A leopard on a leash, a shark in the pool and party girls galore

A leopard on a leash, a shark in the pool and party girls galore: In our second extract from his sparklingly stylish memoirs, DAVID NIVEN tells of his U.S. summer of love

It’s one of the most wickedly entertaining memoirs ever written — a perfect remedy to cheer you up in these turbulent times. On Saturday, in our first extract from David Niven’s racy book, the Hollywood actor revealed how a chance encounter with a Piccadilly prostitute soon developed into his first longstanding affair. But, as he reveals here, she was just the first in a long list of scandalous romances… 

At 18 years old, my love life was hopelessly complicated. I had a heart like a hotel and every room was booked. 

For four years I had been carrying on passionately with Nessie, my darling Piccadilly prostitute. 

But she always warned me against monogamy: ‘Don’t go gettin’ serious wiv me, dear, or you’ll spoil it.’ 

While I was at Sandhurst, the school for trainee Army officers, I took her at her word. 

In 1928, still in my teens, I had every intention of a career in the military, but I was also indelibly stage struck. 

Portrait of actress Lili Damita (1904-1994) wearing a lace-trimmed dress with a train, for MGM Studios, 1930

I told Nessie that I had met a beautiful young actress playing in a West End naval comedy. 

Her name was Ann Todd and she was not yet a film star. Ann was infinitely glamorous. 

I had an allowance of five pounds a month so I was not exactly a well-heeled ‘stage-door Johnny’, but Ann was often sent free tickets for the opening of restaurants and nightclubs, which helped enormously. 

If the Army had allowed me to remain indefinitely in London, it might have suited me very well. 

From the first, however, it appeared that the top brass and I took a different view of life.

 After sitting my final exams, I was given a War Office form to fill in, headed: ‘Name in order of preference three regiments into which you desire to be commissioned.’ 

There was never any doubt about the first — my father’s old r­egiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 

Second, I put the Black Watch, because they too wore the kilt. 

For my third choice, I wrote: ‘Anything but the Highland Light Infantry.’ 

Somebody at the War Office was funnier than I was because I was commissioned into the Highland Light Infantry. 

After some months of training, we were sent to Malta, to ensure order on the island despite the best efforts of Mussolini’s Italians to stir up unrest. 

The Marsa Polo Club near the port of Valletta was the smart place to be — smart in the most colonial sense of the word. 

It was suburbia on horseback, all parasols and fraightfully refained voices. Still, I thrived on it. Girls there were in plenty. 

Apart from the daughters of senior officers and officials, there were the hundreds of young and lonely wives of naval officers whose husbands were away at sea. 

In addition to these, Malta had its own ‘Fishing Fleet’ — a motley collection of passed-over debs and pink-cheeked country cousins who timed their annual arrival to coincide with the return after many months at sea of several thousand sex-starved mariners. 

David Niven in the 1956 version of Around the World in 8-Days

There was a professionally languid captain in the Headquarters wing who wore a monocle. 

His wife was very pretty in a sort of chocolate-boxy way, and could have been described in polite society as a flirt. 

I had, it’s true, nibbled her ear and snapped her garter a couple of times while watching the polo from her car, but nothing more, so I was all unsuspecting when a runner informed me that the captain wished to see me immediately in his company office. 

I entered and saluted. He was busy looking over some ammunition returns with the Quartermaster Sergeant. 

I fidgeted around for a while but he still did not look up. Finally, head still down, he spoke: ‘Niven, are you very much in love with my wife?’ 

My toes tried to grip the floor through my brogues to stop me from keeling over. ‘No, sir — not at all, sir,’ I murmured and then, for no apparent reason, I added: ‘Thank you very much, sir.’ 

‘Well, if you’re not,’ said the Captain, putting some papers in a folder, ‘be a good chap, don’t go telling her you are — upsets her, you know.’ I saluted the top of his head and withdrew. 

After that I decided to be a good deal more selective in my nibbling and snapping. 

It was my relationships with women that, in various ways, ended my military ambitions. 

