The driving passion of Mike VanBlaricum’s life (one of them, anyway) sparked to life early in 1965 at the Apollo Theater’s Friday-night show in Princeton, Ill., a tiny town surrounded by cornfields about two hours southwest of Chicago. The film Goldfinger had come to town, and as it unspooled over the next two hours, 14-year-old VanBlaricum was introduced to James Bond and the dashing, dangerous, exotic, pulchritudinous world he inhabited, and so to Ian Fleming, the novelist, intelligence officer and roué from whose imagination leapt one of the defining fictional characters of the post-nuclear age. Fleming had died the year before, but as Bond made his way through gadgets, girls and murderous madmen, the debonair author met the country boy who would devote his adult life to preserving Fleming’s legacy and works.
“Goldfinger just blew me away,” recalls VanBlaricum, ’72 ENG, MS ’74 ENG, PHD ’76 ENG, but it didn’t dislodge his life anchors of science, Scouting and trombone playing. Though he caught all the films, VanBlaricum, by nature, was and is less of a Bond and more of a Q, the inventive designer of Bond’s ingenious gadgets. By the time VanBlaricum completed his degrees at Illinois, he already had begun a long and accomplished career that culminated as CEO of defense contractor Toyon Research Corp. He also had begun a long and rewarding marriage to classmate Pam (Calvetti) VanBlaricum, ’72 ENG, MS ’74 ENG, PHD ’77 ENG, herself an aerospace engineer. It was around that time, VanBlaricum recalls, that he read his first Bond novel.
“I fell in love with Fleming’s style—short, concise sentences that got the point across—and with Richard Chopping’s trompe l’oeil dust-jacket art,’’ he says. VanBlaricum got the bug to read all of the Bond novels, but found they were not readily available. Moonraker had just become the 11th Bond blockbuster to draw tremendous audiences across the globe, but the success of the Bond films wasn’t enough to keep Fleming’s novels in print.
“I started haunting secondhand bookstores and rare-book dealers to find used copies,” VanBlaricum says. “When Pam went to New York to visit family, I asked her to go to The Mysterious Bookshop, noted editor Otto Penzler’s famous store devoted to crime and mystery novels, to see if she could find any Bond novels.’’ She returned with first editions of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice—the latter of which just happened to be the copy that Sammy Davis Jr. once owned.
And thus, upon the rock of a Rat Packer’s recycled library, was born a collection that grew to encompass first editions, manuscripts, screenplays, original cover art, personal effects, articles, letters, record albums, toys and games, and 40 functioning vehicles that appeared in Bond films. At its peak, the collection numbered roughly 10,000 items and made VanBlaricum one of the world’s leading authorities on Bond and his creator. “Mike,” Pam says dryly, “has always been a completist.”
The VanBlaricums live in Santa Barbara, Calif., in the same ranch house they bought in 1976. On his patio on a recent winter morning, VanBlaricum eagerly opens a jewelry box containing a set of cuff links. On each, a stylized dove flies within a circle of blue. This particular pair, he explains, appeared in the 1981 film, For Your Eyes Only, worn by smuggler Milos Columbo, known as “the Dove” in the Greek underworld.
Next VanBlaricum produces a second set of dove cuff links he recently bought online that are quite similar but smaller in diameter. “They say they’re replicas, but they’re not!” he says. “These are modeled after the original artist drawings, but the drawings didn’t indicate the size.” Clearly, VanBlaricum is not so much outraged by this mislabeled memorabilia as he is delighted by the opportunity to debunk it. And why not? It’s given him yet another opportunity to apply his forensic expertise to the world of Bond.
Touring his house, the living room looks as though a UPS truck has dumped its contents in the middle of a museum. Bookcases are crammed with Bond novels, and a table is awash in Bond toys. Hanging nearby is a 24-inch by-30-inch oil painting by the prolific artist James Meese depicting a couple—a brawny hunk of masculinity and a willowy brunette. Though scantily clad, neither is happy because they are tied up, completely at the mercy of a refrigerator-sized man who is counting gold coins. Readers of Live and Let Die know the figures represent Bond, Domino and Mr. Big, and those who read the first Perma Books edition of the novel, published in 1956, might recognize the painting from the book’s cover. Though striking, the painting has to compete for attention with its neighbor, a gold bust of Ian Fleming.
