A Snowman Holiday by Gary Giblin
This article was written by Gary Giblin, author of James Bond's London, and originally appeared at Secret Intelligence, it has been reprinted with permission. James Bond's London is a complete guide to 300 locations in London associated with the James Bond novels and cinema. It can be bought from Spy Guise and it retails for US$20. First 1,000 customers will receive a specially signed limited edition.
A big thanks to Gary and all the team at Secret Inteliigence for letting us use this article. And stay tuned for more behind the scenes looks at James Bond's London.
As many readers will know, Daleon has just published by travel/reference guide, James Bond's London. Its successor, James Bond's Britain, will follow in 2003. In writing about some 500 British locations associated with the life of Ian Fleming and the James Bond novels and films, I undertook an enormous amount of research, both at home and abroad. Perhaps needless to say, the abroad part was the most enjoyable (as well as the most tiring!), traveling from Dover on the coast of southeastern England (Diamonds Are Forever), through the Nene Valley in Cambridgeshire (Octopussy, GoldenEye) to the fringe of the Scottish Highlands (From Russia With Love). Along the way, I met many fascinating people, saw many interesting things and enjoyed a few once-in-a-lifetime experiences that, as a Bond fan, I will always treasure. In the latter category, the top honor would probably have to go to my interview with Mr. A. Kenneth Snowman, Chairman of Wartski, Ltd. What? You've never heard of Kenneth Snowman (rhymes with "Roman")? Well, have you ever heard the phrase "The Property of a Lady"? Yes, it's the title of the mysterious Fabergé Easter egg sold at Sotheby's in the film Octopussy. It is also the title of a short story Ian Fleming wrote specifically for the auction house's own publication, The Ivory Hammer: The Year at Sotheby's, in 1963. That story was later published in the paperback edition of Octopussy (or Octopussy and The Living Daylights, as it's called in Britain). It concerns Bond's attempts to identify the top Soviet spy in London, a man whose agent, Maria Freudenstein, operates as a "mole" in the British Secret Service. In fact, M knows what the Soviets are up to and has been feeding Maria and her superiors a specially-tailored diet of fact and fiction for quite some time. Now, the KGB has arranged an ingenious form of payoff for its devoted dupe: a rare Fabergé orb will be auctioned at Sotheby's and the proceeds given to Miss F. Bond surmises that Maria's boss will turn up at Sotheby's to bump up the price, thereby ensuring a hefty payoff that doesn't cost the Soviet taxpayer a single ruble. (This "payoff" angle is mentioned in the film.) Bond decides to go to the auction himself and try to identify the KGB paymaster. Before he does, however, he calls in at 138 Regent Street, the headquarters of the world's leading expert on the work of Carl Fabergé, none other than A. Kenneth Snowman…
Some thirty-five years later, in July 1998, I followed in the footsteps of both Bond and his creator, visiting the "modest" shop of A. Kenneth Snowman. Wartski–named after the firm's founder, Morris Wartski (Kenneth's maternal grandfather)–had since relocated from Regent to Grafton Street, just off tony Bond Street. I had rung the firm a few days earlier and made an appointment to visit one of the few real-life people to appear as themselves in an Ian Fleming story. Baker, the headwaiter at Scott's restaurant is one such person; Peter Wilson, chairman of Sotheby's, is another. But their roles, in Moonraker and "The Property of a Lady", respectively, are minor. Kenneth Snowman actually played an important role in his story, briefing Bond on the history of Fabergé's art and its collectors and accompanying him to the sale at Sotheby's. (In Octopussy, another character from the short story–Fanshawe–is conflated with Snowman to become art expert "Jim Fanning". Thus, while it is Snowman who accompanies Bond to Sotheby's in the story, it is Fanning who does so in the film.) I can't say precisely why I wanted to meet this man so much. He obviously knew Fleming–in fact, they had become friends through Ian's wife Ann, who seemed to know everyone who was anyone (authors like Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham, for example). He had also "played himself" in one of Fleming's works, but, then again, it wasn't as if one were meeting, say, the "real" Auric Goldfinger or Honeychile Rider. Perhaps it was the allure of those imperial Easter eggs and other exquisite objects d'art crafted by Peter Carl Fabergé from 1870 until 1917. Maybe it was the history behind the movement of these "Czarist baubles" from Communist East to Capitalist West. (Mr. Snowman's father had been the first buyer into newly Soviet Russia when the Communists decided to sell Fabergé's masterpieces in the 1920s.) I still don't know the answer. But whatever the motive, I certainly wanted to meet this man.
