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)

Dear Me Peter Ustinov 1977: Vintage Ustinov

I was very excited when I found this book in the charity shop near where I live. I’ve been an ardent Ustinov fan ever since I first saw him in Viva Max on Saturday Night at the Movies when I was younger. Then came Logan’s Run in 1976 where Ustinov played the world’s oldest man. I became a fan for life and deeply mourned this great man’s passing in 2004.

For the record, Ustinov was not just an actor. He was also a writer. Plays principally; films and books, one book was the autobiography  Dear Me. It was one of those books that I had always wanted to read. There were only a few books about the entertainment world, that for whatever reason, I’d never read. They just refused to be found.

At least two of the books surfaced a few years ago in a second-hand book store in Felixstowe. This wonderful shop, called Treasure Chest Books, searched tirelessly for the book Everybody loves somebody sometimes (especially himself): The story of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis by Arthur Marx (son of Groucho). I had seen the book in the Pasadena California Public Library in 1977 and spent years searching for the book afterwards so I could buy it.

The Treasure Chest Books shop found a copy and held it for me. I have been indebted to them ever since. They also had, no searching required, a copy of Sheridan Morley‘s brilliant Tales from the Hollywood Raj: The British Film Colony On Screen and Off: The British in California. Another book that I had been searching for years, ever since I first read an excerpt from it telling of one ex-patriot English actor calling out to Dame Gladys Cooper (Morley’s grandmother), “Darling! There is an American in your front garden!”

But Ustinov’s 1977 autobiography stayed stubbornly out of my reach. Not necessarily because I could not find it, but, because I had stopped looking quite some time ago. Of course now if you hop onto your laptop or home pc you can type the book’s title in the search engine of your choice and find a regular cornucopia of Dear Me’s out there for purchase. Or any other book title for that matter.

Ustinov had a fascinating life and an equally fascinating family tree. With Dear Me, he uses the device of an internal dialogue with himself at choice points through the book. He questions the validity of his story (or stories) and the feelings that he relays about his life and the events that shaped him.

It is interesting to hear his side of the story when he was writing a WWII propaganda film and had to be assigned as Lt Col David Niven‘s Bat man (personal aide). Peter would be writing away at the script and whenever a “real” officer would approach the room, Niven would yell, “Cave!” Ustinov would then start furiously polishing brass. It was in this way that the 1944 film The Way Ahead was written and to some extent filmed. Ustinov, despite his education and intelligence, never rose above the rank of Private. His co-workers in the British Army were all officers and in the ever class and rank conscious military it caused some problems; a lot of them quite funny.

If you ever had a chance to see him on a television talk show, it was obvious that Peter was a brilliant raconteur; charming, funny and often erudite in his stories. Dear Me recounts some of these stories, but it also recounts the plays he wrote, the people he worked with, and his relationships; relationships with his wives, children and his parents.

Peter wrote 35 plays and novels (including Dear Me). He could speak four languages fluently and was able to communicate in even more. He was an infinitely fascinating  and talented man.

It may be a little difficult to “get into” the book as it is written the same way that Ustinov spoke. But hang in there, once you find the cadence and the pattern, the book will entertain you and surprise you.

Thankfully you will not have to trudge down to your local charity shop or second-hand book seller to get a copy. Just go to Amazon.com and type the title and author in the search bar and you can find copies of the book for a cheap as a penny and as expensive as 36 dollars and some change.

Or failing that, just hop down to your Library, they might just have a copy; but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

So yes, it is a difficult book to start, but one that if you persevere will reward your efforts with new knowledge about a very talented individual and a man whose humour is most certainly self-evident

Peter as Agatha Christie’s Poirot.