James David Graham Niven was born on 1 March 1910 in London, England, UK and died on 29 July 1983 in Switzerland of motor neurone disease (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) at the age of 73. Bitter, estranged, and plagued by depression, David Niven’s wife Hjördis showed up drunk at the funeral, having been persuaded to attend by family friend Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Hjördis added insult to injury by noting in her will that “under no circumstances” was she to be buried alongside her husband in the place left for her in the crypt in Switzerland.
David Niven was an English Academy Award-winning actor probably best known for his role as the punctuality-obsessed adventurer Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days (1956).
David Niven was the son of William Edward Graham Niven and the French/British Henrietta Julia Degacher who was born in Wales, was the daughter of army officer William Degacher (who changed his original name of Hitchcock to his mother’s maiden name of Degacher in 1874 and Julia Caroline, the daughter of Lieutenant General James Webber Smith. James was named David for his birth on St. David’s Day. Although he often claimed to have been born in Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland in 1909, it was only after his birth certificate was checked following his death that this was found to be incorrect.
David’s father was killed during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 and his mother remarried Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt. In his biography, NIV: The Authorised Biography of David Niven, Graham Lord suggests that Comyn-Platt had been conducting an affair with David Niven’s mother for some time prior to her husband’s death, and that Sir Thomas may well have been David Niven’s biological father, a supposition not without some support from her children.
After attending Stowe as a boy, David Niven trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, which gave him the “officer and gentleman” bearing that was to be his trademark. Although he had done well at Sandhurst, David Niven did not enjoy his time in the regular Army, in part because he was not accepted for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on which he had set his heart. David served for 2 years in Malta and 2 years in Dover with the Highland Light Infantry. While on Malta, he became acquainted and friendly with Captain Roy Urquhart, who would later lead the British 1st Airborne Division in the ill-fated Operation Market-Garden.
David Niven grew tired of the peacetime Army and saw no opportunity for promotion or advancement. As he related in his memoirs, his ultimate decision to resign came after a lengthy lecture on machine guns, which was interfering with his plans for dinner with a particularly attractive young lady. At the end of the speech, the major general giving the lecture asked if there were any questions. Showing the typical rebelliousness of his early years, David Niven stated that he felt compelled to ask, “Could you tell me the time, sir? I have to catch a train.”
After being placed under close arrest for this act of insubordination, David Niven claims to have finished a bottle of whisky with the officer who was guarding him and, with the connivance of the latter, escaped from a 1st floor window. En route across the Atlantic, David Niven sent a telegram resigning his commission. David Niven relocated to New York, where he began an unsuccessful career in whisky sales and horse rodeo promotion in Atlantic City. After subsequent detours to Bermuda and Cuba, he finally arrived in Hollywood in the summer of 1934.
According to his autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon, David Niven arrived in Hollywood to try to break into the movies by first finding work as an extra. David was given lodgings with the Belzer family, one of whose daughters – Gretchen – was already a major Hollywood star, under her stage name of Loretta Young. When he presented himself at the doors of Central Casting, he found out that he had to have a work permit, to allow him to reside and work in the U.S. Luckily for him, he was given the chance to do a screen test for director Edmund Goulding. Unfortunately, it was not long after this that he was paid a visit by the U.S. Immigration Service and told he had to apply for a Resident Alien Visa.
This meant that David Niven had to leave U.S. soil in the meantime, and again, according to his autobiography, he left for Mexico – specifically Mexicali – where he worked as a “gun-man”, cleaning and polishing the rifles of the visiting Americans who came there to hunt quail and various other game. After a lengthy wait for his birth certificate to be sent out from England, he successfully applied – and received – his Resident Alien Visa from the American Consulate. David then returned to the U.S. and was accepted by Central Casting as “Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2008.”
David Niven’s first work as an extra was as a Mexican in a Western. This inauspicious start notwithstanding, he then found himself an agent – Bill Hawks. After this, he was then signed up for a non-speaking part in MGM’s “Mutiny On The Bounty” (1935), starring Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh.
