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Ian Fleming and Goldfinger, a literary legacy

29-Mar-2010 • Literary

Ian Fleming and Goldfinger - Ben MacIntyre in The Times.

He was, of course, the gold-obsessed megalomaniac in the James Bond book of that name. He was also, unforgettably, played by Gert Fröbe in the 1964 film containing the most famous hero-villain dialogue in movie history.

“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die.”

And Ian McKellen has now brought new life to Goldfinger in a new BBC Radio 4 adaptation, playing the arch crook with silky menace and an indefinable accent. Where others have made Goldfinger into caricature, there is something chillingly believable about McKellen’s portrayal of the super-villain. Which is oddly appropriate, as Goldfinger was, in some senses, real. Ian Fleming famously based his characters on people he had met, several he had not and some he merely wanted to annoy. “Everything I write has a precedent in truth,” he said.

Bond himself was inspired by the people Fleming came to know as an officer in the Naval Intelligence Department: “He was a compound of the secret agents and commando types I met during the war.” M was modelled on Admiral Sir John Godfrey, Fleming’s brilliant but irascible boss in naval intelligence. Miss Moneypenny was based on several secretaries in the secret services.

Fleming was a magpie writer, picking up whatever caught his eye and packaging it into fiction: names, places, meals, journeys, catchphrases and, above all, people. Sometimes the individuals he turned into fiction took deep and justifiable offence. In Diamonds are Forever he named his homosexual villain “Boofy”, the nickname of a close friend and relative by marriage, Arthur “Boofy” Gore. The real Boofy was livid.

Like Bond himself, Auric Goldfinger — treasurer of Smersh, the richest man in England, expert marksman, gold-loving murderer and golf cheat — is based on at least three people, including an American minerals millionaire, a First World War German spymaster and a blameless architect who just happened to be named Goldfinger. In the novel Goldfinger, the seventh in the James Bond series and published in 1959, Fleming sketched a biographical background. Auric (the adjective for gold) Goldfinger is a 42-year-old expatriate Latvian, 5ft short, with blue eyes, red hair and a penchant for painting his women gold, so he can make love to the metal he adores. There is no doubt that Fleming borrowed the name from Ernö Goldfinger, a well-known Hungarian-born architect. Fleming’s golfing partner, John Blackwell, was related by marriage to the real Goldfinger and disliked him: he probably encouraged Fleming to appropriate the name.

A traditionalist in his tastes, Fleming may also have objected to Goldfinger’s modernist buildings, and the way that parts of Victorian London were being demolished to make way for his concrete tower blocks. Ernö Goldfinger got wind of Fleming’s insolence and obtained a proof copy of Goldfinger. The real and fictional Goldfingers were both Marxists with a taste for fast cars and there is a nasty whiff of anti-Semitism in Fleming’s portrayal of the super-rich crook. Goldfinger consulted his lawyers. Fleming threatened to change the name Goldfinger to Goldprick.

The architect, not surprisingly, relented, and a truce was settled out of court: Goldfinger accepted legal costs, six copies of the book and a pledge that the character’s first name, Auric, would be used throughout the book.

Another, recently identified, candidate as the model for Goldfinger is Gustav Steinhauer, the head of the British Section of the German admiralty’s foreign intelligence service, who spied on Britain before and during the First World War. According to the intelligence historian Andrew Cook, Steinhauer plotted to blow up gold reserves at the Bank of England — a plan that echoes Goldfinger’s dastardly plot to detonate a bomb inside Fort Knox. As a senior officer in naval intelligence, Fleming had access to the archives, and may well have adapted Steinhauer’s plot to his own fiction.

Steinhauer, the self-described “Kaiser’s Spy”, was a worthy adversary who ran a network of German agents in Britain in the run-up to war. A former commissar in the Berlin police, he trained with the Pinkerton’s detective agency in the US and spoke perfect English with an American accent. Steinhauer visited Britain just before the outbreak of the First World War, disguised as a “gentleman fisher”.

In appearance, Steinhauer was nothing like Bond’s villain, being “a handsome, soldierly fellow” in the words of one MI5 officer quoted in Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of the Security Service, Defence of the Realm. Steinhauer was unaware that his spy network had been penetrated by MI5. On the day before war was declared in 1914 some 22 German agents were rounded up, to the fury of the Kaiser who, according to Steinhauer, “raved and stormed for the better part of two hours about the incompetence of his so-called intelligence officers”.

The link to Goldfinger lies in a three-page memo contained in an unpublished memoir by an agent named Arthur Hailstone, who reported that the Germans were planning an attack on the Bank of England to create economic chaos. The threat was apparently taken seriously enough to warrant investigation by William Melville, the head of the Secret Service Bureau, the precursor of MI5. (Melville signed his letters “M”, and may have provided another inspiration for the Bond character.) He reported that such an attack was “potentially as deadly as any major defeat on the battlefield”.

In Fleming’s novel, Goldfinger plans to steal billions of dollars in gold from Fort Knox in Operation Grand Slam; in the film, however, Goldfinger aims to contaminate America’s gold reserves using a “dirty” nuclear weapon, thus vastly increasing the value of his own gold holdings.

If Ernö Goldfinger provided the name and Gustav Steinhauer inspired the plot, then the personality of Goldfinger undoubtedly owed something to Charles Engelhard Jr, an extrovert American gold and minerals tycoon and, like Goldfinger, a keen racehorse owner. Fleming had met Engelhard in 1947 and remained friends with the ebullient magnate until the end of his life. Known as the “Platinum King”, he invested heavily in South African gold, copper and coal mining ventures, ran a string of racehorses and lived in a style that even Goldfinger might have envied.

One of Engelhard’s most infamous schemes involved manufacturing art objects from precious metals to circumvent South Africa’s strict export rules, exporting them from the country and melting them down. In the novel, Goldfinger’s solid gold car is melted down into seating for an airline company, flown to India, and then melted down once more to make gold bars and sold for up to 200 per cent profit.

Where Ernö Goldfinger was embarrassed by his connection to the Bond villain, Engelhard was delighted by the notoriety and played up to the part.

He enjoyed turning up to parties clad entirely in golden yellow, and liked to pretend that the hostess on his private plane was named Pussy Galore.

Fleming was fascinated by the interplay between truth and fiction.

Yet, by harnessing reality to his novels, he very nearly came unstuck: if Ernö Goldfinger had sued then Goldfinger would have been born Goldprick, the entire James Bond phenomenon would have been stopped in its tracks and 007 might have died a premature death — just as Goldfinger expected.

Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War Two is published by Bloomsbury. Goldfinger is broadcast by Radio 4 on April 3 (2.30pm).

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