Dinner Guest Extraordinaire

Whenever I get to play the game of “Name the people you’d like to have over for dinner,” I always enjoy other people’s choices, even though many of them would make me leave the house screaming rather than sit at a table with them. Over the years, of course, my own list has changed as my tastes have changed, or as I’ve encountered or read about people who, in my opinion, would make excellent guests at a dinner table. The people I’d want to have over for dinner, it seems, are always temporary members of my list.

Except for one.

My permanent guest is none other than the late David Niven, the classy actor (Academy Award-winner), legendary seducer of women, (anonymous) war hero and peerless raconteur. 

I’d always enjoyed his acting, even though Niven’s golden years were long before I was born. But what turned me into a fan were his memoirs, The Moon’s A Balloon and his stories of old Hollywood, Bring On The Empty Horses. Both are wonderfully written, both are fine insights to Hollywood’s Golden Age, both are in turn side-splittingly funny and dreadfully poignant, and I have both in hardback. They are among the very few books that I never lend out.

I’m not going to do a potted biography of the man here — there’s a workable bio at Wikipedia, and of course his biography Niv (which I haven’t read because I don’t need to).

Then there are his movies — countless dozens of them — which bear witness to his (self-deprecating) talent. If you want a recommendation, try Separate Tables (for his Oscar-winning performance), or Stairway To Heaven (my favorite of his work, a.k.a. A Matter Of Life And Death). None of his movies are on Netflix, which alone is enough to make me cancel my subscription.

Niven is not a household name anymore, certainly not in America, and that’s a shame, because he embodies just about every quality which goes to make a Real Man (despite being an actor): he was intelligent, witty, charming, well-read, resourceful and brave. (The last comes from knowing that during WWII, he served in the Commandos and the “Phantom” unit — which, typically, Niven never spoke about, and would just change the subject when pressed for details.)

Oh, and here are but two of his many conquests, the exquisite Loretta Young:

…and the kittenish Paulette Goddard:

…neither of which he ever boasted about, of course.

So if you have a rainy afternoon with nothing to do, grab a whisky and copy of The Moon’s A Balloon, and settle in for a wonderful time. There’s no need to thank me; it’s all part of the service.

I just wish I’d known him in person.


  1. An excellent choice! Might I add another one?
    Sir Christopher Lee, who had a similar wartime background that he never spoke of.
    When asked about his wartime service in an interview, said “can you keep a secret?” and as the reporter said yes, and leaned in for the scoop, finished with “so can I”

    1. During the productions of LOTR, Sir Christopher was directed to react a certain way when stabbed- he pointed out, from personal experience, what actually happens.

  2. Many fond memories of David Niven’s movies. One of my favorites was “Happy Anniversary”. I’ll never forget the line, “That wonderful year before we were married. All of the pleasures and none of the responsibilities.”

    But for a dinner guest? Dr. Thomas Sowell.

  3. My favorite Niven film is the disastrous CASINO ROYALE. It’s a train wreck of a movie; five directors (they PLANNED it that way!) and makes no goddamned sense whatsoever. It is also quite often hysterical funny. And a lot of that is down to David Niven playing Sir James Bond (retired in mourning for Mata Hari). I cannot imagine any other act delivering the line (regarding his namesake replacements) “It’s depressing that the term ‘Secret Agent’ has become synonymous with ‘sex maniac'”.

    Permanent dinner guest? I’m split between H. L. Mencken and Rudyard Kipling.

  4. My guest? Dr. Richard Feynman- a man who was interested in pretty much everything, and wasn’t averse to heading out on the town to have a good time.

  5. I would love to have Denis Thatcher as a guest. For a contemporary choice, I’ll choose Nigel Farage.

  6. My choice, for years, has been Jimmy Stewart. A person who I might have met had circumstances allowed, or sufficient ambition to do so existed. He was the first famous person whose passing hit me hard, knowing that in fact my chance to meet him, perhaps shake his hand and thank him for his service in so many different areas was gone.

  7. Wow Kim, lots of activity on the cars and it kind of seems like old times. I have one person I would like to have dinner with so here her is: Robert E. Lee

    One of my heroes growing up in a Southern State was Robert E. Lee and I do think he might have been the smartest general in our nation’s history. I had a Confederate battle flag hanging in my bedroom when I was in high school and in college I joined a group of guys, for awhile, who raised the Confederate battle flag in front or our house every morning and in the second university I attended, we raised the flag and we had a cannon we shot off with black powder from time to time but that was back in the early 1960’s.

    Over the years I have read a lot of history including autobiographies of various generals during our civil war and as I have learned more about world history I am grateful that the South finally lost and we remained the, plural, United States of America. Trying to rework history is a fool’s game but i have a feeling that had the South won the war there would have been encroachment from the North by the Brits through Canada, the Russians on the West Coast from Alaska down and the French from Mexico with the Germans trying to stick their nose in somewhere. It would have been hard to defend our nations from Shore to Shore.

