Bright Lights Film Journal

David Niven: “P. G. Wodehouse with Tears”

“What you got was what you saw, a man with a soldier’s training speaking ever so nicely and trying not to stretch himself beyond his abilities as an actor.” ~ David Niven

Back in the Jurassic, pre-PC days when I was incarcerated there, we had a running joke at my British boarding school that started off something like “There was an Englishman, a Scotsman, an Irishman, and a Welshman . . .” and went on from there to convey those ethnic types in what would now be hopelessly crude caricature. (The general drift was that the Englishman was uptight but unflappable, the Scot parsimonious, the Irishman bibulous, and the Welshman randy, devious, and just a touch long-winded.) As I say, pretty low stuff by today’s more ideologically pristine standards. The reason I mention it here is that all four national stereotypes came together in the shape of James David Graham Niven. Born 100 years ago, Niven was always a bit more than the clipped, pencil-mustached public image. The debonair actor who wrote Hollywood’s funniest gossip was also an intermittent depressive who once tried to kill himself; never knew for sure who his real father was; married one woman who died in a freak accident and a second one who was badly hurt in a shotgun incident (and who taunted him with a parade of booze-fuelled extramarital affairs); and years later wrote two hugely entertaining bestselling memoirs in which, it now transpires, he cheerfully peddled incidents from a first-person perspective that actually happened to other people. Even Niven’s start in life was shrouded in fiction. After maintaining for years that he was born in 1909 in the Scottish highlands, he later confessed that this was “tosh,” and that he came into the world on March 1, 1910 in the slightly less romantic setting of a lying-in hospital in London’s then unfashionable North End; it was the first of a lifetime characterized by elegant reinventions.

We know that Niven’s mother, Henriette Degacher, of Franco-Welsh stock, was married to one William Niven, a Scot who was killed fighting the Turks in the First World War when David was only five. Years later Niven would remark to a Hollywood columnist, “My mother wasn’t completely unhappy when my so-called old man died.” His biological father, he believed, was Henriette’s long-time lover Thomas Platt, an Anglo-Irish diplomat and Tory politician. “After my father was killed, she had rather a merry crowd of young men about her, and Uncle Tommy was foremost among them. He got knighted and he hyphenated his last two names, so he became Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt. But we called him Uncle Tommy. He’d been hanging around mother for many years.” In May 1917, two years after her husband was killed, Henriette married Uncle Tommy in St Margaret’s church adjacent to London’s Westminster Abbey. For 7-year-old David, “it rankled that he never publicly acknowledged that I was his son. I could never call him father — he was always my stepfather — and I always called him Uncle Tommy. It was a farce.” Somewhere in the above arrangements would seem to be the ingredients for a lifetime devoted to play-acting. Niven further recalled that his mother once informed him, “I wish you’d never been born” and that “You’re the only mistake Tommy and I ever made.”

So far, so dysfunctional. But things, already pretty dark for the boy David, promptly turned black once his mother and Uncle Tommy sent him away to a boarding school on England’s south coast. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” recalled Niven, who spoke of being whipped with wet towels by the older boys and hung out of a window by his heels by a schoolmaster. After a year of this regime he moved to a second, even less enlightened place of learning, run by a former Naval officer who, Niven claimed, punished boys by locking them in a dark cellar full of rats. Finally, he was sent to the newly opened Stowe public (in England, meaning private) school, which he actually enjoyed. “I had been turning into an evil little bastard,” Niven allowed, “but going to Stowe turned my life around.” So did sex: during the school holidays, David, then 14, “went exploring Piccadilly Circus, where there were lots of lovely working girls” — among them Nessie, a “17-year-old blonde with prominent hooters” who seems to have assumed the tart-mother figure crossover role for the remainder of his adolescence. “I’ve been addicted to sex ever since then,” Niven reflected when he was 61. “I hurt my back rather badly during some bedroom acrobatics around that time. My bad back sometimes returned when I was filming and I always told people I damaged it during the war. I was too embarrassed to say I hurt it having intercourse.”

After Stowe, Niven attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, and graduated in 1930 with a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the regular army. He later credited Sandhurst with giving him the “officer and gentleman” bearing that was his trademark. Or, as he put it, “I didn’t invent myself for the screen . . . What you got was what you saw, a man with a soldier’s training speaking ever so nicely and trying not to stretch himself beyond his abilities as an actor.” Unfortunately, his immediate military career was a case of unfulfilled potential. Placed under close arrest for insubordination, Niven convivially shared a bottle of scotch with the officer who was guarding him, and, with his connivance, walked out of the block house and eventually boarded a ship bound for New York. On arrival, he paused to resign his commission by telegram before going on to take the lease on two unsalubrious rooms in the Bowery. It was October 6, 1933, coincidentally the same week that Albert Einstein similarly, if to rather greater accolade, also landed on these shores. After fruitless careers as everything from a Bloomingdale’s floor walker to a rodeo promoter, Niven finally arrived in Hollywood in the summer of 1934, where he was famously accepted by Central Casting as “Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2008.”

