Despite being the son of an Academy Award-winning actor, Jamie Niven’s life wasn’t all glitz and glamour. At just six months old, Jamie’s mother passed away, leaving Jamie to grow up with an overwhelming feeling of loneliness – a feeling that followed him for his entire life. Elizabeth talks with Jamie, who is also the chair of Partnership to End Addiction’s Board of Directors, about the way loss impacted his otherwise privileged life and contributed to a 50-year struggle with alcohol. Additionally, the pair discuss how, at the age of 65, Jamie found recovery, gave up alcohol, and committed himself to make a difference for others impacted by addiction.

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Episode transcript

Elizabeth Vargas

Hello, everybody. Welcome to Heart of the Matter. I’m your host, Elizabeth Vargas. And today I am really excited to talk to a man who is a good friend and is also Chairman of the Partnership to End Addiction’s board of directors, Jamie Niven. Now, Jamie grew up with plenty of advantages, he was the son of Academy Award winning actor, David Niven, and led a wildly successful career in both business and philanthropy. But, like so many people, he also faced his fair share of struggles. He lost his mom when he was quite young, and he grew up in the shadow of his celebrity father who was known really worldwide. And all this was augmented by a compulsion for alcohol, which followed him into adulthood. And actually, it took him until the age of 65, after a series of embarrassing confrontations that brought his not so hidden demons to light, that Jamie found recovery and gave up alcohol.

10 years later, Jamie is making a difference for all the people who are impacted by addiction, not just because he speaks out about his own recovery, but most important, for his amazing work for the Partnership to End Addiction, which is helping so many families. Today I welcome Jamie Niven to Partnership to End Addiction’s podcast, Heart of the Matter. Jamie Niven, great to see you today. You are the son of an extraordinarily famous man, David Niven, an Academy Award winning actor. He made more than 100 movies. You definitely had a privileged upbringing, but it must’ve been challenging to be the son of a father so famous.

Jamie Niven

I guess the answer to that would be pretty much the same for all those Hollywood kids that I knew. I don’t think any of them had an easy go. It’s funny you asked that, because I don’t think of it necessarily every day of my life that it was a difficult time because you get the cards and you play the cards.

Elizabeth Vargas

(Affirmative) And many would say you got a good hand of cards.

Jamie Niven

Most people would. And I don’t go about saying that he was a difficult, complicated man, because I wrestled with that and I always thought, when people come up and say, “God, it must’ve been great to be David Niven’s son.” I don’t say, “You have no idea how awful it was.” I don’t do that, because it wasn’t that bad. It’s just that it was lonely, I guess in hindsight, that’s the thing that draws me to that conclusion. And I remember, I have this great friend, who I’m sure you know, Sherry Lansing, who was not only the head of Paramount, but also the head of Fox, and she’s a very close friend of mine, big time. And I had a cup of coffee with her, about a year ago before the pandemic started. And I said to her, “Why do you think it is that he never came to see me when I was at Harvard?” And she said, “After all these years, you haven’t figured it out?” And I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Because he was a narcissist, and narcissists can’t tolerate the success of the other around them.”

Elizabeth Vargas

Even when the other is their child?

Jamie Niven

Yeah. So, he never showed up, I guess, because he was just pissed that I went there. That’s the only explanation I can possibly give, because mostly, you’d be happy if your kid goes to any college, “Thank God, you get in somewhere.” This was Harvard, and yet, nope, not at all. So, Sherry helped me, about a year ago, getting my arms around it a little better than I had, I must be frank with you

Elizabeth Vargas

Not to take it so personally, perhaps.

Jamie Niven

Not to take it personally at all.

Elizabeth Vargas

Right.

Jamie Niven

Yeah. And it’s too bad I didn’t have that under wraps when I was about 18, it took us about 73. But he had a wonderful career. He started out in the British Army, and he was able to leverage that skill of his, which is to be charming and to be able to act into, as you pointed out, making over 100… Actually, it was 100 movies on the nose, and winning The Academy Award for Best Actor, and he was only on the screen for 18 minutes for that performance.

Elizabeth Vargas

Which movie was it?

Jamie Niven

It’s called Separate Tables. Some major players in that movie, Rita Hayworth, and Burt Lancaster, and my father, and Deborah Kerr. But he was only on for a very short period of time, and he won. I think he was the only actor to be hosting The Academy Awards that also won. So, it was a charmed and lucky life, in many respects, and he always admitted it was lucky. Really, whether he was kidding or not, I don’t know, but he always thought it was lucky.

