Fleming vs. Goldfinger; what really happened when the architect took on the author
With Spectre, the latest Bond adventure hitting our screens recently, Michael Duncan explores the story that links one of Fleming’s most famous villains with a couple of famous London Tower blocks and an architecturally-significant Hampstead terrace.
Like most great writers, Ian Fleming took inspiration for his fictional characters from real life.
He came upon the name James Bond from reading a book on ornithology by a man of that name. While he never actually met the bird-watcher, he thought the monosyllabic name relayed a strength and directness that was ideal for the type of spy he wanted to portray.
As far as I know, the twitcher version of James Bond never took umbrage at being turned into a fearless, alcoholic, womanising, psychopathic fictional character (what reasonable man would?).
But the same cannot be said for the inspiration behind the name of perhaps Fleming’s most famous villain, Goldfinger.
Erno Goldfinger was the renowned 1930’s modernist architect who designed (among others) the Brutalist Trellick and Balfron Towers (respectively North Kensington and Poplar) and 2 Willow Road in Hampstead.
It’s commonly accepted that Fleming got the idea for the name Goldfinger when he first heard it mentioned whilst chatting over a round of golf with John Blackwell, a cousin of Erno Goldfinger’s wife, Ursula.
The exceptionally tall Erno Goldfinger was by all accounts a humourless man. A Marxist, born into a Jewish family in Hungary who took British nationality.
The fictional villain, Auric Goldfinger was a short, Jewish Soviet agent. He was also a foreigner who became a naturalised Brit and, like his architect namesake, lacked people skills.
According to The Man with the Golden Typewriter, a compilation of Ian Fleming’s letters that has just been published, Erno let it be known that he thought his name was being brought into disrepute by being chosen as that of a Bond arch-villain.
Whilst the exact nature of any demands he might have made are unknown, given there were few (if any) other Goldfingers in Britain at the time and fearing a delay in the publication of Goldfinger and a loss of earnings, the publishers of the Bond books certainly thought that it worthwhile coming to some sort of arrangement with the architect.
The publisher had carried out some research into Erno and said they “discovered quite a bit, none of it very pleasant and all of it made us unusually wary”. But Fleming himself was not to be bullied.
In a letter from Jamaica, Fleming told his publisher not to “stand for any nonsense from the Golden-Finger” as there were many others of the Goldfinger name in US and German telephone directories. In the same letter he suggests inserting an erratum slip to change the name throughout to Goldprick.
As we now know, despite being perhaps the greatest lost Shirley Bassey hit, Goldprick didn’t make publication and was confined to an angry letter exchange.
And Erno Goldfinger, despite his reputation for being difficult and for having huge rages, was placated relatively easily by the addition of an “all characters are fictional…” disclaimer in early editions and being sent a few complimentary copies of the book.
Some looking to sprinkle a little more mischief into the story have written that Fleming, a sometime Hampstead resident, took issue with Erno Goldfinger because of his supposed disapproval of the unashamedly modernist house he built at Willow Road in the leafy borough.
Whilst good scandal-mongering copy, an unfortunate truth for those who would seek to peddle it is that there seems to be no evidence of this (nor indeed that Fleming had a any strong views either way on modernist architecture).
Fleming would, however, have certainly have disliked Erno Goldfinger’s politics and given the characters of both men it is difficult to imagine them getting on.
But perhaps the real truth is, like his choice of “James Bond”, he thought the name “Goldfinger” was just too good not to make into a character.
Check Michael Duncan’s schedule to see when he is next running his James Bond and the Spies of Mayfair walk, you can watch Michael talking about Ian Fleming as a brief sampler of the walk on our YouTube page.
(This article draws, among other things, from a document prepared by Anne Lloyd Thomas for National Trust Volunteers at Erno Goldfinger’s Home at 2 Willow Road, Hampstead and on “The Man with the Golden Typewriter” by Fergus Fleming)