Monday, November 26, 2012

The Moon is a Balloon

David Niven, 1910 - 1983

David Niven ( published his autobiography, The Moon is a Balloon ( in 1971.  This book, filled with amusing anecdotes from his remarkable life, sold 5 million copies and quite deservedly so.

In this book you meet a charming English gentleman of the old school.  We know him from roles in pictures such as Around the World in Eighty Days, Guns of Navarone, Death on the Nile and Sir Charles Layton in The Pink Panther.  In spite of having started his movie career with virtually no stage experience (unlike the vast majority of English actors) he won an Oscar for his performance as the Major in Separate Tables.

Niven's Autobiography, 1971
Niven was born in London in 1910.  His mother was French.  His father was a English soldier who died at Gallipoli when David was only five years old.  His grandfather had died at the battle of  in Isandlwana in Africa.  Niven soon had a stepfather whom he despised.  He was soon packed off to a boarding school that he detested.

Niven writes, "Apart from the Chinese, the only people in the world who pack their sons off to the tender care of unknown and often homosexual schoolmasters at the exact moment when  they are most in need of parental love and influence, are the British so-called upper and middle classes."

His school days were difficult.  Niven was sexually abused by an older Ex-Eton schoolmate.  He was expelled from school at age 10. He did eventually manage to transfer to Stow which he much preferred.

With his military background, he attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and later became an officer in the Highland Light Infantry.  He served in the garrison on Malta.

David Niven Interview with David Frost
Partying on Malta

He later resigned his commission at the age of 23 and took off for Canada and the United States.   He eventually headed West hoping to become a movie star in Hollywood.  His wishes were granted when he was given a contract by Sam Goldwynn of MGM.  He lived with Errol Flynn in a swinging bachelor pad in Hollywood.  One of his best know pre-war films was The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

When  World War II broke out in September 1939, David Niven opted to give up his movie career in order to rejoin the Rifle Brigade in the British army.

Back in England, he attended a party in 1940 where he met Winston Churchill who was then head of the Admiralty.  Niven writes, "We were twenty in number and just as we were about to sit down, Churchill spotted me from the far end of the table .  I had heard before that he was an ardent movie-goer but I was unprepared for what was to come.  He marched the whole length of the dining room and shook me by the hand.

'Young man,' he growled . 'you did a a very fine thing to give up a most promising career to fight for your country.'

I was conscious that the great and near great in he room had remained standing and were listening with interest.

I stammered some inane reply and Churchill continued with a twinkle, 'Mark you, had you not done so -- it would have been despicable!'  he marched back to his seat.

After dinner Churchill talked and expounded on every subject under the sun.  Eden took issue with him on several occasions but Bracken, always so opinionated on his own, was very subdued in the presence of the Champion.

After church on Sunday, Churchill requisitioned me for a walk around the walled garden.

He talked at great length about vegetables and the joy of growing one's own,  He made it clear that before long, rationing would become so severe that 'every square inch of our island will be pressed into service.'  He questioned me abut the problems of a junior officer in the army and listened most attentively to my answers.  It saddens me greatly that I had the enormous good fortune to have several of these 'garden tours' with this unique human being and that I remember so little of what he actually said.

That first weekend he extolled the virtues of Deanna Durbin, 'a formidable talent', and whenever he spoke of Hitler, he referred to him either as 'Corporal Hitler' or as 'Herr Schickelgruber'.

Ronnie Tree asked me if I could arrange an occasional private showing of a movie for Churchill. 'He loves films but he doesn't want to go out in public to seem them for obvious reasons.'

The next morning I got busy and on the last evening of my leave, I booked a projection room in Soho and obtained a copy of the latest Deanna Durbin musical.  I installed a bar in the projection room and gave a small dinner in the private room of a nearby restaurant  before the showing.

The Trees and Eden came to dinner.  Churchill was detained at the Admiralty but he joined us for the show. When he arrived, he accepted a large liqueur brandy, lit a cigar and settled down in his seat.  Half way through the film, whispering started at the back and I saw that Churchill was leaving.  I followed him out and he thanked me kindly for my efforts but said that 'something important' had come up and that he must return to the Admiralty.

The next day the headlines were ecstatic.  Churchill had given the order for the HMS Cossack to enter Josling Fjord 'to board with cutlasses the German naval auxiliary Altmark and free three hundred British prisoners  -- seamen of merchant ships sunk by the Graf Spee."

This was the "Altmark incident" that the Nazis would later cite as a pretest for their invasion of Norway.

In a subsequent meeting with Churchill after he became prime Minister they had this exchange: "He asked me what I was doing at the moment so, as we walked, I filled him in on the exciting prospects of the Commandos.  He stopped by a greenhouse and said, 'Your security is very shouldn't be telling me this.'  He was always a superb actor but to this day I don't know whether or not he was joking."

Niven had what would be considered a "good war".  He met and married his first wife "Primmie" who served in the WAAF.   He met Ian Fleming who was the assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence;  Fleming later wanted to cast him as James Bond when the films were made (he later played Bond in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale). Niven would serve as a platoon leader in Normandy after the D-day landings.  He ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel and would receive the American Legion of Merit decoration from Eisenhower himself.

He  also served in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge (see earlier post, Battle of the Bulge 10/12/12).  Niven writes, "I went down through the fog-shrouded Forest of the Ardennes to Marche.  Within hours the last great German offensive of the war erupted.  Ahead of it, Skorzeny's Trojan Horse Brigade, American-speaking and wearing American uniforms, infiltrated everywhere with captured American tanks and half tracks.  Sabotaging as they went, they rushed for the Meuse.  The rumors of Skorzeny's men flew wildly.  In my British uniform and jeep with the 21st Army Group markings, I had some anxious moments at the hands of understandably trigger-happy G.I.s Identification papers mean nothing -- 'Hands above your head, Buddy -- all right -- so who won the World series in 1940?'

I haven't the faintest idea but I do know I made a picture with Ginger Rogers in 1938.'

'O.K. beat it, Dave, but watch your step for Crissake.'"

David Niven was an incorrigible name-dropper who happened to meet and many of the most interesting people of the 20th century.  He suffered many tragic losses including the death of his first wife in a freak accident when she was twenty five years old, but he always managed to pick himself up and cheerfully carry on.  He was a courageous man who brought joy to many others and, through his work in many films, continues to do so even today.

Commander Kelly says, "Remember David Niven--soldier, actor, writer, gentleman."

The Streaker

The Prawn

You can now find Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades,  here or on Amazon


Jim Hooper said...

Regarding your David Niven post; I was watching the broadcast when the Streaker incident occurred. I recall the debate between my parents whether or not it was 'staged'. But I have never forgotten the "shortcomings" comment.

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