David Niven The Man Behind the Balloon by Michael Munn

Published in 2009, this appears to be the last of the biographies about the “grin and tonic” man so loved by many. Sheridan Morley was commissioned intially by Niven’s two sons after his death to write about their father. As he had grown up knowing the two men and had  met David on several occasions throughout his life, Morley was a good choice to be Niven’s first “serious” biographer.

Morley’s effort was titled The Other Side of the Moon and brought up a lot of issues that Niven had left out of his two “biographies” which, as his sons said, were really about other people. A collection of his cocktail anecdotes that had amused his fans and friends for years; David was, if nothing else, a brilliant raconteur both on talk shows and at parties.

Graham Lord then gave us his two pence worth with very little new information but a slightly different point of view in his book Niv. Both men gave more information than was generally known about the actor whose life has been referred to as “Wodehouse with tears.”

Michael Munn says in his introduction to the book that Niv himself came to him in 1982 to “get the facts” straight so that he was not vilified or slandered after his death like his old drinking mate Errol Flynn. At that time David knew he was dying from Motor Neurone Disease; a horrible wasting illness that slowly and horribly kills the afflicted sufferer. Although it was difficult for Niv to communicate with Munn (one of the side affects of the disease is losing the ability to speak clearly) he set Michael in the right direction.

Why Munn? Because he had been a friend and confidant of Niven since 1970; back then Munn was an entertainment reporter just starting in the business. His boss set up a meeting with Niven who was in London promoting his latest film. The two men clicked and a long running friendship was formed.

Munn works pretty well as David Niven‘s last life chronicler. He manages to show the Niven skeletons and shies away from stories already in print by other authors. He even manages to be sympathetic toward David’s second wife Hjordis. Of course he also praised Sheridan Morley’s book (which was really very, very good) and that speaks volumes to me as a reader and a fan of Morley’s writing.

Most people know David Niven as the author of The Moon’s a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses. He sold millions of these books that were in reality his “cocktail party stories” and mainly about other people in his life. He told very little of his own life and skated over things he felt that no-one should know or would be interested in.

Niven won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the fake war hero Major who has a fondness for fondling young ladies in the film Separate Tables. He was the second star of Around the World in 80 days (the first being the actual film according to him) and either one of the most unappreciated character actors in the business or the most overused. It was said that a lot of producers wanted him in their horrible films because he could add class to the drivel they were selling.

He was a favourite on the talk show circuit. He seemed to have a never-ending reservoir of funny tales to tell. Often they had originated as someone else’s story, but Niv had a good “ear” for stories and he often “borrowed” them and polished them up for further audiences delight. The people he borrowed the stories from never minded as Niv could tell stories like no one else.

While quite a lot of the anecdotes he related in both his books have been refuted or at least had their veracity questioned, Niven was the first Hollywood star to write a book himself  that ran so long in the number one best-seller spot. He was a remarkable man and a much better actor than he was ever given credit for. He continued to work until it became physically impossible for him to do so.

Unfortunately a lot of his films were dross. Made for the money or made because of the great “chums” he would be working with. Ironically the last really great performance he gave was in a film Paper Tiger where he played a variation on his Oscar-winning Major in Separate Tables. A phony war hero who makes good by the end of the picture; it is a brilliant bit of work and stupidly difficult to find. The irony was that he hated making the film and was not his usual cheerful self during filming.

A scene from Separate Tables. Niven with one of his best chums, Deborah Kerr.

David Niven was a man who wanted to entertain people, whether it involved acting or just being an eternally cheerful chap who told the most glorious and funny stories; he wanted to be liked. Most folks who came into contact with him did like him; especially women.

That he was a man addicted to sex is beyond question. He was incapable of remaining faithful to one woman. Even the love of his life, his first wife Primula (Primmie) was not able to stop his insatiable sexual appetite for the opposite sex. David himself felt no real guilt about these extra marital dalliances. In his mind, he loved Primmie (and later Hjordis) and that was what mattered. He really felt that the sex with other women he did not love (and this included prostitutes) was not of any consequence.

Munn himself never understood Niven’s viewpoint and it puzzled him. But one does, after all, have to remember that David’s first sexual experiences were with a prostitute, the infamous Nessie, who he fell madly in love with at the tender age of 14.

Niven’s life was unbelievably sad and tragic; it also seemed to be riddled with “bad luck.” He was just beginning to become a star when the Second World War broke out and he rushed home to sign up to a country who did not want him. He then went on to work in a specialized unit. This unit’s “secretive” role haunted him for the rest of his life.

