Understatement of the century, 1957

Hjordis and David Niven, 1956-1957
Hjördis and David Niven, 1956-1957

On 17th October 1957 David and Hjördis Niven cut short a visit to London, and sailed for New York on the ‘Queen Elizabeth’. David was due back in Hollywood to make ‘Separate Tables’.  It was smart move. The film proved to be his one and only Oscar-winner.

On arrival in America, the Nivens were still able to take a week to catch their breath in New York, with David taking the opportunity to visit David Jr at his school in New Hampshire.

“Hjördis was terrific in the earlier days of the marriage,” David Jr told The Daily Express in 2005, “but then she became a little tricky – that might be the English understatement of the century.” Whether by coincidence or not, her trickiness graph began to rise sharply after her final run of miscarriages.

“She did not want to play the part of mother in our lives,” Jamie told the Daily Mail. “There was always tension between us and her in the house, and it never went away. It was really kind of tragic.”

Either the tension did not register with Hjördis, or she just preferred to put forward a positive picture of their relationship:

“We liked each other immediately and have always got on tremendously well. We are a very united little family and although David is an actor and we are often split up, our lives are full and between films we have marvelous long holidays together.”

Separate bedrooms

The Pink House had been her main home for almost ten years, although the total time spent there was fragmented, and amounted to less than half of her married life. In 1956-1957 Hjördis had only racked up home-time because of  illness. Home life was at a premium. Looking back from 1964, she reflected: “For most of our married life, we lived in a succession of rented villas.”

In October 1957, Hjördis described life with David and the boys at The Pink House.

“Our home is somewhat in the manner of an English country home – with the exception of my bedroom. The drapes are colourful, the walls are covered with pictures, the carpets are worn, and, I regret to say, a bit chewed. We have two poodles., Tosca and Baba, a Siamese cat who is a terrible bore, and an alley cat named Tinkerbelle who’s divine. The animals, and the boys, own the house.”

Although Graham Lord revealed that the couple maintained separate bedrooms in later years when the marriage had thoroughly soured, it was in fact nothing new. From the very start Hjördis wanted somewhere of her own, to reflect her personal tastes, beyond David’s control.

“David is house-proud. He has several exquisite Regency antiques that he brought from England with him, a Chippendale table and some fine old mahogany and satinwood. When we were first married I had two standard poodles who loved nothing better than a tasty tidbit of satinwood. David stood it for two years, proving his love for me. Then one day he said, ‘Those dogs have got to go.’ And off they went to a happy home full of good strong Early American furniture.”

“David likes to plan years ahead. ‘Now, in 1962’ – he’ll say with conviction. On rainy evenings in Pacific Palisades when the storms roar in over the ocean we sit by the fire in the library and David makes plans. The plans never work out. But we have a marvelous time making them.”

Blonde Hjordis Niven, with David in his top hat, 1956.
Blonde Hjordis Niven, with David being charming in his top hat, 1956.

“I am often asked if David is as charming at home as he is on the screen. That he is. And he has that same roguish sense of humour. But there are times I could kill him. Especially in the morning when I wake up (I am a late sleeper and a grumpy waker-upper) and find David in top hat and cane at the foot of the bed doing an old music hall number. It is so infuriating to have to laugh before breakfast. But you can’t stay angry with David.”

“When David isn’t working he gets up around eight. Goes to the pool or works in the garden before breakfast, after which he reads his papers – he subscribes to papers from Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and London. Later in the day he often writes letters. He must write hundreds of letters to old friends all over the world. I don’t think David has ever lost a friend. He even has one who is serving a long term for embezzlement, but David loves him and sends him The Wall Street Journal.”

“The one day in the month that David is not his charming self is the first. The bills come in. David goes around all day with a long face. No roguish humour that day. But he is divine to go shopping with. I can buy anything I want… I buy it quickly and we can get out of the store. ‘Take it-take it’ – David will say, mopping his brow, and without even looking at the price tag. And then comes the first of the month. Sometimes I go to the cellar.”

One aspect of David’s character which wound Hjördis up in later years  (or ground her down) – his fantastical anecdotes, were still a source of amusement in 1957, to the point that she recounted them herself:

“Things are always happening to him. Once he was making a costume picture in England [Bonnie Prince Charlie] and there were more than a hundred extras on the set. David tripped over a small bush during a battle scene and his sword went right through the leg of a nearby extra. David turned white. ‘Don’t worry. Mr. Niven.’ said the extra with a smile, ‘I’ve got a cork leg.’  See what I mean? Sometimes David’s past experiences seem fantastic when he tells about them but it doesn’t do to heckle him or to suggest, however faintly, that they might be exaggerated.” [Yet]

“In our travels together all over the world, such as our recent trip to France to make ‘Bonjour Tristesse’, the very people he shared these experiences with are always showing up in person.”

Work is everything

David avoided potential difficulties at home by involving himself in more and more film and TV work. His co-star in ‘Bonjour Tristesse’, and ‘Separate Tables’ later the same year was Deborah Kerr, who became a very close friend.

“Deborah Kerr is great fun,” Hjördis wrote in 1960. “She and David are countrymen, and get along extraordinarily well together. When they filmed ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ on the Riviera they got up to no end of silliness. One evening they decided to entertain her daughters, Melanie and Frankie. The girls had already gone to bed, they were only seven and nine years old, but that did not stop the jokes. They put the trash baskets on their heads and invented the most unsettling dances. The girls, of course, became half hysterical with laughter. David loves children and will do anything to amuse them.”

Deborah Kerr soon began to see behind the entertaining and urbane “David Niven” character that he sought to portray both on and off screen. She told Sheridan Morley:

“He had to keep working, working, working all the time and I never found out why. Was he so really worried about money, or was it an escape from the family, or just that he liked the life of a film studio more than any other? He couldn’t bear life if he wasn’t actually working: a lot of actors are like that. At this time, the films were really everything.”

“I kept pleading with David. ‘Why can’t we settle down?” Hjördis said. “What is the use of making vast sums of money if we don’t have time to enjoy it?'”

“He would look at me and murmur: ‘Of course darling. You are perfectly right,’ but I don’t think he was really taking it in. It was obvious that he did not realise what was happening to our marriage and that, like it or lump it, we were gradually drifting apart.”

“She began to change gradually and became bitter,” Lauren Bacall told Guy Evans. “She was frustrated, and she became a serious drinker, which was really bad and very hard on David.”

Next page: Every day you are getting 24 hours older

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