Authors: Graham Lord
The authorised biography of David Niven
Copyright © 2013, Graham Lord
For all of Niv’s family and friends
who loved him so much and miss him still
Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders of the photographs included in this book but, if any have been inadvertently overlooked, the author and publishers will be pleased to make the necessary changes at the first opportunity
1, 2, 3 & 4 – Grizel Niven; 5 – private collection; 6 – Bodleian/Conservative Central Office; 7, 8 & 9 – Stowe School; 10 – RMA Sandhurst; 11 – private collection; 12 – Fiona Niven; 13 – BBC Hulton Picture Library; 14, 15 & 16 – private collection; 17 – private collection; 18, 19, 20, 21 & 22 – private collection; 23 – the Estate of Michael Trubshawe; 24 – RMA Sandhurst; 25 – Fiona Niven; 26 – Photo Source; 27, 28 & 29 – private collection; 30 – private collection; 31 –
Illustrated London News
; 32, 33, 34 & 35 – private collection; 36 & 37 – private collection; 38 –
; 39, 40 & 41 – private collection; 42, 43, 44 & 45 – private collection; 46 – Fiona Niven; 47 – the Hon. William Feilding; 48 – William F. Buckley Jr; 49 – Graham Lord; 50 – private collection; 51 – Fiona Thyssen; 52 – Camera Press/Robert Penn; 53 – private collection; 54 – Roderick Mann; 55 – Rex Features; 56 – Hedi Donizetti; 57 – Graham Lord; 58 – Fiona Niven; 59 – Peter Watson; 60 – Rex Features; 61 – Leslie Bricusse
Plate section 1
Plate section 2
Plate section 3
Plate section 4
avid Niven, whose friends called him Niv, was an hilarious, utterly charming, delightfully engaging fantasist and fibber. His gloriously funny autobiography,
The Moon’s a Balloon
, is stuffed with errors of fact, anecdotes that are hugely exaggerated and superb stories that are completely untrue.
Does this matter? Of course not. He was a great raconteur, and raconteurs polish their anecdotes and make things up. His stories hurt no one, were never malicious, and he told them to brighten our lives and make us chuckle. Almost everyone who knew him has told me that he was a lovely man: kind, considerate, understanding, extremely funny and determined to cheer other people up even though his own life was stained at times by deep unhappiness. So who cares if he told a few fibs? Novelists and politicians do it all the time.
Unfortunately as Niv’s biographer it is my job to try to sort out the truth from the fibs. When he claimed that he fought for a rebel army in Cuba in 1934, when he certainly did not, I have a duty to say so. But my adjustments to Niv’s version of his life are not meant to show him up or put him down. He was an actor and writer who tailored his life to make millions laugh, and one excellent joke is worth a hundred facts. And he told his stories so often for so many years that by the time he came to write
The Moon’s a Balloon
, when he was sixty, he had probably come to believe that all his fibs and exaggerations were actually true. We all readjust our
memories, few of us with such splendid effect as he did.
So if at times you are irritated by my corrections to his stories, please remember this: Niv was the twinkling star, the meteor who lit up every room he entered; I am just the dreary drudge whose job it is to try to tell the truth.
I loved every minute researching and writing this book. Here was a man whose courage, kindness and
joie de vivre
were an inspiration for us all. I wish so much that I had met him.
hen twenty-four-year-old David Niven signed his first Hollywood film contract in 1935 the studio’s publicity director decided that his background was not nearly exotic enough, so he tarted it up. Instead of being the son of a humble second lieutenant in the British army he was said to be the son of ‘General William G. Niven, famed Scottish war hero’. Instead of being born in London he was said to come from Kirriemuir in Scotland and the fibs were so successful that when he died in 1983 even
said in its obituary that he was born in Kirriemuir. ‘Even I get confused about my father,’ his elder son, David, told me in 2002. ‘Was he born in Scotland or not?’
Not – though when you consider Niv’s reputation as an irresistible ladies’ man, Kirriemuir would have been a perfect birthplace, judging by the raucous, bawdy Scottish rugby drinking song ‘The Ball of Kirriemuir’:
Four and twenty virgins came doon from Inverness
And when the Ball was over there were four and twenty less!
