The Real Life Feud That Created One of James Bond’s Most Iconic Villains
On September 17, 1964, a cinematic juggernaut exploded onto film screens: Goldfinger, the third outing by Sean Connery as suave gentleman spy James Bond. While the two previous entries in the series, 1962’s Dr. No and 1963’s From Russia With Love had been successful, Goldfinger was an entirely different beast. The first true blockbuster of the franchise, it made back its $3 million dollar budget in only two weeks and grossed $46 million – around $440 million today – over its initial theatrical run, making it the fastest-grossing picture in movie history. It also helped cement the so-called “Bond formula” and turn the franchise into the cinematic powerhouse that is still going strong today. Like most good Bond movies, one of the film’s great strengths lies with its villain, bombastic, megalomaniacal gold tycoon Auric Goldfinger, who plots to break into Fort Knox and irradiate the United States’ gold reserves. But while Goldfinger may seem like the type of larger-than-life character that could only exist in the fantastical, hyper stylized world of James Bond, he was, in fact, based on a real person. This is the strange story of how a petty feud over – of all things – architecture, led to the creation of one of spy fiction’s most iconic villains.
The 1964 film Goldfinger is based on the 1959 novel of the same name, the seventh in the James Bond series by British Author Ian Fleming. Fleming, who had served in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War, based many of the characters and scenarios in his books on his own experiences. For example, the golf game between Bond and Goldfinger early in the book was inspired by a real game Fleming played in 1957, while names of characters like the ill-fated Masterson sisters and improbably-named henchwoman Pussy Galore were drawn from people Fleming knew in the intelligence community. And so it was with the novel’s main villain, whom Fleming named after an influential but controversial Hungarian-English architect named Ernö Goldfinger.
Born in 1902 to a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest, in 1920 Goldfinger travelled to Paris to study at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. Here he mingled with a veritable who’s-who of mid-century artists and designers including Man Ray, Lee Miller, Max Ernst, and Charles-Édourad Jeanneret – better known as Le Corbusier – many of whom would go on to become leading figures in the burgeoning Modernist movement. Encompassing nearly every field of human creativity from music to literature to interior design, Modernism sought to break from the traditions of the past and create new aesthetics more in line with the scientific and industrial 20th century. In architecture, this meant stripping away unnecessary ornament and creating structures that were true to the character of the materials they were built from rather than mere recreations of past styles. The movement also incorporated a type of functionalism, in which buildings were seen as “machines for living” which could be used as instruments to shape and improve society. This thinking was greatly influenced by socialist principles, with many architects seeing modern architecture as the key to housing large numbers of people in an efficient and egalitarian manner. Indeed, it was while studying in Paris that Ernö Goldfinger first publicly declared himself a communist, a political stance he would maintain for the rest of his life and which would greatly inform his architectural philosophy, which he described in 1941 as:
“Cities can become centres of civilisation where men and women can live happy lives. The technical means exist to satisfy human needs. The will to plan must be aroused. There is no obstacle but ignorance and wickedness.”
Over the following decade Goldfinger remained in Paris where he worked as a designer of furniture and home interiors, both solo and in partnership with fellow Beaux-Arts student Andre Szivessy. In 1931, he met Ursula Blackwell, wealthy heiress to the British Crosse & Blackwell food brand fortune. The two married in 1933 and a year later produced a son, Peter. The birth of his son inspired Goldfinger to maintain a correspondence with British education experts Paul and Mary Abbatt, who throughout the 1920s carried out pioneering research on the role of toys in children’s mental and physical development. Based on the Abbatt’s findings, Goldfinger designed a series of toys specifically intended to foster learning – among the first of their kind in the world.
In 1934, with anti-semitism on the rise in Europe, the Goldfingers moved to London, becoming naturalized British citizens shortly thereafter. It was in London in the late 1930s that Ernö Goldfinger would accept his first architectural commission: a series of 3 modernist houses on Willow Road in Hampstead, one of which Goldfinger built for himself. Still an avowed communist, when the Soviet Union joined the Western Allies in 1941 Goldfinger engaged in a number of advocacy efforts in support of the regime, including a 1942 “Aid for Russia” fundraising party attended by several prominent artists.
After the war, Goldfinger continued to receive architecture commissions, most of which he executed in a controversial style which had recently become popular: brutalism. Named for the French term beton brut or “raw concrete”, brutalism was the most extreme manifestation of the modernist principles of functionalism and honesty of materials. Brutalist buildings typically feature rough-cast, unpainted concrete walls, harsh, geometric shapes and little or no ornamentation. Unsurprisingly, this movement attracted the ire of a great many more traditionally-minded architecture critics, including no less a figure than Charles, Prince of Wales, who in a speech before the Royal Institute of Architects in 1984 stated:
“You have, ladies and gentlemen, to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.”