Sadly, my first visit to the shop did not come off as I might have hoped. Mr. Snowman was running late and shortly after he arrived, an old and dear friend popped in for a chat (and a drink, as it turned out) and our interview was cut rather short. Let me make one thing clear, though. The Wartski staff, all of them much younger than their boss, who was then a spry 78, treated me with the utmost kindness and regard, as did Kenneth himself. In fact, it was suggested that I come again the next day when Mr. Snowman could spare me more time. Although I still had dozens of places to research and photograph in central London (and a limited time in which to do it), I agreed in a heartbeat. I would return at 11:00 a.m. the next day.
That evening, I went to several bookstores in Charing Cross Road and browsed through the works on Fabergé and his art. And what do you know? Kenneth Snowman had written nearly all of them. He truly was the world's leading authority on Fabergé, as well as the "Queen's Expert" on antique jewelry. Not that I hadn't believed the epithets before, but there's just something about seeing the evidence for yourself. So, Fleming wasn't simply exploiting a family friend for a short story; he was giving Bond the help and advice of the very best source in the world. I was now twice as anxious to meet with this remarkable man.
The next day, I replaced my usual jeans and sneakers with a pair of khaki-colored Dockers and brown, casual shoes. As usual (it was summer), I wore a cotton Polo shirt, this one ecru in color. (All this will be relevant later in the story.) I returned to Grafton Street at the appointed hour and once again was ushered into the shop by Wartski's smart, efficient staff. Mr. Snowman was working in his basement office, so I took the opportunity to look at some of the objects and reference books in the shop. After a few moments, the man himself greeted me and profusely apologized for the interruption the day before. He invited me to join him in the basement where we could chat about Fleming, imperial Easter eggs and this "fascinating" project (his adjective) on which I was working. The office was cramped, as you might expect, being in the basement, but this was apparently the way Kenneth liked it: it was virtually identical to the set-up he had had in Regent Street–the one Fleming visited and subsequently wrote about. After offering me a seat opposite his small, rather cluttered desk, Mr. Snowman then suggested a drink. I couldn't remember ever having drunk anything alcoholic before noon, but what was I going to do, turn him down? Of course not. What are you having? I asked. Whiskey, neat, came the reply. I decided to take mine with a little water. I then began the interview with a few general questions–how had he met Fleming, how did he feel about his "role" in the story, and so on. Occasionally, Kenneth, as he insisted I call him, would look up and explain the origin of some photo or letter he had framed on his walls. His beloved wife had recently died, and he was still visibly distressed by the loss. He showed me one of the letters of condolence he had received, one that particularly touched him. It was handwritten, on a small, crisp piece of cream-colored stationery. It was signed simply "Charles". Charles's mother had also expressed condolences, Kenneth added. He then showed me a photograph of himself, his late wife and the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in happier days. How can you not be impressed by someone who knows the Royal Family personally. The epithet "Queen's Expert" really hit home now. And, yet, Mr. Snowman was so modest, so casual about it all. To him, these were "just" good friends, good people who had helped him during one of the most difficult periods of his life. There was no sense of bragging about royal connections or anything like that; Kenneth was simply pleased and proud to have such loyal friends.
We continued our chat about Fleming, the short story and Kenneth's "character" in the story. There were further digressions about Peter Wilson of Sotheby's and many, many other people in and out of the art world whom Kenneth has known over the years. He told me of one occasion, in 1992, when his status as the "Queen's Expert" had been challenged over a pendant Wartski proposed to display at the Grosvenor Antique Fair. The vetting committee eventually reversed themselves, admitting that the piece was indeed authentic. They went on to bestow the prestigious "Artefact of the Year" award upon the pendant, but never apologized to Kenneth for the insult.
