David Niven's introduction to Tinseltown was a blast but tragedy

The Hollywood dream that became a nightmare: From playing a debauched drunk to being interviewed by Mae West, David Niven’s introduction to Tinseltown was a blast… but as our third extract from his memoir reveals, tragedy was just around the corner

Suffering from the corona blues? Then there’s no better tonic than David Niven’s brilliantly uproarious memoirs. 

In yesterday’s extract, he relived the riotous, love-fuelled parties that made him realise that he was much better suited to life outside the Army. 

But, as he reveals here, forces beyond his control soon dragged him back…

Newly arrived in California, I was staying with the film star Loretta Young (above) and her family, and they were smuggling me in for a glimpse of the dream world

The first time I entered the gates of a Hollywood studio, I was lying on the floor of a car, hidden under a rug. 

Newly arrived in California, I was staying with the film star Loretta Young and her family, and they were smuggling me in for a glimpse of the dream world.

The car slipped through Indian villages, jungles, sections of Venice, Wild West streets and past a French chateau beside a lake with a schooner on it, while the pathways between the sound stages teemed with cowboys, Southern gentlemen, soldiers, troupes of dancers and willowy showgirls. I just gaped.

What a strange, wonderful, secret world. It pulled me like a magnet.

The office of Central Casting was down on Western Avenue. I thought that all I had to do was enrol but a forbidding sign hung outside the building: ‘Don’t try to become an actor. For every one we employ, we turn away a thousand.’ I was one of the thousand they turned away, as soon as they discovered I didn’t have a work permit.

A few days later, at a party, I was introduced to the actor Robert Montgomery, who was hugely amused at the thought of me being smuggled under a blanket. He promised to ensure a more dignified entrance, and soon I was once again driven through the studio gates, this time in the passenger seat of his sports Bentley. Bob was such a big star that the security men saluted as we rolled in.

The great director Edmund Goulding, dressed in the uniform of white slacks, blue blazer and silk neckerchief, looked me over. 

‘Ever done any acting?’ he asked and I had to admit that I had no experience to speak of.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘I’m looking for a new face to play a drunken dissolute.

‘Come and have dinner, and tomorrow you can make a screen test.’

I was to play a test with Olivia de Havilland but, as I walked out on to the set, having just watched half a dozen hopefuls try the scene and fail, Curtiz called out: ‘Where’s your script?’

Goulding and his wife Marjorie insisted that I stayed the night at their home. ‘You can sleep and shave here,’ he said, ‘but I want this test made exactly as you are now — in that dinner jacket.’

The next morning I presented myself to Harry Bouquet, the test director, on stage 29 at MGM. I had been painted a strange yellow ochre by Bill Tuttle in the make-up department and my eyes and lips were made up like a Piccadilly tart.

Harry, a frustrated man, was in a hurry. ‘I’ve got six of these goddamned things to get through by lunchtime — waddya gonna do?’

Out of my panic and my subconscious came a very old schoolboy limerick: ‘There once was an old man of Leeds/ Who swallowed a packet of seeds/ Great tufts of grass/ Shot out of his a***/ And his c*** was covered in weeds!’

‘Cut!!!’ Harry loomed up again. ‘Waddya trying to do for Chrissakes? Get me fired? Everybody sees these things. Now tell me a story or summat . . . and keep it clean!’

The next day Goulding called me with the news that my test had been pretty bad: ‘You were all frozen up.’ But Harry had been right when he said everyone got to see these things because, a few days later, I got a call from Paramount. Mae West wanted to interview me as her possible leading man.

I was ushered into a huge office and seated behind a Mussolini-type desk was a small, round, platinum-blonde woman flanked by assistants on both sides. She never spoke. The men asked various questions, and then asked me to take off my jacket. And my shirt.

After I had turned around a few times, I was told to go and report to the casting office, then wait for a call. The next day I had a visitor I was not expecting. A pale-faced man in a dark suit was waiting for me in the hotel lobby.

‘I’m from the U.S. Immigration Service, Mr Niven. Now let me see . . .’ He had some documents, ‘you arrived in San Pedro four weeks ago. You asked for and were granted a ten-day visitor’s visa. You are, therefore, now in this country illegally. You have 24 hours to be off United States territory.’

‘Where the hell do I go?’ I demanded. He intimated that was my problem, not his. So I went over the border to Mexico, took a room for a dollar a night in a loathsome lodging house in Mexicali, and set about applying for a Resident Alien Visa.

I wired my sister Grizel a telegram: ‘Send Birth Certificate Immediately.’ She wired back, ‘Whose Birth Certificate?’ For the next few months, while I waited for my papers to come through, I worked as a ‘gun man’ for Americans who came south to hunt quail. I cleaned and polished the guns in exchange for chili or tortillas.

In January 1935, I hitched back to L.A. with my work visa and presented myself at Central Casting once more. My first job as an extra was playing a Mexican. With my fellow fair-skinned extras, we stood in line to be sprayed with a brown mixture. On some of us they glued moustaches.

Edmund Goulding didn’t have a job for me, but he went one better: he asked his pal Irving Thalberg, the boy genius and master producer of Hollywood, to remark casually at a party: ‘I’m thinking of signing David Niven to a contract on Monday.’

Suddenly, every studio wanted to take a look at me.

Goulding fetched my original test, the one with the limerick, and sent it over to Sam Goldwyn at MGM. I was summoned. Goldwyn was almost entirely bald, with small, intense eyes. He spoke without smiling in a strangely high-pitched voice. 

