Book Review: Bring on the Empty Horses

david and me cropped

Bring on the Empty Horses

By: David Niven

©1975 G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York

David Niven‘s 336 page collection of written sketches is a veritable goldmine of Hollywood tidbits:  A classic film fan’s dream text. It’s one of those books which takes over your life and forces you to read it cover to cover asap. Every task falls by the wayside in its path…David Niven’s tales come first.

The writing itself is the best out of any star book I’ve ever read.  The gorgeous language flows off the page while jokes are effortlessly and hilariously woven throughout. If you’re in need of a sophisticated, fun read to curl up with, look no further my friends – it’s here.

Among the scores of fascinating stories related in this book are vivid descriptions of Hollywood’s most famous (but, now, sadly extinct) restaurants and cafés. This book was a huge source of inspiration for me when I was working on my Trip to Hollywood project. I started looking up to see if I could find photos of these amazing places, and along the way I found the logos, which for a graphic designer, is even more thrilling than the photos. I could in no way do justice to Mr. Niven’s writings in a summary, so here are some of the restaurant description excerpts:

brown derby map

Shortly after this interlude Flynn took me to lunch with Barrymore at the Brown Derby in Beverly Hills. This restaurant was designed so that everyone could see everyone else; the tables were set at a series of semicircular brown leather banquettes, the backs of which fitted uncomfortably into one’s lumbar region. The waitresses, all would-be actresses, wore very short bell-shaped and highly starched skirts and spent much time dropping and provocatively retrieving forks and spoons before the tables of producers and directors. Barrymore caused quite a stir when he entered, and he boomingly table-hopped his way to our corner.

Chapter 6 – Errol, page 111

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lucey's 2lucey's

“Lucey’s,” he said to his chauffeur.

When he entered the small grottolike restaurant opposite Paramount Studios, it took a few seconds for his eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.

The dim lighting was not accidental. Lucey’s was the favorite rendezvous of the starlets and young actors from the nearby studios, the Italian food was inexpensive, the steaks were good, and the kidneys grilled in their own natural cradle of fat were delicious…

…The restaurant was filling up, and the discreet little alcoves around the main floor became nests of opportunity; at the exposed tables in the center, out-of-towners sat, taking their time over long drinks and trying to spot celebrities in the smoke-filled gloom.

Chapter 3 – Our Little Girl (Part 1), pages 63-64

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romanoff's

Restaurateur Mike prospered during World War II, and by 1945 he was firmly established at the owner-manager of the highly lucrative Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills. The imperial R was emblazoned on the front door. When he branched out into an even larger and more elaborate establishment, his loyal staff and clients and the imperial R made the move with him.

Chapter 8 – “The Emperor,” page 142

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Other attractions in Bring on the Empty Horses include the continuing adventures of Hedda and Louella (Chapter 4). David Niven reveals how much power these two lunatics actually had, and what they were willing to do to maintain it. I was amazed when I found out how many stars lived in fear of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. I have never been able to understand how either of them managed to become such famous, important figures, but according to our friend DN, they were both utterly ruthless, willing to throw anyone and everyone under the bus for their own personal gain. They were the heads of spy rings even 007 would have envied, and were in possession of every scrap of gossip as soon as it happened. Thank heaven they are safely gone, because a world with them in it sounds like a nightmare.

And last, but most certainly not least, we have Missie. DN devotes two whole chapters to the strange life of Missie, a famous Hollywood star who remains nameless because of the shocking nature of the stories DN shares about her. She is described as follows:

Her face, which was snub-nosed and pretty, was saved from being unremarkable by a pair of huge gray eyes. It was topped by a cloud of golden hair and had the great good fortune to be strategically placed above the most beautiful body in Hollywood.

She has cat-like eyes and was given her first screen appearance in a solo number in a Busby Berkeley musical. She has recently given birth to her daughter, Sharon when we first meet her.

I was racking my brains for a candidate and finally ended up guessing Lana Turner (even though her looks were far from “unremarkable”).  But, then I did some research and found that the general consensus seems to be that Missie is Vivien Leigh. All the red herrings were DN’s effort to confuse everyone as to her true identity.

This is but a tiny sampling of the wealth of classic film goodness awaiting you in Bring on the Empty Horses. You have no excuse for not obtaining your own copy, either, because Amazon has an extensive listing of used copies ranging in price from $.90 to $92. A price to fit everyone’s pocketbook. I obtained my lovely hardcover copy for a mere $5 in an antique shop. So, what are you waiting for? Get reading!

