Bored of life in lockdown? Then allow yourself to be transported into the magical world of Hollywood’s golden age through the pages of British film star David Niven’s hilarious memoirs.
In yesterday’s extract, he described how he fell for his second wife Hjordis and fell out with the movie mogul Sam Goldwyn. Today he lifts the lid on the his relations with the Hollywood press pack.
Hollywood was awash with stars jumping into bed. But as David Niven reveals in the latest extract from his glorious memoirs, the suavest British actor of all chased women with abandon — and proved to be a master in the art of seduction…
Two people above all in Hollywood could help careers, finish careers and make private lives hell: the gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
Hedda, who wrote for the Los Angeles Times, and Louella, whose flagship was the Los Angeles Examiner, had power out of all proportion to their ability and a readership out of all proportion to their literacy.
They had delusions of grandeur and skins like brontosauruses.
Louella — short, dumpy and dowdy, with large brown eyes and a carefully cultivated vagueness of manner — was a Catholic, married three times: firstly to a real estate man, secondly to a riverboat captain and thirdly to a doctor who specialised in venereal diseases.
Hedda was tall, thin and elegant with large blue eyes and a brisk, staccato way of demanding replies rather than asking questions.
Of Quaker stock, she had been married only once — to a four-times divorced stage actor 27 years her senior whom she herself divorced when she caught him cheating on her.
Louella and Hedda were an unlikely couple, but they had one thing in common: they loathed each other.
Hollywood folklore insisted that Louella held her job with W.R. Hearst because she knew literally where the body was buried.
David Niven, pictured, reveals in the latest extract from his glorious memoirs, the suavest British actor of all chased women with abandon — and proved to be a master in the art of seduction
In 1924, Hearst had organised a trip aboard his yacht, Oneida. Among others on board were Louella and the producer, Thomas Ince. Far out in the Pacific, so the story went, Hearst entered the cabin of his mistress, Marion Davies, and found her thrashing around naked beneath a similarly unclothed Ince.
An altercation followed during which Hearst shot Ince. He then carried the body on deck and dumped it over the side.
Louella, who was dozing unseen in a deck-chair, was supposed to have heard the splash and reached the rail just in time to see the dead producer bobbing past — and, to cap the legend, Hearst was supposed to have told Louella to keep her mouth shut, in exchange for which she was promised a job for life.
The two major flaws in that story were, firstly, that Ince in fact left the yacht in San Diego, suffering from indigestion, took the train to Los Angeles and died there two days later of a heart attack. Secondly, Louella Parsons was never a member of the yachting party.
Hedda was a striking looking woman, who spent every cent on her clothes: sparkling company too, always equipped with the latest juicy pieces of information. Eleanor Patterson, the publisher of the Washington Times-Herald, became so captivated by Hedda’s brittle and spicy observations about Hollywood that she invited her to write a weekly newsletter that was soon syndicated across America.
The publicity hungry citizens of Hollywood wondered constantly how to ‘plant’ a story with one while still keeping the amiability of the other? How to give the story of an impending marriage or divorce to one, without incurring the implacable wrath of the other?
At every Hollywood breakfast table or office desk, the day started with an avid perusal of the columns of Parsons and Hopper.
The fact that many had paid their press agents to make up lies and exaggerations and then ‘plant’ these items detracted nothing from the pleasure they got from seeing this nonsense in the morning papers … they even believed it when they saw it.
Pictured: Los Angeles gossip columnist Hedda Hoppa, in 1946
Hedda, in particular, became a little power-mad and soon after the war laid herself wide open to lawsuits when she wrote a book, The Whole Truth And Nothing But. In it she wrote that she had summoned Elizabeth Taylor to her house and tried to dissuade her from marrying Michael Wilding because not only was he too old for her but he had also long indulged in homosexual relations with Stewart Granger.
She had some qualms about printing this passage, however, and one Sunday afternoon she called me to come and see her urgently. She lived in a charming, white house on Tropical Avenue in Beverly Hills — The House That Fear Built, she called it.
As usual, I was given a hefty gin while Hedda toyed with the tonic. Then she came to the point.
‘Isn’t it true,’ she asked, ‘that Michael Wilding was kicked out of the British Navy during the war because he was a homosexual?’
When I had got over the shock of this nonsense, I told her of the actor’s gallant record and explained the true meaning of being ‘invalided’ out of the service.
‘Well,’ she sniffed, ‘I know that he and Stewart Granger once had a yacht together in the South of France and I know what went on aboard that yacht.’
‘So do I,’ I answered, ‘and it’s a miracle that the population of France didn’t double.’
She let out her great hoot of laughter and then read me the passage she had written.
Pictured: Hollywood and gossip columnist Louella Parsons poses for a portrait in Hollywood
I told her I thought she was mad to print it and was bound to get sued if she did, but she said that the publishers wanted her to spice up the book and be more controversial. ‘They won’t sue me,’ she said airily, ‘it would only make it worse for them to drag it into court — they’ll be sore for a while then they’ll forget it.’
In the event, Hedda and her publisher were sued for $3million and had to cough up a hefty settlement and an abject apology.
If our heroines were long on self-importance, they were also the possessors of very short fuses when it came to having their legs pulled.
Ida Lupino and Howard Duff had been happily married for several years: so had Hjordis and I, but for some reason both couples had lately been subjected to a spate of printed rumours. So we decided to have a little fun with Hedda and Louella.
We chose as the battleground a place called Ciros, the ‘hot’ restaurant of the moment and one certain to be infiltrated by spies for both gossip columns.