David Niven then landed a long-term contract as a supporting player with independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn, which firmly established his career and enabled him to become a leading man in many films. Given his privileged English upbringing, David Niven had no problems infiltrating what became known as the Hollywood Raj, a select group of British actors who had made Hollywood their home. Other members of the group, included Boris Karloff, Stan Laurel, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman and their self appointed leader C. Aubrey Smith. One of his 1st major roles was in The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936, in which he starred alongside one of his closest friends Errol Flynn. A year later he starred as Capt. Fritz von Tarlenheim in 1937’s The Prisoner of Zenda with C Aubrey Smith and Ronald Colman. However, not wanting to be typecast as a ‘swashbuckler’ as Errol Flynn had been, David Niven also made films in a light hearted vein such as the 1939 RKO comedy Bachelor Mother with Ginger Rogers, and Raffles, in which he played a gentleman thief.
After the United Kingdom declared war in 1939, David Niven was one of the 1st British actors to return to England. David rejoined the British Army. 1st serving with the Rifle Brigade, David Niven was assigned to a motor training battalion. David Niven later interviewed for a position with the British Commandos, and was assigned to a training base at Inverailort House in the Western Highlands of Scotland. David Niven would later claim credit for introducing British hero Robert Laycock to the Commandos. Working with the Army Film Unit, he also took part in the deception campaign, using a minor actor M.E. Clifton James, a Montgomery lookalike, to convince the Germans that the D-Day landings would be made in the Mediterranean. Promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by General Frederick E. Morgan and assigned as a liaison officer between the British Second Army and the First United States Army, David Niven took part in the Normandy landings, arriving several days after D-Day. David acted in 2 films during the war, both of strong propaganda value: The First of the Few (1942) and The Way Ahead (1944). During his war service, his batman was Private Peter Ustinov (with whom he would later co-star in Death on the Nile).
David Niven remained politely, but firmly, close-mouthed about the war, despite public interest in celebrities in combat and a reputation for telling good stories over and over again. David 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, David Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.” David Niven also had special scorn for the newspaper columnists covering the war who typed out self-glorifying and excessively florid prose about their meagre wartime experiences. David Niven stated, “Anyone who says a bullet sings past, hums past, flies, pings, or whines past, has never heard one − they go crack.” One story has surfaced: about to lead his men into a battle with an expectation of heavy casualties, David Niven supposedly eased their nervousness by telling them, “It’s all very well for you chaps, but I’ll have to do this all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!”
David Niven did, however, finally open up about his war experience in his 1971 autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon, mentioning his private conversations with Winston Churchill, the bombings, and what it was like entering a nearly completely destroyed Germany with the occupation forces. David Niven stated that he first met Winston Churchill during a dinner party in February 1940 when Winston Churchill singled him out from the crowd and stated, “Young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country. Mark you, had you not done so − it would have been despicable.”
In spite of a 6 year virtual absence from the screen, he came 2nd in the 1945 Popularity Poll of British film stars. On his return to Hollywood after the war, he was made a Legionnaire of the Legion of Merit, the highest American order that can be earned by a foreigner. This was presented to Lt. Col. David Niven by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
David Niven was actually a member of the specialist Phantom Signals Unit, and was responsible for reporting and locating enemy positions, bomb lines and also keeping rear Commanders up to date on changing battle lines. David Niven was posted at one time to Chilham in Kent. Dwight Eisenhower was so disappointed with communications difficulty on D-Day that he personally ordered a Phantom Unit to be attached to his headquarters.
David Niven resumed his career after the war, with films such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) (as Phileas Fogg), The Guns Of Navarone (1961), and The Pink Panther (1963).
The same year as he hosted the show with Jack Lemmon and Bob Hope, David Niven won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Separate Tables (1958). David Niven had a long and complex relationship with Samuel Goldwyn, who had first given him his start, but whom David Niven believed had been treating him unfairly. Despite their long business history, David Niven and Samuel Goldwyn went through an 8 year estrangement in which David Niven was essentially blacklisted from the movie industry after demanding greater compensation for his work. After winning the Academy Award, David Niven received a telephone call from Samuel Goldwyn with the invitation that he should come to his home. David Niven claimed that he was in Samuel Goldwyn’s drawing room when he noticed a picture of him in uniform that he had sent to Samuel Goldwyn from England during World War II. David claimed that in happier times with Goldwyn, he had observed this same picture sitting on top of Samuel Goldwyn’s piano. Now years later, the picture was still in the exact same spot. David Niven claimed that as he was looking at the picture, Samuel Goldwyn’s wife, Francis, approached him and said, “Sam never took it down.”
