David Niven was born on 1st March 1910. Until the end of his life he was happy to play along with his old Hollywood publicity bio that listed his birthplace as Kirriemuir in Scotland, and was always willing to give it a bit of the old “Och aye the noo” routine at a moment’s notice – as an all sword-dancing, wallet-hiding, cartoon Scotsman. Particularly in 1947, when he landed the movie role as Scottish folk-hero Bonnie Prince Charlie.
In the real world, he was born in his family’s London town-house in Belgrave Mansions, Grosvenor Gardens, near Buckingham Palace.
“I’m a Scot, but I was born in London,” David told BBC Radio in 1977. “My mother came down to see the specialists, and dropped me right in the office, almost. I should have been born in Scotland.” In 1911 his family were recorded as being based at ‘Golden Farm’, Cirencester, with a retinue of seven servants, having downsized from the family seat at Carswell Manor, Berkshire.
After a private education, a military career beckoned. However, David resigned his army commission in 1933 after having his eyes opened by an all-expenses-paid holiday in the US, courtesy of a new friend, the young American millionairess Barbara Hutton. “When I went back to being a second lieutenant,” he later recalled, “that was the end. I couldn’t take it any more after the high life.”
David made important friends very easily, blessed as he was with incredible natural charm. His insecurities were hidden by a love of exaggeration, which he honed with his skills as a raconteur.
While on his first American visit, David followed a similar route to that taken by Hjördis a decade later. He partied with East Coast society, both in New York and Palm Beach, and was taken by the possibilities on offer. In a further parallel, he then returned to New York (albeit via Canada) a few months later, with the idea of both staying in the country permanently and pursuing a movie career.
All this and World War II
In 1934 he set out for Hollywood, befriended and charmed all the right people, and quickly landed a Hollywood contract with Sam Goldwyn. Hollywood reporter Vernon Scott wrote of obstacles that had to be overcome: “He had dismaying limitations – a thick British accent, foppish mannerisms, roles that ran to japery and a distinctly foreign haircut. But, he also had enormous talent, a rare wit and a survivor’s instincts.”
Great success followed, both on film and on local actresses. Even with a foreign haircut. His most high-profile girlfriend was the actress Merle Oberon, to whom it seems he was engaged for a time.
“Arriving in New York from Hollywood today, Miss Merle Oberon confirmed reports that she is to marry Mr David Niven,” a British newspaper reported on 28th October 1936. “She added the date of the wedding has not yet been fixed.” A week later she denied the existence of any wedding plans, and pointed out that she had just signed a five-year movie contract complete with anti-marriage clause.
Whatever their plans were or weren’t, short-term or long-term, philandering contributed to David’s downfall, with some tit-for-tat thrown in by Merle, against the background (or foreground) of his soaring movie career. Merle by the way, married within five years, to Alexander Korda – one of the people she’d signed her contract with. Neat move.
In 1938 David laid out his defiantly homely wedding demands: “My marriage, when it comes, will be a simple, dignified home wedding, without any frills. There’ll be no so-called ‘Hollywood marriage’. The girl I marry will look on marriage as I do… it’s going to last. She’ll be happy to make us both a home, and that goes whether she’s in pictures or not.” In any relationship he would definitely be the one wearing the trousers.
Asked about dating in August 1939, David laid out his rules of engagement, stating that he would never call a girl a second time who:
- Asks him to go shopping with her.
- Asks him to carry packages of any kind.
- Asks him to fill his pockets with her personal ‘impediments’ such as lipstick, rouge, purse etc.
- Makes up in public.
“These are the rules. I stick to them and I suppose they will finally result in permanent bachelorhood for me.”
Despite this, the thought of marriage still held fears where his lifestyle was concerned. He declared: “I’m having a grand time with no responsibilities. I’m scared of marriage. I think it’d take a pretty good kick to make me take the plunge.” Or perhaps a World War.
“David’s biggest disappointment, I think, is that I did not share the war years with him,” Hjördis claimed. “I was in Sweden then, and we were neutral. The war, I believe, was the biggest thing in David’s life. He left Hollywood in September 1939 to volunteer for the British Army. He spent his last night dining with Sam Goldwyn, and as he left Mr. Goldwyn said: ‘David. I’ve asked Hitler to shoot around you’. Evidently Hitler did not get the message. David was shot at in Belgium, Holland, France and Germany. He was in the Army six and a half years and won, among other awards, the American Legion of Merit.”