Elizabeth Vargas

And you were lucky in many ways, you had a lot of privilege, you had access to amazing places, you spent time growing up in the south of France and in Switzerland. And I mean, you went to great schools, you met famous people. And yet you’ve said of your childhood that the overwhelming memory of it was one of loneliness.

Jamie Niven

And I think it’s very simple to explain why. My mother died when I was six months old, and I think that’s in a nutshell, right there. And I remember John Cheever wrote once that the inescapable fact is that his mother died when he was young, and that lingered with him his entire life. I think that when I see my daughter with her son, for example, and the hugging and the holding and all that good stuff. Yeah, you don’t get that. And therefore, you do come out, at the end of the day, you have to say yourself, you’re pretty lonely. Yeah, there was some tremendous privileges, don’t get me wrong. Of course there were marvelous moments and all that, and plenty of them, by the way. But it was that under gut thing about always feeling lonely and not with it and not inclusive and all kinds of stuff that came out. And that-

Elizabeth Vargas

It’s funny. My ex husband lost his mother when he was two. He has no memory of her, but that loss is a huge influence on his life, to this day. Most of the songs he wrote were about losing his mother. It’s funny how something like that… You can’t remember your mom, you can’t remember losing your mom.

Jamie Niven

No, of course not.

Elizabeth Vargas

But that absence is powerful.

Jamie Niven

I think the fact that, that incredible void, as you rightly point out, it’s one you may not understand. You may not get it for a long time that this happened to you, and this is why you are this way, or this is why you’re sad or whatever it is. But for him, and for me, it was the same because whether you’re a two or you’re six months, it makes no difference. You don’t have any memory at all. I’m sure that had a lot to do with the progression of that loneliness and how you sort of staunched it by drinking.

Elizabeth Vargas

How old were you when you started drinking?

Jamie Niven

Oh, I’m one of those average people in an AA meeting that said, “I started drinking when I was 15.” Everyone says that, “I was 15. I was 14.” But I was 15. I do remember when, I remember why, I remember all that good stuff, and it went with me for 50 years.

Elizabeth Vargas

5-0?

Jamie Niven

Yes. Five zero.

Elizabeth Vargas

Five decades?

Jamie Niven

Yeah.

Elizabeth Vargas

Was it always out of control or excessive, or were you moderate as a drinker for a while?

Jamie Niven

I’m not sure I could ever say I was moderate. I think that I was able to hold jobs and not be fired because I was a drunk, let’s put it that way. But I would say to you, I remember I was having lunch with a friend of mine, an Italian, and I said to him, “Do you think that a bottle of wine is too much?” And he said, “In a day?” I said, “No, before lunch.” And he said, “Are you crazy?” And I didn’t want to tell him the real truth is that it would be a couple of bottles at lunch, and certainly get the evening started with another one. I guess, yes, excessive would be the… Sure anyone that you talk to would… If I really, because no one ever is really honest about how much they drink, they always, “Oh, I drank a little bit. Oh, I just had two drinks.” Bullshit. It would be rather vast.

Elizabeth Vargas

You, sort of, tossed that off as saying you were never fired from any of the jobs you had. You had a lot of big jobs, Jamie. I mean, you were quite successful in your career, at Lehman Brothers and later at Sotheby’s. I mean, you had a huge career. How did you manage to have that huge career and be drinking as much as you were drinking?

Jamie Niven

Well, I think it would have been a whole lot better if I hadn’t drunk. And I was chairman of an oil and gas company, which was a big success for me, in the late eighties and early nineties, and I drank pretty heavily then, we had Russian partners. And so, they obviously drank heavily. I guess, in the end of the day, I look back at all these years and say, “What did you do? What could you have done better?” I think, almost everything, would be the answer. Yeah.

Elizabeth Vargas

Did anybody in your life ever say you drink too much?

Jamie Niven

Yes.

Elizabeth Vargas

And what did you say when they said that?

Jamie Niven

Wife number one.

Elizabeth Vargas

Wife number one.

Jamie Niven

And we were married for 30 years, and she did. And she knew what she was talking about. Her mother was an alcoholic, and her mother committed suicide. I just wish that I could have listened to her better. I wish that I could have somehow gotten help at that time. If I could have stopped drinking then, life would have been very, very different. But no, I was… I didn’t need help, “Are you’re kidding me. I could stop this anytime.” Sure you can.

Elizabeth Vargas

Yeah. You said once, when you go out at night, you think you’re a 10, the life of the party. You think you’re a 15, at the end of the night, but actually, you’re a one.

