Thursday, October 22, 2009

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

It began on a golf course.

In the 1950s, Ian Fleming’s regular golfing partner was a businessman called John Blackwell. One day, at the St George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, Blackwell mentioned that his cousin’s husband was the architect Ernö Goldfinger. Fleming liked the name ‘Goldfinger’ and thought he might be able to use it: he was always on the look-out for new or unusual names, and had given several of his previous characters the names of real people (and in fact in the final text of Goldfinger he used John Blackwell’s name for a minor character, a ‘pleasant-spoken Import and Export merchant’).

Ernö Goldfinger was one of post-war Britain’s most prominent architects and designers. Prominent, and notorious. A Jewish-Hungarian émigré, he was one of the leaders of the so-called ‘Brutalist’[1] movement. Brutalism was essentially a love affair with unadorned cast concrete, and in Goldfinger’s case led to buildings such as the Daily Worker headquarters at Farringdon Rd (a building run by the British Communist party), and the severely sculptural residential high-rises of Balfron Tower and Trellick Tower in London. He was a highly flamboyant character with a love of fast cars, cigars and young women, and was thought by some to be rather a bully: there were stories that he was given to frog-marching uncooperative clients out of his offices. Such character traits, one might have thought, would have made him a hero in the eyes of the creator of James Bond. Instead he ended up as a villain.

The plot of Goldfinger is as follows: Auric (rather than Ernö) Goldfinger is a Russian agent working for the underground organization SMERSH. His mission is to capture the West’s gold stocks by robbing Fort Knox and exporting one billion dollars’ worth of bullion to the Soviet Union, so precipitating an economic crisis. His villainy does not end there: he loves gold to the point of insanity, prefers his women to be decorated all over in gold paint before he has sex with them, and at one point executes an unfaithful secretary by leaving her to languish in this paint until her blocked pores cause her to suffocate (actually an impossible method of execution, though the victim might eventually die of heatstroke). At one point there is a golf match between Bond and Auric Goldfinger (who cheats, being foreign), perhaps as a nod to the original moment of titular inspiration on the golf course. Goldfinger is a typical James Bond romp, full of sexually voracious females with silly names, joke thermonuclear warheads, flash gadgets and casual racism. Auric Goldfinger is assumed to be Jewish and is introduced as follows: ‘You won’t believe it, but he’s a Britisher. Domiciled in Nassau. You’d think he’d be a Jew from the name, but he doesn’t look it.’ So even if Goldfinger is not actually fingered as Jewish he is tainted by association.

Some time before publication the real Goldfinger got wind of the book’s impending appearance and asked his solicitors to contact Jonathan Cape, Fleming’s publisher, for an explanation. Jonathan Cape sent a pre-publication copy of the novel to Goldfinger so that he could check it for libel. Libel was not difficult to spot. Both the real and the fictional Goldfinger exhibited Communistic tendencies (Ernö was a lifelong Marxist and had designed the Daily Worker building); in both cases there was the Jewish connection; a third similarity was a love of fast cars. Driving while a Jewish Communist was not, of course, a crime, or libellous in itself, but the fact that the fictional Goldfinger was also a murdering traitorous pervert was enough to give Ernö a good case for a libel suit if he so chose. He decided to sue.

Jonathan Cape behaved as sensible publishers do. They soothed the architect and suggested a number of concessions. They would not go as far as removing Goldfinger’s name from the jacket, but they would make sure that whenever it was mentioned in the text of the book it would be in the full form ‘Auric Goldfinger’, thus detaching the villain from his nominal model. There would also be the standard disclaimer at the front of the book: ‘The characters in this book are all fictional and no reference is intended to any person, alive or dead.’ Ernö would be sent six copies of the novel with the author’s compliments, and the publishers would pay all costs of the legal action incurred so far. Rather generously, Ernö agreed, and took no further action.

Fleming, however, was not pleased. It was a clash of two egos of rather similar size and shape. Fleming (also a womanizer, fast-car lover, occasional bully[2], etc.) considered getting his revenge by renaming the villain ‘Goldprick’ and inserting a slip into all the books explaining why this had had to be done: eventually he cooled off and the book went to press with the provisos Goldfinger’s solicitors had stipulated.

Fleming might have taken comfort from the fact that the huge success of the book and later the 1964 film produced some minor inconveniences for Ernö in later years. As Nigel Warburton reports in his biography of Goldfinger, the architect was often called late at night by people singing the song from the film (‘Gold... FINGer...’) or impersonating Sean Connery. Finally he began to enjoy his alter ego’s notoriety. He never had to repeat his name at parties. And in his office he kept prominently displayed one of his free first-edition copies of the novel.

Oddly enough Ernö Goldfinger inspired another literary creation. This time the book concerned did not bear his name but drew inspiration from his career. It was JG Ballard’s High Rise of 1975, which was almost certainly instigated by the furore associated with Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, a building completed a couple of years earlier. Trellick Tower was the most notorious of Britain’s high-rise residential blocks, and was given the tabloid nickname ‘The Tower of Terror’. The particular scale of Trellick Tower – the tallest of the Goldfinger buildings at thirty-one storeys – made it a symbolic scapegoat for all the perceived disadvantages of high-rise living: anonymity, lack of surveillance, multiple escape routes for criminals. In Ballard’s High Rise a tower block erected with the Le Corbusian ideals of a ‘machine made for living’ descends into anarchy as the inhabitants first retreat from one another, and then, as social conditions worsen, emerge with rudimentary weapons to shed one another’s blood. The high-rise dwelling becomes, as Ballard put it, ‘an environment built not for man, but for man’s absence’. As far as the real Trellick Tower was concerned, most of its problems with crime and drug-dealing had cleared up by the late 1980s, and by the turn of the century flats in the Tower were among the most sought-after in London: two-bedroom flats there now sell for £422,000 (2009 prices), and it is now a Grade II star listed building, which means it can never be demolished. It is certainly the best-known Brutalist high-rise in Britain, and among the most famous in Europe. High Rise, then, like many of Ballard’s other apocalypses (The Drowned World, The Burning World) seem, with the advantage of hindsight, more valuable as expressions of Ballard’s literary psychology than as social commentary or ‘prophecy’ in any conventional sense.

But the fact that Ballard attached himself to Ernö Goldfinger was a strange coincidence. What was it about this man? Goldfinger tended to accrue, as if by magnetism, a completely undeserved reputation for villainy.

[1] Goldfinger always denied that he had anything to do with the ‘Brutalist’ movement, which is not in itself surprising: the label was originally pejorative.
[2] Fleming’s wife Ann once wrote to him: ‘It's very lonely not to be beaten and shouted at every five minutes.’

Fleming, Ian: Goldfinger (Jonathan Cape, 1959)
Warburton, Nigel: Ernö Goldfinger, The Life of an Architect (Routledge, 2004)
Gasiorek, Andrzej: J.G. Ballard‎ (2005)

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