Lo Scoglietto – The little rock

'Lo Scoglietto'. David and Hjordis Niven's house at St Jean Cap Ferrat, photographed in June 2017
‘Lo Scoglietto’. David and Hjördis Niven’s house at St Jean Cap Ferrat, photographed in June 2017. Photo © Paul Thomas

David Niven always seemed to be at his happiest and most comfortable while in residence at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea. He was proud to state that he turned down movie roles in order to be there for the summer months. Their Lo Scoglietto villa was also where Hjördis spent her summers right through to the end of her life, when her ashes were scattered into the “tranquil green water” [her words] of the Mediterranean. From the very start, Hjördis preferred the house to the Nivens’ chalet in Switzerland. “It has more of my heart in it. I am proud of Lo Scoglietto – it means ‘The little rock’ –  for it is largely my own creation.”

“More important,” she declared in 1964, “it is a home that likes to be lived in, a happy, sunny place which mirrors my life as it is now.”

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Summer in Lo Scoglietto 1964 – David Niven saves bees and wasps from the swimming pool, while Hjördis and David Jr chat against the background of the Mediterranean.

Cracked shutters and peeling paint

Initially, visitors were not impressed. Actor John Ireland wrote: “When David had just bought the house on Cap Ferrat he proudly took us around it, even though the shutters were cracked and there was paint peeling everywhere. But he said ‘Don’t worry old bean, Hjördis will get all that fixed in no time,’ and sure enough the next time we called in there it was looking fabulous.”

La Scoglietto, Cap St Jean Ferrat, 1964
La Scoglietto, Cap St Jean Ferrat, 1964

“The house looked attractive and romantic from the outside,” Hjördis remembered, “but inside was a very different story. The parquet floors were in a terrible state and we had to tread carefully.”

“There was a pillar in the middle of the living room holding up the roof and causing an annoying obstruction. Upstairs consisted just a long passage with bedrooms leading off on both sides.”

“We had the house completely done over with an entirely new layout which included everything it had previously lacked. Beside the alterations and re-decorations we installed a pantry and modernised the kitchen.”

David and Hjördis Niven with catamaran at La Scoglietto, 1964
David and Hjördis Niven with catamaran “Foxey 0”  at Lo Scoglietto, 1964

“Of course, it all cost a great deal of money, but David believes if you earn money you should spend it. I agree with him.”

“The harbour was a tough nut to crack. When we took the house the water was so low that it was impossible to get a boat in. We had it cleared of obstacles and deepened and now David’s catamaran sail-boat floats on its tranquil green water.”

“It has cost a lot of scratch,” David told a British newspaper in 1965. “But it has been worth it. This I can look at, swim in, roll on, love, and have chums too.”

The actress Faye Dunaway mentioned a visit to David and Hjördis at Lo Scoglietto in her autobiography ‘Looking for Gatsby’. “It was the most lovely, beautiful house. They went and got these wonderful sea urchins, oursins in French, right out of the ocean for us. They were round, spiky things and you cracked them open and inside was this delicious, orange meat.”

“The greatest luxury is the view,” journalist George Feifer wrote in 1977. “Across the bay towering cliffs, too sheer for building, form one of the few unspoiled stretches of coast this side of Cannes. The former mountain stronghold of Eze, from which pirate gangs once raided ships, is visible through the Mediterranean haze, but jutting points blissfully hide the gaping eyesore of Monte Carlo.” [Not a Monte Carlo fan then…!].

Apart from the dilapidated state of Lo Scoglietto when the Nivens moved in, it seems that the threat of a perfectly visible gaping eyesore was what helped David to buy it so cheaply.

David Niven's house at Cap Ferrat in 1983
‘Lo Scoglietto’, pictured in 1983.

According to journalist Peter Evans: “He told me that he had bought the house for £10,000 but couldn’t understand why the bargain was so good.  Then he discovered the reason was because developers were going to build up the bay across from the house and destroy the view. He was horrified. He called (Princess) Grace. And Grace said ‘Leave it with me.’ And she had the development plans scrapped.”

It seems that the part of the story involving Grace was (at the very least) embellished. Jamie Niven told Grace’s biographer Wendy Leigh that Grace did no such thing. The more prosaic truth was that David and his neighbours: “fought the development through conventional channels, petitioning local authorities to have it scotched”. How dull. Oh well.

