Travelling with David Niven
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
A member of the original Rat Pack, Errol Flynn’s one-time housemate and rumoured 007 prototype, the phrase ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ could have been invented for David Niven.
A raconteur of style and sophistication, Niven was an actor, sportsman, decorated soldier and friend to a thousand Hollywood stars, with a pithy anecdote for every occasion. His affairs with leading ladies like Merle Oberon and Rita Hayworth and his playboy antics alongside wing men Errol Flynn and Lionel Barrymore, earned him a reputation as one of Hollywood's leading ladykillers.
Read on to discover the man who played Phileas Fogg's favourite real life travel locations, and find out which David Niven films will inspire you to circumnavigate the globe yourself.
Brief biography of an English gentleman
David Niven was born in the UK and attended military school at Sandhurst, followed by a stint in the British army, before heading west in pursuit of the American Dream in the late 1920's. Upon arrival in New York, he became part of the infamous bootlegging trade, working for NYC’s most iconic speakeasy bar, the 21 Club.
Eventually, Niven found his way to Los Angeles in the early days of the Talkies and set his sights on an acting career. He started out as a studio extra and steadily rose through the ranks of 1930's movie stars to become a leading man.
His best films include A Matter of Life & Death, The Bishop's Wife, Separate Tables, The Pink Panther, The Guns of Navarone and the infamous 007 spoof, Casino Royale (a fascinating shell of a film).
In his later years, he became an admired author, writing novels and two wildly popular memoirs; The Moon’s A Balloon and Bring On The Empty Horses. Niv, as he was known to his friends, chose to settle in Europe, alternating between his houses in the South of France and Switzerland, spending time with famous pals like Roger Moore, Gregory Peck, Deborah Kerr and Noel Coward.
David Niven in the USA
In the 1930's Niv lived in Malibu, California with his great friend and fellow playboy Errol Flynn, in a villa wryly known as 'Cirrhosis-By-The-Sea.' His favourite restaurants in LA were Ciros, Romanoffs (both classic hot spots, both are no longer open) and Musso & Frank (which is still going strong) on Hollywood Boulevard.
When not entertaining at his bachelor pad, Niven attended dinner parties laid on by some of the most famous players in Hollywood. In his memoirs, the actor recounts a night at Cole Porter’s house, where, after dinner, Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin competed to entertain guests with their ideas for future musicals. “We lucky guests were at jam sessions of the Gods,” he said.
He loved tennis and preferred the court at the Los Angeles Country Club over the more popular Beverly Hills Hotel court, because, when it came to sport at least, he preferred substance over style. His friendship with Clark Gable led the two men to enjoy fishing trips up north (in a thread-bare log cabin with no frills, in typical Gable, tough guy fashion) and golf weekends at Pebble Beach, Gable’s favourite golf course.
Sailing was another much loved past time of Niv’s; he spent many happy days with pal Humphry Bogart on his yacht, the Santana. Frequent trips to Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, with housemate and wing man Errol Flynn aboard his boat, the Sirocco, led the two men to become the first people in North America to water-ski, at least, according to Niven.
David Niven in Europe
In his home country, he gravitated towards uber exclusive members-only club Les Ambassadeurs in London for dinner (a frequent character in Ian Fleming’s early Bond novels, the club was the setting for Sean Connery’s now legendary introduction as James Bond).
During the war, Niv met his beloved first wife Primmie, in the Café de Paris, where they danced their cares and troubles away all night.
After falling in love with the South of France during the filming of Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse in the late ‘50s, Niven bought a stunning pink villa called Lo Scoglietto in St Jean Cap Ferrat, which, due to some confusion between Niv and his French builders, ended up boasting one of the deepest private pools in Europe. Stars such as Greta Garbo, Gregory Peck and Faye Dunaway would visit regularly to enjoy drinks and freshly caught sea urchins on the magnificent terrace overlooking the Med.
When not entertaining, fishing or lounging by the pool, the Scotch connoisseur could be found propping up the bar at the iconic nearby Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat.
In his highly entertaining autobiography, My Word Is My Bond, Roger Moore notes that Niv loved to walk and would often walk miles back to his hotel from the film set he was working on that day. Niv gives a melancholy account of a walk he took from his pink villa to nearby Villefranche Sur Mer (home of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), in Bring On The Empty Horses:
“I left my house on Cap Ferrat and took the footpath round the end of the Pont, the one used by the douaniers in their search for smugglers. When I came to the Baie de Ville-france I had a glass of wine with my friend Bidou in his little quayside bistro, before walking on past the old fishing village with its sun-washed houses and festoons of multi-coloured laundry, past the 14th century Fort to the Vieux Port… I wandered along the old sea wall looking down at the sad and rejected little fleet sheltered below; many were for sale. Rigging and mooring ropes slapped and creaked in the rising Mistral. The place was full of ghosts.”
