100 Greatest Rakes / November 2019

Style Heroes: David Niven

The template for 007 and the original Riviera-dwelling ‘dirty rotten scoundrel’, David Niven made a career portraying the quintessential British gentleman.

David Niven at the home of Elizabeth Taylor after Michael Todd's death. (Photo by USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images)

Forget former milkman Sean Connery. It was David Niven that Ian Fleming had in his mind’s eye when creating the character of James Bond. Bond’s resemblance to the actor even serves as a plot point in Fleming’s novel, You Only Live Twice. But it wasn’t merely angular good looks the two shared. A distinguished soldier and hard-drinking lothario whose list of conquests included many of the midcentury’s most beautiful women, Niven resembled 007 on numerous levels.

James David Graham Niven was born in March 1910 in London, his father a British officer who was killed in the First World War just five years later, leaving the family to inherit little but a string of debts. His mother, a Frenchwoman, soon remarried Conservative party grandee Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt. Biographers have suggested that Comyn-Platt was in fact Niven’s biological father — he and Niven’s mother had been involved in a long-term affair. True or not, the man Niven called ‘Uncle Tommy’ neither acknowledged paternity nor embraced parenthood, convincingly playing the part of a cold and distant step-father.

Conditions at home led to Niven rebelling as a youth; he described himself as a “thoroughly poisonous little boy” who may easily have fallen into a life of crime. In an attempt to curb his wicked ways, Niven’s parents packed him off to a succession of boarding schools. Here, “there was a great deal of bullying” and Niven was constantly “bashed around”, he said, making his first forays onto the stage in an attempt to be better liked.

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