“When John Pearson’s biography, The Life of Ian Fleming, came out in 1966, the publishers produced a few of these [busts] to put in bookstore windows in England,” VanBlaricum says. “It’s based on a bust of Fleming that was sculpted by the mother of his fiancée, Monique Panchaud de Bottomes. Though Fleming’s mother forced him to end the engagement, he remembered Monique fondly enough that in You Only Live Twice, he named Bond’s mother Monique Delacroix.’’
All these objects represent but one layer of the treasures VanBlaricum has amassed. Along with the Bond novels, Fleming wrote the classic children’s book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well as travel pieces and commentary. He served in military intelligence during World War II, and afterwards as a foreign manager with the Kemsley Newspapers Group, where he oversaw The Sunday Times’ worldwide network of correspondents. Over the years, VanBlaricum has hoovered up relics representing every facet of Fleming’s extraordinary life.
As VanBlaricum’s collection grew, so did his sophistication; as he searched, he learned. His desire to have a copy of every Fleming book evolved into a desire to have a copy of every edition and then a copy in the best-possible condition. To support those acquisitions, he started The Book Stalker, a mail-order, rare-book business offering crime stories and thrillers. VanBlaricum had seen rare-book catalogs that offered “Sherlockiana,” so in The Book Stalker’s first catalog, he promised his readers “mystery and suspense fiction and Bondiana.” In coining that word, VanBlaricum at once became a trusted source for Bond collectors and a destination for sellers around the world, although as he acknowledges, “All the good stuff that passed through my hands stayed in my collection.’’
Keep in mind that as VanBlaricum was mastering the arcane worlds of Bond and Fleming and book dealing, he still had a pretty demanding career to manage. Both he and his wife devoted their daylight hours to top-secret government work, and apart from revealing that “we worked on a lot of really pretty cool stuff,’’ he is silent about their employment. But his obsession with Bond proved to be, well, bonding, giving the couple something to talk about over the dinner table that didn’t involve matters of national security. “The publishing world and the writing world were so alien to what I was doing for a living,” VanBlaricum says. “I could come home at night and enter a different world.”
As he immersed himself in that market, VanBlaricum quickly discovered reference books in the mystery and suspense-fiction genres that provided bibliographies of books by and about such great suspense writers as Ross Macdonald, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Not until 2017 would Fleming have such a bibliography, for which VanBlaricum would write the foreword. In the meantime, he found out that a British book dealer from Liverpool named Iain Campbell had assembled what he called a “preliminary bibliography,” and VanBlaricum used Campbell’s
72-page catalog to hunt for Fleming’s novels.
“Iain had mostly British stuff,” VanBlaricum recalls. “Mixed in there were some very rare volumes, of which there were only four or five copies in existence. I thought that if I could emulate his collection, plus buy American stuff, I could have a better collection than he had.” Soon, book dealers on both sides of the Atlantic were getting the message that there was a bloke from the States who was saying, “If it’s in print and relates to Fleming or Bond, I want it!” Within a few years, Campbell himself heard the message and offered VanBlaricum something he didn’t already own: his entire collection.
The purchase price was £25,000, or about $40,000 at the time. VanBlaricum talked to Pam. “I said, ‘We’re going to have to put a second mortgage on the house,’ ” he recalls. She asked if that was really what he wanted to do. “Well, I’m either a collector or I’m not,” he told her. “If I’m going to collect, then I have to buy this collection.” Pam readily gave her blessing. “I was busy raising the kids at the time,” she says. “And I always trusted Mike.”
VanBlaricum’s purchase might have seemed extravagant initially, but the investment proved worthwhile. In the 1980s, for example, he spent $1,000 to buy an inscribed, first-British-edition of Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, of which only 4,728 copies were printed. Two years ago, another signed first book went up for auction at Sotheby’s. The winning bid: $91,649.
Soon after buying Campbell’s collection, VanBlaricum’s employer sent him to a NATO conference in London to present a paper on radar target identification. He took that opportunity to contact Peter Janson-Smith, Fleming’s former agent and current chairman of Glidrose Publications (now Ian Fleming Publications), which controlled Fleming’s publishing rights. The men met in the lobby of the Mayfair Hotel and talked for about 15 minutes.
“Clearly, he was screening me,” VanBlaricum says. “Think about it; you’re head of all the James Bond literature in the world, and some geek from California calls you up and says, ‘I want to talk to you.’ You don’t know what you’re getting into.” He passed the test—that afternoon, Janson-Smith’s secretary called and invited him to lunch at the Glidrose offices the following Monday. There, Janson-Smith introduced VanBlaricum to Nichol Fleming, the head of his uncle’s estate. The three of them spent most of the day together.
