Hunting for a literary hideaway in north Jamaica
Jamaica, West Indies
It may seem an unlikely literary landscape, but a colorful stretch of Jamaica's north coast near Ocho Rios was for 25 years the winter hideaway of Ian Fleming, Noel Coward, and any number of their artistic cronies.
Messrs. Fleming and Coward are gone now, but the enchanting houses where they lived, entertained, and worked still stand by the sea, echoing with memories. One day recently I went hunting for these writerly haunts - neither of them much publicized on the island - on an afternoon drive between Ocho Rios and Port Antonio, one of the most appealing and riveting segments of road in the West Indies.
Long before he created his masterspy James Bond, Fleming came to Jamaica, in 1948, and moved into the house he called Goldeneye. All I knew was that the house was in or near Oracabessa, 20 miles west of Ocho Rios, so when I arrived in the little port I made straight for the public library. Obeying a sign, ''Quiet Please,'' I got directions of sorts from two women behind the desk who told me to ask further at an Esso station up the road. This I did, and soon I was passing through blue-stone gate posts topped with carved pineapples and proceeding along a jungly path that opened onto a garden. There on a green lawn perhaps 60 feet from a cliff above the sea was a white house with bright blue trim.
I peeked into the kitchen and found a woman in a blue dress busy over a sink of dishes. Violet Cummings, Fleming's indomitable housekeeper, still looks after Goldeneye, which can be rented by tour
ists for weeks at a time. She answered a few questions, said her former employer had last visited in 1963, a year before his death, and excused herself with ''You can't interview me now - I'm busy.''
Violet Cummings appears often in the biography ''The Life of Noel Coward,'' by Cole Lesley, and it was she who helped persuade Fleming's friend Coward to build a house himself on Jamaica's north coast. The two men met on the island in 1948 shortly after Fleming moved into Goldeneye. Coward, discouraged by the reception of his new Broadway play ''Tonight at Eight-Thirty,'' came down to rent the house and unwind. At Goldeneye he began to write the second volume of his autobiography, ''Future Indefinite,'' and at night found ''the stars are enormous and very bright and infinity is going on all around and I really don't care about the notices of 'Tonight at Eight-Thirty.' ''
So taken was he with Jamaica that he built a house, Blue Harbour, on a lovely seaside spot that Violet insisted was not on landslide, as others had suggested. Blue Harbour was a hit, so much so that Coward could seldom find time for himself. Round Hill, a fashionable new resort, brought friends to Jamaica who beat a path to the Coward residence, depriving him of his morning work regimen. In time he fled up the hill to an even more enchanting place and in 1956 built a modest house, which by design was not big enough to put up guests.
He called the house Firefly and lived there serenely until his death in 1973. Today the house is open to the public and operated by the National Trust Commission. I saw no road signs but got directions near Port Maria, followed a winding, rutted path up a hillside, and suddenly found myself all but alone at a stone aerie high above the blue Caribbean.
I was conducted through the house by a young guide, Garfield Fannell, and Imogene Frazer, Noel Coward's housekeeper, who still looks after Firefly. In the den we stood before a glass table where, in 1965, the host took tea with the Queen Mother. In a combined music and sitting room, two pianos stood cheek by jowl on a pitch-pine floor, with worn albums and sheet music lying out: ''Luck Be a Lady'' from ''Guys and Dolls,'' ''Bittersweet,'' and ''The Milkman'' with Donald O'Connor and Jimmy Durante.
Up a flight of worn, red-carpeted steps we walked into a lovely, open-air room looking out on the sea. ''This is what he called the room with the view,'' said Imogene Frazer, taking a seat in the long open window. I sat in the corner and she said, ''You're in his favorite chair. He sat there to stay out of the breeze so it wouldn't blow up the pages in his book.'' Through the 20-foot-wide window I could see Port Maria, the sea, and receding folds of the Blue Mountains. Lynn Fontanne, according to the Cole Lesley biography, refused to look at the mountains ''because they reminded her of rows and rows of empty theater seats.''
Other friends who made their way to Firefly were: Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Errol Flynn, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, and Winston Churchill.
Throughout the house hang small paintings Coward did in Jamaica - woodsy winter scenes, a man on a beach, luxuriant banana leaves. We looked into the roped-off bedroom. We went downstairs and - like Coward's mad dogs and Englishmen out in the midday sun - crossed the sloping lawn past fruit and allspice trees to the burial spot. A white iron fence encloses a large stone slab inscribed only with SIR NOEL COWARD Born 16 December 1899 Died 26 March 1973.
''I kept house then just what I do now - washing, cooking, and cleaning,'' said Imogene Frazer. She remembered Noel Coward as a kind and calm man who liked simple things, such as her macaroni and cheese.
Soon I was on my way, heading east toward Port Antonio on a drive that hasn't changed much since these two English muses were about. You pass schoolchildren - boys in tan, girls in blue - out on the narrow road teasing, waving, signaling for a ride; men pushing crude wood wagons loaded with their daily cargo; displays of metal pots and kettles hung by the road, for sale. No literary landscape had ever looked like this.