Singin’ balls to your partner, arse agin’ the wall!
If ye cannae get laid on a Saturday nicht ye cannae get laid at all!
Niv was in fact born in a bustling London street in a mansion block of houses and shops just beside the busy clang and clatter of Victoria railway station. His father was a rich, thirty-two-year-old country landowner, a gentleman of leisure and a part-time second lieutenant in the Berkshire Imperial
Yeomanry. Niv liked to pretend that the family was deeply Scottish but his father had also been born in London, his Niven grandfather had been an English Justice of the Peace and director of the London
, and Niv’s half-French mother had been born in Wales. If there was any Scotch in his veins it was not blood.
James David Graham Niven, the future film star, was born in Belgrave Mansions, Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1, on 1 March 1910, St David’s Day, just ten days before the American film director D. W. Griffith released the first movie ever to be made in the little village of Hollywood near Los Angeles – a seventeen-minute love story,
In Old California
, starring Mack Sennett. Belgrave Mansions was a classy address, close to Buckingham Palace, where the neighbours included the Rt Hon. Baron Killanin, Sir Alexander Bannerman and Sir Alfred Dent. Niv’s father, William Niven, was not just the rich, spoiled, layabout son of a newspaper executive. In 1904, when he was twenty-seven and on safari in Kenya, he shot four lions in one morning and four more over the next few days. ‘I got all these alone, and was really very lucky not to get into any trouble,’ he wrote in a letter home. ‘Eight lion skins with their heads on are really very fine trophies, especially for a two months’ trip, and I am told that four lions in a morning make a record for East Africa.’
Courage and a sense of adventure flowed strong in the blood of the Nivens. One of the baby David’s great-great-uncles had been a British general. Another had been a major in the 21st Fusiliers, and a great-great-great-uncle had been killed at the Battle of Waterloo. The baby’s maternal forebears were equally militaristic. Niv’s thirty-two-year-old mother, Henriette Degacher, was descended from an eighteenth-century Sieur of the Château de Caumont de Marivault and the family motto stressed the virtue of courage:
Coeur vaillant se fait royaume
(a brave heart creates its own nobility). Her father had been a captain in the British 24th Foot Regiment and had fought in the Kaffir and Zulu Wars in South Africa
from 1877 to January 1879, when he was killed during the Battle of Isandhlwana, at which 1700 British soldiers were slaughtered by more than 20,000 Zulu. Her maternal grandfather and great-uncle had both been British generals, and when her mother remarried in 1888 she chose a lieutenant-general who had served in Afghanistan, Bengal and India, had been wounded at the Siege of Lucknow and decorated four times. Niv was proud of his family legacy and when he died in 1983 his papers included a bundle of his maternal grandparents’ letters to each other, a family tree, and two locks of his grandfather’s hair – one a fine tuft of baby hair dated 16 July 1841, when his grandfather had been fifteen months old.
When Niv’s father registered his birth in 1910 he gave as his address the family’s 300-year-old Jacobean country seat, Carswell Manor at Buckland near Faringdon which was then in Berkshire but is now in Oxfordshire. It was a three-storey, seven-bedroom, pale stone house that had been in the Niven family for more than fifty years, with a dovecote, walled garden, hundreds of acres of farmland, and the family’s helmet-and-visor crest set in stone above the front porch along with the family motto,
(Place Your Hope in the Living). But before the year was out William Niven sold the house ‘rather ingloriously’ to pay his ‘racing and other debts’, said Niv forty years later. Today Carswell Manor is a co-ed prep school, St Hugh’s, where a drawing of the house by William Niven still hangs in a corridor, and across the main road to Oxford the local golf club has named its restaurant Niven’s. ‘I don’t think David would be terribly pleased,’ chuckled the headmaster, Derek Cannon, in 2002. ‘They serve hamburgers and chips, so he wouldn’t be rushing to eat there!’
