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Old Hollywood’s Most Scandalous Secrets, as Told by David Niven
According to David Niven, debonair star of films including Wuthering Heights, Around the World in 80 Days, and Bonjour Tristesse, not all full-service brothels in the golden age of movies were run out of gas stations, as in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series Hollywood. One was housed in a stately colonial-style mansion right under his window in the North Hollywood hills, run by a “Baroness” and filled with whips, kinky costumes, and two beautiful failed actresses deeply in love.
This tale and many more are recorded in Niven’s 1975 memoir, Bring on the Empty Horses, which has long been considered by those in the know—including (strangely enough) conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr.—one of the best books ever written about Hollywood in its studio-system heyday.
The memoir is a follow-up to his equally delightful 1971 autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon. In Horses, the British-born Niven reveals a generous but clear-eyed view of Hollywood from the 1930s to the early ’60s. “[It] was hardly a nursery for intellectuals, it was a hotbed of false values, it harbored an unattractive percentage of small-time crooks and con artists, and the chances of being successful there were minimal,” he writes. “But it was fascinating, and if you were lucky, it was fun.”
Fun yes, but also freaky. Through a series of thematic vignettes, Niven spills the tea on the passions and pretentions of stars like Humphrey Bogart (a real softie), Mary Astor (at her best in bed), Fred Astaire (a terrible dancer in public), Greta Garbo ( a big fan of skinny-dipping), and Charlie Chaplin (a pompous bore). He does so with such grace and panache that one is almost unaware secrets are being revealed—but revealed they are, much to every Hollywood fan’s gossipy delight. Ahead, six of the juiciest tidbits from Niven’s pen.