James Bond rose slowly to his feet, rubbing the back of his neck that still hurt like the blazes. The bottle of Dom Perignon lay on the floor, and the refrigerator was still open – had been open for hours, evidently. Someone had come up behind him in what he had thought was the safety of his hotel room and delivered a knockout blow to the back of his head as he was getting the champagne from the hotel refrigerator. He mentally berated himself for letting his guard so completely down, but he was evidently alive and whole. But what about the girl he was with — Jill Masterson? Was she all right? Or had she been in on it?
He rounded the corner and was shocked by what he saw. Jill lay in the bed, completely naked still, but apparently not breathing. She was covered from head to toe in gold. Who had done this? How had they done this?
He rushed over to examine her, looking for any signs of life. But there was no pulse, no movement, no response. The paint had been applied everywhere to her body, even her deep and secret parts, but there was none on the bedclothes. How could they have managed to do that?
There was only one possibility, of course. Jill had betrayed her master, Auric Goldfinger, a ruthless man, as he knew, and one with a fetishistic attachment to gold. This death was his deadly calling card, and a warning. Goldfinger did not know who Bond represented, but the message was clear. Jill Masterson was just the pawn caught up in it.
That’s the way the scene plays out on-screen in the 1964 film Goldfinger. Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn adapted the script from Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel of the same name. Most critics agree that they materially improved on the book, removing inconsistencies and creating stronger motivations for the characters. No longer was Goldfinger a corrupt paymaster for the Russian spy agency, he was now a lone megalomaniac. With this film the series divorced itself from the strictly Cold War antagonists and introduced the Independent Villain in the movies (although Fleming had introduced the independent neoFascist Hugo Drax in the novel Moonraker in 1955 and the organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in Thunderball in 1961). One culturally significant change was the depiction of Jill Masterson’s death. She dies in just the same way in the novel, but it appears “off-screen”, and away from Bond, under circumstances where there was no need to mysteriously douse her with gold without leaving a trace.
But for the movie, the image of the Golden Girl became the defining icon. It appeared on the movie posters, it appeared in the trailers and advertising, in released stills and on the cover of the tie-in version of the novel (The pre-movie Signet paperback edition had a picture of the Golden Girl on it, but it wasn’t as striking or as large).
In a superb publicity move, they managed to get an image of the Golden Girl on the cover of the November 6, 1964 issue of Life Magazine (Volume 57, #19) (This was after the London premiere, but over a month before the US release on December 21).
The Golden Girl in the film and on the cover of Life was actress Shirley Eaton, but Margaret Nolan appeared as the Golden Girl in posters and advertising. Nolan also appeared, painted in gold, under the opening credits for the film, with scenes from it (and some from From Russia with Love) projected onto her, Robert Brownjohn was responsible for the title sequence1
Ultimately, of course, it didn’t really matter how Oddjob, Auric Goldfinger’s hatchet man, managed to subdue and gild Ms. Masterson – the image was the important thing. If Oddjob had simply shot or strangled Masterson, it wouldn’t have had the same visual impact.
What bothered a lot of people – and me – was how it was that she died. “Skin suffocation,” Bond explains to his boss M later “It happens sometimes to cabaret dancers. They normally leave a patch of skin bare at the base of the spine.”
What?? “Skin suffocation?” What pseudoscience was this? Do we suffocate when we go underwater? Do we begin to have problems in a bath (or a mud bath, as in both the film and novel Diamonds are Forever)?
Maibaum and Dehn didn’t invent this detail – it comes straight from Fleming’s novel. Bond learns of it from Jill’s sister Tilly:
She whispered, almost to herself, “He killed my sister. You knew her – Jill Masterson.”
Bond said fiercely, “What happened?”
“He has a woman once a month. Jill told me this when she first took the job. He hypnotizes them. Then he – he paints them gold.”
“I don’t know. Jill told me he’s mad about gold. I suppose he sort of thinks he’s – that he’s sort of possessing gold. You know – marrying it. He gets some Korean servant to paint them. The man has to leave the backbone unpainted. Jill couldn’t explain that. I found out it’s so they wouldn’t die. If their bodies were completely covered with gold paint, the pores of the skin wouldn’t be able to breathe. Then they’d die.”
A bit further on, Tilly explains:
“…When I got back to England I went to Train, the skin specialist. He told me this business about the pores of the skin. It happened to some cabaret girl who had to pose as a silver statue. He showed me details of the case and the autopsy. Then I knew what happened to Jill. Goldfinger had had her painted all over. He had murdered her. It must have been out of revenge for – for going with you.”