Niv and his second wife Hjordis owned a home in another millionaire’s paradise, in the sleepy village of Château D'Oex near Gstaad, Switzerland, a favourite hot spot for superstars like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Brigitte Bardot.
This chic little village grew up around the Institut Le Rosey, one of the most expensive schools in the world, founded in the 1880's. Parents who appreciated the region’s spellbinding Alpine views decided to linger longer and as a result, a slew of fancy chalets and hotels sprung up to accommodate them.
Nowadays, the town centre is dotted with some of the world’s biggest and most expensive brands; Chopard, Prada, Hermes and Louis Vuitton, sitting alongside traditional crêperies and Swiss chocolatiers.
The Niven’s chalet was full of character, featuring an exhaustive library and a wine cellar decorated with murals painted by Niv himself.
David Niven was a lifetime member (and later a board member) of the exclusive Eagle Ski Club alongside best pal Roger Moore. Annual membership cost £25k, earning the restaurant notoriety for selling the most expensive lunch in the world. He was also known to drink and dine at the Hotel Park Gstaad.
Niv loved this area of the world so much that he was buried here, at the Cimetière De Château D'Oex.
5 David Niven films that will inspire you to travel
Around the World in 80 Days
Described by Variety as “the most entertaining global story travelogue ever made,” Mike Todd’s epic 1956 technicolour blockbuster took cinema goers on a spectacular journey across continents, bringing to life the furious fire of Spanish flamenco, the golden royal barge of Siam and the besiegement of the American transcontinental railway by Sioux Warriors. It will come as no surprise to learn that the film won academy awards for its cinematography and production design. Niv is predictably sublime as pernickety English gent Phileas Fogg.
A love letter to the French Riviera of the 1950's, Otto Preminger’s glacial melodrama sees Niv’s playboy Raymond and his daughter Cecile, played by Jean Seburg, live a glamourous but empty life against the back drop of St Tropez. The film, adapted from the novel by 18 year old French writer Françoise Sagan (who became a celebrity herself as a hedonistic writer and artist of the 1960s ) was not a success upon its release in 1958, but it’s now regarded as one of Preminger’s masterpieces. Happily, travellers in search of the beauty on offer in Bonjour Tristesse can stay at the lovely Villa Calypso on La Fossette beach, where much of the film's action takes place, all for a mere €1,500 a week.
The Pink Panther
This much loved globetrotting 1963 crime caper comedy, co-starring Peter Sellers, Claudia Cardinale and the vastly underrated Capucine, was shot in a number of charming locales. Within the first twelve minutes the audience is whisked from Rome to Hollywood to Paris and finally to the affluent slopes of Cortina d'Ampezzo, where most of the film takes place (the hotel where Clouseau is staying is the Miramonti Grand Majestic Hotel). Blake Edward’s classic comedy will have you reaching for your best ski jacket, seeking out ultra chic cabins with faux animal fur rugs, dreamy log fires and lavish apres ski. Fran Jeffries’ sexy samba performance in the middle of the film, which sees Peter Sellars goofing around in the background, is an unexpected treat. Be sure to add it to your classic Hollywood travel playlist. in Cortina d'Ampezzo
Death on the Nile
An all-star cast travel along the Nile in a luxury paddle boat steamer, taking in the glorious sites of Egypt – Abu Simbel, the Sphinx, the Pyramids of Giza, the Karnak temple - in between solving a murder. The film opens at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, which is still a popular choice for discerning travellers today. You can even take a cruise down the Nile in the original ship used in the film, the Steam Ship Sudan, which has 5 belle epoque suites and 18 cabins for you to choose from. If you've always wanted to star in your own Agatha Christie mystery, now's your chance.
The Little Hut
This is one crazy cuckold “comedy.” Yes you read that right, Ava Gardner has her cake and eats it too as she’s shipwrecked on a desert island with her neglectful husband Stewart Granger and his amorous friend, played by David Niven. The majority of the movie was filmed at the iconic Cinecitta Studios in Rome, with the background shots captured in Jamaica but it'll still have you dreaming of desert island living. This movie is a distant 1950's equivalent of Billy Zane and Kelly Brook’s so bad it’s kind of good “erotic” 00's thriller Three, but with golden era stars and a large dose of jaw to the floor casual sexism thrown in. In short, it’s a car crash of a film, but you will enjoy watching these three great stars chew up the scenery and you'll laugh (and groan) at the old fashioned dialogue. Utterly preposterous fun!
Last words go to the hero of this blog post:
"Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going, don't take anything too seriously, it'll all work out in the end."
- David Niven
Sources used for this post:
Bring on the Empty Horses - David Niven
My Wicked, Wicked Ways - Errol Flynn
My Word Is My Bond - Roger Moore