I suppose that Munn’s book gives a fairly good insight as to what made Niven tick. Sadly, a lot of “truths” that are brought to light only make his life seem more tragic. Niven was a wonderful entertainer, a more than capable actor and a pretty damn good writer. It is sad that this revealing book is the last word on his character.

I would recommend reading Michael Munn’s revealing book, but only after reading Sheridan Morley’s and Graham Lord’s sympathetic and fond recounts of his life. Munn is not less sympathetic and perhaps even fonder, but as I have said, with Niven’s cooperation and blessing the cat was let well and truly out of the bag on the details of his life.

David Niven (b March 1, 1910 – d July 29, 1983)

I’m Doing this Right Now…..Not


Cover of "Bring on the Empty Horses"
Cover of Bring on the Empty Horses

I am writing a book! Well…I’m trying to write a book. It should be really easy, but… The problem is with me, amazing how much that sounds like the classic break-up line, “No really! It’s not you, it’s me.” I love writing; always have. But I’m suffering from the ‘David Niven‘ syndrome.

David Niven (1910 – 1983) was a wonderful actor. He won an Acadamy Award for his role as the faux military man in Seperate Tables. Niven was an extremely articulate and intelligent individual. I have always admired the man, even when he worked in some of the most execrable films ever made. He had that certain something that set him apart from the other folks in the film.

Niven was a brilliant story teller. He was at his best when regaling people with amusing stories of people he had met, or worked with, or knew. It was these stories that he finally, after much prodding from friends, wrote down and they became – The Moons a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses. Faintly auto-bigraphical in nature and wonderfully funny and sad, these two books stayed on the bestseller list for ages.

It has been argured that David cribbed a lot of the stories in his books. It has also been said that he embellished the tales to make them more interesting or funnier. How tiresome. I really, and I don’t think any other fans of the book do either, care. What he was good at was both telling stories and then (later) writing about them.

I am sure he embellished a lot, if not all, of his of his “cocktail party” stories. I remember reading in another book on Niven’s life. Someone famous (don’t ask me who, please don’t, because I’m damned if I can remember) listened to Niven recount an amusing episode at a cocktail party. At the end of the story, he scratched his head and said, “I was there! And I don’t remember it being that funny!”

The point is, as I said earlier, that Niven was good at the telling of and later the writing  of these wonderful stories. *Yes, I know that I’ve called the stories wonderful several times now*  But, where the stories were easy to tell, they were much harder to write about. He liked writing in the garden, but this favourite spot was filled with diversions. Niven himself mentions in one of the books that: “I can always find something else to do. ‘Oh look at that bird.’ ‘Oh what a lovely butterfly.’ Even the sight of an aeroplane passing overhead can take up huge portions of my time.”[sic]

Now I am not saying the book I am writing is going to be anywhere near as good, or amusing, or popular as Mr Niven’s. I do suffer, though, from the same problem. If I listen to music for “inspiration” whilst writing, I have to be careful to not really listen or I will get caught up in the music and stop writing. I also suffer the same problems in the garden; not secluded by any means, but it can offer a lot of quiet. It also offers – birds, bees, wasps, butterflies (although not many), planes, or helicopters flying overhead. All good for allowing my grasshopper mind to wander. It seems that my brain cannot wait for the chance to stop thinking about the things I really want to write.

I have two books going on at the same time, I like to write the same way I like to read, one short story and one book with a collection of short stories. Not a problem. But…But… I also have three blogs. don’t get too excited, I usually write the same item and copy and paste it to the other two sites. I also follow a few blogs and I have to comment on the ones I’ve read and liked. Oops, my coffee cup is empty, must go and refill the kettle and make another one. Oh look how filthy that television cabinet is looking, I’ll just go sort that out. Oh look, someone else has subscribed to my small channels on YouTube, I must thank them. Ah! Someone has commented on: my channel, my facebook page, my Twitter, my…Well you can get the idea, I am sure.

My daughter (Meg) is a great Dad cheerleader though. She keeps reminding me that I am supposed be working on the book(s) and not mucking about with all these other things. It helps. And I figure if David Niven could combat the distractions, so can I. I seriously doubt that anything I write would even be published, but I will have the satisfaction of finishing it and having at least one person love it as much as I do.

But first I just have to post this blog and then copy it…

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