I note that the novel doesn’t use the term “skin suffocation”, although the film does, as does everyone commenting on it. And they do comment on it. You find it many places on the internet, including Snopes and the Smithsonian website. All, of course, state that it’s rubbish – you can’t die of “skin suffocation”. As the Smithsonian site observes, though2:
The filmmakers, however, believed author Ian Fleming’s death-by-gold scenario was a genuine risk and took precautions. A physician was present during filming, and afterward the makeup was removed as quickly as possible. “It took an hour, with a lot of help and scrubbing from the makeup artist and wardrobe mistress,” Eaton told us recently by e-mail.
The idea was examined twice on the Discovery Channel series Mythbusters, once in the third pilot (aired March 7, 2003) and once in the 14th episode of the first series, “Myths Revisited” aired on June 8 2004. They carefully monitored the vital statistics of both main hosts (one on each show) before and after being coated with metal flakes mixed into liquid latex. In one case there was an increase in blood pressure and some flu-like symptoms, but not in the other case. And, of course, neither host became seriously affected, or died. The myth was declared “busted”.
That they used metal flakes in latex has always bothered me, because they generally took great pains to duplicate the situations that they were trying to verify or “bust”, and whatever Shirley Eaton and Margaret Nolan were covered in (I haven’t found any exact reference on this point), it wasn’t metal mixed into liquid latex, which looks very different. More likely than not they were coated in metal flakes (probably brass rather than expensive gold) mixed into a standard greasepaint base. Afterwards, metal powder would be dabbed on atop the greasepaint base to make the skin appear truly metallic and shiny, without any of the grease coming between the flakes and the camera. This is the way that they created the “tin” makeup for the Tin Man in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. It was, in fact, Buddy Ebsen’s adverse reaction to this makeup (he inhaled aluminum dust that had been blown onto the surface of the makeup, and almost died) that resulted in Jack Haley replacing him in the part. So metallic makeup can be dangerous – but not through Skin Suffocation.
Fleming, according to his biographers and experts on the Bond phenomena, researched the background for his stories carefully. What he didn’t know from experience, he found out by questioning experts. So how did he get this detail so spectacularly wrong?
Fleming’s research was all done in advance. He wrote his stories during his yearly retreat to his home Goldeneye in Jamaica. Raymond Benson describes his daily routine in The James Bond Nedside Companion3 Up at 7:30, swimming and then breakfast, hen writing from ten until noon. After lunch and a siesta, another hour or so of writing. Then relaxing in the evening.
There would be no chance or opportunity for research on Jamaica, and it would have been more difficult in the pre-Internet days of the 1950s. But Fleming generally didn’t stumble in the heart of his novels. The errors came in the peripheral touches. Speaking from personal experience, it’s the little things you don’t think you have to research that throw you. Unfortunately, some of Fleming’s more outre touches fall into this category. I get the feeling that he picked them up in that casual evening conversation, or in bar gossip. Certainly they have that feel to them. So when he claims, in The Man with the Golden Gun, that male Indian elephants secrete a viscous substance behind the ears when in rut, and if this isn’t scraped away they go mad, we should be skeptical. (Indian elephants do indeed go into aggressive behavior called musth, and a thick substance called Temporin does run down from their temporal glands, but it is not inevitably linked to rut, the relationship of the temporin to the behavior is not clear, and it does not need to be scraped away to alleviate musth.) Or when he writes that Sumo wrestlers massage their testicles back into the body cavity to prevent injury (in You Only Live Twice), you should know that this practice isn’t attested to in Japanese sources. These throwaway factoids aren’t essential to the plot – they just give it color. Fleming got the facts wrong, but it’s not even clear if he knew or cared, or would care if he knew.
“Fleming is so convincing in his descriptions that the reader rarely questions the factual accuracy of the detail.,” writes Benson4, “ Only those with fanatical expertise have raised objections over some of the more blatant errors Fleming made. … Fleming’s prose is rich and colorful, painting distinct and believable images. It’s not important, really, whether the facts are right. The details are there merely to heighten the realism of the action.”
So we shouldn’t be surprised about Fleming getting the facts wrong about “skin suffocation”. If he knew about the error, he likely didn’t care. He created a memorable image in the reader’s mind, and one that exploded across the pop culture world five years later.
But where did this notion come from? People have been covering themselves in greasepaint of various kinds for centuries, and must surely have done it head-to-toe. In particular, we know that some of them did, indeed, cover themselves in gold. It was reportedly a practice for actors in medieval mystery plays portraying God to cover at least their faces and hands with finely ground gold. (It was probably too expensive to cover more, so no risk of skin suffocation even if Fleming had gotten it right)
It was also reported that when he first assumed the throne, the ruler of the Muisca people in present-day Colombia was ritually coated in gold dust. As a result, he was called El Dorado or El Rey Dorado. The story was first reported in 1638 by Juan Rodriguez Freyle. It was also reported by Juan de Castellanos, although his report was not printed until 1850. Whether the accounts are accurate or not, they inspired extravagant legends and hunts for gold in places far away from Colombia, and the legend was well enough known to make it into much popular culture. But El Dorado was not supposed to have died as a result of his gilding.