First came a letter from Nessie. She had never been a great correspondent and this missive filled me with unease. 

It ended ominously: ‘I’ve a bit put by now, dear, and I’ve found a bloke who might suit very nicely, so I might say thanks ever so and p*** off to America. 

‘He knows all about me and says it makes no difference. Love Nessie.’ 

When I arrived in London for further training, I gathered from her friends and co-workers that she’d left to get married in Seattle. 

Most unreasonably, I felt jealous and jilted. I never did see her again.

Shortly after this, my grandmother died. I remember her as a very beautiful old lady. She left me £200. 

I immediately invested about half this windfall in a secondhand Morris Cowley and gleefully entered the London social scene. 

Soon I found myself on the Mayfair hostesses ‘lists’ as they were desperately short of available young men — and every post brought its quota of invitations to debutantes’ parties or weekends in smart country houses. 

One evening at a dance I met a petite, snub-nosed blonde, a very pretty American girl with the smallest feet I had ever seen. 

Her name was Barbara Hutton, heiress to the Woolworth fortune and undoubtedly one of the richest debutantes in the world. 

At the time she was engaged to Alex Mdivani, a Georgian prince. 

A gay and sparkling creature, full of life and laughter, Barbara became a great ally of mine at some of the more pompous functions. 

When she left London she made me promise to come to New York for Christmas. 

British actor David Niven (1910 – 1983) in his New York City hotel suite on his return to the US after wartime service in the British Army, 1946

I don’t supposed I would have taken her up on the offer, except that in November 1932 I was called to the telephone and found myself talking for the first time in more than three years to my stepfather, Tommy. 

‘Your mother is very ill,’ he said. ‘She is in a nursing home in London and you should come and see her immediately.’ 

I quickly obtained leave and rushed to Queen’s Gate. Although I had seen her only a few weeks earlier, she was so ravaged now by cancer that I was utterly horrified by what I saw. 

She did not recognise me before she died. I went back to Aldershot in a sort of daze. 

I could not comprehend what had happened and endlessly chastised myself for always taking my mother’s presence for granted. 

My commanding officer, Colonel Smollett, was a father figure who suggested that, as I had four weeks’ leave coming, I should go far away and be with people who would not remind me of my gnawing grief. 

It was then that I remembered Barbara Hutton’s invitation. I cabled to ask if she really meant it, and she telegraphed back: ‘Come at once.’ 

I flogged the Morris Cowley, and embarked on the SS Georgic to throb my way to New York. 

Throb was the word: I had the cheapest berth on the ship, directly above the propellers. 

Barbara met me at the docks with two or three carloads of friends. I was a bit of a freak in the United States in those days, as the vast majority of people had never met a Briton or heard an English accent. 

The days flew by. There were girls everywhere, glorious golden ones, and parties, love-making, overwhelming generosity on all sides. 

We drove down to Florida to fish for marlin in the blue gulf stream, and danced in roofless restaurants. 

Lili Damita, a gorgeous French actress, paraded about with a leopard on a leash, and Winston Guest put a shark in his mother’s swimming pool. 

I hoped it would never end, but suddenly I had missed the last plane back to New York where I was to catch an ocean liner home.

Knowing that I could not avoid overstaying my Army leave, I sent a telegram to the C.O. — ‘DEAR COLONEL MAGNIFICENT OPPORTUNITY BIG GAME HUNTING WHALE FISHING FLORIDA REQUEST ONE WEEK EXTENDED LEAVE’. 

A week would give me time to catch the boat and head for home. If permission was not granted I would be in deep trouble. 


When I finally arrived home in Britain, after a crescendo of parties, I realised with a tinge of shame that I had hardly thought of my mother. 

Oh, the callousness of youth. After that, I could never adjust again to life in the Army. I was ineluctably drawn to the world of theatre. 

Through my friendship with Ann Todd, I met a brilliant young actor who would later become godfather to my first child and, later still, a baron — Laurence Olivier. 

I played golf with silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks, and appeared before the cameras in my first role, as an extra in a B-picture about racing called All The Winners. 