    Having said all of that I think if Robert E. Lee had decided to go with the Union where he might have been put in charge over McClellan the war would have been short and finished and the outcome the same without all of the loss of life and destruction of the South and the slaves freed. Of course everyone knew that black slavery in our nation was a mistake and if the cotton gin and the ability to grow cotton in the South had not occurred i am sure that it would have already been abolished. Color coded slavery as practiced in our nation was a disaster, we should have picked our own cotton.

    Anyway with that preamble, knowing what a good man Lee was I would love to sit down with him for dinner, a few years after the Civil war and asked him, what the hell were you thinking?

    Both sides of my family were here before 1740 and they fought on both sides, mostly the South, one great grandfather came home from the war and never smiled again though his children were told that he was a lot of fun before the war. Another great grandpa fought for the North out of Kentucky where he had been a Baptist preacher and became a Cavalry Captain, for folks who lived in the border states, like mine on both sides, it was a lot of pure hell.

    I would like to hear Robert E. Lee tell me how he personally felt after the war because I think his wonderful ability to lead and for men to follow him through so much was such a magnificent disaster. I have walked a lot of those old battlefields including Gettysburg twice and I can feel the ghosts.

    I do think Lee was a man of God following his conscience and his allegiance to his home state Virginia and I would love to share a dinner with him and hear his feelings a few years after the war was over.

    By the way, were he alive and able to run for president I would vote for him and work for him to be elected to be the leader of our nation. After all we voted the other really smart general Grant for president and I loved readying his autobiography and he was a man to be reckoned with in spite of his bad decisions as president.

    1. Someone once remarked that the South would have done better without General Lee. The problem was he was too good a general for the South- they just didn’t have the resources to keep up with his skill.

      1. The south didn’t have the resources, period.

        When southern forces initiated the war by attacking Ft. Sumter, there was not a single cannon factory within its borders. If that’s not hubris, then I don’t know what is.

        1. I’ve noticed that successful tactics always boils down to communications, while successful strategy always boils down to logistics. The fact that one Southern man can whup 10 damn Yankees pretty much means defeat if there’s 11+ of them.

          As the old saying goes, amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.

    2. Don’t be too hard on Robert E. Lee’s decision. At the time Americans considered the US to be a federation of sovereign states. Lee considered his first loyalty to be to his home state of Virginia. Lee also was very much against secession and said so many times during the secession crisis. However, once Virginia seceded, in his view, he really had no other honorable choice.

      Now, who would I like to sit down and talk to face to face? Well, I would agree that Lee would be a good choice as well as Grant, Lincoln, and even Jefferson Davis. But who I would really love to sit down and talk to is Joseph Ratzinger – Pope Benedict XVI, with a close second being Pope Francis.

  8. So many of those Brits were “gentlemen and killers” as John Steinbeck once said about an MTB captain he knew. They didn’t need to play being men – they were the real thing. Don’t forget the great American actors who also saw the elephant – Eddie Albert, Ed McMahon, Jimmy Stewart, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin.

    I’ve been asked the “who would you want to have dinner with?” question on several job interviews. I stopped saying St Paul of Tarsus because an overtly Christian figure – even though he was probably the greatest philosopher of the first century – paints me as a hater of women, a bigot, and a religious fanatic. These days I list Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt. Franklin is politically acceptable except for the idea that he wanted to make money. Roosevelt is a little tougher to explain because he believed in a strong national defense, loved to hunt, served in the army, and carried a gun all of his life. Roosevelt was another rich guy and that is immoral in and of itself unless you make your money by making garbage movies or products that nobody really wants but everybody on the A list thinks that you can’t live without.

    1. I was once asked that question by a rather pretty HR woman, to which my response was: “You, if I don’t get the job here.”

      I got neither the job nor dinner with her, of course, but it was worth it just to see her blush.

      1. Tut, tut. You missed a trick: you should have said, “You, even if I don’t get the job here.” 🙂

  9. David Niven would not be my first pick, but he’s not a bad one. My #1 pick would be Dr. Jerry Pournelle, followed closely by T.R. and Churchill.

  10. Wow. I read “The Moon’s A Balloon” ages ago. This brings back fond memories. Now I’ll have to go read it all over again.

  11. What a wonderful question!

    I’ve always liked David Niven. One of my fonder memories of my childhood was being woken up insanely early by my dad to watch “Murder by Death” on network TV before we got a VCR. He reminds me of John Steed from the Avengers…

    For myself, I’d have to say Donald “Duck” Dunn, who recorded hundreds of hits for the Stax record label. A huge influence on my playing, and I’ve heard, a Southern Gentleman.

  12. Other people have already picked them, but my choices would be: Ayn Rand, Dr Thomas Sowell, Isabel Paterson, Dr Richard Feynman. The other names should be self-explanatory, but I’m including Isabel Paterson for her understanding & explanations of American civics & history. She was Ayn Rand’s mentor during her early years in the US.

  13. Re Niven: I can recommend his novel Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly, which takes place during and just after WW II. The protagonist is a young Polish-American (diplomat father, socialite mother) who serves in the RAF and British army, and captivates an earl’s daughter who goes to Hollywood just after the war.

Comments are closed.