LONDON — "The name's Bond, James Bond."
It's hard to believe it's been 50 years since Sean Connery first uttered those words in Dr. No, making the dashing British spy who is licensed to kill, as well as kiss and kick butt, a global phenomenon.
On Friday, Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the franchise, opened nationwide, and while a half-century has brought many changes — Bond is now blond, M is a woman and Q is a callow youth — the world remains besotted with 007.
His adventures have taken him to exotic locales from Istanbul to Jamaica and, yes, even Kentucky, but it's for queen and country that he fights, and it's London that he calls home.
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London has always been a hotbed of spydom, from Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe to the Cambridge 5, university mates recruited as double agents by the Russians during World War II. In a scenario worthy of a Bond novel, there was Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who died after beingpricked in the thigh by a ricin-tipped umbrella as he crossed Waterloo Bridge.
Bond's creator, novelist Ian Fleming, had a background in espionage. Working in naval intelligence during World War II, one of his operations was code-named Goldeneye.
Fleming never admitted that Bond was his idealized alter-ego, but the two did have much in common — a privileged upbringing, naval intelligence background, and a taste for martinis, fast cars and dangerous women.
St. James and a martini
On a recent visit to the British capital, I went in search of Fleming's (and Bond's) London.
I began in the shadows of St. James's Palace, built by Henry VIII, in the ultra-posh area of the same name.
St. James is the epicenter of London's upper-class gentlemen's clubs, home to White's and Boodle's, both of which counted Fleming as a member; he claims to have based Blade's Club from the Bond novels on Boodle's.
I was not able to sneak a peek through the tightly drawn curtains of either club, but I could poke my nose into the shops on Jermyn Street, a favorite haunt of Fleming and Bond.
I started at Floris, noted perfume makers since 1730 and holder of a Royal Warrant (Prince Charles is a regular customer). Floris creates fragrances for women and men, and while I was briefly distracted by tantalizing scents of lavender and jasmine, I was on a mission to sniff No. 89, Fleming's favorite cologne, featured in Dr. No.
Named for Floris' address, 89 Jermyn Street, it has notes of bergamot and orange, warmed "with a touch of spicy nutmeg," and is perfect for a world-class spy.
Next, it was on to Turnbull & Asser, another Royal Warrant holder and bespoke shirt maker for Fleming and every Bond from Connery to Daniel Craig. Master shirt maker David Gale, who has been measuring customers for 40 years, showed me patterns for the various Bond actors, as well as for the pajamas worn by Judi Dench as M.
I was most fascinated by the John Lobb company, maker of bespoke shoes and boots for dignitaries from King Edward VII to Prince Philip, the current Duke of Edinburgh. The butter-soft leather of the footwear is beautiful, but don't even think about putting in a rush order. A woman can get pregnant and have a baby in approximately the length of time it takes John Lobb to deliver a pair of shoes.
Exhausted and thirsty after my ramble through St. James, I made for the intimate bar at Duke's Hotel, where it is generally accepted that Fleming came up with Bond's favorite libation: a martini, "shaken, not stirred."
Bar manager Alessandro Palazzi happily pours martinis to patrons who pack the bar from first to last call. Channeling my inner Bond Girl, I ordered Palazzi's specialty martini — the Vesper Lind, an homage to 007's lost love.
A heady concoction of vodka, gin, bitters, wine and citrus peel, the Vesper convinced me that a hollow leg is an essential part of every true Bond Girl's killer bod.
Seeing the sites
It was a mini-bus and not an Aston Martin waiting the next morning to whisk me off on a tour of Bond movie sites. If the vehicle didn't live up to expectations, the tour guide did. An aspiring actor whose dream role is not Bond but a Bond villain, he was full of gossipy insider information.
One tidbit was that Fleming, upon first meeting Connery, was unimpressed, referring to him as "an overgrown Scottish stunt man." It took producer Albert Broccoli's wife, Dana, to set him straight.
Between anecdotes, we made our way to London landmarks used as film locations — the MI5 and MI6 buildings, the British equivalents of our FBI and CIA headquarters, situated on opposite sides of the River Thames. It is the latter which, through computer magic, is blown up spectacularly in Skyfall.
Another stop was one of my favorite places in London: Somerset House on the Strand. With its beautiful interior courtyard, it has doubled as London's Ministry of Defense and as St. Petersburg Square in Bond films.
Somerset House also has a connection to a real spy. Sir Anthony Blunt, one of the notorious Cambridge 5, was a former director of the Courtauld Art Gallery adjacent to the mansion.
The tour concluded in Greenwich at the Royal Naval College, where the Painted Gallery, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century, was used as a location in Skyfall.
FYI: If you have one to three people who can come up with 200 pounds ($300) for a half-day or 400 pounds ($600) for a full day, you can ditch the minibus and do the tour in a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow (Britmovietours.com).
A real-life encounter
While it's unlikely you can get Craig or the queen to parachute with you into the Olympic stadium, you can take part in any number of adventures that might earn you "00" status.
Suit up for a climb to the top of the O2 Arena, a 90-minute experience that will take you across the roof of the popular entertainment venue for a 360-degree view of London.
Afterward, board a gondola on the Emirates Cable Car. Opened in time for the Summer Olympics, the cable cars soar high above the Thames, providing another spectacular vista.
If you're really an adrenaline junkie, opt for a high-powered speedboat ride on the Thames, just as Bond did in The World Is Not Enough. The journey starts out tamely as you drift through the heart of London and your guide points out places of interest. Once past Tower Bridge, however, the skipper opens up the throttle for a pulse-pounding race towards the O2. Hang on, and imagine your favorite Bond baddie in hot pursuit (Thamesribexperience.com).
On my last night in London, mission completed, I did what any good agent would — sought comfort in one of my favorite hotels, the Draycott in Chelsea.
As I sat in the drawing room enjoying a glass of champagne, I noticed a tall, dark-haired man across the room pouring a glass of scotch. No, it couldn't be, I thought. I've just got James Bond on the brain.
When he turned and looked at me, however, there was no mistaking that twinkle in his eyes. It was Pierce Brosnan, Bond No. 5, who was in town to film a movie. Later, as we were introduced, he extended his hand, and I fantasized about what I would hear next.
"The name's Bond, James Bond."