‘That must have been the Island’s golden era’ – The Royal Gazette | Bermuda News, Business, Sports, Events, & Community

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‘That must have been the Island’s golden era’

David Niven (1910-1994), the Oscar-winning actor whose pencil moustache, debonair manner and easy charm made him the screen embodiment of British urbanity for more than 40 years, took a circuitous route to Hollywood stardom — one which brought him through Bermuda in 1934.

After leaving the British military in 1933, he departed the UK for Canada, and subsequently travelled to New York where he found a job as a liquor salesman.

A subsequent venture into pony racing failed spectacularly and a near penniless Niven was invited to spend time in Bermuda in 1934 with his American friends Maurice (Lefty) Flynn and his wife Nora Langhorne Phillips.

As he wrote in his best-selling 1971 memoir The Moon's A Balloon, Niven arrived in a Bermuda during a period “that must have been that island's golden era.”

Staying with the Flynns at a cottage they had rented on Devonshire Bay, Niven said Bermuda restored his spirits — if not his bank account — after the disastrous collapse of his rodeo business.

“I spent several blissful weeks on that spectacular island,” said the actor, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Separate Tables, a 1958 film adaptation of the Terence Rattingan play.

“… No cars, no motorcycles, just bicycles or horsedrawn carriages … Smiling, happy faces and music everywhere.”

In his book, he described his friendship with Joe Benevides, the Bermudian carriage driver employed by Lefty Flynn: “A mixture of Portuguese and Negro blood, he had bright blue eyes and the broadest smile I'd ever seen,” said the actor.

“As we clip-clopped along the white coral roads, we passed through orchid farms and dense plantations of palm trees. Bright-hued little birds darted in and out of the oleander and giant hibiscus bushes … The sea gulls flying lazily in the blue above had long, graceful forked tails.”

Niven said he spent his days in Bermuda exploring the island and its many beaches -- “we were never out of the water and became burned the colour of mahogany.”

And he spent his nights romancing a young visitor from Virginia. “She wore a camellia in her hair on the night I took her for a romantic carriage drive in the full moon,” he said.

“Joe Benevides, though himself the soul of tact on these occasions, sitting bolt upright on his box and staring straight ahead and oblivious to what was going on behind him, had unknowingly sabotaged my very delicate preliminary moves by giving his horse some wet grass.

“It is quite impossible to impress a beautiful girl with your sincerity if your carefully whispered murmurings into a shell-pink ear have to compete with a barrage of farts.”

While in Bermuda, the course of Mr. Niven's professional life was set when he received a letter from a friend who had recently moved to California. Inviting him to visit, the unemployed Englishman — who had harboured ambitions about an acting career since his school days — decided “I might be able to make a go of it in movies.”

He immediately booked a passage to California by way of Cuba, departing from Bermuda in July, 1934. He made his Hollywood movie debut before the end of the year in an uncredited bit part as a slave in director Cecil B. DeMille's epic Cleopatra.

His first major roles were in Dawn Patrol (1938) and Wuthering Heights (1939). Known for his sure touch with light comedy, Niven also proved to be a fine dramatic actor and his best-known films include The Moon Is Blue, Around the World in 80 Days, The Guns of Navarone and The Pink Panther.

These photos from a Japanese archive — taken circa 1934 — illustrate Bermuda's “golden era” described by David Niven in his book.

Golden Era: The luxury liner Monarch of Bermuda in Hamilton Harbour, circa, 1934. From a series of hand coloured glass slides found in the T. Enami photo archive in Yokahama, Japan

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Published September 23, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated September 22, 2013 at 8:27 pm)

‘That must have been the Island’s golden era’

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