Beretta in its light chamois leather holster, which is Bond's choice for informal evening wear.
Bond kills coldly and without feeling (“Ten minutes later he was fast asleep”). However, when he sleeps, “with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapse into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold.” On the other hand, he is unaccountably tender-hearted toward fish while skin-diving, one of the 297 things he excels at. “Fish scream when they are hurt,” he tells a friend anxiously.
He is an expert gambler, winning thousands at baccarat, roulette, bridge and even, in a memorable “Goldfinger” exploit, canasta. He hates Russians, most Germans (“the Hun again!”) and is mildly contemptuous of Americans, especially American food. His good American friend. Felix Leiter of the CIA, who lost an arm to a shark, is continually saying, “Gosh,” which fails to irritate Bond. What does irritate him are people who call him “Jim,” try to light his cigarette for him, or touch him.
He likes girls, but doesn't want to get married, and is happiest behind the wheel of his Bentley—“supercharger by Amherst Villiers”—with its two-inch exhausts “bubbling in his wake” as he sets off on an adventure which usually finds him strapped down by the enemy and about to be cut in twain by a whirring saw. For one thing, Bond is incredibly naive and walks into all sorts of obvious traps which you, the reader, can spot two chapters in advance. You KNOW that girl is a Soviet agent, but it takes Bond quite a while. He’s too busy dressing, and selecting the proper gun for the occasion.
But all in all it’s great stuff and I can hardly wait to talk it over with the President. And when, on a foggy night, I leap behind the wheel of my mighty Austin 850, watching the speedometer needle inch from 10 to 15 to 20, a cruel smile flickering on my face, you can just bet I’m playing James Bond. I just hope the President doesn’t do the same, because that Bond can sure get himself into a peck of trouble.
SF Chronicle, May 16, 1963
Conversation at Scott's
He was seated alone in the Window Room of Scott’s Restaurant in Coventry Street, his long, tapered fingers toying with a glass of white wine to which two teaspoons of water had been added.
“Sit down,” he said, half rising, the terseness of the words tempered by a smile that flickered for a warm second—no more—and was gone. It was obvious he had little time for small talk. After a quick but careful glance around the handsome Edwardian room, he leaned forward to ask the key question. “What will you drink?”
“Martinis,” we said. Swiftly assessing the cryptic word, he summoned a waiter with a commanding flick of his head. “Two martinis, very dry,” he ordered. “Four and 2 quarter parts of Coates’ Plymouth gin to five eighths of a part of Boissiere, the white vermouth. On the rocks. No lemon peel, no onion, no olive. Stir, don't shake.”
He turned his surprisingly blue eyes on us. Cold as sapphires, they shone out from a lean, ruddy face—handsome, if you like-that betrayed a few tell-tale signs of too many late nights at the baccarat table and perhaps more champagne (Taittinger blanc de blancs) than was strictly necessary. His luxuriant close-cropped hair was, I noticed, now completely gray. Again, he bent his supple, six foot frame forward.
“Cigarette?” he asked, offering a dull silver case surmounted by a curious coin. He caught my brief stare. “Gold sovereign,” he said. “My lucky coin at Monte Carlo. Made a killing with it.” The snakelike head of his Ronson Variflame flicked evilly and in a flash his cigarette was lit. As he took a deep drag, the neat polka-dot bow tie bobbed at the collar of his Sea Island cotton shirt with short sleeves.
If the foregoing sounds like a pallid attempt to imitate the style of Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond stories—well, it is. The gentleman, described above, with whom we were taking lunch in the admirable surroundings of Scott’s, was Mr. Fleming, the successor to the Hammetts, the Greenes and the Amblers as the world’s best-selling author of international spy fiction. His hero, James Bond (No. 007 in the British Secret Service), has become a household word in most of our best households, including the one in the White House.
“Actually,” he said over the cold salmon, sliced no more than .007 of an inch thick, “I picked the name of James Bond because it sounded to me like the most commonplace name in the world. I first ran across it in Jamaica—a James Bond was the author of an obscure scientific book I was reading. What an unspeakably dull name, I said to myself. Just a step removed from anonymity. Now the readers think there actually IS a James Bond.”
“Do you know any good villains?” he inquired, flicking an ash off his blue suit (no pocket handkerchief). “Villains are the hardest for me. I was rather fond of Rosa Klebb, but, of course, I had to kill her off. Same with ‘Doctor No.’” I mentioned Blofeld, the evil fellow with the syphilitic nose who almost finishes Bond in his newest book, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” but Mr. Fleming merely shook his head over his lamb chops (pink in the middle).
