Feature: Goldeneye -- beyond James Bond

By LOU MARANO  |  Jan. 24, 2003 at 7:03 PM
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ORACABESSA, Jamaica, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- James Bond cultists know that Goldeneye is the island retreat at which Ian Fleming wrote his spy thrillers, but the artist whose personality the place reflects today is music impresario and entrepreneur Chris Blackwell.

Fleming, may he rest in peace, was a tortured soul who drank and smoked himself to death in 1964 at age 56. Blackwell, a youthful 65, has the unaffected graciousness of the well-adjusted.

Fleming fell in love with Jamaica during World War II, when British Naval Intelligence dispatched the young officer to the island as wolf packs of German U-boats preyed in the Caribbean. He helped to develop the ruse that came to be known as The Man Who Never Was. To deceive the Germans about the impending invasion of Sicily, the Allies floated a body in the Mediterranean with false documents. And he was involved in Operation Golden Eye, a plan to defend Gibraltar.

After the war, Fleming bought the land on which he built Goldeneye -- on a bluff, overlooking a secluded cove -- from Blanche Blackwell, the music magnate's mother, reputed to be a woman of beauty and wit. In 1962, as Jamaica was making its transition from British colony to independent nation, 24-year-old Chris Blackwell acted as production assistant for "Dr. No," the first of the Bond novels to be made into a feature film. Now Blackwell is best known as the founder of Island Records, the promoter of Bob Marley, Steve Winwood and other superstars, and Goldeneye is the flagship resort in the Caribbean branch of Blackwell's Island Outpost hotel conglomerate, which includes properties in South Beach, Miami, and Sundance, Utah.

It's not every day that I get to indulge in what the Travel Channel lists among "101 things to do before you die." Two nights at the Fleming House in Goldeneye was an island interlude to remember. And it was very different from what you'd get at other first-rank Jamaican resorts, which -- with their starched, hovering, domestic staff -- have a retro-colonial ambiance.

"All of Chris Blackwell's properties have a relaxed feel to them," said my guide, Nicky Richardson. "That's the way he likes things."

Relaxed, but unsurpassed. "We don't attract the clientele looking for marble bathrooms," said General Manager Jenny Wood. "They have marble bathrooms every day."

Perhaps the bathrooms, iconic in their own way, tell the story best. The three-bedroom Fleming House has conventional indoor lavatories. But outside each bedroom is a serene tropical glade, a rainforest clearing distantly fenced in bamboo, with a clawfoot tub and al fresco shower platform. I loved it.

Blackwell's approach is to give each Island Outpost property distinct characteristics in harmony with their settings. By all indications, he uses the same philosophy in his string of "outposts" that he employed in starting Island Records in 1959 -- nurturing and facilitating, bringing out the best in what's there, rather than imposing a formula from the outside. "Good hotels are places where you dream of staying," he has said. "Great hotels are places where you'd want to live." Many of Blackwell's outposts began as places where he has lived.

It's easy to see why Fleming wanted to live in Goldeneye, whose comforts have improved vastly since visitor Noel Coward called it "Golden Eye, Ears, Nose and Throat." The house above the sea is still open from waist to ceiling. Heavy jalousies can be drawn for privacy or against the rain. The giant four-poster bed is veiled in mosquito netting.

Full disclosure: The Jamaica Tourist Board sponsored my trip to the island and arranged my visit to Goldeneye. Peak season rates for the Fleming House are $3,500 per night, double occupancy. Four other villas on the 18-acre estate also reflect the naturalistic Blackwell style: One one-bedroom rents for $795 a night, one two-bedroom rents for $995, and two three-bedroom villas go for $1,195. The surcharge for extra adults is $130 per night and $100 for children from 4 to 12. Rates include all food, beverages, taxes and tips. The entire property can be booked for groups of between two to 22 people for from $6,000 to $9,500 per night, depending on the size of the party and season.

On the gazebo the first night, Blackwell dined with his cousin John Pringle, a man of enormous charm and wit, who turned Jamaica's north shore into one of the most fashionable vacation spots in 1952, when he founded the Round Hill resort with such cottage "shareholders" as Noel Coward and Oscar Hammerstein. Jack and Jackie Kennedy stayed there for seven seasons. In the 1990s, Blackwell coaxed Pringle out of retirement to revitalize the Tides Hotel in Miami Beach.

After dinner of lamb chops and grilled shrimp, I asked Blackwell what had happened to Millie Small, who sang the infectious 1964 smash single "My Boy Lollipop." He said she was fine and living in London.

Blackwell said that in the 1950s he would travel from Jamaica to New York City, buy the latest records for about 43 cents, scratch the credits off the label, and sell them for about 50 pounds sterling to owners of sound systems in Kingston. (In those days, the "battle of the bands" was no joke. Operators of rival sound systems would try to blast each other out of Kingston neighborhoods, and things sometimes got nasty.)

In 1964 Small, born in Clarendon, Jamaica, went to London, where Blackwell had set up Island Records, then still a small company targeted at his fellow expatriate Jamaicans. Blackwell enlisted the aid of master guitarist and arranger Ernest Ranglin to help Small cover Barbie Gaye's 1957 rhythm and blues version of "My Boy Lollipop." It was an international hit, but who owned the copyright? A portion of the royalties was set aside for the unknown composer.

A gangster got wind of this and tracked down the copyright owner, who had won the rights to the song in a poker game. The gangster quickly bought the copyright for $100. The composer got nothing.

The following evening Richardson and I met Blackwell and Pringle at Firefly, Noel Coward's retreat 1,100 feet above the sea, a lookout spot for pirates who sailed the Spanish Main. Coward, too, bought the property from Blanche Blackwell. It now belongs to the Jamaican government and leased to Chris Blackwell, who has restored and refurbished it.

The view over Port Maria Bay and Cabaritta Island is breathtaking. And yes, legions of fireflies emerged in the twilight.

With Blackwell and Pringle were Perry Henzell -- director of Blackwell's first film project, the 1972 cult hit "The Harder They Come" -- and his wife, Sally, a theatrical designer. Sally Henzell created the 15 cottages that comprise Jakes, a "funky" Island Outpost resort in Treasure Beach, a secluded fishing village on Jamaica's undeveloped south coast. Jakes is run by the couple's son Jason Henzell.

Pringle had us in stitches with Noel Coward anecdotes as we had tea and cookies in the evening breeze.

Blackwell's personification of free spirit was captured by U2 lead singer Bono when he inducted the producer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March, 2001. In the early 1980s, Blackwell had signed the young Irish band, which had been rejected by every major label in Britain. In typical Island fashion, they were given time and space to grow. By the release of their breakout album, "The Joshua Tree," in 1987 they were widely regarded as one of the world's best rock bands.

According to Hotels magazine, Bono called Blackwell "a magician." The singer explained that Polygram, the conglomerate that bought out Island for $300 million in 1989, was itself swallowed again and again in a series of mergers and acquisitions involving such companies as Vivendi, Seagram and Universal. (Blackwell continued to run the label until 1997.)

"Imagine when they open the box labeled 'Island Records' and realize they don't own Chris Blackwell," Bono said. "That's magic."

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