Notes of David Niven.
James David Graham Niven was born at Belgrave Mansions London in 1910 yet some say he was born in Scotland. His Father William Edward Graham Niven was of Scots descent and his Mother Henrietta Julia de Gacher of French lineage. Patrick Macnee would call him a Frenchman but David to romanticize his birthplace would say he was born in Kirrimeur Scotland. He was the youngest of four children. In August 1915 his father a Lieutenant in the Berkshire Yeomanry and his batman went off to be slaughtered in Gallipoli at Scimitar Hill. His mother remarried a Sir Comyn-Platt in 1917 who it is rumored, she had previously conducted an affair.
There is an unfounded presumption Comyn-Platt was David's real father. Comyn spend little time with his new siblings showing no great interest and had David shifted off to numerous boarding schools. David lived in various parts of Britain including Kirrimeur, London, Gloucestershire and the Isle of Wright.
Due to his rebellious nature he attended several prep schools . He attempted to join the Royal Navy but was firmly rejected.
Fortunately he succeeded gaining a place at the new Stowe public school. There, he met Headmaster J.E. Roxburgh who became his mentor helping him finding stability in his ruffled life. During his time there he had his first taste of military life which he savoured. He quickly moved thought the ranks to become a sergeant of the CCF. David's housemaster Major Richard Howarth had been a senior instructor at Sandhurst Military College encouraged David's leadership qualities. Although he was canned for some cheating at school exams he still managed to preserve respect. His acting and devilish humour was apparent at a CCF concert where he played a monocled Major General Useless Eunuch.
Roxburgh sent a communication to the Royal Military College of Sandhurst acclaiming David. Fortunately, he was accepted.
Although in many ways confident he was shaken by the rigidly of the College regime. Company Sergeant Major Robbo Robertson who told the cadre to attend church where they could thank almighty God at the end of each week they were still breathing. Soon, David became a Soldier and Officer feeling he had been treated as an adult and had learned to endure inevitable military insults. Pushing himself, he became a Lance Corporal the only one of his company. Nearing the end of the middle phase of training he was promoted to Corporal and then Commanders Orderly. He Proudly wore the red lanyard of Champion Company but still remained a practical joker. Once he hid the Commanders Woodbine, toilet paper and Condoms supply in his ceremonial silver message box. During an unexpected inspection the General opened the ceremonial box. David waited for some serious remarks and was surprised when the General told him he had heard about his escapades. With his new found confidence he became involved in several plays. In the Speckled Band play he stole the show with his wit and poise.
His academic measure was not top notch but on the Rugby field he gained two blue ribbons. When his time came to an end at Sandhurst he applied for his posting. Anything, but the Highland Light Infantry he wrote. First favorite was the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and then the Blackwatch both favorites at the time.
Fate gave him the HLI stationed in Malta a low priority posting. He thought Malta was a sod of a place. It was in Malta he met a life long friend Michael Trubshawe who was his best man on two occasions. He and Michael entertained the wives of Naval officers while their husbands were away at sea.
The consignment was not to his pleasing and was further aggravated by an equally boring posting to England. The miseries of Salisbury plain and smothering confinement of Aldershot did not go down well. During a long boring lecture on machine guns he had on his mind a meeting with an attractive girl. When the General ended with any questions? David asked for the time as he had a train to catch. He was placed under close arrest for insubordination.
David shared a bottle of whisky with a fellow officer before escaping via a window.
At 23 years in September of 1933 David wanted more from life and resigned his commission by telegram on the way to Canada. He was tempted by New York and became a whisky salesman and on the subject he said, "I was selling booze with some ex-bootleggers. I enjoyed being with Bogey most of all"
Next, he moved to Atlantic City as a rodeo promoter and a short time in Bermuda and Cuba. Later he arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 1934. In the sun he found his calling as an actor. With some help he became a Hollywood extra. As luck would have it he resided with a family whose daughter was Loretta Young and already famous.
He was given a chance to do a screen test by Edmund Goulding. But the American Immigration Service was on to him to apply for a Residents Visa. David had to leave the US and resided in Mexico cleaning guns for American visitors. On application for the Visa he was finally accepted as Anglo Saxon Type No 2008.
He said of his first going to Hollywood, "This is a terrible confession to make, but after I left the Army I had a number of things to try. I had a great conceit to think that if all else failed I could always go to Hollywood. So when all else did fail I really went to Hollywood. And then I found out how wrong I was."
His first part in a movie as an extra was as a Mexican.
David rightly thought it astute to have an agent and Bill Hawks suited the bill. It paid of and in Mutiny On The Bounty 1935 staring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton he had a none speaking part.
Producer Samuel Goldwyn signed him up on long term contract but thought, "This actor is tall, dark and not the slightest bit handsome." His first speaking part was in Without Regret where he learned how to get through a movie scene. He became one of the many British actors in Hollywood. His first major film was The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936 which included his friend Errol Flynn of whom he said, "you can count on Errol Flynn, he'll always let you down."
Then came a series of films including The Prisoner Of Zenda 1937 and in 1939 Bachelor Mother. An important success was Wuthering Heights which earned nominations for eight Academy Awards. He fell out for a short time with Samuel Goldwyn over a pay dispute but was reengaged for the final prewar films Dawn Patrol and Raffles in 1939.
