Mazel: Hebrew, generally defined as good fortune or good luck.
One of the problems with Hollywood memoirs is separating fact from fiction.
Movie stars are usually determined to preserve the myths that nourished their celebrity. Every once in a while comes along a Hollywood biography that actually reveals almost as much as it conceals, but for the most part it is wise to approach Hollywood memoirs with a wary eye.
David Niven’s best-selling and compulsively readable autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon is a perfect example of an actor constructing a reality that is true—sorta.
Early in the volume, Niven writes eloquently about Nessie, a lovely, 17 year-old Piccadilly prostitute with whom he loses his innocence. Naturally, this tough but vulnerable tart becomes young Niven’s tender lover. At the time Niven was a 14 year-old student at Stowe. Niven will have us believe that Nessie visits his school where they go for picnics and chat amiably with his headmaster. Clearly, Niven is playing fast and loose with facts.
Nessie is at best a composite of several prostitutes. Niven was an obsessive womanizer. More likely, Nessie was a tough little Cockney who did her job and then moved on. But Niven instinctively understood that the character of a whore with a heart of gold would be irresistible to his readers. And it is. Nessie and Niven feel like a couple right out of Charles Dickens.
However, there is one minor incident in Niven’s witty and elegantly written book that has the feel of unvarnished truth. Oddly enough, it deals with Niven and Jews.
In 193o, after graduating from Sandhurst, a military academy, Niven is commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry.
Setting sail for Malta to join his regiment, Niven etches a vivid portrait of the stifling class consciousness aboard ship:
Naval officers were by far the most relaxed and friendly. Those in the air force were rather hearty and condescending, and the Army officers were pretty much what I expected: firm believers in the doctrine that second lieutenants speak when they are spoken to and at no other time. Their wives were nearly all much worse than their husbands, so I clung like a drowning man to a very attractive Jewish couple whom nobody spoke to and who were simply taking a sea voyage as far as Alexandria.
One wonders what sort of welcome they would receive there today, but at the time Mr. and Mrs. Marks were a boon and a blessing. On the voyage they invited me to sit at their table and took me with them when we went ashore in Marseilles. We spent the day at Arles, where I was initiated into the glories of the art galleries and the Roman amphitheater.
Landing in Malta:
The Marks pressed an antique Hebrew silver amulet into my hand for good luck and waved from the upper deck till I could no longer see them.
Niven never mentions this generous Jewish couple again. There is no neat ending, no surprise meeting with the Marks when Niven is a Hollywood star.
Niven, a product of his class and time, probably never met a Jew previous to this voyage. The British were infected with polite anti-Semitism—today it’s no longer polite—but Niven, an outsider, feels a kinship with the despised Jews.
And one can only wonder if the Jewish amulet—probably a mezuzah—helped bring Niven the amazing mazel that led to his Hollywood career.
Niven probably starred in more terrible movies than any other Hollywood star. Forever in need of cash to fund a lavish lifestyle, Niven was compelled to take jobs in less than stellar production. But do check out his spectacular work in Dawn Patrol 1938, Bachelor Mother, 1939, The Bishop’s Wife, 1947, and Separate Tables, 1958 for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor.