It is 1964 and displayed across the cover of Life magazine, as well as countless other places, is the lithe, prone body of a woman made of gold. At least it seemed as if she was made of gold, but it was really actress Shirley Eaton covered in gold paint, representing her character Jill Masterson from the James Bond movie Goldfinger. Adding punch to the story was the urban legend that Shirley Eaton died during the filming due to asphyxiation from her golden treatment.
The Gold Paint Death Urban Legend
In 1964 Sean Connery was still James Bond, and Bond Girls were gaining steam as a meme of their own. In the film Goldfinger the villain creatively kills a traitorous secretary, Jill Masterson, by painting her entire body in gold paint (hair and all.) How did this result in her death? Bond explains, pointing out that the body breathes through the skin, and covering all of the skin will choke off the oxygen the body needs, resulting in death by suffocation. Movie goers were willing to swallow this line in a typical “suspension of disbelief” moment so that they could enjoy the movie (and the golden lady), but some forgot to start disbelieving again after they left the theatre, and so the stories began to spread of the clever gimmick used by the Goldfinger villain.
Today this may sound pretty ludicrous, but there was some belief at the time that the body’s skin did, in fact, aid in absorbing oxygen, and thus the skin “breathed”. The fact of the matter is it matters not how much of the skin is blocked by paint or anything else…as long as a person can take in oxygen through the mouth or nose, he or she will not suffocate. In 1964 it might be understood how some people could believe that it was possible to die in this manner, but what is surprising is how persistent the urban legend became that the actress in question actually died during filming- especially considering she went on to play roles on TV for some time before retiring.
In some versions of the story it wasn’t Shirley Eaton who died, but a body double, and that the body seen dipped in gold paint lying on James Bond’s bed in the movie was in reality the body double, already dead.
While there could be some ill effects from being covered in paint, such as toxic reactions or a person overheating from the inability to perspire- either of which could, eventually, result in death, the fact of the matter is Shirley Eaton was the one covered in paint, and she come out the other side with no ill effects whatsoever.
The key to making the “death by paint” theory easier to swallow is the added detail about painted exotic dancers given in the movie. In order for these women to cover up in paint and survive the dangers of asphyxiation, a patch of skin on the small of the back is left unpainted, allowing the skin to “breathe.” The producers of the movie were so cautious, partially believing their own hype that death could result by skin-asphyxiation, that they left a six inch patch of Eaton’s stomach unpainted…just to be on the safe side.