As Niven acknowledged, he was not the world’s most inherently gifted or versatile actor. Of those who surfaced from the old country at around the same time, Olivier was by general consensus the more classically adept; James Mason that rare fusion of what Alexander Korda memorably called the “smooth bugger” and “leather-clad Nazi”; while no one before or since played the shy, uncertain, or ambiguous type quite like Alec Guinness would. Niven, however, was very far from being merely an English upper-class twit whose clipped diction and urbane manner concealed a lack of any discernible talent. He may have acted from within what he called “a safe perimeter,” but the roles corralled within it included Fritz von Tarlenheim in The Prisoner of Zenda, Aaron Burr in Magnificent Doll, Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, Major Pollock in Separate Tables, Charles Lytton in the original and best Pink Panther, James Bond in Casino Royale, and the satanic Philippe de Montfaucon in Eye of the Devil. Even if not quite on the same level as a Clark Gable or a Cary Grant, or not quite as iconic a myth, Niven was a formidable and consistently inventive actor with an ability to exude stoicism, good cheer, and integrity without ever (or rarely) descending to self-conscious or hammy caricature. He could keep it light, or he could play characters with an obsession. Roland Dane in Enchantment (1948) — a dreamer — is one of the great brooding screen performances of all time. Add the fact that Niven was the consummate professional, never once appeared late on set, nor trashed his trailer, or held forth about the plight of the rainforest or saving the whales, always knew both his and everyone else’s lines, and cheerfully acknowledged that he was “wonderfully overpaid for dressing up and playing games,” and you can see why he was gainfully employed in Hollywood for 45 years.

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Niven’s big break was his role as Errol Flynn’s pilot buddy in the World War One air force yarn The Dawn Patrol (1938), the beginning of a long if not untroubled real-life friendship. After breaking up with the starlet Merle Oberon, Niven moved in with the Tasmanian-born actor and fellow carouser at a villa they called aptly Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea. Here some discrepancy exists between Flynn’s version of the ménage as a sort of frat house of rampant heterosexual couplings and male good cheer, and Niven’s, which years later he gave his biographer Michael Munn. “There was never a bigger shit,” he remarked of his housemate. “We had finished making The Dawn Patrol and we were celebrating our success with a couple of girls, and after we had sent the girls home, Flynn . . . well, he grabbed me . . . where a man doesn’t expect to be grabbed by another man.” When Niven demurred, he was subjected to some choice advice from the more seasoned actor. “Flynn yelled, “You should grow up, mate. This is Hollywood. People here are phoneys. They fuck anything that moves. What makes you so fucking different?” In later years Niven was to remark that Flynn had been a “wonderfully reliable” friend and colleague — “he always let you down.”

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, Niven, on the very brink of stardom, was among the first of the British clan in the acting community to join the war effort. He was re-commissioned as a Lieutenant on February 25, 1940, and swiftly transferred into the Commandos. As a result, Niven was to have a notably different combat experience from the behind-the-lines regimen of USO revues and War Bond drives favored by certain of his Hollywood colleagues. In August 1942, his unit fought in the disastrous Allied attack on the French port of Dieppe; of the 6,000 men taking part, 1,027 were killed and 2,340 captured. Niven had to write letters to the wives and girlfriends of the men lost under his command. He remarked at the end of his life, “The mental scars of war stay with you. My mental scars are more than I can handle. I leave them alone when I can. The horror of actual battle is more than I can stand.” Before returning to Hollywood, Niven took part in the D-Day landings of June 1944, and subsequently was one of those to liberate the Bergen-Belsen death camp. “I was sick,” he recalled of the latter experience. “Physically sick . . . Even now, I sometimes fancy that I catch a hint of that stench in my nostrils, and my stomach heaves. I feel like it will never leave me.”