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15 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Film Bloggers

15 responses to “Book Review: Bring on the Empty Horses

  1. This is such a great post! You really captured the flavour of the book.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Book Review: Bring on the Empty Horses « Noir Girl -- Topsy.com

  3. That is a great review! While I never investigated the matter. I never would have thought Missie was Vivien Leigh. I have to say, Niven did a good job of throwing one off track on that accord! Her appearance was far from unremarkable!

  4. Ohhh wow what an excellent book review Casey, you have me quite intrigued to read it!

  5. Thanks for the amazon link! I want it!!!!

  6. Mel

    Wow that book sounds awesome! I didn’t know David Niven wrote a book!

  7. Love the picture of you (?) reading the book. It seems to be sending out beams of light…
    Yes, the book’s great fun, as is his earlier one The moon’s a Balloon, though a lot of it is somewhat generous with the truth…
    I always thought the mystery girl was Merle Oberon.
    This was great fun – are we going to have more book reviews soon?

  8. Andrea- Thank you so much! I really appreciate the compliment! :D

    Mercurie- Thanks! I never would have guessed Vivien Leigh, either. DN deliberately made his description as far from the truth as he possibly could! It’s a terrific camouflage job.

    Nicola- I’m so glad I peaked your interest in DN! I think a DN book is required reading for all film fans. He’s an amazing writer.

    Alexis- You are quite welcome for the link! I hope it helps you get your own copy. :)

    Mel- Oh yes, David Niven was quite prolific as a writer! His autobiography is called The Moon’s A Balloon. It’s my next “must read” book! Also, I found out yesterday he wrote several novels. I’m dying to read those now, too!

    Matthew- Thanks so much for noticing! Yes, that is me up there. I loved all the detailing on the cover and was just going to take a photo of the book alone. But, then I got the idea for the beaming book and tried it. :) I had quite a little complicated setup around the shot to get the light to work that way. I’m very happy to have it appreciated! Ooh I’d love to hear which parts of the book are exaggerated truth. I was afraid some of it was too good to be true! Merle is a terrific guess. She and Vivien Leigh were quite similar. I shall have more book reviews coming up! My reading list is chock full of thrilling books. :)

  9. steve

    Picked this book off the library bookshelf
    Nice and easy to get lost in the book.
    Found this site after trying to search who Missie
    could have been . Vivien Leigh makes perfect
    sense. False clues show what a gent he probably he was

  10. Hi Steve! Thanks so much for commenting! I’m glad you found my site looking for Missie. It took me quite a while searching through message boards trying to find out who she was. DN was quite a gent. Reading his book made me really wish I could have known him. There just aren’t any guys like him anymore.

  11. Dawn

    Hi!! I loved your review of DN’s book!. I went right away and ordered a copy for myself. In recent months ive become obsessed with all things David Niven and i have alot of time to enjoy him while on chemotherapy. I hope you review more books bye David!

  12. Hi Dawn! Thank you! I’m thrilled that you’ve decided to read the book! David Niven is a fascinating character, very much worthy of a classic film fan’s interest. I sincerely wish you the best of luck on your chemo. David is good company for hard times. :)

    -ck

  13. Jim T.

    I happened upon this website, like several others, trying to find out who “Missie” was. I found the book quite randomly while browsing in a collectibles/antique store and, remembering he’d been pals with Errol Flynn (whose autobiography I read years ago), bought it. I’m amazed that 35 years later this many people are still reading it! I also agree it’s a compelling read, very well written. If Niven stretched any truths, they made for a good story!

  14. Fab post! I love David Niven and this is one of my favorite old Hollywood “memoirs”. I also loved Niven’s The Moon’s A Balloon. “Missie” is almost for certain Vivien Leigh. David was there at the time of her infamous 1953 breakdown in Hollywood, and there are photos of him with Olivier at the airport while Viv’s being loaded into an ambulance on a stretcher. Sad, but true.

  15. david eagle

    Hi
    This is an excellent site. Really enjoyed your review of DN’s “Bring On The Empty Horses”, which I’ve just re-read. How I envy DN; Golden Age Hollywood, what a time and place to have been alive! Imagine knowing and being friends with the likes of Gable, Colman, Astaire, Garbo…
    I would have loved to have known DN as well. What a character he must have been in his own right!

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