Jamie Niven

That’s what a friend of mine said to me when I called him up and asked him to come over and chat with me. Was a very interesting guy, very successful, who had stopped drinking when he was about 26. And he came over to the house, he lived very near me. And he said to me, “Number one, I know we’re not talking about golf today.” I played a lot of golf with him, and he sat down and he said that, that’s the first thing he said. He did say something else. He said, “If you get to a zero, it’s going to be harder to help you than if you’re a one.”

Elizabeth Vargas

Wow. Was he there to try and help you get sober?

Jamie Niven

For 90 days, he called me or texted me every day. He gave me the advice of, “Stop drinking, and go to AA meetings.” Okay. And then he added two things. He added that remark about, “You go out at night. You think, at the end of the night, you’re a 15.” And he said, “The other thing was, when you get up in the morning, there’s going to be a guy standing behind you. He’s better looking than you. He’s smarter than you. He’s funnier than you. And he’s dressed as a whole lot better than you. And he’s going to tell you, he wants you to have a drink today. And you’re going to say to him, “No, Mr. Alcohol, I’m not having a drink today. I’m not going to talk about tomorrow. I’m not going to talk about yesterday, but I’m not having a drink today.” And you have to do that every day that Mr. Alcohol comes and stands behind you. It’s about today, Jamie. It’s not about tomorrow.”

Elizabeth Vargas

This friend of yours was in recovery himself?

Jamie Niven

He had quit drinking when he was 26, he had a really bad problem. He had a great friend of his who told him there’s nothing, Jimmy, that you won’t be able to do in life if you stop drinking. But if you drink the way you drink now, you’ll never amount to anything.

Elizabeth Vargas

Why do you think you were able to quit? You quit drinking when you were…

Jamie Niven

65.

Elizabeth Vargas

65?

Jamie Niven

Yeah.

Elizabeth Vargas

Why were you able to quit at the age of 65, when you couldn’t quit or didn’t quit, for whatever reason, when your first wife told you, you have a problem?

Jamie Niven

Well, I think honestly, it was an issue of me being rude to a client’s wife at an event that we had underwritten, in Aspen, Colorado. And I was rude to this woman and her daughter. And it was ugly and it was not nice. And the husband came out to me and told me I’d been rude to his wife, and I should apologize, and I said, no. And I left the nightclub kind of thing and went home. And I realized the next day, that was not great. That really wasn’t. And I turned out, I went downstairs to the hotel and I ran into this couple, and she hugged me and he shook my hand and said, “Jamie, some of us have bad days. You had a bad day yesterday.” I must tell you, that was very touching.

Jamie Niven

I went back to New York. I went to see our CEO and I told him the story. He said, “I already know it. You’ve had four of your colleagues have called and complained about you and how you behaved.” And I was chairman, by the way, of Sotheby’s the Americas then. And he said, “You have to think about what you want to do about it, and you have to come up with some plan. Take the weekend. Let me know on Monday.” Well, over the weekend, I saw my friend Jimmy. And in that weekend, I called up Silver Hill, a place in Connecticut. I didn’t want to go to rehab. I wanted to do outpatient rehab that didn’t exist. They said they had a couple of psychiatrists that work uniquely on addiction problems. They gave me the numbers. I called the first woman, she wasn’t there. Second lady answered the phone and I started going to her.

Jamie Niven

So, by the time I got in on Monday, I had signed up with this lady and I had gone to my first AA meeting. So, I’d done something concrete about this issue, and the story kind of ends there, for your colleagues being upset with you, because there’s really nothing more they can say. They’ve already said what they had to say. If you’re trying to do something about it, and you’re serious about it, it’s kind of the end of the story. And that’s exactly what it was. It was the end of the story. I ran into this couple a number of times. And every time I saw them, I said, “Five years.” Or “Four years.” Whatever the-

Elizabeth Vargas

Really? You told them… This couple that you stopped drinking as a result of what happened?

Jamie Niven

Totally. I told them that.

Elizabeth Vargas

Wow.

Jamie Niven

Yeah. She said to me, “I’m so glad that I played a role in helping you.” That’s it. I haven’t had a drink in 10 years.

Elizabeth Vargas

Was it easy for you to stop, Jamie? I mean, you’re, sort of, the unicorn in the recovery rooms, the person who quit the first time he or she tried.

Jamie Niven

I guess I’d tell you, in the beginning, I was convinced that my strength of character would deal with this and I didn’t have to worry. I’ll just go this baby, just a couple of weeks with you, the psychiatrist, and I’m all done. But, step one, I got it. I read that step, and I read it about 20 times, and I finally realized [crosstalk 00:17:06].