“I kill off Blofeld in the next book, which I just finished,” he said regretfully. “An excruciating death. And as for Bond, I’ve got him in such a devil of a pickle I don’t know how I’m EVER going to get him out. Poor James.”
In “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” the dashing Bond, who averages three affairs and an equal number of killings per book, marries a fine girl named Tracy. As they are starting out on their honeymoon in a white Lancia, the unspeakable Blofeld, in a red Maserati, races past and fires at them. At the end of the book, the Lancia has crashed into a field, “and Bond put his arm around her shoulders, across which the dark patches had begun to flower.”
“I hate to ask this,” I said, mindful of previous miraculous recoveries, “but is Tracy REALLY dead?”
Mr. Fleming poured himself a splash of vin ordinaire from a carafe and nodded sorrowfully. “Of course,” he replied. “Blood oozing out the back—sure sign. Too bad, but I couldn’t keep Bond married, you know. He’s on constant call, has to be too many places, get into too many scrapes. Wouldn’t do at all.”
He glanced at the stainless steel Rolex on his left wrist. “Really must go,” he apologized. “Catching a plane for Istanbul, where they’re filming ‘From Russia. With Love.” The first picture made from one of my books—"Dr. No"—has just been released here. Tremendous success. Made all its costs back right away, and I’m happy to say I have a small piece of the action. Sean Connery will play James Bond again—don’t you think he’s a fine Bond?”
We agreed. We had seen a preview of “Dr. No.” and Connery seemed almost as good as the real thing. Mr. Fleming struggled into a luminous blue raincoat and led the way out of Scott’s into the gray London afternoon. As we searched for a cab, he pointed to a second-story corner window of the restaurant. “See that window?” he asked. When James is in London he always lunches there, at the corner table. That’s so he can look down and watch the pretty girls walking past.”
And with that, Ian Fleming—or is HE James Bond?—waved a cheery farewell and strode off into the anonymous crowd.
SF Chronicle, August 16, 1964
Farewell to Double Nought Seven
James Bond—No. 007 (licensed to kill) in the British Secret Service—is dead.
SMERSH, the official murder organization of the Soviets, couldn’t do him in. SPECTRE—the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion—found him indestructible. He was more than a match for the insidious Dr. No, whom he caused to perish in a mountain of guano. The syphilitic Blofeld, the evil Auric Goldfinger, and Rosa Klebb, the Russian agent with the poison-tipped razor blade in the toe of her boot—they, too, were bested by Old Double-Nought Seven.
On various occasions; he survived castration attempts, a runaway exercising machine, multiple auto crashes, and a buzz saw that came within inches of slicing him in twain. He met and defeated sharks, barracuda and harpoons. Although he smoked 60 cigarettes a day—a special blend made for him by Morland’s of London, “with three distinctive gold rings around the paper—and was frequently awash in extra dry martinis and double bourbons, he could still do 20 slow pushups each morning (“his muscles screaming in protest”) and make love “with a cold fury,” after which he would go to sleep, “a taciturn smile, ironical and brutal,” on his handsome face.
Nevertheless, James Bond is dead. He died last week in England along with his creator and alter ego, Ian Fleming. In spite of scars, bruises and broken bones, Bond passed every medical test with full marks. But he had no control over the man who invented him, and that man perished of a heart attack at the age of 56. Bond never reached 40.
I saw Ian Fleming for the first and last time in London, a little over a year ago. His penultimate book, “On Her Majesty's Secret Service,” was about to be published and the word was already around that in it, James Bond, the avowed bachelor, had married La Comtesse Teresa di Vicenzo, otherwise known as Tracy. “That's true,” smiled Fleming over lunch at Scott’s, “but of course I had to kill her off at the end. Nasty death, on their honeymoon. It wouldn't do at all for James to be married, you understand—a wife would just be in the way. I may have to kill off Bond one of these days, too—before he kills me. Plots are getting harder and harder to come up with.”
The last plot—with a tragic twist at the end—was one that Ian Fleming may never have thought of. The pressure of continuing the vastly lucrative adventures of James Bond proved too much for the man who identified with his hero. And so Bond killed Fleming before Fleming could kill him. At the far off headquarters of' SMERSH and SPECTRE, there is cause for celebration.