So where did Fleming pick up his notion of Skin Suffocation? A search through Google N-gram viewer fails to turn up anything pre-Goldfinger. But I was surprised to discover exactly the same scenario spelled out in the Val Lewton film Bedlam (1946).
Lewton was known for his producing several low-budget, surprisingly subtle horror films for RKO studios in the 1940s. Bedlam was actually inspired by the Wlliam Hogarth series of engravings and paintings known as The Rake’s Progress, in particular the last one, wherein the titular Rake is shown reaping the reward for his dissipative and amoral behavior, gone insane in St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital among the other lunatics.
(Lewton had, the previous year, based his film Isle of the Dead on a couple of paintings of that name).In the film, however, it’s not the descent of a Rake into madness that we see, but the machinations of the evil Master Sims, director of the Asylum. He’s wonderfully played by Boris Karloff, and he arranges for the heroine (who opposes his regime) to be forcibly committed to his care. Before he does that, however, his callous nature is revealed in a scene at a garden party, where he has one of his inmates (played by Glenn Vernon) recite a poem while dressed as Eros, and he is coated with gold.
The unfortunate inmate, who has done his job in memorizing and reciting his poem, starts to become uncomfortable and finally collapses.
Others rush to his aid, but Sims remains aloof and indifferent, even making jokes at his expense. It is reported that he is dead – killed by Skin Suffocation”. Sims is still unmoved, and continues to joke. The death of an inmate means nothing to him.
Certainly this was not derived from the work of Hogarth, and no other story is implied as inspiration for the script. This was the work of Lewton and Mark Robson. They must be taken as the source. Exactly what inspired them we do not know, although I suspect that the symbolism of dying from gold must have appealed to Lewton.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this is where Fleming got the idea for the Golden Girl, whether he saw the film himself or had it described to him. It’s the only other place where I’ve found a scenario even vaguely resembling the one in Goldfinger. And the description that Tilly Masterson gives of someone forced to pose as a silver statue resembles the situation here too closely.
Interestingly, Vernon reported that it took three hours to cover him in gold (the effect is much more difficult to appreciate – the film is black and white, and Vernon is not as naked as Shirley Eaton was). In 1993 he told film historian Gregory William Mank that “I almost died”, claiming that the gold makeup covered his pores and caused him to weaken on set.5
Was he really in danger? Was it really due to Skin Suffocation? Or was it overheating as Jamie Hyneman experienced on Mythbusters (but Adam Savage did not). Or was it the power of suggestion? As far as I know, Vernon’s story wasn’t told before 1993, but he would surely have known about Goldfinger.
Added March 11 2017:
I’ve just finished the Fleming biography The Fantastic 007 Man (1967)by “Richard Gant”, who seems to have either known Fleming or else interviewed people close to him. On pages 138-139 of the Lancer edition is a quote from Fleming about the genesis of this image:
There was a case on the continent of a showgirl who allowed herself to be painted all over in gold and died because her pores had been stopped up. I remembered this from the far-off pre-war days, and that started the train of thought.
This follows what he had written in the book, but it’s still too close to the events in Bedlam for me to dismiss that as an influence. I haven’t yet found anything about the unfortunate pre-war dancer (and stopping up your pores shouldn’t kill you), but I’ll keep looking.
Most sources tell you that “Richard Gant” is a pseudonym for Brian Freemantle, a writer of thrillers, who went on to write a biography of Sean Connery (Sean Connery: The Gilt-Edged Bond) under the same pseudonym.
But the author of this website say that he contacted Freemantle through his literary agent, and learned that the real author was a different thriller writer, Leslie Thomas. They shared the same literary agent, so when the opportunity to write the Connery bio came up, and Thomas was too busy, he recommended Freemantle, who used the same pseudonym.
It’s as complex as a spy novel.
- February 2014 http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/gold-blooded-murder-180949433/
- Raymond Benson The James Bond Bedside Companion (Dodd, Mead, and Company 1984, revised and updated 1988)
- Benson, The James Bond Bedside Companion, second edition, pp. 85-6
- Gregory William Mank, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration MacFarland and Co. 2009 pp. 521-522. Online at https://books.google.com/books?id=hNtqmyR-MNMC&pg=PA521&lpg=PA521&dq=Val+Lewton+Bedlam+Glen+Vernon&source=bl&ots=3-cBOCqZoZ&sig=tNk3hf-OXJ1CILh3x1oa1QCTYvo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi-4IrmrqzJAhVJdT4KHZ2BDokQ6AEIRTAH#v=onepage&q=Val%20Lewton%20Bedlam%20Glen%20Vernon&f=false