David Niven had in fact been Ian Fleming’s preference for the part of James Bond, however EON Productions chose Sean Connery for their series. In 1967, he starred with Deborah Kerr and Barbara Bouchet in the James Bond satire, Casino Royale. In a documentary included with the U.S. DVD of the 1967 release of Casino Royale, Charles K. Feldman states that Ian Fleming had written the book with David Niven in mind, and therefore sent a copy of the book to David. David Niven is the only James Bond actor who is mentioned by name in the text of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond visits an exclusive ski resort in Switzerland where he is told that David Niven is a frequent visitor and in You Only Live Twice, David Niven is referred to as the only real gentleman in Hollywood.
Late in life, he gained critical acclaim for his memoirs of his boyhood and acting career, The Moon’s a Balloon (1971) and Bring On the Empty Horses (1975). Although it has since come to light that despite David Niven’s frequent recounting of anecdotes about Hollywood in a manner that suggested that he had been personally involved at the time, in many cases he had not in fact been a witness to them and he was merely embroidering stories he had heard at third hand.
Perhaps one of David Niven’s finest moments came when he had to present the 46th Annual Oscars ceremony, and a naked man appeared behind him, running across the stage. Not to be outclassed or nonplussed even for a moment, David Niven came back with the one liner “Isn’t it fascinating to think, that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life, is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings!”
After a whirlwind 2 week romance in 1940, David Niven married Primula Susan Rollo (1918, London – 21 May 1946, Beverly Hills, California), the aristocratic daughter of a British lawyer. The couple had 2 sons, David Jr. and Jamie. Primula died at age 28, only 6 weeks after moving to America, of a fractured skull and brain lacerations from an accidental fall in the home of Tyrone Power. While playing hide and seek, she walked through a door believing it led to a closet. Instead, it led to a stone staircase to the basement. David Niven recalled this as the darkest period of his life, years afterwards thanking his friends for their patience and forbearance during this time. David later claimed to have been so grief stricken that he thought for a while that he’d gone mad. David eventually rallied and returned to film making.
David Niven met Hjördis Paulina Tersmeden (née Genberg, 1921–1997), a divorced Swedish fashion model and frustrated actress, in 1948. The moment of his meeting her was recounted by David Niven in what might be a classic example of his writing style:
I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life – tall, slim, auburn hair, uptilted nose, lovely mouth and the most enormous grey eyes I had ever seen. It really happened the way it does when written by the worst lady novelists…I goggled. I had difficulty swallowing and had champagne in my knees.
They married 10 days later.
In October 1951, while pheasant shooting with friends in New England, Hjördis was shot in the face, neck and chest by 2 of David Niven’s companions. While convalescing in the Blackstone Hotel in New York, David Niven and Hjördis were next door neighbours with Audrey Hepburn, who made her debut on Broadway that season. In 1960, while filming Please Don’t Eat the Daisies with Doris Day, David Niven and Hjördis separated for a few weeks, though they later reconciled.
They had 2 adopted daughters, Kristin and Fiona, one of whom has long been rumored to be David Niven’s child by another fashion model, Mona Gunnarson. The marriage was as tumultuous as David Niven’s previous marriage had been happy. Thwarted from pursuing an acting career, Hjördis was reported as having affairs with other men and became an alcoholic.
In February 1983, using a false name to avoid publicity, David Niven was hospitalised for 10 days for treatment, ostensibly for a digestive problem. Afterwards, he returned to his chalet at Chateau d’Oex in Switzerland, where his condition continued to decline. David refused to return to the hospital, and his family supported his decision.
According to Graham Lord, who wrote a biography on David Niven, called simply “Niv”, Lord writes that there have been reports that some have accused David Niven of being especially friendly to people who could have done him some good. Graham Lord also says that “the biggest wreath, worthy of a Mafia Godfather’s funeral, was delivered from the porters at London’s Heathrow Airport, along with a card that read: “To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. David Niven made a porter feel like a king.”
David Niven died on the same day as Raymond Massey, his co-star in The Prisoner of Zenda and A Matter of Life and Death. David Niven had just completed work on Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther. David was incomprehensible at times during the filming of both movies, and his voice was dubbed over in post-production by impressionist Rich Little, a fact that David Niven later learned through a gossip column.
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