The original David Niven
Wednesday, 13 August 2008
My frame of reference is the opposite of elastic. The only reason I mentioned David Niven the other day is because I’m reading Bring On The Empty Horses, so he’s the only person in my head.
His anecdotes certainly aren’t as weird as Sion Jenkins’s (“Jeremy Bamber and I would often discuss cookery”) but some of them are pretty damn curious.
That’s often because Niven’s prose is so concise. Most people take forever to tell an anecdote, maundering on with ages of unnecessary loose detail. David Niven packs everything in so tightly, it’s like running through a wind tunnel of facts.
“Errol Flynn met his match once. His dog Arno fell overboard and drowned, and a particularly nauseating gossip columnist called Jimmy Fidler wrote a snide piece about Flynn failing to rescue his dog. When we found him sitting with his wife in a nightclub on the Strip, Flynn flattened him with a single punch. Mrs Fidler, however, stuck a fork in Flynn’s ear and they both took him to court for assault.”
That’s it. No detail of the court case. No detail of the dog’s drowning. Just one tight paragraph of canine tragedy, gossip columns, punches, forks in ears and legal action. I know some conversationalists who could really learn from this brevity.
At other times, the anecdotes are odd because David Niven – who seemed so proper and polite, so twinkly and Richard Briersish – is completely unbothered by the most appalling behaviour from his friends. On one occasion, he and Errol Flynn go waterskiing with David Niven’s girlfriend. Flynn then cuts the rope, leaving Niven stranded in the sea, surrounded by sharks, and zooms off in the motor boat to have sex with the girlfriend. Their friendship continues completely unscathed. Niven doesn’t even mention it at dinner.
It’s possible that the other men in Hollywood thought David Niven was the biggest sap of all time. Here’s another story which caused no more than a chuckle from our hero.
“I drove up to Clark Gable’s house with a particularly attractive companion, a happily married lady from San Francisco. Clark’s butler decided that she was just his master’s type, so he slipped an old-fashioned Mickey Finn into my drink and drove me home semi-conscious.”
Dear old Clark! Funny old butler! (No mention of what happened to the lady, stranded among lusty strangers while her drugged date was stretchered home.)
Maybe it’s nothing to do with how forgiving Niven was, or how terrible the others were, and all to do with a strange attitude towards women? Another of the Errol Flynn anecdotes includes a strong candidate, I would argue, for the most inappropriate exclamation mark of all time.
“On the day of his wedding in Nice, with his adoring new wife holding his arm and looking trustingly up into his face, Flynn was handed a document that turned him to stone. A seventeen-year-old French girl, named Denise Duvivier, was accusing him of something she said had occurred aboard his yacht one year before – rape!”
Rape! Another mishap for the old rogue! Luckily, Flynn gets off. The chapter ends with David Niven walking past the mouldering hull of the old yacht, and shedding a tear for all those happy memories.