David Niven was born on 1st March 1910. For most 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. (A 2017 TV documentary described his family as “middle middle class”. Really??)
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.
On his first American visit, David followed a similar route to that taken by Hjördis a decade later. He partied with East Coast society in New York and Palm Beach, and was taken by the possibilities on offer.
“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.”
In a further parallel, he returned to New York (albeit via Canada) a few months later, with the idea of staying in the country permanently and pursuing a movie career.
All this and World War II
David set out for Hollywood in 1934, befriended and charmed all the right people, particularly the actress Merle Oberon, 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.
Merle Oberon was his most high-profile girlfriend, and it seems they were engaged for a time: “Arriving in New York from Hollywood today, Miss 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 the plans were or weren’t, philandering apparently 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.”
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.” [Sort of]
“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. 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. Afer being carried upstairs she briefly regained consciousness. However, she tragically 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 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.
“We had a nanny and Daddy made a point of being with us when he could, though his film commitments meant he was up very early and back late,” David Jr later remembered.
Less than a year after Primmie’s death, David’s film commitments required him to leave The Pink House and return to London. Sam Goldwyn informed him that he was being loaned out to producer Alexander Korda 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 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, she was a high-profile actress 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, close enough.
“It was, I remember, a Thursday when I first set eyes on David,” Hjördis recalled. That would make it 4th December 1947, the day on which she found herself on the set of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ at Shepperton Studios.
The Swedish star mannequin who went to America
Hjördis Niven’s ghost-written autobiographical series for Woman magazine in 1964 presented a version of her meeting with David Niven that neatly wrapped a ribbon around what is a rather [OK then, very] romantic story: a naive young Swedish model meets the star of a film after accidentally sitting in his personl canvas chair. They fall in love. They get married shortly afterwards. Bless…. Rewind. So, how did she end up in England, at Shepperon Studios, and in David Niven’s chair?
A ‘Where’s Hjördis?’ Swedish press article on 1st December 1947 described her as: “The Swedish star mannequin who went to America to make her fortune as a model and marry Count Cassini.”
How her career had developed remained out of reach – beyond a photo of her modeling for a Christmas card .
However, the piece did report that she had left New York and was in France with her former husband, Lieutenant Carl Gustaf Tersmeden.
“At first I was in Paris, and then I went down to the Riviera,” Hjördis wrote in 1960. “There, I met up with Carl Gustaf.”
“We were both a little older, and had perhaps become a little wiser during our time apart, and we decided to give our marriage another chance. We had always been at our happiest on the ‘Symfoni’, and now we agreed to sail together around the coast of Africa.”
“Tersan travelled to Sweden to equip the boat for the journey, and I went to England to visit some friends who had been asking me to stay with them.”
The next stop on Hjördis’ European vacation was London, or at least what she could see of it through the fog. Fog (or smog) was a frequent part of British life, especially during the winter months when the increased smoke from domestic coal fires joined factory pollution and sank back to earth in a blinding, choking haze rather than dispersing into the atmosphere.
Smog on 7th November 1947 (the worst for eighteen months) covered most of England east of a line between from Salisbury Plain to Liverpool. It paralysed transport; three train crashes killed 5 people and left 80 injured, cars and buses were abandoned due to a complete lack of visibility, and two-thirds of flights were grounded at the new London (Heathrow) Airport.
On 4th November, the day that Hjördis was supposedly due to fly from London to Stockholm the smog was also in action, stretching the length of England from Dover to Carlisle. This time it led to one reported death, and more transport paralysis. In the dreadful visibility one aircraft even taxied into a building at London Airport.
“I was in England for only one week en route from America to Sweden,” Hjördis explained. “In London, I met an old acquaintance from my time in Stockholm, Thure Reuter. He asked if I would like to accompany him to a movie studio where they were just finishing the recording of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. It was a big film in colour, he said, and the main character was David Niven.”
Swedish magazine Allas embroidered the scene: “Thure Reuter, a good friend from when she was married in Sweden, laughed happily and brought her to his car. Hjördis could not utter a word, her lips were quivering. Thure Reuter looked at her – even he was silent now. Back home In Sweden, the gossip had been about her love story with Cholly Knickerbocker, and he figured what had happened. Slowly the car slides through the London fog…” Probably bunkum, but atmospheric bunkum.
The pieces of the jigsaw slowly fit together. Hjördis’ friend, 52 year-old Thure Reuter, was a Swedish ship-owner. His ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ contact was ex naval-commander Anthony Kimmins, now a film director working with David Niven at Shepperton. The studio was only eight miles away from fogbound Heathrow airport. Good time for a visit.
Next page: Darts and black velvet
or first read more about Primmie Niven