When first published in 1971, The Moon’s A Balloon delighted readers around the world with its uproarious mixture of racy reminiscences and intimate portraits of show-business legends, and it shot to number one on the bestseller list. David Niven had spent thirty years at the heart of Hollywood’s golden age, numbering Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Frank Sinatra amongst his friends. No-one knew the glamorous lifestyle better than he, and no-one was a better or more charming raconteur – ever ready to adapt or appropriate a story to keep others laughing.
From the scrapes that got him expelled from school to his antics in the army (including resigning his commission with a telegram that ended LOVE NIVEN) right up to his days as a studio star, Niven could never resist flouting authority with snappy comebacks. On arrival in Hollywood in 1934 the penniless new-comer enrolled as an extra: ‘Anglo-Saxon type No. 2008’. Barely a year later, he was receiving acting advice from Charles Chaplin, witnessing a fist fight between Errol Flynn and some unruly extras, listening to Sam Goldwyn’s famous sayings (‘include me out’) and crewing Bogart’s yacht Santana. When war came, Niven gave up everything to return to Britain to enlist and his action-packed war service included meetings with Churchill, taking part in the Normandy landings and being arrested by military police for sending a telegram to his lover about his ‘secret weapon’. Niven’s later career was a rollercoaster ride between failure and success, but despite darker interludes including the tragic death of his first wife Primmie, he never lost his charm and irrepressible joie de vivre.
This Folio edition contains a new introduction by film critic Philip French who has first-hand knowledge of how Niven’s well-honed anecdotes became the stuff of legend both in the army and the film industry. The Folio Society has also been entrusted with new photographs from the family archives which are published here for the first time, including a photograph of David Niven on active war service. One of the funniest memoirs ever written, it remains Niven’s wittiest, most memorable performance.
Graham Lord, author of Niv: The Authorised Biography of David Niven (published by Orion), celebrates the irresistible charm and audacious storytelling of the much-loved British actor.
When David Niven’s hilarious autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon was published in 1971, I said in my books column in the Sunday Express that it was one of the funniest memoirs I’d ever read.
Niven was an idolised Hollywood star who had won an Oscar and I was an unknown twenty-eight-year-old hack, yet he sent me a wonderfully polite, handwritten letter to thank me.
‘I am dazzled’, he wrote, ‘that out of the hundreds of possibilities each week you should have reviewed my book, and I am blinded by the generosity of your praise! I am as nervous as a bride about the whole thing.’ He concluded: ‘As it is impossible to be an actor unless you are also an egomaniac, my egomania has received a glorious boost from you for which I am hereby thanking you very much indeed.’
That letter summed up the irresistible charm of a warm, modest, hugely engaging man who enchanted almost everyone he met – except, sadly, his second wife, Hjördis Tersmeden, a beautiful but cruel and unstable Swedish model who made him extremely unhappy.
It took him five painful, hesitant years to write The Moon’s a Balloon, which he called originally Five Sides of a Square, and he was so afraid that it might be an embarrassing failure that he gave several friends £100 each – about £1,000 today – to buy forty copies each on publication day.
In fact the book was an instant, massive success. It shot straight to the top of the British bestseller list and stayed there for weeks. It was reprinted time and again, was back at number one for a second Christmas, was still in the top four eighteen months after publication and enjoyed similar triumphs in paperback and in the USA. Eventually the book sold more than 6 million copies around the world.
Not everyone admired it. Twenty humourless German publishers turned it down. The anti-pornography campaigner Mary Whitehouse attacked the book’s ‘foul language and indecency’. Bart Mills wrote in the Guardian that Niven was surely ‘the most superficial bounder in the whole of civilisation’ and the New York Times reviewer agreed, wondering whether Niven saw anything at all when he looked in the mirror.
Rex Harrison was furious when he read the book – ‘They’re all my stories,’ he howled – and Niven did indeed pinch many of his anecdotes shamelessly from other people, even his son. ‘One of his stories had actually happened to me,’ David Jr told me when I came to write his father’s biography, ‘but he said it had happened to him. I was in a rage. I thought “how can you do that sort of thing? I told you that story.”’
When Niven’s elder brother, Max, resigned from the army he sent his commanding officer a telegram that read: dear colonel request permission resign commission love niven. David liked the story so much that in The Moon’s a Balloon he claimed that he had sent the telegram himself when he resigned from the army in 1933.
His merry career as a blatant plagiarist started early, in 1926, when he was a fifteen-year-old pupil at Stowe and persuaded the editor of the school magazine to publish under his name an amusing short story called A Tailing Party at the Swiss Camp which I discovered he had copied almost word for word from a tale by A. A. Milne in Punch.
Other stories in The Moon’s a Balloon were complete fiction even though Niven insisted that they were true, but another great raconteur, his friend Sir Peter Ustinov, told me that Niven’s fibs were excusable because all great storytelling needs some fictional embellishment. ‘You’re not really telling a lie,’ said Ustinov, ‘you’re just concentrating something into a nugget.’
As Niven’s biographer it was difficult for me to decide whether one of his fibs was serious enough to be exposed or whether it should be ignored. Did it matter that he lied that at Stowe he had played cricket frequently for the 1st XI, rugby for the 1st XV, and had been in the fencing and boxing teams, when in fact he had played for the 1st XV just once and never in the other teams?
His story about how he finally left the army – that he insulted a major general, was placed under close arrest, guarded by a soldier armed with a sword, escaped through a window, and sailed immediately for Canada – was all completely untrue.
He said that he met his first wife at a concert in the National Gallery during the war, but claimed in a different version that when German planes started bombing the RAF station at Biggin Hill he jumped into a trench and landed on her white Pekingese.
He claimed that he joined the 1944 invasion of Europe just after D-Day, landed under ferocious enemy fire on Omaha Beach, ‘fumble-fingered with fear’, and then fought in several vicious battles as the Allies pushed inland. In fact he landed in Normandy several weeks later, probably by aeroplane, and only to find out what the troops thought of the BBC’s programmes, and flew back to England a few days later.
He claimed that he married his second wife just ten days after meeting her. Not so: it was six weeks later. And so his fibs went on and on.
Does it matter? Maybe only to a nit-picking biographer like me. Noël Coward said that Niven was the greatest raconteur he’d ever heard. ‘And he was,’ one of Niv’s closest friends, the showbiz columnist Roderick Mann, told me. ‘I would sit with him, pissing myself with laughter, as everybody else was, while he told a story, and then I’d think, “Wait a minute: I was there and it wasn’t that funny”, and then I realised how he was able to take nothing and make it wonderful.’
Which is why The Moon’s a Balloon is still one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud books I’ve ever read, and why so many millions have taken it into their hearts, and why anyone who has yet to read it has a wonderful treat ahead.