One reason for William Niven’s debts may have been the size of his family, for the new baby was his fourth child. He and Henriette already had a ten-year-old daughter, Joyce; a seven-year-old son, Henry, who was always known as Max;
and a three-year-old daughter with an odd Scots name, Grizel, pronounced Grizzle. They had a butler, footmen, governesses, gardeners, gamekeepers, grooms and horses, and led an extravagant life in London as well as the country. ‘I remember my father only very slightly,’ Grizel told me in 2002. ‘He seldom came home and we weren’t all that close as a family.’ As Niv wrote sixty years later in his autobiography,
The Moon’s a Balloon
, he saw little of his father ‘except when I was brought down to be shown off before arriving dinner guests or departing fox-hunting companions. I could always tell which were which because the former smelt of soap and perfume and the latter of sweat and spirits … sweaty, hearty, red-faced, country squires.’ His father also had to meet the cost of a rented house in Scotland – Craig Lodge at Dalmally in Argyllshire – and Niv’s son Jamie told me in 2002 that although William was rich he had ‘a sizeable investment in Argentine railroad bonds and got literally wiped out’ when the bonds crashed.
After the sale of Carswell Manor the Nivens moved to Golden Farm at Cirencester and then to Fairford Park in Gloucestershire, which is where they were living when the First World War began in August 1914 and Niv’s father went off to join the Berkshire Yeomanry in battle along with his valet, two grooms and a gardener. They were sent to Turkey and the Dardanelles, and there, on 21 August 1915, in the Gallipoli Peninsula, William Niven was killed as he and his comrades stormed the Turkish trenches at Suvla Bay – just one of more than half a million men who died during the doomed Dardanelles campaign. His body was never found and it was three months before the British Red Cross wrote to Henriette to say that a Trooper W. Deacon had reported that he and Lieutenant Niven had actually reached the Turkish trenches in the dark when Niven was shot in the head. The letter added optimistically that this ‘does not of course exclude the possibility of your husband having been taken prisoner by the Turks’. It was not until seventeen
months later that Henriette received official confirmation of his death, though she was granted probate in his estate in August 1916. Short of money, she moved the family to a couple of small, rented seaside houses in Folkestone, and it was not until February 1919 that she managed to track down another Berkshire Yeoman, Private A. W. Calder, who had witnessed William’s death and could tell her that he had been shot in the head and killed instantly. ‘He was a most popular Officer & loved by all,’ wrote Calder.
William left everything to Henriette, but once his debts were paid his estate totalled just £5760 11s 8d, the equivalent in 2003 of about £200,000 – not much with which to buy a house and raise four children aged sixteen, thirteen, nine and six. She rented a house in London, at 38 Onslow Square, South Kensington, where according to
The Moon’s a Balloon
she entertained ‘pale, gay young men who recited poetry and sang to my mother … She was very beautiful, very musical, very sad and lived on cloud nine.’ In fact Henriette may not have been quite as sad as Niv believed. ‘I don’t think my mother was deeply unhappy when my father died,’ Grizel told me. ‘I don’t remember her crying. She was tall, very good-looking and had a good figure, and she could be quite flirtatious with men. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she had one or two boyfriends while she was married to my father. David and I thought it was very odd that he and I had fair, curly hair and bright blue eyes but Joyce and Max had brown eyes and straight, dark hair.’ Sixty years later, according to Niv’s elder daughter, Kristina, ‘Daddy used to say that Joyce and Max didn’t really look like him and Grizel, and that maybe his mother had had an affair with someone else.’ The film critic Tom Hutchinson told me that Niv had confided that he had not liked his mother much because she had rejected him as a child and was a flirtatious socialite with a reputation for having loose sexual morals. ‘David gave me the impression that his mother treated him not just casually but almost with contempt,’ said Hutchinson. ‘He told me
that once when he was a boy he had had to spend an entire Christmas Day on his own because she was out at some social occasion. There weren’t any presents. He told me: “I wished myself a merry Christmas, and cried.” ’ When Niv saw the film
he said, “it’s an indictment of all mothers, damn them all!” ’ He told the
Telegraph Sunday Magazine
in 1977 that he came from a family ‘that didn’t give much of a damn’, and Grizel said that they never saw much of their mother: ‘We always had a nurse or governess, but I don’t know what [mother] did all day. She didn’t do any work or painting, cooking or gardening.’