What to do when war strikes your homeland was a question David's had to answer. In the close knit British Fraternity there was a robust contagious patriotic fervour. Whereas, Lord Lothian the British Ambassador wanted David to stay in America to do propaganda films. During a final dinner before going off to war an actress told him if he wanted to be brave drink a lot of whisky or if you want to p**s drink gin.
On arrival in Britain he hoped to join the Navy but after their procrastinations decide not to. He applied for the RAF but after a not too favorable interview he was told to F**K Off. The Scots Guards were influenced by newspaper reports of actor David Niven joining the real Dawn Patrol and turned him away.
Finally, he joined the renowned Rifle Brigade in Salisbury Plain in February 1940. David managed to gained the trust of the conscripted 2nd Motor Training Battalion of the East End on London. They were not exactly eager soldiers tending to grumble some. David won them over by telling them they had only left their butchers shops and factories, but he could have been with Ginger Rogers right now. He met Churchill and on one occasion the great man told him it was a very fine thing he had done leaving a promising career, then added it would have been despicable if had not.
In the summer of 1940 he met his first wife Primula Rollo.
After only ten days they wed and in time had two sons. The films that came his way were mostly propaganda, The First of the Few and The Way Ahead. David became involved in the Marine Commando Phantom units which were them shrouded in mystery. This motorized unit was designed to act as a reconnaissance and liaison between HQ and fighting forward units.
At this point we have to appreciate David Niven did not wish to mention his war record to others. Most of his record it is scant but it is noted he was with A Squadron next to the River Muese and Bruges region under heavy fire. He was often behind enemy lines and nearly shot several crossing back over by American soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge. During the last days of the war at Brunswick David spotted a pair of army boots on a passenger carried on a farm wagon. He drew his pistol then told his corporal to cover him with his Tommy gun. The man on the wagon was German who could speak English. The German told David he was a General on the way home only a few kilometers away. David and the General looked at each other for a while. Then David told the General to go ahead but cover up his bloody boots.
It may be possible David Niven outmatched those who we now consider the masters of phantom warfare. But we will never know, except he belonged to Phantom Signal Unit.
He said once: "I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.
"On the other hand he considered, Going to war was the only unselfish thing he have ever done for humanity.
On a revised contract he returned to Hollywood his wife and children followed. Six weeks later during a game of hid and seek Primula fell down a flight of stone steps and died of her injuries. David was now alone with two children to raise.
Then followed a series of films including The Other Love and The Bishops Wife. On the set of Bonny Prince Charlie he was introduced to his second wife Swedish Hjordis Tersmeden. In ten days they were married, David said to the best man "Tomorrow, Trubshawe, I am going to get married again, thereby quite possibly making the greatest mistake of my life."
David then went on to become an author his first book being Round the Rugged Rocks and later two of his best The Moons a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses. David said of writing, "I make two movies a year to take care of the butcher and the baker and the school fees. Then I try to write, but it's not that easy. Acting is what's easy."
Then David progressed into TV with CBS performing in Four Star Playhouse, 1952–56, and Alcoa Theatre, 1957–58; 1959—host of TV series The David Niven Show.
Also continued with films such as Happy Ever After, Carrington VC and Around The World in Eighty Days. His marriage was not without problems and for a space Hjordis a frustrated actress left under suspicion of several affairs and drink problems.
For the safety of his family he decided to settle in Château de'Oex in Switzerland. There they adopted two daughters which pleased Hjordis and helped to settle their marriage. They also had a home in the South Of France where David enjoyed skiing, sailing and fishing.
55 days in Peking, The Guns of Naverone and The Pink Panther and many other noted favourites were added to his list of great movies.
On the Parkinson TV chat show a view noticed David had symptoms of Motor Neurone Disease. Previously a fellow actor had seen David's hand shake while reading a newspaper on a beach. His muscles and voice were effected and the man of action and actor was naturally devastated. He already hated the idea of aging, "Old age has got to start creeping up on me one day soon, and frankly I'm very scared. I don't want to be old. I've always felt so young. And I want to stay that way.".
His last Hollywood appearance was for a life achievement award given by his old friend Fred Astaire. His condition became worse but David refused to return to hospital supported by his family. Romours were abound of problems with his wife once again.
On July 1983 at 73 years David Niven died in Switzerland. The service was given by a Church Of Scotland Minister. London's Heathrow Airport staff sent a large wreath, along with a card that read: "To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king."
Hjordis appeared at the funeral drunk. She later wrote in her will under no circumstance would she wish to be buried beside her husband.
We have to appreciate Hjordis had serious problems and it must have been difficult for David to negotiate them daily.
David Niven is well remembered as a true kind and thoughtful gentleman and a true war hero with a mischievous wit.
Marlon Brando considered, "Working with David Niven was the only time I ever looked forward to filming. I just couldn't wait to wake up each morning and go to work so he could make me laugh."
Burt Reynolds said, "If you want sophistication, go have lunch with Niven."
To Robert Wagner he confessed, "Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going, don't take anything too seriously, it'll all work out in the end"
He once asked Greta Garbo whilst under a picnic table (!), why she quit making movies. She answered, "Because I've seen too many faces."
On the movie "Separate Tables" (1958)
David Niven said. "They gave me very good lines and then cut to Deborah Kerr while I was saying them. "
He wrote a note to his friend, Deborah Kerr, warning her of working too hard, "Dear Old Chum, don't stretch the elastic too far, because it snaps, and that is what has happened to me."