And I continued to enjoy a life of champagne and dances, while somehow ensuring I turned up for parade on Monday mornings. 

This could not continue. One warm day on Salisbury Plain, my unit was training with the Vickers Mark IV machine gun, which was hot work, and the chief instructor, a colonel, ordered all men to remove their overalls and shirts. 

Most did. I didn’t. ‘Mr Niven,’ barked the colonel, ‘you may remove your overalls.’ ‘No thank you, sir, I have a sniffle.’ 

‘Remove your overalls, Mr Niven!’ Reluctantly I obeyed, and stood in the middle of Salisbury Plain in my party togs from the night before: white tie, stiff collar, shirt and white waistcoat, with the regiment’s Glengarry cap still perched on my head. 

After that I was a marked man. On the last day of machine-gun training, under the scorching tin roof of an Army hut, I fretted about catching the late train to London for a weekend of parties… while a major-general droned on interminably about fields of fire, close support and trajectories. 

Finally, he closed his notes and asked for questions. I couldn’t help myself. My hand shot up and, prompted by years of pent-up frustration with the Army, these words came out of my mouth: ‘Could you tell me the time, please? I have a train to catch.’ 

That night in the guardhouse, I shared a bottle of whisky with the sergeant standing watch over me and, when he staggered off to answer a call of nature, I escaped through the window. 

Somehow I drove to London without ending in a ditch and, after I sobered up, was appalled at what I’d done. 

There was no way back. I sent another telegram to my long-­suffering C.O. – ‘DEAR COLONEL REQUEST PERMISSION RESIGN COMMISSION LOVE NIVEN’ — and sailed for Canada in the morning. My career in the New World got off to a lumpy start. 

At first I tried journalism, selling four articles about fox-hunting to a newspaper in Ottawa which I shamelessly cribbed from an obscure book on a friend’s shelf. 

After that, I threw in my lot with some pals who planned to hold indoor horse races. The less said about that, I feel, the better. 

My luck was often no better in other, more romantic ventures. During the bitter winter of ’32-’33, I went skating on a pond near Greenwich Village, and accidentally knocked over a girl who was performing figures-of-eight. 

She was terribly pretty, with auburn hair, and after I bought her a hot chocolate as an apology, she gave me her number. 

Or I thought she did. When I rang a few days later, another woman answered. She had a most attractive voice, so I decided to press on. 

She said she was married to a lawyer who worked downtown, and naturally I suggested we might have lunch…uptown. 

There was a tiny intake of breath. I waited for her to put down the receiver. She didn’t. 

‘How do I know you’re not a murderer or a kidnapper or something?’ she asked. 

‘Name any street corner you like,’ I said. ‘I’ll wear a blue-and-white spotted scarf and a red carnation, and you can drive by to have a look at me. 

‘If you feel I don’t look like a murderer or a kidnapper, we can have lunch.’ A long, long pause. 

Finally she said, ‘Madison and 61st, one o’clock,’ and hung up. I was well pleased with myself. 

Carnation and scarf in place, a dozen roses in my hand, I took up position on the coldest corner in New York. 

After half an hour, I couldn’t feel my nose in the sub-zero conditions. After another half an hour, the roses had frozen. 

And just as I was about to slink away, a pretty girl said, ‘Good afternoon, Mr Niven’ — and walked straight past. 

A minute later, two girls came by, arm in arm, ‘Good afternoon, Mr Niven,’ and they were gone. Four went by in a taxi, shouting my name. 

The lawyer’s wife must have been awfully busy rounding up her friends, but her masterstoke was the group of singing telegram girls: ‘We have a message for you, Mr Niven. 

‘One, two, three! Happy lunchtime to you… Happy lunchtime to you… Happy lunchtime, Mr Niven… Happy lunchtime to you!’ 

There was no romantic aftermath. New York clearly didn’t want me. I decided to try my luck elsewhere. 

Scraping together every penny, I bought a berth aboard a dirty old freighter called the President Pierce and set sail, via Cuba and the Panama Canal, for California … and Hollywood. 

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

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