David Niven is pictured above with first wife Primula. All through the war, I was afraid of Primmie’s grief if I should be killed. But, in the end, the grief was mine

‘I’m giving you a seven-year contract,’ he said. ‘I’ll pay you very little and I won’t put you in a Goldwyn picture till you’ve learned your job.

‘Go out and tell the studios you’re under my contract, and do anything they offer you. Work hard and, in a year or so, if you’re any good, I’ll give you a role.’

Next day, the gossip columnist Louella Parsons headed her piece in the Hollywood Reporter, ‘Goldwyn Signs Unknown!’

My first leading part was as Bertie Wooster in Thank You, Jeeves!, but it was when I auditioned for the gallant friend of Errol Flynn’s doomed hero in The Charge Of The Light Brigade that I really made my mark.

The director was ex-cavalry officer Michael Curtiz, a Prussian infamous for eating actors alive. He was a daunting sight in riding boots and breeches, and carrying a fly whisk.

I was to play a test with Olivia de Havilland but, as I walked out on to the set, having just watched half a dozen hopefuls try the scene and fail, Curtiz called out: ‘Where’s your script?’ I said that it was only four pages of dialogue and I hoped I could remember it. ‘I asked you where it is!’ he yelled, and when I said it was in the dressing room, he bellowed: ‘Run and get it!’

My uniform was thick and tight. It was 100 degrees in the shade and the sound stage was not air- conditioned. Also, having seen the others humiliated, I reckoned I had no chance of the role anyway. So I yelled back: ‘You f*****g well run and get it yourself!’

His reaction was instantaneous. ‘Dismiss the others — this man gets the part.’ Throughout filming he called me ‘that goddamned Sandhurst man’.

Soon after that I got the one review that I have kept all my life. It appeared in the Detroit Free Press and it read: ‘In this picture we were privileged to see the great Samuel Goldwyn’s latest discovery. All we can say about this actor (?) is that he is tall, dark and not the slightest bit handsome.’

Teased by a twinkling Churchill

When I took up a friend’s invitation to spend a few days’ leave in February 1940 at their country estate, Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, I never imagined I would be spending the weekend with Winston Churchill.

He was not yet Prime Minister and was there with his wife, Clemmie. I arrived just in time for dinner, too late for introductions, and my first sight of him was at the far end of a table with at least 20 guests between us. I had heard that he was an ardent movie goer but I was unprepared for what was about to come. He marched the whole length of the dining room and shook me by the hand.

‘Young man,’ he growled, ‘you did a very fine thing to give up a most promising career to fight for your country.’ Conscious that everyone in the room was listening with interest, I stammered some inane reply. ‘Mark you,’ Churchill continued with a twinkle, ‘had you not done so, it would have been despicable!’

Gradually, as my pictures became more successful, I was pampered and spoiled by the studio and began to get used to the idea that my every whim was catered for. Then Hitler invaded Poland.

I knew I couldn’t stay in California, not when my country was at war. And so I went back to the Army, and joined the Rifle Brigade, before volunteering for the Commandos. We trained for being overrun in an invasion, and planned how to form the nucleus of an underground movement.

While the Battle of Britain was raging, I saw the most beautiful girl, at a cello concert in the National Gallery. I’d walked over from the War Office and suddenly, I knew I was gazing at the most sweet and gentle woman I had ever seen.

I persuaded her to have a sandwich with me, discovered her name was Primmie and that she was a cypher clerk for an RAF reconnaissance squadron, and found out her address: she was staying with a family friend in the middle of Regent’s Park.

With the whole world flying apart at the seams, there was no time for the niceties of a prolonged courtship. That night I called at the house in Regent’s Park and passed in a note, saying that I was outside the door, was considering buying the Park from the King and would like some advice on the dredging of the lake.

Primmie appeared giggling deliciously and invited me in. Two days later I was invited to luncheon to meet her mother and, by the end of the week, I found myself shaking and sweating and being introduced to her father.

My mission was to persuade him to allow his daughter to become my wife.

‘I suppose I ought to ask if you’ve got any prospects,’ he said. ‘Well, that’s bloody silly because the air raid warning has just gone off. I can’t think why you want to marry her. She can’t cook and she can’t sew.’

War is a great accelerator of events. Ten days later, we were married in the tiny Norman church of Huish village at the foot of the Wiltshire Downs. We were wonderfully in love.

All through the war, I was afraid of Primmie’s grief if I should be killed. But, in the end, the grief was mine.

When the war ended, Sam Goldwyn loaned me out to make a couple of pictures and then recalled me to California.

We bought a house with a view of the Santa Monica mountains and the Pacific ocean, and Primmie fell in love with it. One night soon after we moved in, my friend Tyrone Power and his wife, Annabella, gave us a party.

We had a barbecue around the pool and then went inside to play games. Someone suggested ‘sardines’, a sort of hide-and-seek in the dark. I was hiding under the bed upstairs when I heard Ty calling me.

I rushed downstairs. In the dark, Primmie had opened a door under the stairs, thinking it was a coat closet, and in the darkness had tumbled down a dozen steps into the cellar.

She was unconscious.

In the hospital she looked beautiful but very pale. The surgeons took her into the operating theatre.

Two hours passed before the doctors returned.

I knew. I knew as soon as I saw them come out of the elevator. I knew by the way they walked. I knew by the way they stood murmuring together without looking at me as I waited across the hall.

She was only 25.

Extracted from The Moon’s A Balloon by David Niven, published by Penguin, £9.99. © David Niven 1971.

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