Elizabeth Vargas

Powerless over alcohol?

Jamie Niven

It was bigger than me. Yeah. We’ve all had to realize… if you don’t do that one, it doesn’t matter what steps you do. I mean, that’s the one, right? And so, I listened to that. I listened to her and I went to meetings. And I, sort of, got away from friends of mine that I used to hang around, who drank a lot. And I, kind of, picked a different kind of life, if you will. But nonetheless, I was still doing charity auctions, and I was doing regular auctions for that matter. So, I was amazed that I could it without having a drink, actually.

Elizabeth Vargas

That’s part of getting sober that I know a lot of people in recovery struggle with in real time, and people outside of recovery might not understand. That part of you putting on… Getting dressed and getting ready to face your life every day, without the crutch of several glasses of wine or liquid courage or something to take the edge off. I mean, in many ways, you would have to relearn how to go about your life completely stone-cold sober.

Jamie Niven

Yeah. I mean, in my particular case, I was, apart from being chairman of Sotheby’s, I did a lot of auctions. You’re not just an auctioneer. You have a job and then you’re an auctioneer. And I used to have a glass of Vino, not before I did a Sotheby’s sale, but a charity auction at night, I would always have a glass of Vino.

Elizabeth Vargas

Which, by the way, I know most people listening probably have never conducted an auction, I haven’t either, but I know it’s really hard.

Jamie Niven

Someone said to me, “Is it really frightening?” I said, “Do a Robin Hood auction in front of 4,500 people, and you’re alone on the stage up there.” That’s frightening.

Elizabeth Vargas

So, once you stopped drinking, did you tell everybody in your life that you would stop?

Jamie Niven

Yes.

Elizabeth Vargas

Yes? You were very open about it?

Jamie Niven

Totally.

Elizabeth Vargas

How did people react?

Jamie Niven

Boringly so, I have a suspicion. Well, I didn’t rush into a room and say, “Hey, everyone, I’m not drinking anymore.” In the beginning, I wouldn’t go to dinner. If I was invited to dinner, I wouldn’t go there until, sort of, five minutes before dinner was served.

Elizabeth Vargas

(Affirmative) Missing the cocktail hour.

Jamie Niven

Right. I didn’t linger around after dinner. I always told the hostess that I wasn’t drinking, in case they were making some sauce with wine or whatever. I didn’t mind it when people said, “Oh, come on, you got to have a drink. This is great wine.” I didn’t mind saying that I had done it. I had this older friend of mine who is from Texas, very successful man. He’d been the chairman of the War on Cancer, and he’d been chairman of the board of Memorial Sloan Kettering, where I’ve been on the board for a long time. And I got to know this man. He’s a very successful, wonderful man. And I said to him, one day, “Why don’t you drink?” And he said, “I did all I needed to do by the time I was 45.”

Jamie Niven

And I answer today, people say, “Why don’t you drink?”, “I did all I needed to do by the time I was 65.” Seriously, that’s how I, kind of… I handle it that way. I knew a lot about wine and I had a pretty good wine collection. And I was one of these people, early on in the day, that really loved California wine and Oregon Pinot Noirs and things like that. I could talk about it. And not long ago, someone said to me, “Well, do you think this wine is any good?” I said, “What’s the year?” The guy said, “2012.” I said, “I can’t help you.” I said, “It was 2009. I could help you. But I can’t help you after 2010.”

Elizabeth Vargas

Because you haven’t tasted it.

Jamie Niven

He, kind of, looked at me like, “What the fuck?” And I said, “You got to understand something. I know nothing about 2010 on.”

Elizabeth Vargas

Zero.

Jamie Niven

You know something, Elizabeth? I’m not embarrassed by the fact that I got the bug. I’m not embarrassed that I had this disease, which is the fatal disease that’s curable. No, I’m not, I’m not at all. And if I help anybody get down this road, if I one person, then I’ve done something good. So, no, I think by talking about it and being open, I think it’s really important.

Elizabeth Vargas

I asked because we know that the shame and stigma around addiction prevents some… I know I felt so, in addition to grappling with my own addiction to a good Chardonnay. I just felt so much shame about it that… We know that the stigma around this disease keeps so many people. I mean, some statistics, according to one organization, 41% of people who need treatment don’t get it because of the stigma. I think it’s actually a heck of a lot higher.

Jamie Niven

I bet it’s higher. But the stigma thing is what we talk about at the Partnership to End Addiction. The stigma for drug addiction is greater than the stigma for alcohol addiction. And if you have a son who’s a boozer, and a friend is like, “Well, he drinks too much, that boy.” But if you’ve got a son who’s hooked on heroin, he’s a drug addict. It’s a total different set of stigmas, if you will. And that’s something that we have to help fight, in this whole battle that we’re doing for families with the opioid crisis.