After dinner at Ida’s home, I called the head waiter and asked for a table to be reserved for me at around midnight. ‘Please don’t seat us near the dancefloor,’ I added. ‘In a dark corner… just for two — you understand.’
Practical joke: Niven and Ida Lupino (above) planned a fake tryst to fool the press
Around midnight, I arrived with Ida Lupino on my arm and the head waiter’s eyebrows shot up into his hair-line.
Vibrating with suppressed excitement, he led us to a dark corner at the far end of the room and stood with eyes glistening as Ida started nibbling my ear.
Somebody wasted no time in getting to the phone because, by the time Ida and I had finished our second drink, a battery of photographers was massing in the bar.
Howard and Hjordis timed their arrival perfectly and the entire restaurant watched spellbound as a jittery head waiter led them to a table as far away as possible from Ida and myself. They made a lovely couple and out of the corner of my eye, I could see Howard draping himself over Hjordis like a tent.
Howard had quite a reputation as a brawler and as I was pretending to be quite ‘high’, there was an expectant hush when Howard suddenly pushed his table over with a crash and rose to his feet. He pointed at me across the room with an accusing finger.
Hjordis tried to restrain her partner as did Ida when I staggered to my feet, though I thought she over-acted a bit by screaming: ‘No, no! David, you must flee! He’ll kill you!’ Shrugging off the clutching hands of women and waiters, Howard and I advanced upon each other from opposite sides of the restaurant.
Photographers, headed by the veteran Hymie Fink, moved expectantly into position as we advanced on each other like two cowboys in an empty street at sunset. At the edge of the now deserted dance floor, with eyes locked, we removed our jackets and rolled up our sleeves.
Then we advanced again and circled each other a couple of times. You could have heard a pin drop… people at the back were standing on chairs.
Suddenly, we sprang, grabbed each other round the waist, kissed on the lips and waltzed slowly round the floor.
The two queens of the columns were not amused. I got calls from both the next day, telling me that they would not tolerate being woken up in the middle of the night over a false alarm.
The first day that Cary Grant, the perfectionist, walked into my house, he went immediately into high gear. He pursed his lips, made clucking noises and set about straightening the pictures.
Body beautiful: Cary Grant was a perfectionist and kept trim through frugal eating and daily workouts
Through the years to come, he made generous efforts to straighten out my private life by warning me of the quirks and peculiarities of various ladies, by giving me complicated advice on how to play a part in a film I was making with him, by telling me which stocks to buy when I could not afford a phone call to a broker, and by promising that he could cure my liking for Scotch whisky by hypnotising me.
These offers of help were spontaneous and genuine, and if they did not noticeably improve my shortcomings, they did at least help me to perceive that if Cary spent a great deal of his time worrying about himself, he spent much more worrying about others.
His perfectionist urge with regard to his own body was nothing short of mystic. He invariably looked, moved and behaved like a man 15 or 20 years his junior. ‘I just think myself thin and it happens’, he was fond of saying, but he conveniently forgot his frugal eating, his daily workouts and his appointments with the masseur.
Early one morning at his Palm Springs hideaway (he was passing through his desert period at the time), I heard loud commands followed by hideous, grunts and splashings. Cary was taking lessons in how to swim the ‘crawl’.
‘Why lessons?’ I asked sleepily from my bedroom window. ‘You swim the crawl beautifully — I’ve seen you do it for years.’
‘I want to do it perfectly,’ he gurgled, and ploughed on.
Cary’s exercises in hypnotism had an equal perfection to them and he certainly cured himself of smoking by saying over and over for weeks, ‘Your fingers are yellow, your breath smells and you only smoke because you are insecure.’
This so impressed Hjordis and I that before long we were lying like stranded tuna on his drawing-room carpet, deeply hypnotised and waiting for him to bring us round again.
It is very easy to write about Cary Grant’s pedigree as an actor, to enthuse over the way he comported himself as a great star and to be amazed at the extraordinary composure he displayed on the screen — appearing utterly relaxed and therefore, like a magnet, drawing the eye of the beholder.
Niven: Hedda lived in a charming, white house on Tropical Avenue in Beverly Hills (stock photo of Beverly Hills) — The House That Fear Built, she called it
But it is another thing to try to describe Cary the private individual, because he was a will-o’-the-wisp. He passed rapidly through his marriages to Virginia Cherrill, Barbara Hutton and Betsy Drake and filled in the gaps between them by falling in and out of love with most of his leading ladies, which, as his output of films was prodigious, underlined the excellence of his physical condition.
‘The trick,’ he said, ‘is to be relaxed. If you can attain true relaxation you can make love for ever.’
Cary was gentle and thoughtful and they all loved him dearly, but he went head-first into the affrays, throwing caution to the wind and quite convinced, in his boundless enthusiasm, that each romance was the one for which he had been put into the world.
If his disillusionments were many, his defeats were few and he always, with great gallantry, took the blame when things went wrong, saying he had been too egocentric to give the union a proper chance.
He showed a great resilience when things didn’t work out, his recipe being ‘to stay within the pattern’ and to try again with another lady of much the same physical appearance as the last.
When he met the earthy Sophia Loren, during the shooting of her first Hollywood picture, Cary fell in love with her — but got over it with typical alacrity after Sophia, not the least ambitious of actresses, suddenly announced that she was marrying her portly producer, Carlo Ponti.
Upon receipt of this news Cary was off like a ﬂash in a gypsy caravan with a younger and more voluptuous edition of Sophia — a bouncing lady called Luba, a Yugoslav basketball player.
Tomorrow: The day Errol Flynn left me at the mercy of a shark.