Fleming was a charming man, as lean, handsome and seemingly fit as his hero. Like Bond, he smoked steadily, but with a holder, and showed a nice knowledge of food and wine. Also like Bond, he wore a Sea Island cotton shirt, a polka-dot tie, a dark blue poplin raincoat over a blue tropical worsted shirt, and a large Rolex sea-divers’ watch.
Despite all these clues, I didn't realize how closely he identified with Bond till we got around to a discussion of the movie versions of his books (“Dr. No,” “From Russia 'With Love,” and next, “Goldfinger”). When we agreed that the actor who portrayed M., Bond's chief, was miscast, I suggested “You should play M.—you're about the same age, aren't you?”
Immediately, he looked hurt, and I clammed up. Obviously, he felt he had nothing in common with the aging sea dog who headed the British Secret Service. He gave me a long, cold, ironical look that would have done justice to James Bond.
The conventional critics of spy fiction have, in general, been contemptuous of Fleming's books—their mistake being that they take his tales much more seriously than their author ever did. And then, he committed the sin of being hugely successful (about 2.8 million copies have been sold). It cannot be denied, however, that his inventiveness, so marked in “Casino Royale” through “Thunderball,” declined sharply in the later books, under the demands of a new one every year. We know now, of course, that Bond was determined to kill him.
Spy critics poked fun at Bond's modus operandi—pointing out, for example, that no agent would smoke those special cigarettes with the three gold bands, so easily identifiable. They snickered at Fleming’s penchant for ticking off Bond’s clothing, smoking and drinking habits by brand name, never letting him forget that he misspelled Bond's favorite champagne—Taittinger Blancs de Blanc (he left the “s” off the first “Blancs”).
Fleming’s patient report to all this criticism was “Don't they have any sense of fun?”—and, in this gloomy, literal-minded world, Bond was fun, for all his faults. A little thick. Not especially humorous. Making obvious mistakes that allowed the reader to feel superior. Snobbish, at times. And ridiculously persnickety: when breakfasting at home, “under the watchful eye of his faithful Scottish housekeeper, May, he insisted on “a single, very fresh speckled brown egg from French Marans hens,” boiled for three and a third minutes.”
However, it’s hard to fault a writer who could invent such lovely names as Pussy Galore, Tiffany Case, Sable Basilisk and Emilio Largo. And when James slipped into his faultless evening clothes, patted the .25 Beretta in its chamois holster, filled his gun metal cigarette case with 50 Morlands and got behind the wheel of his Mark II Continental Bentley, with the two-inch pipes bubbling in his wake, we knew we were off to high adventure. For James Bond was licensed to kill. And last week, he killed the man who loved him best—and, in the process, himself. If he were still around, he would have read the news with a cold, ironical smile, creasing the vertical scar in his right cheek.
SF Chronicle, May 24, 1985
For Your Eyes Only
With the enthusiastic cooperation of the Mayor and the police and fire departments, San Francisco is made to look like a loony-bin in the newest and possibly last James Bond film, “A View to a Kill,” an awkward movie with an awkward title. As I recall, author Ian Fleming’s original title for the flimsy short story on which this $30-million bombo is shakily based was “With a View to a Kill,” which scans a little more smoothly. It wasn't Fleming at his best but the movie it inspired may be James Bondage at its worst, except for the all-time stinker, “Casino Royale,” which, oddly, used only the title of Fleming's first historic best-seller.
It is an article of faith among civic leaders that having a movie made in your town is, by and of itself, A Good Thing. Some mumbojumble about identity, business, tourism, etc., but how many remember that Errol Flynn's classic “Robin Hood” was shot in Chico’s Bidwell Park? San Francisco, of course, has a lot more to offer than Chico, Velveeta jokes aside, and is ruthlessly exploited by every movie and TV maker this side of the Mitchell Brothers who can capture our publicity-crazed Mayor's ear. One can imagine her ecstasy upon learning that a Bond flick would be made in our own backyard, besides which she is said to be keen on Roger Moore, which is understandable.
In return for her unflagging enthusiasm for the Bond project, what do we get? A series of crashes in which our already shaky Police Dept. is made to look like raving incompetents at best and idiots at worst. Very funny, Chiefie, the way they drive their squad cars up the Lefty O'Doul Bridge on Third at China Basin as it is being raised. It is even funnier when they all slide down into each other. Best of all, the bridge's counterweight crushes the captain's car like an eggshell. Not only THAT, the actor playing the captain is a ringer for Chief Con Murphy! They had all been chasing Bond, James Bond, who had stolen a hook’n’ladder from the firemen fighting a blazing City Hall wherein a city official had just been murdered, and that brings up another point.