“I thought I was going be asking them questions,” VanBlaricum says, “but it turned out that they asked most of the questions. I found myself telling them stories about Fleming’s books and collectibles. They seemed to be very interested.”
That meeting gave him an entrée into the inner circle of publishers, producers, entertainers and enthusiasts who have kept Fleming’s torch burning bright. In coming years, he would meet actor George Lazenby, the one-hit Bond wonder who portrayed 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Desmond Llewelyn, who played the cantankerous Q in 17 Bond films. He’d breakfast with Lois Maxwell, the actress who played Miss Moneypenny in all of the Sean Connery and Roger Moore Bond films. And he’d dine with Richard Kiel, the 7-foot, 2-inch colossus of an actor best known as Jaws, the evil henchman with a mouthful of metal shark’s teeth who menaces Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.
“At the restaurant, they put blocks under the legs of the table to raise it about yay high, so Richard could sit comfortably,” VanBlaricum recalls, holding his palm about four inches above the floor. “I’m 5-foot, 6-inches. It’s like I’m a little kid. Can you bring me a high chair?”
By the end of the ’80s, VanBlaricum had just about accomplished his goal of amassing one of the world’s greatest collections of Fleming’s literary works. He’d obtained Fleming’s bow tie and personal walking stick (the one with a golden eye in the grip), the size-14 sneakers that Sean Connery wore during the opening of sequence of Never Say Never Again, and the prototype for the 1965 Gilbert Toys James Bond 007 Road Race Set.
Alexander the Great may have wept when he had no more worlds to conquer; VanBlaricum just branched out.
In 1990, he got a call from Saul Cooper, the head of publicity for Eon Productions, the company that produces the Bond movies. They had become acquainted when VanBlaricum moved into the Fleming inner circle.
Cooper jumped to the point. “Hey Mike! Do you want to buy a submarine?’’
“You know I collect books, right?” VanBlaricum told him. “I don’t think a sub is going to fit on a bookshelf.”
Cooper persisted with his pitch. In For Your Eyes Only—yes, the one with the cuff links—a ship carrying the command module for the United Kingdom’s nuclear missiles hits an old mine and sinks to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Bond, played by Roger Moore, is ordered to recover the device before the Russians get their clutches on it. He is taken to the sunken vessel by Melina Havelock, a marine biologist played by Carole Bouquet, in a tiny submarine called the Neptune. In the end, the free world is saved.
That was the high point of the Neptune’s career. After an appearance in New York City to promote the Bond film, the ship sat dormant. Five years later, Eon Productions donated it to an oceanographic institute on Long Island, which eventually passed it on to the Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum on the Hudson in Manhattan, where, overshadowed by so many vintage war machines, it fell into neglect. Its paint faded; rust crept up its flanks.
Eventually, the museum’s curators decided to unload the Neptune and found a buyer. Once Cooper got wind of the proposed transaction, he shared the Neptune’s potentially ignominious fate with VanBlaricum. A diving club wanted to buy the sub and sink it so that its members had something interesting to look at when they dove. But for $3,000, VanBlaricum could rescue the Neptune and gain another amazing collector’s item.
VanBlaricum had the $3,000, but he didn’t want to own the Neptune. Instead, he conceived of a plan to launch a nonprofit to preserve the sub and any future Bond vehicles that came on the market. To help make that happen, he recruited two fellow Bond devotees: Doug Redenius, an Illinois postal worker who was both an epic collector of 007 merchandise and an expert restorer of unusual conveyances like the Neptune; and John Cork, a screenwriter and filmmaker who had released several short Bond documentaries that were included with the DVD and Blu-ray versions of the films. Together, the three men launched the non-profit Ian Fleming Foundation, or IFF.
In the ensuing years, the IFF acquired more than 40 Bond vehicles—from sports cars to 18-wheelers to speedboats. Many of them enjoyed temporary housing in VanBlaricum’s mother-in-law’s garage in Santa Barbara. Currently, 28 of them—including underwater Lotus Espirit that appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me; the Hiller UH 12C helicopter, from which assassins tried to kill Bond in From Russia with Love; the Lockheed JetStar, in which Bond and Goldfinger had their final showdown; and of course, the Neptune—are on display in an exhibit called “Bond In Motion” at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibit runs until Oct. 20, 2022.