Royal. Mic. Drop.
Unfortunately for Charles and other critics, in the post-war years brutalist architects like Goldfinger found a ready audience, as cities across Europe devastated by the conflict sought cost-effective ways to re-home millions of people. Among Goldfinger’s best-known projects are the Metro Central Heights housing complex, completed between 1959 and 1967; and the Balfron and Trellick Tower tower blocks, completed in 1967 and 1972 respectively. The latter are notable for their space-saving features such as sliding doors between rooms and a separate tower housing the heating plant, elevators, stairs, launderettes, and other service infrastructure. In keeping with his political beliefs, Goldfinger also designed the headquarters for the British Communist Party and the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker.
As you might have guessed by now, one of the many individuals who was not a fan of Goldfinger’s architecture was Ian Fleming. There are differing accounts as to how Goldfinger first appeared on Fleming’s radar. According to some sources, their feud began in 1934 with the construction of the houses on Willow Road. The project involved the demolition of Victorian-era cottages on the site, which an outraged Fleming and many fellow Londoners petitioned unsuccessfully to prevent. According to other sources, however, Fleming learned of Goldfinger through his golf partner, John Blackwell, who was a cousin of the architect by marriage and loathed the man. And there was much to dislike about Goldfinger besides his architecture: despite his noble goals regarding social housing, Goldfinger was by most accounts an arrogant, humorous man, prone to bullying those who got in his way and single-mindedly devoted to his vision of urban development to the exclusion of what ordinary people actually found appealing. But whatever the reason, Fleming found the name “Goldfinger” irresistible and in 1958 used the architect as the basis for Bond’s next foe, changing the character’s name from Ernö to Auric after the Latin word for gold. According to historian Henry Chancellor, Fleming likely also drew inspiration from American gold tycoon Charles Engelhard Jr., who, like the fictional Goldfinger, used his company, the Precious Metals Development Company, to circumvent export restrictions and sell gold in countries where its price was higher.
Upon learning of the title and villain of Fleming’s novel, the real Goldfinger became incensed and threatened to sue Fleming’s publisher, Jonathan Cape, claiming that as there were so few Goldfingers in Britain, the choice of name was obviously a personal attack. With the initial run of the novel already printed but not yet released, the publisher was understandably nervous and did some research on the architect, informing Fleming that:
“…[we] discovered quite a bit, none of it very pleasant and all of it made us unusually wary.”
But Fleming refused to be bullied, pointing out that there were, in fact, many Goldfingers listed in the phone book.
At this point, viewers familiar only with the 1964 film adaptation may be wondering what all the fuss was about, for while the fictional Goldfinger is dastardly and ruthless, as portrayed by German actor Gert Fröbe he is nonetheless depicted as cunning, wealthy, and charming. However, this version of Goldfinger is significantly watered-down; the original book version of the character is much, much worse. Essentially a collection of traits Fleming found despicable, book Goldfinger is depicted as a short, ugly, redheaded, teetotaling Jewish Marxist in league with the Soviets, with a penchant for cheating at cards and golf, a tacky sense of style, and a body Fleming describes as being like“he had been put together with bits of other people’s bodies.” And while movie Goldfinger’s obsession with gold is on full display, the book exaggerates this trait to a grotesque degree, with Goldfinger owning a gold-bound volume of erotic photographs and covering his lovers head-to-toe in gold paint before having sex with him. So you can see why the real Goldfinger might have been a little annoyed at Fleming.
The two parties remained deadlocked until Fleming, in a stroke of glorious pettiness, threatened to release the novel with an erratum slip changing all instances of the name “Goldfinger” to “Goldprick.” Unsurprisingly, the real Goldfinger backed down and the matter was finally settled when Jonathan Cape agreed to include an “all characters are fictional…” disclaimer in the book and sent the architect some complimentary copies. According to Goldfinger’s biographer, the architect believed that the novel – at the time considered little more than a pulpy potboiler – would soon be forgotten, little suspecting the global phenomenon the film adaptation would become. Indeed, for decades following the film’s release, Goldfinger and his family endured endless late-night crank calls in which pranksters would intone, in bad Sean Connery accents, “Goldfingah? Thish ish 007” or sing Shirley Bassey’s iconic theme tune.