Speaking of authentic "artefacts" (as it is spelled in Britain), I asked Kenneth if he was aware of the film Octopussy, in which real Fabergé eggs are replaced with counterfeit ones in an elaborate scheme only Richard Maibaum and Michael Wilson could have devised. He said that he was not, so I briefly recounted the story. Mr. Snowman then did something extraordinary. He opened the glass showcase beside his desk and carefully removed a small, orange object. He held it up for my inspection–and amazement: it was a counterfeit Fabergé egg, a gift bestowed upon him by a friend some years earlier. This I had to photograph, and did, thinking that it represented the high point of my visit with Abraham Kenneth Snowman. I was wrong.
By now it was nearly noon. Kenneth was going to lunch at his club and asked if I would be his guest. Hello? Kenneth Snowman's guest at one of London's exclusive gentlemen's clubs? Gee, let me think about it. Uh, Yes! Then he mentioned the name of his club–The Garrick. Good grief, there must be a God. The Garrick is a London show business institution, with a membership that has included a host of distinguished actors and writers, people like Ian Fleming's late brother Peter, actors Roger Moore and Geoffrey Palmer, and a shadowy Oxford history professor known as "C.C." C.C., according to the novel The Man with the Golden Gun, served as a consultant to the British Secret Service, a consultant whom M routinely disparaged because of his rather garish lifestyle and long, luxurious lunches at the Garrick. M, of course, was a member of "Blades", an exclusive gentlemen's club which Fleming based upon his own club Boodle's, in St James's Street. I had actually visited Boodle's as part of my research; however, since I was not a member (or even the guest of a member) my tour was limited. Now I would be lunching at one of the last, great strongholds of male privilege and prestige in an increasingly egalitarian world. Or would I?
Somewhere along the line, one of Mr. Snowman's staff noticed that I wasn't exactly dressed for the occasion. "Oh, I suppose you really aren't, are you?" Kenneth conceded, much to my chagrin. "But never mind that, let's see what we can find for you to wear. Ah, here's just the thing." On a hangar in the workroom across from his office, he had found a jacket and tie belonging to his manager, Geoffrey, who just happened to be at the BBC taping a program on antique jewelry. I had met Geoffrey the day before and he certainly seemed like an amicable enough chap. But borrowing his clothes, without his permission?! Well, it was lunch at the Garrick, after all, and neither Kenneth nor his staff seemed to think it was any big deal. So, I tied the navy and crimson tie around my ecru Polo shirt, slipped into the charcoal gray jacket, ran my sweaty hands down the wilting crease of my Dockers and wondered what on earth the members of the Garrick would think when Kenneth and I strolled in.
Kenneth summoned his driver, we climbed into the back of the car (I was so nervous I didn't even notice the color or model!) and began the short trip to Covent Garden, where the Garrick stands, appropriately enough, in Garrick Street. The club was founded in 1831 and named after the famous 18th-century actor David Garrick, who was himself a member of Brooks's, another of the exclusive St James's gentlemen's clubs (it is directly opposite Boodle's). Over the years, the Garrick attracted such literary luminaries as William Thackeray, Henry Irving, A. A. Milne, and Charles Dickens, its lively, almost festive atmosphere belying the somber facade of its Italianate clubhouse. The club was certainly lively on this particular day. Members enthusiastically approached Kenneth–and me–from the moment we crossed the threshold, asking where he'd been and what he'd been up to. (Snowman likes to joke that he is the "only shopkeeper" of the largely media-drawn membership; some shopkeeper!) I, of course, tried to blend into the background, feeling horribly self-conscious about my ad hoc clubbing outfit. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Though all the members were dressed in suits and ties, none cast the slightest of doubtful looks in my direction. In fact, everyone seemed quite sincerely friendly ("Oh, you must have a drink!") and genuinely interested in what had brought me to London. Finally, having declined one last drink (this turned out to be a bad day to have skipped breakfast), I diplomatically pressed Kenneth on the matter of lunch. He, too, was ready to eat, so we crossed to the dining room, a massive, oak-paneled affair, with assorted celebrity-members (publisher David Putnam, TV presenter Robin Day) holding court at their respective tables. As we seated ourselves at the large, "common" table in the center of the room, we learned that we had just missed actor Peter Bowles, the perennial Brit-com favorite (To the Manor Born among many others). Nor was there any sign of Roger Moore or Geoffrey Palmer, who, as it happened, was a friend of Snowman's. Oh, well, the experience was the thing, not meeting Bond stars.
