I will never forget the first time I saw David Niven on-screen. It was in his role as Sir Charles Lytton in The Pink Panther, and I would have been maybe 10 or 12 years old, during my extended period of being an incorrigible Anglophile. There was something about him – perhaps his effortless charm, that phenomenal cultured accent, and his talent for wit and flair – but I have liked him in every film of his I’ve seen since.
Recently, I’ve read both his published non-fiction books. The first, The Moon’s A Balloon, was his autobiography. The second, Bring on the Empty Horses, is a book about the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, from about 1935 to 1960. Both of these books are wonderfully written. Niven employs an informal and friendly prose style that makes his books instantly more readable, and you feel as though he is speaking to you in conversation, rather than lecturing you at a theatre. The marvellous thing is that the words are his own – he did not employ a ghostwriter, and this knowledge makes the tales so much more enjoyable for the fact that it really is Niven telling you these things, even if it has turned out many of them are often generously embellished!
The general wisdom about Niven’s writing is that he has borrowed many hilarious stories from his contemporaries, and inserted himself into them to avoid embarrassing the real subjects. In the words of Roger Moore, “A funny, funny man, Niv told great stories. However, he told them so often that he started believing them, and most were heavily embroidered.” I like to look at this as an earnest attempt to tell some excellent stories, as opposed to make himself look better than he was. There’s a story that suggests, after Niven’s death, journalists were trying to dig up dirt on him. Apparently, all came back saying no-one could find anyone who would have a bad word to say about David Niven. If this is true, and I have read much to suggest it is, Niven must have been a fairly decent sort – not perfect, but decent.
Both books are laced with amusing imagery and wit. In Bring on the Empty Horses, Niven discusses actress Alice Terry, “a blithe and free spirit whose weakness was eating cream cakes.” When confronted about this by her studio bosses, she replied, “All right, I shall make a million dollars as fast as I can, then I’ll retire and eat cream cakes.” He also refers to the martini-induced rivalry between brothers Myron and David Selznick, the former a famous agent and latter responsible for the production of Gone With The Wind, as well as a great many other cinema classics. According to Niven, after a few drinks and a short argument they would often exchange fisticuffs, and “The crash of falling Selznicks was frequently heard around midnight in Hollywood high society.” Add to this the story of Cary Grant’s health food period, where many of Grant’s friends “suffered stoically through his days of the carrot,” and you have the basic ingredients for a veritable banquet of laughs.
One thing that hangs over so many of the anecdotes Niven shares is his ability to cause huge emotional impact with only a couple of sentences. One minute, you’ll be reading about Clark Gable and how happy he was with his life during his last marriage – and by the bottom of the page, you’re practically crying whilst reading about Gable’s impending death – “laughing happily, he used the doctor’s stethoscope to hear the heartbeat of the little boy he longed for so much but would never see.”
There is much of this sort of stomach-churning sadness throughout Niven’s writing. Over the years following his death in 1983, one thing that did come out was that the man suffered so much dreadful unhappiness during his life. Always the consummate professional, he alludes to his crushing depression after the tragic and untimely death of his first wife, but even his pain is discussed with stoic self-deprecation. According to all sources, Niven was one who would always try to entertain and bring happiness, and it seems he would rarely burden others with his own personal problems. I doubt very much that a person who had not experienced some form of personal pain and tragedy would be able to make so much impact using so few words. Many people have suggested, and it has been confirmed by his son, that Niven had a particularly depressing home life during his second marriage, and was, by all accounts but his own, burdened with a demanding and selfish wife, Hjordis. However he really felt about her, he is never anything short of flattering and gracious in his writing, which is a credit to him.
It’s this talent for changing tones that makes Niven’s books so much more than a collection of Hollywood anecdotes. You feel as though he genuinely cared for all those who feature in his books – he even comes to the defence of the notoriously unpleasant Errol Flynn, and writes a glowing reference for media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. On the few occasions he does go into the negative, you can’t help but think, “If David Niven couldn’t find anything nice to say about this individual, they must have been bad.” By and large, however, it’s almost impossible to remember the unpleasant things written elsewhere about the stars of Niven’s books – he finds good in everybody. The little personal details also remind us that even movie stars are people, and whilst they might be well paid, they still have problems.
However much truth or fiction is included in Niven’s books, they are first and foremost incredibly enjoyable reads. Both were international bestsellers, and it’s not hard to understand why. Everyone wants a little piece of Hollywood, and at the end of the day, most people prefer nice over nasty. We hear so much unpleasantness about Hollywood that it’s nice to read about the fun that also happens there. I don’t doubt that I’ll revisit the Tales of Niven many times in the future, and I recommend you give them a look too.