In the end, it is difficult to say who had the last laugh – Goldfinger or Fleming. On the one hand, while the fictional Goldfinger has become one of the most iconic villains in cinema history, his real-life counterpart is all but forgotten outside the relatively narrow field of brutalist architecture. Furthermore, criticism by Fleming and others about the dreariness and oppressiveness of Goldfinger’s designs proved prophetic, as his Balfron and Trellick Tower blocks quickly succumbed to the blight of urban decay, becoming poorly-maintained hotbeds of poverty, drug abuse, vandalism, prostitution, and other social ills. And in an even greater irony, the Metro Central Heights complex, originally named Alexander Fleming House after the discoverer of Penicillin, became infamous for making its residents sick due to poor ventilation, forcing the Department of Health and Social Services to abandon the complex as its headquarters. On the other hand, however, in more recent years the architectural community has come around on Goldfinger’s work, recognizing it as significant to the history of architecture. Indeed, several of his creations, including Trellick Tower, Metro Central Heights, and the modernist Teesdale House in Surrey, now enjoy Grade II listing as protected historic buildings. It is the sort of recognition that would have made Ian Fleming livid, meaning that we can probably call this particular feud a draw.
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In adapting Fleming’s novel to the screen, screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn did far more than tone down the villain’s more unsavoury traits. Indeed, the changes the pair made are considered by many critics to have resulted in a far more cohesive and compelling story. For example, in the novel, Goldfinger plans to break into Fort Knox by blowing open the vault with a tactical nuclear weapon, then steal the gold by loading it onto trucks and carting it away. However, Maibaum and Dehn found this notion ridiculous, for given the sheer volume and weight of gold in the repository it would realistically take hundreds of trucks and nearly two weeks to cart away. Instead, the pair came up with a much more elegant plot wherein Goldfinger plans to detonate the bomb inside Fort Knox itself, irradiating the U.S. gold supply and causing the value of his own gold to increase substantially. And as a sly jab at Fleming’s original plot, the film has Bond point out to Goldfinger the impracticality of robbing Fort Knox, only for Goldfinger to turn the tables and reveal his actual plan.
Another positive change from book to film concerns the characterization of Goldfinger’s main henchwoman, Pussy Galore. In the novel, Pussy is explicitly stated to be a lesbian, and heads an all-female gang of acrobats-turned-cat burglars called the Cement Mixers. Yet despite Pussy’s stated sexuality, Bond is still able to seduce and turn her to his side through his sheer masculine charisma, with Fleming explaining that Pussy isn’t really as lesbian but simply hates men on account of being raped as a child. Yikes. But while the film makes Pussy straight – avoiding that particular minefield of misogynistic pop psychology – it is still far from perfect, for Bond’s seduction and conversion of Pussy is accomplished by, shall we say, less than consensual means. Ladies and gentlemen: the 1960s.
Finally, one of the strangest differences between the book and the film is that of Auric Goldfinger’s voice. While in the book Goldfinger is explicitly stated to be British, in the film he speaks with a thick German accent. While at first glance this is readily explained by Goldfinger being portrayed by German actor Gert Fröbe, in reality Fröbe’s command of English was shaky and he was forced to learn most of his lines phonetically. The final result was deemed unacceptable by the studio, and so all of Fröbe’s lines were dubbed over by English actor Michael Collins, who chose to closely emulate Fröbe’s original accent. This disconnect between the character’s backstory and voice results in one of the film’s strangest lines, in which CIA agent Felix Leiter informs Bond: “He’s British, but he doesn’t sound like it.”
2. The film Goldfinger is packed wall-to-wall with iconic Bond moments, from the iconic theme tune sung by Shirley Bassey to Bond girl Jill Masterson covered head-to-toe in gold paint, Goldfinger threatening to cut Bond in half with a giant laser, and henchman Oddjob dispatching enemies with the toss of his razor-brimmed bowler hat. But perhaps one of the most quintessentially James Bond moments occurs in the film’s pre-title sequence, in which Bond swims up to an unnamed central American country’s shoreline and proceeds to infiltrate and blow up a large drug operation. His mission complete, Bond proceeds to strip off his wetsuit, revealing a perfectly dry – and perfectly pressed – white tuxedo complete with a red carnation on his lapel. But while this might seem like the sort of stylized, tongue-in-cheek nonsense the James Bond series has become legendary for, incredibly this particular bit was actually inspired by a real-life secret mission from the Second World War. In 1941, Dutch Resistance fighter Peter Tazelaar was tasked with investigating methods of infiltrating secret agents into the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The mission, rather unimaginatively codenamed “Contact Holland”, called for Tazelaar to be dropped by boat off the seaside resort town of Scheveningen, infiltrate a German officers’ party at the local casino, and make contact with British Intelligence using a radio dropped to him by parachute. On November 23, Tazelaar swam ashore and stripped off his dry suit – not a wetsuit as depicted in film – to reveal a full tuxedo. He then doused himself in brandy and stumbled up to the casino, pretending to be a drunken reveller who had gone for a seaside stroll. The act was so convincing that the German guards let Tazelaar pass, and he was able to enter the casino undetected. However, the mission was a failure, for Tazelaar’s radio was damaged in the drop and sea conditions around Scheveningen proved too rough to safely extract Dutch agents by boat. Nonetheless, the improbable mission helped inspire one of the most memorable moments in the history of spy cinema, though there is no evidence Tazelaar ever wore a snorkel topped with a stuffed seagull. That’s the sort of thing only Sean Connery could make look cool.
