Titans of Style: David Niven

Titans of Style: David Niven

When one thinks of Old Hollywood glamour, the image of actor David Niven is never very far away. Niven was a much-adored icon, and, we might add, one of the most suave men of his generation, or any generation for that matter, thanks to his astute eye for sartorial finesse. But beyond his finely tuned exterior aesthetic, Niven was also a true gentleman, living life to the full: 

“Life to me, I guess, is a sort of super Grand National Steeplechase, with all sorts of hurdles to jump over and places to fall down,” Niven once said. “The trick is not to worry about winning, but to get around the course as best you can without doing any damage to the other riders and certainly not to the other horses.”

Born on March 1, 1910, in Kirriemuir, Scotland, James David Niven was the son of an army reserve lieutenant who died in the Gallipoli Campaign when the actor was only 5 years old. Money was not abundant during Niven's childhood and the family moved to England in order to seek out better prospects. A precocious boy, Niven moved from school to school, constantly butting heads with over-zealous taskmasters for teachers, which resulted in more than one expulsion. In a later interview, even Niven himself admitted that he must have been “a thoroughly poisonous little boy.”

Like many boys of that ilk, the path to adulthood was laid in the military, and so Niven tried his luck at officer training at Sandhurst. He served three years as a lieutenant in a Scottish infantry regiment, mostly stationed on the island of Malta where the only real 'action' he saw was on the polo pitches. Niven's mouth would once again get him into trouble in 1932, when he insulted a General, and was promptly dismissed. The next few years were listless and without direction, punctuated by odd jobs and eccentric projects, from a wholesale liquor salesman in New York, rodeo promoter in Atlantic City.

Despite not knowing what to do for his career, Niven nevertheless kept up spirits, thanks in large part to a vast and diverse network of contacts that he had built up. Niven was a social beast, picking up riends and making new acquaintances wherever he went. When he eventually found himself in California, he was smuggled into Fox Studios beneath a rug in the limousine of his friend, the American actress Loretta Young! It was during that caper that he actually fell in love with the film industry and began to entertain the idea of becoming an actor. But like many other young men chasing stardom, the early years were a struggle, with Niven only able to capture extras roles for a pittance. He almost gave up entirely, but for a chance incident when Samuel Goldwyn saw his original screen test and elt like there was some potential, so much so that he offered Niven a 7-year contract for $100 a week. The rest would be up to the young actor.

The years that followed were some of Niven's most memorable, as the actor began to make great friends with some of the ra's biggest names. He even shared a beach house with Errol Flynn which they called ‘Cirrhosis by the Sea’, and he called the likes of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Fred Astaire great friends. But when World War II erupted, Niven returned to England and joined an infantry regiment, before volunteering for the Commando unit! He served in Normandy, where he would meet his first wife Primula Rollo. She was the love of his life, and the mother of his two children, but she would also be the great loss of his life, after falling down a flight of stairs at a friend’s house in California playing what amounted to hide and seek. It was a bizarre tragedy that Niven never really got over.

As Niven's screen time was winding down, the actor made the very astute decision to invest in a TV production company, starting Four Star Productions with Dick Powell and Charles Boyer. It turned out to be an excellent and very lucrative decision, giving one unknown actor by the name of Steve McQueen his big break. Niven made a fortune, and with Hollywood losing its charm, he decided to move his family to Europe, namely Cap Ferrat in the South of France where the actor lived out his days in splendour, immaculately dressed as always in summer tailoring, lunching with Princess Grace and Prince Ranier.

Image credits: Getty






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