“The trouble with Swedes is that they haven’t had a war for so long that their eyes automatically glaze over at the mere mention of one. And Hjördis is no exception,” David mused.
“Being Swedish I was a pro-British neutral, but the war meant more to David,” Hjördis continued, before pointedly adding: “Somehow, I think these were the happiest and most exciting years of his whole eventful life.”
Two brief flings and a wedding
In July 1939 Hollywood reports named a young Londoner, Jacqueline Dyer, as someone with whom “elopement was imminent.” All that was really imminent was David’s return to England. He arrived on 28th November 1939 to fight for his country.
By 11th January 1940 there was a rumoured (then denied) engagement to Shropshire debutante Ursula “Janey” Kenyon-Slaney (grand-daughter of the Duke of Abercorn). Her brother Simon has said that the relationship may only have been “a brief fling.” Later that same year came the real thing, when David met another member of the upper-class social scene, Primula Rollo, the grand-daughter of the Marquis of Downshire and the love of his life.
“David often talked to me about his first wife,” Hjördis told Woman magazine in 1964. “Ten days after their second meeting they were married and supremely happy. Their first son, David, was born during a raid. The second boy, Jamie, was also a war baby.”
“Once, David spoke of the tragic episode that shattered his life. He went back to Hollywood and was joined later by Primula and the boys. David and Primula went to a party given in her honour by Tyrone Power.”
“Someone suggested playing ‘Sardines’, a favourite hide-and-seek game. [For those who don’t know – and I was one – if someone is found, the finder squeezes into their hiding place beside them – hence ‘sardines’.] The lights were put out and everyone rushed off to hide. Primula tugged open a door into what she thought was a small cupboard and she hurtled down a flight of stairs into the basement.”
One of the guests that evening, on 19th May 1946, was Oleg Cassini, who while counting heard a thud. When he investigated he found ‘Primmie’ lying at the bottom of the wooden cellar stairs. He helped carry her upstairs, where she briefly regained consciousness. Tragically she died of her injuries following surgery in the early hours of 21st May. She had only been in America for six weeks.
If you’re looking for a full overview of David Niven’s life and career, I’d recommend the excellent Hollywood’s Golden Age website.
The Pink House
“From what David has told me,” Hjördis wrote some years later, “and from my knowledge of his character, I know it took him a long, long time to pick up the fragments of his life. After Primula’s death, his days were empty and bleak and he only managed to struggle on by burying himself in work and leaning heavily on friends.” And by his own admission having lots of sex with lots of women, as the depression of his loss manifested itself by supercharging his sex-drive.
David’s (apparently very long) string of conquests after his wife’s death included film stars Evelyn Keyes and Rita Hayworth, both of whom were married at the time.
Primmie’s tragic death was something that David Niven’s friends felt he (understandably) never recovered from.
“I was completely, utterly shattered,” David later admitted. “I genuinely think I’d have gone mad without the boys.”
“Something went out of David the night Primmie died,” his neighbour Douglas Fairbanks Jr wrote. “And it never returned. The champagne fizz of his character just wasn’t there any more.”
US columnist Walter Winchell’s crushingly harsh description highlights the true horror David had to face for the rest of his life.
“Mrs David Niven was so needlessly killed by falling down stairs while playing a baby game.”
Sheridan Morley, who both knew the man and wrote his biography, said: “David never recovered from the shock of her death, or the manner of it.”
The work which Hjördis mentions David burying himself in was a variety of mediocre loan-out films for his studio boss Sam Goldwyn, and on Greta Garbo’s old residence at 1461 North Amalfi Drive, Pacific Palisades. David had chosen ‘The Pink House’ to be his home with Primmie and the boys, but had never been able to share it with her.
Once moved in, David was gradually able to restore a sense of normality to his sons’ lives. That was suddenly blown apart less than a year after Primmie’s death, when Sam Goldwyn informed him that he was being loaned out to producer Alexander Korda in London, for a technicolour yawn of a costume epic called ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. The boys and their nanny travelled ahead in March 1947, while David left his Californian home in July, ironically because he needed the money to pay for it. In his absence, the house was quickly rented to English actress Phyllis Calvert.