If Henriette did have lovers one was almost certainly Thomas Walter Comyn Platt, a forty-eight-year-old bachelor diplomat who liked to hyphenate his last two names to Comyn-Platt. He had served the Foreign Office in London, Turkey, Greece, Uganda and South Africa, had been a Gold Staff Officer at the coronations of Edward VII and George V and had stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate for Louth in Lincolnshire in the parliamentary election of 1906. During the First World War, according to
, Platt had served as a railway officer and interpreter in France but had been invalided out and had become a member of the Game Committee at the Ministry of Food. ‘I think it’s quite likely that he was in love with my mother while she was still married to my father,’ Grizel told me, and Henriette solved her financial problems by marrying him.
Several years later, in 1925, Comyn-Platt published a book,
By Mail and Messenger
, which makes it plain that for many years he had had a close relationship with Henriette, whom he called Etta. It was a collection of letters that he had written from abroad to a woman in England, describing his adventures during his many travels through Asia Minor, central Asia and Africa from 1904 onwards, and he sent them from Constantinople, Samarkand and Baghdad, from Tripoli, Cairo, Aden, Mombasa, Entebbe. It was a vivid compendium of travellers’ tales, anecdotes and legends, and the letters were
almost certainly written to Etta because in the book’s preface he says that they ‘induced One to start on Life’s journey with me; a journey which, I pray, may be as long as it has been happy’. Etta was his only wife, and they had been wed for eight years when he published them, and he would surely not have published the book had they been sent to someone else. They must have been written to her even though she was married to William Niven, and they are so astonishingly loving, romantic and filled with longing that Platt and Etta must have been lovers. ‘You are continually in my thoughts,’ he wrote in one of them, ‘and to be with you again is to look forward to another Land of Beulah, where there are flowers and grapes and songs of birds, and the sun shines night and day.’
They met in London in 1904, when he was thirty-five and she was twenty-six, at a magnificent ball at Carlton House Terrace in the presence of Edward VII, Queen Alexandra and ‘all the beauty and fashion of London’ – among them Lady Londonderry, Lady Warwick, Lady Herbert and several knights of the Garter. He wrote his first letter the next day, as his train roared through the fields of Kent and bore him towards Calais, the Continent and his first diplomatic posting in the embassy at Constantinople, and he made it plain that he was already obsessed by her. On the train, he told her, he had spotted a woman who was wearing a veil, and had thought it was her. ‘For the last hour,’ he wrote on the ferry to Calais, ‘I have searched every portion of the ship in the hope of finding you on board … Carried away by Hope, I convinced myself that the veiled lady was you.’
Niv always hated Comyn-Platt and sneered at him in
The Moon’s a Balloon
as ‘a second line politician who did not fight in the war … a tall, ramrod straight creature with immensely high, white collars, a bluish nose and a very noisy cuff-link combination which he rattled at me when I made an eating error at mealtime’. To underline his unhappiness over the wedding Niv claimed that it took place cruelly on his sixth
birthday, 1 March 1916, but it was in fact more than a year later, on 22 May 1917, and not at All Saints church in Sloane Street, as he claimed, but at St Margaret’s, Westminster – the House of Commons’ parish church in the grounds of Westminster Abbey. It was an appropriately political venue because Comyn-Platt was an active member of the Conservative Party, the Carlton Club and the 1900 Club, an influential Tory dining club. On the marriage certificate he described his profession as ‘Gentleman’. Among the guests was Margot Asquith, the influential wife of Herbert Asquith, who had recently been replaced as Prime Minister by David Lloyd George, and during the service seven-year-old David Niven, who was now calling Platt ‘Uncle Tommy’ and was dressed embarrassingly as a pageboy in a primrose suit with mother-of-pearl buttons and a white lace collar, announced in a shrill voice that the hook-nosed Mrs Asquith was a witch, an opinion with which many politicians were inclined to agree. So too did the sexy Hollywood actress Jean Harlow, who once made the mistake of calling her Mar-
. ‘No, dear,’ said Mrs Asquith sharply. ‘The t is silent, as in Harlow.’