After a whirlwind two-week romance in 1940, Niven had married a 22-year-old British air force clerk (and daughter of a well-heeled lawyer) named Primula Rollo. Although the glamorous couple were apparently happy together, the relationship fell somewhat short of the traditional monogamous ideal. “I was a fool,” Niven recalled. “When we were apart during the war, it was all too easy to have sex with other women who wanted to go to bed with a Hollywood movie star. Some of them were no more than 16. I was insatiable — always have been.” In May 1946 the Nivens were invited to a glittering party at the home of actor Tyrone Power, where they relaxed after dinner by playing a childhood game of hide and seek in the dark. Rex Harrison heard “a sickening series of thuds.” Primula had mistakenly opened the basement door in the darkness and fallen some twenty feet onto a concrete floor. She died as doctors tried to remove a blood clot from her brain. She was 28. Niven recalled this as the darkest period of his life, which he survived only by a steady diet of drink and sex. “I paid for it when I had to,” he told Michael Munn. “Often I didn’t have to because there were always plenty of starlets willing to sleep around. One girl I picked up at a party was called Marilyn Monroe. I don’t remember anything about how I met her except that I got terribly drunk. I only remember waking up in the morning in a friend’s bedroom with the worst hangover, and lying next to me was this starlet called Marilyn.” On another occasion Niven was so overcome with grief and remorse he allegedly tried to kill himself, but the gun failed to go off. “I don’t know why it didn’t fire. It was loaded. I think I may have actually thought that this might be God telling me to carry on living,” Niven theorized, a series of events later called into question by his son Jamie. “If ever there was a guy least likely to commit suicide it was my old man,” he said.

Niven went on to become a sort of early cinematic version of David Frost, commuting frequently between Hollywood, New York, and London, while bedding an unfeasibly large number of young women along the way. Both men seemed to pass most of their respective middle-ages with a four-alarm fire in their jockey shorts, although Niven, at least, would have a substantial body of work to look back on: A Matter of Life and Death (1947); Enchantment (1948); Soldiers Three (1951); The King’s Thief (1955); the remake of My Man Godfrey (1957); and, that same year, the ubiquitous Around the World in Eighty Days. My own favorite Niven turn, and apparently his, too, is the Grand Hotel-like Separate Tables (1958). The faintly sinister Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth play a divorced couple trying to make another go of it in an atmospherically seedy English seaside resort also populated by the likes of Deborah Kerr, Wendy Hiller, and Rod Taylor. Niven appears about halfway through and moves swiftly into Harold Pinter country (before Pinter got there himself) as a supposed war hero who may or may not be on the lam from parties unknown; it’s a wonderfully restrained, compelling performance that one can just about imagine had its self-referential side for Niven as he goes about constructing a caricature English smoothie who’s not quite what he seems. A haunting, brooding gloom is lightened by the infinite elegance of much of the underplaying, as though the character is going through one last wistful game of make-believe before the coming crisis. It’s seriously good acting; Niven rightly won the Oscar and went on to co-found the hugely lucrative Four Star television production company, which, among other triumphs, gave a first break to Steve McQueen.

Niven’s home life was as unsuccessful as his career was successful. In 1948 he met one Hjordis Tersmeden, a 27-year-old divorced Swedish fashion model, and married her six weeks later. Their 35 years together were characterized by the multiple adulteries of both partners. In what turned out to be a doomed effort to stabilize the marriage, the couple adopted two girls, Kristina and Fiona; Kristina later told Niven’s biographer Graham Lord that she was convinced that she was Niven’s secret child by another fashion model, Mona Gunnarson. Along with the serial infidelities went increasingly frequent bouts of blackout drinking. Niven later recalled, “I came home from filming one night and found [Hjordis] drunk in the bath, unable to get out. I thought she would drown. I thought about pushing her down. Oh God, I wanted her to die.” In October 1951, while pheasant shooting with friends in New England, Hjordis was shot in the face, neck, and chest by two of Niven’s friends — an accident, apparently. While his wife convalesced in the Blackstone Hotel in New York, Niven was busy shooting the musical romance Happy Go Lovely and enjoying affairs with the likes of Grace Kelly and the young Princess Margaret. Some thirty years later, Hjordis showed up drunk at Niven’s funeral, and later made it a stipulation of her will that she not be buried alongside her husband in the place left for her in his double grave in Switzerland.

“It’s a foolish profession,” Alec Guinness once reflected on acting. “Fun for the young, rewarding, if successful, for the middle-aged, and embarrassing for the old.” There was to be a certain poignancy to this observation when applied to Niven’s career, whose final phase tended to various unobtrusive ensemble pieces, misfired comedies, and a long-running British television series in which the Oscar-winning legend walked the streets of London interviewing contemporary adventurers such as bungee jumpers and stunt motorcyclists. He pulled off a creditable parody of himself in 1979’s A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, although real indignity befell the film itself, which swiftly transferred to video under the less urbane titles of The Big Scam and The Mayfair Bank Caper. David Niven died on 29 July 1983, after quietly battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) for two years; he was 73. When asked why he had seemed so unnaturally cheerful for most of his professional career, Niven replied in character: “Well, old bean, life is really so bloody awful that I feel it’s my absolute duty to be chirpy and try to make everybody else happy too.” The writer John Mortimer added his own epitaph when, speaking at Niven’s memorial service, he described his friend’s life as “P. G. Wodehouse with tears.”