For reasons not entirely clear—but what is in a Bond flick?—the laughable villain, played with understandable embarrassment by Christopher Walken, pulls out a pistol and kills a city executive as he is seated behind his desk, American Flag in the background. It could even be the mayor’s office, or a supervisor’s. Have memories of the Moscone-Milk murders already grown so dim? The Mayor, a woman of fine sensibilities, might have suggested that the killing take place elsewhere—or not at all, since it has nothing to do with the plot. By coincidence, and I realize nobody could have foreseen this, Wednesday, May 22, the day of the world premiere, would have been Harvey Milk's 55th birthday. There were no observances, unless you count this crass scene as one. And as City Hall burned on screen, a few remembered that May 21 was the seventh anniversary of the “White Night” riots during which police cars were set ablaze in the fury that followed Dan White's junk-food verdict.
Well, as the saying goes, it’s only a movie and a very tedious one. Unlike the first blockbusters—“Doctor No,” “From Russia With Love,” “Goldfinger”—it is strangely slow, witless and charmless. A scene in a tunnel on the San Andreas Fault (?!) is straight out of “Indiana Jones,'” with flood waters pouring through the shaft as the villainous Walken kills dozens with a submachine gun. In fact, there is more randumb violence in this Bond film than in any other, a sure sign of flagging inspiration. As for Roger Moore, he seems a delightful chap but there is no doubt he has passed his prime, unless we're talking about beef, of which he has a bit too much. He hasn’t got whatever made Sean Connery a believable 007, and to his credit, he knows it. Also in the film: Patrick Macnee, who played the suave Steed to Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Peel in the unforgettable “Avengers” TV series; he too has grown beefy. Come to think of it, Patrick McGoohan as “Secret Agent,” Roger Moore as “The Saint” and “The Avengers” may have constituted a TV mini-golden age.
The premiere Wed. night at the Palace of Fine Arts was the usual embarrassing crush of teenagers screaming from behind barricades (they were screaming for Duran Duran, the rock group, not the movie stars) and cops looking a bit sheepish as limos rolled and cameras flashed. The film's producer, Albert (Cubby) Broccoli, now in his 70s with millions to match, looked weary—a man who has seen it all so many times; his old S.F. friend, Jimmy Flood, with whom he once sailed the Pacific, kept calling him “Mr. Cauliflower,” which drew a wan Broccolian smile. The Mayor made a gung-ho speech, blissfully unaware that whoever selects her clothes (Howdy Dowdy?) had once again betrayed her. Not only that, she has regressed to her short Planet of the Apes haircut. Maybe 007 can have a word with her.
And so the James Bond era draws to a close. The incredible is no longer credible and, with Britain reduced to a third-rate nation, the idea of a British secret agent saving the world becomes laughable. But I will never forget the excitement of that first novel, which I read in the late 1950s on a plane from London—what better setting?—or the impact of the Bondian theme music, still alive after being copied to death. It got every movie off to a brilliant start, even this one. The descent toward twilight comes later.
After a longish silence, he said, “I just came back from Spain [sic], where they've been filming ‘From Russia With Love.’ I don't know—it seems to me they're starting to make fun of James. I don’t like that at all, but there is nothing I can do about it.” When we parted, he looked sad and lonely, a lean, handsome man with flinty blue eyes and gallant manners. He died a few months later, never knowing what the filmmakers would do to Bond, but already rightly suspicious.
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It was beautiful to read about the small but monumental meeting and friendship Caen and Fleming had, and to continue to learn just how much of Ian has always been in Bond, sometimes even subconsciously.
Birdleson, I think we might have had a unknowingly seen each other at a couple of bay-area Bond events, such as the Comic Art Museum lecture on BOnd comics or the double-bill screening of OHMSS/AVTAK at the Castro.
After Reading Herb Caens review of AVTAK i would have loved to hear what he thought of The Living Daylights.
I didn't include them here, but Caen wrote columns about both Dalton films. Unfortunately, he didn't think much of them or Dalton. His reaction to LTK is that of a grumpy old man tired of explosions and violence. Like many first-generation Bond fans, he thought the series never recovered from Connery's departure.
Could you provide links to those Caen TLD and LTK reviews, @Revelator? I'd really love to read them! Thanks!
Caen does a pretty good impersonating of Fleming's writing I must say.
Not dislike, but he seems to have thought Lee was miscast. I can't agree with him though--Lee is perfect casting as far as I'm concerned. When I read the books, I always picture Lee as M.