Some years ago, VanBlaricum began to think about the future of his collection. He had concerns about its safety in Santa Barbara; his home is in a fire zone. Breaking it up also was unappealing: He once met a mathematician from Bell Labs who had accumulated a massive collection of Sherlock Holmes books that he had sold off piecemeal.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to have to do that,’” VanBlaricum says. “I want to keep it together, and I would like to have it go to a research institution at some point. Ideally, a well-known institution.”
In the end, he chose his Alma Mater.
The University of Illinois Library is the fifth-largest library in the U.S. Only the Library of Congress, the central libraries of Boston and New York City, and the Harvard Library are bigger. On its third floor, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (RBML) boasts deep holdings of works by John Milton, H.G. Wells, William Shakespeare, Carl Sandburg and scores of other literary legends—and now, the works of Ian Fleming.
Some academics might blanch at the prospect of admitting a mass-market pop idol into such august company. But not Lynne Marie Thomas, MS ’99 IS, head of the RBML. “Mike’s collection documents a character, and a series of novels and films, that have had a massive effect on 20th and 21st century popular culture,” Thomas says. “James Bond stories give us a glimpse into not only fictional versions of international relations and spy work, but cultural attitudes about race, gender, politics, colonialism and masculinity across a span of over 60 years.”
Currently 617 original items and rarities comprise the RBML’s Michael L. VanBlaricum Collection of Ian Fleming and Bondiana, thus far. It houses a proof of Moonraker, edited in Fleming’s own hand, that sports a different title for the American edition—Too Hot to Handle. Rare scripts and screenplays include Warhead, an unfilmed Bond story with Sean Connery credited as co-author, as well as a version of Casino Royale from 1954 developed for the Climax! TV series. (It marked the first time Bond appeared on film. Shockingly, he was called Jimmy! And he was American!) The collection also features letters and telegrams related to the Casino Royale novel. Then there’s the rarest and likely most valuable document VanBlaricum has ever acquired: “A Poor Man Escapes,” Fleming’s first short story, written when he was 19 years old.
After four decades of expert collecting, VanBlaricum has boiled down all of the knowledge he has accrued to three simple rules. First, know your subject. Second, be proactive and make contacts. Third, take some chances—always ask for what you want. And while he has given the U of I his crown jewels, VanBlaricum remains in the hunt. He still covets one treasure that may not even exist. “It’s said that Fleming self-published a book of poetry called The Black Daffodil, but that he destroyed all the copies. I don’t know—would you destroy all the copies? I think there’s a copy out there somewhere,” he says. And if not, The Black Daffodil would make a pretty good title for the next Bond film.
Bleeding Orange and Blue (and Bond—James Bond)
The “double-oh-seven” of University volunteers, VanBlaricum is a man in motion
It all started with Engineering Open House,” says Mike VanBlaricum about his decades of volunteer service to the University.
In 1971, the 50-year-old Open House was in trouble. Like many University traditions during the Vietnam War era, it was negatively impacted by student apathy and a tense campus environment. Attendance was down—way down—and the College of Engineering was even talking about ending the event.
VanBlaricum and his future wife, Pam—then both U of I seniors—came to the rescue when they took charge of planning for the ’72 Engineering Open House.
“Our goal was to get 20,000 people there,” he says, and through pluck, ingenuity and a “publicity circus,” they succeeded. Fifty years later, Engineering Open House remains one of the University’s most popular annual traditions.
And VanBlaricum remains one of the University’s most dedicated volunteers, bringing a youthful energy and determination to everything he does.
Since his semi-retirement in the mid-2000s, he has been a consistent presence at Illinois, serving as a board member for the Spurlock Museum, Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University Library and School of Music.
VanBlaricum has also played a hands-on role in creating University programs and services, curating exhibits for Spurlock and the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML), and developing the Illinois Distributed Museum, an interactive website about the U of I’s innovations and their global impact, which is now managed by University Archives.
But perhaps his greatest legacy for the campus is his unequaled collection of Ian Fleming and James Bond books, manuscripts and memorabilia. (He is in the process of donating it to RBML.)
“I started collecting it more than 40 years ago,” VanBlaricum says, “and I knew from the beginning that it would be a research collection.
“That it’s going to the Library here”—where he earned his degrees, met his wife, sent his daughters to school and dedicated so much of his time—“is pretty important to me.”
—Ryan A. Ross