David’s favourite chums, the Rainiers, were still close at hand, and Monte Carlo was apparently audible from Cap Ferrat. Jamie Niven told of an occasion in the 1960s when he broke his father’s rules and arrived home from Monte Carlo at 6am:

“I shut the motor off and coasted down the drive, but before I could get to the front door I heard the famous voice coming from an upstairs window. ‘Morning. Lovely day. Jackie Stewart would have been very proud of the gear change you executed in front of the casino. Pity there’s nothing but water between here and there – sound travels so well over water. [Not that well – Monte Carlo was still 8km away] Since you have got a great jump on the day, why not start by cutting the grass? The gardener will be touched that you have offered.'”

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Boules in the grounds of Lo Scoglietto. David Niven, Hjördis and David Junior, 1964

House Beautiful or House Ugly

Aerial view of La Scoglietto, 1964
Aerial view of Lo Scoglietto, 1964

When asked “why France?” by some cheeky British journo, David looked quizzical and replied, “If you have spent 25 years in a climate like Hollywood, you just can’t go back to Sheffield and live.”

In 1977 he told a visiting American columnist: “It’s rather a nice house in a very lovely spot,” before twitching his pencil moustache and becoming more guarded. “Well, actually it’s shaped just like a piece of cheese. House Beautiful wanted to photograph it and I said ‘Don’t be ridiculous. This is House Ugly.'”

“Ugly it isn’t,” his visitor wrote. “It is a carefully guarded villa in the heart of what one observer calls ‘Burglar Land’ and, so far, it has gone unburglarised.”

A rare interior shot of Hjördis and David Niven at La Scoglietto, 1964
A rare interior shot of Hjördis and David Niven at Lo Scoglietto, 1964. Note the Oscar on the shelf.

“Not that there’s anything worth taking,” David continued, keen to deflect watchful eyes away from his haven. “The trouble with describing this house is that it sounds much grander than it is. Just like it looks much bigger from the outside than it really is. If you say it has marble floors (which it has), it gives quite the wrong impression. When the floor was laid, marble down here was cheaper than wood.”

“In fact, the house is comfortable and lived-in rather than grand,” the journalist concurred. “Most of the furniture is California modern and comes from the Nivens’ Hollywood home which they left in 1960.”

“Downstairs, there is a living room, a small mirrored dining room and a combination study and bar which boasts the only evidence that the house belongs to an actor. Above the fireplace, there are leather-bound books of stills from old films. They are separated by Niven’s Oscar.”

“Unlike many stars, Mr Niven does not fill his home with art treasures,” Peter Evans wrote in 1965. “The pictures on his walls have been acquired over the years for remarkably little money and simply because he liked them.”

Of course, homes change through the years, both in atmosphere and decor. “The interior is slightly cold and stiff,” George Feifer wrote in 1977, “as if taken too directly from magazine pages. The exaggerated neatness persists despite an eclectic little library of books and a startlingly good collection of paintings, including works by Max Ernst, Jacob Epstein, Joan Miro, Andre Masson and other illustrious artists. The Kandinsky oil that has pride of place would be featured in most museums.”

Home improvement

Hjördis and Kristina Niven, Cap Ferrat, 1964
Hjördis and Kristina Niven, Cap Ferrat, 1964. This is from the first set of press photos to feature Kristina.

George Feifer described a more relaxed feel to Lo Scoglietto’s exterior and surroundings: “Set on a private promontory almost surrounded by sea wall, the storybook villa is pink and white. The Niven principality has cedar trees, cypress trees, pine trees, and 2000 year old olive trees once recorded in a Roman assessment of local wealth. The derelict rotunda was restored after Niven bought the property. His wife’s charming beach house was added later.”

“People who come to visit us nowadays at Lo Scoglietto would not recognise it from the place we took over,” Hjördis told Woman magazine in 1964. “Then it was like a jungle. The trees were overgrown and the ground beneath them was dark and soggy. The turf was full of holes and there was more moss than grass.”

“In our garden are the oldest olive trees on the coast. Two of them were growing before Christ was born. The fig trees down by the private harbour are watered by fresh springs from which, it is said, Greek sailors in olden times replenished their casks.”

“Both house and garden are now very much to our liking. With the trees properly trimmed, the new lawn runs down to a large kidney-shaped swimming pool.”

“Next to the pool is a stone-pillared enclosure built on classical lines like a Greek monument and underneath it are dressing rooms with our bathing costumes and towels and plenty of spare ones for visitors. Beyond the swimming pool, looking out over the Mediterranean, stands a bronze bust of me on a stone pedestal.”

The gardens were very much Hjördis’ domain, with flowers ruling over produce.  One of David’s visitors wrote that: “I admired some flowers and he said ‘Yes, but I adore growing vegetables. Broad beans and things. But Hjördis won’t let me.'”

Whether David wished to sow fruit, veg, or wild oats at Lo Scoglietto, opportunity presented itself relentlessly in 1962.

Next page: The pitfalls of skiing

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