Hjördis first met David while visiting the set of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” in late 1947. She settled herself in his personal canvas chair, and then refused to budge when asked by the assistant director. David, a vision in tartan with a blonde wig, stomped over to evict her, took one look, and fell in love. Six weeks later they were married and she became a Hollywood wife.
Hjördis’ life before that encounter has never been fully documented. It’s commonly known that she was Sweden’s top fashion model and already had one marriage behind her, to a rich Swedish businessman called Carl Gustaf Tersmeden. And that’s it.
In the received wisdom, the blindingly quick marriage to the recently widowed David suggested that she saw him purely as a means to an end – a ticket to becoming a Hollywood actress. Then, when he actively stood in the way of her ambitions, the consequences were thirty years of heavy drinking, jealousy, adultery and mental cruelty, right through to his death in 1983.
That’s neither accurate nor the full picture. For starters, Hjördis had been turning down offers from Hollywood for two years before David set eyes on her. Even when they met, she was still carrying around the offer of a movie contract from ‘Gone With The Wind’ director David O. Selznick. One pre-condition of marrying David Niven was that she had to put aside any career aspirations.
Much of the vitriol aimed at Hjördis stems from “Niv”, Graham Lord’s otherwise excellent biography of David Niven, which was published in 2003, six years after her death. It revealed an often unhappy marriage which had previously been held up as a rare example of a lasting and loving Hollywood coupling. Ironically, Hjördis, who apparently felt sidelined by David’s success, completely dominates Lord’s book as soon as she appears about halfway through.
Despite details of her miss-deeds, circumstances such as a decade of heartbreaking miscarriages, the resulting depression, and David’s unflagging adultery throughout the marriage are all skimmed over. Also striking, is that among the many people interviewed for their opinions on Hjördis, none are from her family in Sweden.
Was she an interesting person? Well, she certainly had an interesting life, lived at an interesting time, met interesting people and her story was and is interesting to piece together. She was no angel, but for most of her second marriage behaved no worse than her contemporaries.
My initial aim was just to piece together the first forty years of Hjördis’ life, from 1919-1959, in the hope of finding that she and David had more good times together than what is normally assumed. Happily that’s exactly what I found. I have continued well beyond the initial cut off point, and have just finished looking at the tragedy of David’s final year, as well as re-visiting earlier, happier times.
I’ve used Hjördis’ words where possible, and despite going off on the occasional tangent, it is first and foremost meant to be her story.
No pages are closed off and complete- they are all being constantly added to and amended as new information arrives and new thoughts occur. Please feel free to comment and contribute!
If you own the copyright to any of the uncredited images, I apologise and am happy to either remove or credit them.