Expand for References Wain, Natalie, He Was Immortalized as a Bond Villain by Ian Fleming, but now Architect Erno Goldfinger’s Most Revered London Tower Block Has Been Given Listed Building Status, Ideal Home, July 21, 2013, https://www.idealhome.co.uk/news/erno-goldfinger-s-metro-central-heights-given-listed-building-status-42393 Schwarcz, Joe, Did You Know: Goldfinger’s First Name was “Auric” Based on the Latin “Aurum” for Gold, McGill University, May 28, 2021, https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/history-did-you-know/did-you-know-goldfingers-first-name-was-auric-based-latin-aurum-gold Passino, Carla, A Modernist House by the Architect That Inspired James Bond’s Arch-Villain, Country Life, June 15, 2021, https://www.countrylife.co.uk/property/a-modernist-house-by-the-architect-that-inspired-james-bonds-arch-villain-228234 Duncan, Michael, Fleming vs. Goldfinger: What Really Happened When the Architect Took on the Author, Footprints of London, November 12, 2015, https://footprintsoflondon.com/live/2015/11/fleming-vs-goldfinger-what-really-happened-when-the-architect-took-on-the-author/ Ezard, John, How Goldfinger Nearly Became Goldprick, The Guardian, June 2, 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/jun/03/film.hayfestival2005 Ernö Goldfinger, GreyScape, https://www.greyscape.com/architects/ernogoldfinger/ How Ernö Goldfinger Brutalised Both East and West, Phaidon, https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/architecture/articles/2018/september/11/how-ern-goldfinger-brutalised-both-east-and-west/ Forget, Benjamin, Prince Charles, Architecture’s Royal Pain, The Washington Post, February 22, 1990, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1990/02/22/prince-charles-architectures-royal-pain/a894629c-c0a4-41d5-be83-e4da62a9f90f/
Wain, Natalie, He Was Immortalized as a Bond Villain by Ian Fleming, but now Architect Erno Goldfinger’s Most Revered London Tower Block Has Been Given Listed Building Status, Ideal Home, July 21, 2013, https://www.idealhome.co.uk/news/erno-goldfinger-s-metro-central-heights-given-listed-building-status-42393
Schwarcz, Joe, Did You Know: Goldfinger’s First Name was “Auric” Based on the Latin “Aurum” for Gold, McGill University, May 28, 2021, https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/history-did-you-know/did-you-know-goldfingers-first-name-was-auric-based-latin-aurum-gold
Passino, Carla, A Modernist House by the Architect That Inspired James Bond’s Arch-Villain, Country Life, June 15, 2021, https://www.countrylife.co.uk/property/a-modernist-house-by-the-architect-that-inspired-james-bonds-arch-villain-228234
Duncan, Michael, Fleming vs. Goldfinger: What Really Happened When the Architect Took on the Author, Footprints of London, November 12, 2015, https://footprintsoflondon.com/live/2015/11/fleming-vs-goldfinger-what-really-happened-when-the-architect-took-on-the-author/
Ezard, John, How Goldfinger Nearly Became Goldprick, The Guardian, June 2, 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/jun/03/film.hayfestival2005
Ernö Goldfinger, GreyScape, https://www.greyscape.com/architects/ernogoldfinger/
How Ernö Goldfinger Brutalised Both East and West, Phaidon, https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/architecture/articles/2018/september/11/how-ern-goldfinger-brutalised-both-east-and-west/
Forget, Benjamin, Prince Charles, Architecture’s Royal Pain, The Washington Post, February 22, 1990, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1990/02/22/prince-charles-architectures-royal-pain/a894629c-c0a4-41d5-be83-e4da62a9f90f/
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