In London, Korda had a bagpipe band wait around for three days to greet David at London Airport. David arrived in Southampton, by ship. It was going to be that sort of film.
UK film critic CA Lejeune was less than kind about the final product: “The main trouble with ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ is almost certainly the casting of David Niven in the name part. Mr Niven is a light actor of marked charm, and he can be relied upon to toss off a comedy scene with engaging nonchalance, but he has never seemed to me very happy in costume, and the tactics he brings to his work here seem better designed for Bertie Wooster’s Drones’ Club than for a Stuart prince who planned to win a kingdom.” Ouch!
Return of the blonde man
Setting up home as David’s next partner would be a difficult assignment for anyone, although it seems that there were plenty of actresses up for trying. Foremost, around the same time that the boys were packaged off to England, was Rita Hayworth, who was about to be divorced from Orson Welles. David strenuously denied engagement rumours, which were rife by the time that he arrived in England on 22nd July. Much as David adored Rita Hayworth, especially in bed, she was a high-profile actress and with a burgeoning alcohol problem. Not what he was looking for to replace Primmie.
Returning to England for the first time since Primmie’s death must have been very difficult for David, and would have left him particularly open to the quiet charms of a beautiful Swedish model who was also at a crossroads in her life. In short, at that moment in time each was the perfect person for the other. Or, given their recent histories, definitely close enough.
“It was, I remember, a Thursday when I first set eyes on him,” according to Hjördis. That would make it 4th December 1947, a day on which she was delighted to be invited to visit the set of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ at Shepperton Studios near London.
“Of course I knew who David Niven was, but I wasn’t an expectant fan with my heart pounding as I stepped into the film studio – I was just a regular, curious visitor.”
“When we got there I sat down and made myself comfortable in a canvas-backed chair. I never looked to see if there was a name on it. In fact, I didn’t even know then that all the important people on a film set have a chair with their name on it.. or that it’s an unforgivable sin for anybody else to make use of it – especially nonentities like me.”
“I headed for my chair, plainly marked DAVID NIVEN, only to find it occupied,” David remembered. “The picture had gone over schedule, and I was tired and upset that day, so I told the assistant director to get her out.”
“Soon I was asked to move because ‘Mr. Niven wants his chair.’ I thought this rather rude and said so. Shocked looks and whispers all around.” [She must have appeared to be ‘a proper little madam’].
“A blonde man came stamping on the set, scowling and obviously in a bad temper. Then he marched straight up and said ‘I’m David Niven.’ He looked divine in his Prince Charlie costume.”
“It sounds silly to say it was love at first sight”, Hjördis said soon afterwards, “but I’m sure it was.”
“At that time I had not seen a film of David’s because I’ve always preferred reading to going to the movies. But I had seen pictures of him.” (According to Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, Hjördis eventually took herself to a London cinema to see ‘A Matter of Life and Death’)
“I suppose he thought that I would leap out of the chair with profuse apologies for my sacrilege. But, in my innocence, all I said was: ‘I thought your hair was dark.’ ‘It is’, said David, obligingly pulling off his royal blond wig. and thereby with a charming gesture destroying two hours of meticulous work in the make-up department. His obvious bad temper was due to the fact that he had been dismissed from the set for the day with his work finished; and now he was being recalled to shoot the same thing all over again.”
“I noticed him stealing a second look at me. Perhaps it was my red-gold hair – which in those days hung down to my shoulders – that mollified him.”
“Or maybe he realised that it was not a gentlemanly thing to be rude to a visitor from abroad, for he must have known from my accent that I was not English. At any rate, he soon regained his good humour and we were chatting in a friendly fashion. He didn’t even ask me to get out of his chair!”
“I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life,” David later wrote. “Tall, slim, auburn hair, uptilted nose, lovely mouth and the most enormous grey eyes I had ever seen.”
“We chatted a lot and laughed a lot,” Hjördis remembered, “and I thought: What a charming man this film actor is!”
All very well and dandy, but the question is, how did she end up in England, in Shepperton Studios, in David Niven’s seat?
Next page: Darts and black velvet
or first read more about Primmie Niven