Elizabeth Vargas

Once you got sober, how did your life change?

Jamie Niven

Well, I think that, number one, I had entered into a relationship with someone that I doubt would have happened if I had been a boozer, and that’s been terrific. Number two, I know from both of my girls that my relationship them is totally different.

Elizabeth Vargas

Really? How so?

Jamie Niven

I think in the sense that I’m much closer to them now. We talk more together. I’m not in the bag ever. So, our relationship and our closeness and all that is, for me anyway, it’s 100% better.

Elizabeth Vargas

I used to describe drinking as giving me a faux intimacy. I thought I was connecting with people and sharing and really… And you wake up the next morning, you can’t even remember the conversation in its entirety. Real authenticity and real intimacy doesn’t happen when you’ve had half a bottle or a bottle of wine under your belt.

Jamie Niven

Yeah, you’re right. It’s that faux intimacy. You’re right. That’s exactly what it is. It’s that, “This is great. I am so good at this. This is fantastic.” And you’re not. You’re a bloody failure, and you’ve got to somehow pull yourself together, one way or the other, you can, and a lot of people can.

Elizabeth Vargas

You mentioned something, early on in our conversation, where you wonder what your life would have been like if you had stopped drinking decades earlier.

Jamie Niven

Yeah.

Elizabeth Vargas

I know I do that, and I know it’s not a healthy thing, to do that, because we can’t change the past. We can only live in the present and prepare for the future, but it’s a hard thing not to do. It’s a hard thing not to go, “Oh, if only I had put that wine glass down, 10, 15 years before I did.”

Jamie Niven

I think I would’ve got in a lot fewer arguments. I would have been a much kinder, better person, for sure. I would have been more successful in my business life, I’m sure. And I think that I would have had a much better life, for sure.

Elizabeth Vargas

And can you come to some sort of peace with the fact that you still were able to do all that you did do and that you did put it down and you have had 10 years?

Jamie Niven

Yeah. Honestly, I have a hard time looking at myself in the mirror and saying, “You’ve done well.”

Elizabeth Vargas

Really?

Jamie Niven

Yeah. I don’t think like that, I guess. I know that I’ve done things that are… I’ve done things that I’m sure I should be very proud of. I’ve been on the board of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for 42 years. I know I’ve helped tons of people. But I don’t look at myself and pat myself on the back and say, “Hey, that was really well done.” I really don’t. I think I’m very lucky to be in a position where I can pick up the phone and I can get someone on the phone to deal with my friend who’s got cancer or the parent or the child or whatever it is. That’s earned, obviously. But I don’t, Elizabeth, I don’t walk around patting myself on the back. I just don’t.

Elizabeth Vargas

No, that, wasn’t my question. My question was more, are you able to walk around without going… I mean, I know this is something I do. So, maybe I’m projecting, that if only, the if only’s. “If only I had stopped drinking earlier, if only I had done that inner work that getting sober forced me to do, and if only I had been sober longer, my life would have been better or this way or more that.”?

Jamie Niven

Oh, I think we all know that our lives would have been better. I don’t think there’s any doubt. That’s pretty straightforward, as far as I can see it anyway. Yeah. I mean, I’m convinced that… Look, I wouldn’t have gotten divorced, I don’t think. We’d still be a family. And that’s a long time ago. We got married in 1968. So, I just think that it’s a tragedy, in the sense that people can’t get their arms around it and can’t stop. It’s so sad to see it, and you know it, you’ve been through it, you know what it’s like. And it saddens me to think that I went through all that. On the other hand, God damn it, you can’t think about the past, you got to think about today. And I’ll be going to a meeting today at six o’clock on Zoom. I hate it. Something wrong with an AA meeting on Zoom. It’s, kind of, weird. But I’m glad I’m there. I’m glad I’m able to do it. I’m glad I’ve been able to get help. And I’m glad that it stuck for the time being, obviously.

Elizabeth Vargas

Thank you, Jamie. I think you’re going to help a lot of people just by telling your story. Anything we can do to encourage people, it’s a good thing. So, thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

Jamie Niven

Thank you, Elizabeth, as always.

Elizabeth Vargas

Thanks so much for listening to my talk with Jamie Niven. You can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and on our website at drugfree.org/podcast. As a reminder, if you need help with a loved one who’s struggling with substance use, you can text 55753 or visit drugfree.org. Talk to you soon.

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