Unbelievably charming. 5 shining Hollywood stars.
One of the bestselling memoirs of all time, David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon is an account of one of the most remarkable lives Hollywood has ever seen.
Beginning with the tragic early loss of his aristocratic father, then regaling us with tales of school, army and wartime hi-jinx, Niven shows how, even as an unknown young man, he knew how to live the good life.
But it is his astonishing stories of life in Hollywood and his accounts of working and partying with the legends of the silver screen – Lawrence Oliver, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward and dozens of others, while making some of the most acclaimed films of the last century – which turn David Niven’s memoir into an outright masterpiece.
An intimate, gossipy, heartfelt and above all charming account of life inside Hollywood’s dream factory, The Moon’s a Balloon is a classic to be read and enjoyed time and again.
I don’t read as much non-fiction as I feel I should, particularly biography and autobiography. So I was stepping outside my comfort zone when I picked up David Niven’s autobiography, taking a chance on it mostly because I’ve always found him charming in films (A Matter of Life and Death is one of my favourites).
And I’m very glad I made the effort because The Moon’s a Balloon is absolutely cracking. “Gossipy” doesn’t do this wonderful series of tales justice. Niven does apologise in the introduction for the name dropping that is to follow and he is not building up false expectations. Every time you think he can’t possibly name a bigger star, he does. Then when he can’t name anyone further up the pecking order of Hollywood royalty he’s rubbed shoulders with, he drops in real royalty and chats with Winston Churchill just for fun.
The overall sense I got from the book was that Niven managed to cram more into his first 20 years than most of us manage in a lifetime. And unlike many autobiographies, he has a real talent for telling a ripping yarn. There is not a dull moment in this book and I was utterly gripped from start to finish.
However, along with the “ripping yarns” comes my only caveat: you have to be happy to take quite a lot of what he tells you with a pinch of salt. This book is like those movies which are “based on true events”, usually meaning the real timelines and finer elements of the truth have been adjusted to make the story more dramatic. This is certainly what Niven does in a few places. I only know this because I live with an incessant fact-checker and when I recounted some of Niven’s stories to him he went off to the internet to check they were 100% true… and well, they weren’t. Not exactly. But Niven’s version is definitely the more entertaining!
That said, he does freely admit that there were a few times in his life when he behaved unforgiveably and I was pleased to see these displays of self-awareness, especially given that I suspect other more difficult aspects of his life (particularly his relationship with his second wife) were heavily glossed over. And he certainly doesn’t try to disguise his drinking. I honesly don’t know how he lived to 73. His poor liver.
Many of us have been stuck in one place lately, not getting out or up to as much as we’d like. If you’re in need of a vicarious escape into a more exciting, glamorous world, this is a terrific book.
Overall: top stuff. I’ve already put the second volume of his autobiography on my TBR list to enjoy the next time I need to be swept up in some serious Hollywood glamour.