The lunch–a steak with new potatoes, vegetables and red wine–was, I have to say, nothing particularly extraordinary (pearls before swine?). The conversation, however, was thoroughly delightful. We had been joined by veteran comic actor Henry McGee, Benny Hill's long-suffering straightman and, indeed, the last surviving member of Hill's TV comedy troupe. McGee was pleased that I recognized him and happily shared a number of stories about the legendary comedian. It soon struck me just how far I had wandered off the Bondian path. No wonder M disapproved of this place–people really did enjoy themselves too much! As we ate and chatted, another diner, also a friend of Kenneth's, happened to overhear the reason for my visit. In fact, I had begun to feel pretty idiotic repeating the mantra that I had come to England to research and photograph places associated with Fleming and Bond, including, of course, Wartski and the Garrick. But I gamely repeated the story to Snowman's friend, fully expecting a quick return to my chat with Henry McGee. "Oh", said, the friend, expanding my answer into a genuine exchange, "how interesting. You will, of course, be including the spot where Bond crashed his Bentley down in Kent?" The remark lay somewhere between a question and a friendly challenge. "You know the place I'm referring to, surely." Fortunately, like Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me (when pressed to identity one of Stromberg's exotic fish), I just happened to have the answer. "Oh, you mean Charing Hill, on the road to Canterbury? Yes, of course. You couldn't do a book on Bond's Britain without mentioning that!" A wry smile crept across the elderly face. I had passed the test, and so, presumably, had Kenneth. In fact, Kenneth seemed to be having almost as much fun as I was. The lunch that I had approached with equal amounts of dread and anticipation (I just knew that I would embarrass both myself and my gracious host) had turned out all right after all.
The meal ended and, sadly, it was time to leave our (new) friends at the Garrick. Kenneth would be returning to his Hampstead home (ironically, located very near Fleming's childhood home, Pitt House) and I would be moving on to the Ritz Hotel, my next location. Before we parted though, Kenneth had two more surprises in store for me. First, he thoughtfully inscribed my paperback copy of Octopussy (which contained, of course, "his" story) with the words: "What a great pleasure to have met Gary, who knows so much about his fascinating subject." Then, back at the shop, he showed me something quite remarkable: entries from his personal diary regarding Ian Fleming. He had recorded things like when and where the two of them had met for one social occasion or another (lunch at the Connaught in Mayfair, for example), what Ian had purchased in the Regent Street shop (a rock crystal seal for £18) and his positive reaction to the publication of "The Property of a Lady" in Playboy magazine (January 1964). It was something of a revelation, really. For here in these pages, Ian Fleming was more than a famous author, long since overshadowed by his literary creation. He was a living, breathing human being, a friend of the modest man seated beside me. Then we turned to the final relevant entry: September 15, 1964, the date of Ian's memorial service at the Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield. Suddenly, Fleming was dead, and real people–friends and family–had mourned his loss. It was a silent, solemn moment that I will never forget.
After that, I said goodbye to Wartski's charming chairman and went on about the business of researching a book–now two books–about the Britain of James Bond and Ian Fleming. As I said, I'm still not sure what drove me to meet Mr. A. Kenneth Snowman. But for the time he afforded me, the kindness he showed me, the meal at the Garrick and the precious opportunity to come a little bit closer to a personal hero, I shall always be extremely, and most humbly, grateful.
All Photographs © Gary Giblin.