“When David finishes working on Guns of Navarone, we’ll have a holiday,” Hjördis Niven told a British newspaper in 1960, “then will probably start looking for a house because since we sold ours we have been homeless.” (Homeless in a slightly less homeless sense than the usual meaning).
In March 1960, Hjördis took on the task of finding a new family home in Switzerland. She went for a triple-balconied chalet in the village of Chateau d’Œx, which she described as “a pleasant timber-built chalet in the mountains… a wonderful base and ideal for the boys’ international schooling.” Her favoured social venue, the nearby resort of Gstaad, was ruled out by David because it lay in the neighbouring canton – where the taxes were slightly higher.
In those more innocent days, a reader wrote in to an American newspaper and asked straight out for the Nivens’ address. Rather than setting the inquiry aside for being rather stalky, they obediently obliged: “Chalet St.Andre, Chateau D’Oex, Vaud, Switzerland.”
“The chalet was awful,” journalist Roderick Mann told Graham Lord. “It wasn’t comfortable and it just had a dreary bit of land in front of it.” [Dreary as in trees, grass and hedges. I don’t know what else he expected..]
Noel Coward’s verdict after lunching with the Nivens was: “Oh dear, I fear Hjördis will never make a good housekeeper. The lunch was fairly dreadful and the house could be made charming, but I doubt it ever will be.”
David Niven begged to differ: “We love our chalet, which is the full cuckoo clock bit but with modern conveniences. If we want fun we go 15 minutes to Gstaad.”
And so did Hjördis, writing soon after the purchase: “We have sold our home in California and now live in a very nice and beautifully located chalet in Chateau d’Œx, a few kilometers from Gstaad. The house is high on a hill and has the most amazing view that you can imagine. As far as the eye can see: soft, rolling green meadows and hills, then a dark green forest to the north, soaring gray cliffs and snowy mountain peaks.”
“Here, David will be able to find the inspiration to paint. And here, we can all play tennis. hike in the mountains, and go skiing – yes, have fun in every way. It will be an ideal retreat for David when he wants to rest between movies, and above all, it will be a perfectly calm and undisturbed place where he can study for upcoming roles, read manuscripts, and generally recover from and prepare for the tough professional life that he leads.”
Swedish magazine Vecko Revyn visited in October 1961 and admired the shutters: “It’s a magnificent timbered chalet at the foot of the Swiss Alps. The chalet is large and timbered, with bright orange-red shutters.”
“Chateau d’Oex is a small farming village with two thousand inhabitants. There’s no-one here who’s more famous than the Nivens, but everyone is politely discreet and, by the way, more fascinated by the chalet’s shutters than by its inhabitants.” [What is it with the shutters??]
Coincidentally (perhaps), David and Hjördis weren’t the first Nivens to unpack their cases in Chateau D’Oex. David’s mother and her husband Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt were among the lords and ladies staying in a local hotel on 30th December 1924.
Spend, spend, spend
In late March 1960, Hjördis and the boys joined David on Rhodes, where he was filming ‘The Guns of Navarone’.
“In the holidays we’d go to wherever he was making a film,” David Junior told Graham Lord. “You wouldn’t see your friends, and it was rather a bore: he’s not there because he’s working, you don’t know anyone, and you have to spend a lot of time with your stepmother.”
While in Rhodes, David entertained Hjördis by going shopping, for Rhodes itself:
“Rhodes is so beautiful we fell in love with the place,” he enthused. “Rushed out, bought bays, orange groves and stretches of beach. Then after [two] months of incarceration, we gave the property away to local people, and were carried screaming and kicking to the plane for London.” (Another version of the story simply said that David hated the place. Biographies can be a right pain.)
Once in England, one of the brighter moments for Hjördis was a visit to Ladies’ Day at Ascot, preceded by a shopping expedition remembered fondly as a rare occasion where she was able to call the tune.
“He hates shopping, but I insist on his coming along when I go, for I dislike shopping alone. I must always have someone with me to approve what I buy.”
“I was shopping in London for a hat to wear to Ascot and saw one that I liked. I rang David and said ‘Come quickly. I want you to help me choose a hat.’ Then I went for a cup of coffee. I lingered rather too long, for when I got back to the store I found David standing there with a face like a beetroot, surrounded by assistants.”
“It is this boyish, never-quite-grown-up trait in David’s character that makes me love him so much.”
“I feel an ass in a woman’s shop,” David grumbled. “Anyway, once she goes in she’s there for the day. But I do help when she’s choosing what to put on some evenings. There aren’t any colours I particularly dislike. But I am a bit jumpy about blues. And I can’t bear the cliche of blue eyes worn with the obvious blue dress – as bad as redheads who wear green.”
At Ascot, Hjördis enjoyed the spectacle from the Royal Enclosure, and was able to empty David’s wallet.
“David is very annoyed with me,” she admitted to The Daily Mirror. “I’ve lost every single penny he gave me.”
The Ascot Gold Cup was won by a horse owned by Carl Tersmeden’s old playboy friend – Prince Aly Khan. [Who had sadly died in a car crash the previous month..]
Atmosphere hoover in London
Following a short fishing trip to Sweden in June, David returned to London for another favourite activity, and according to Graham Lord began an affair with a young model. The relationship appeared serious enough for Jamie to become convinced that his father was about to divorce Hjördis.
Around the same time David befriended an unhappily married twenty year-old called Sarah Crichton-Stuart, who had been described in The Daily Sketch as “One of the most elegant and scintillating girls in London society”. She denied that any affair took place between them.
Shades of Hjördis, David met her when she visited Shepperton Studios. She was introduced to his sons, and he in turn began to hang out with her and her young friends. In ‘Niv, The Authorised biography of David Niven’, Sarah told Graham Lord about Hjördis’ (understandably) cool reaction to David’s new social life in London:
“She’d walk into my house, and there’d be lots of people, but as she walked in everyone froze and she made the whole thing fall apart. There was a terrible iciness and tension between them and they never talked to each other. She was this beautiful ice lady, very frozen, with thick make-up…” A lady who was probably rather nonplussed to find her fifty year-old husband kicking around with a model who was only two years older than David Junior.
Graham Lord was scathing about Hjördis’ negative response to David being offered the lead role in ‘Lolita’ in 1960. However, considering David’s new friendships, and the behaviour of Lou Walters with her nieces earlier in the year, her distaste is no surprise.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his very busy and stressful year, David began to band about an idea for a play, that sounds every bit as full-on as his life at the time. He wrote to Noel Coward, probably just to make him laugh:
“I have started writing a play… at the close of the first act I have thirty-eight people, all of whom made sensational entrances, jammed like sardines in a decayed lighthouse. How do I get rid of the bastards?”
Bay full of bandits
On 12th October 1960, David and Hjördis Niven flew from London to Switzerland for a brief visit to their new home, which was soon to be relegated to winter residence only. The search was on for a second, summer residence. Although Princess Grace was keen for them to settle near Monte Carlo, David’s first port of call was somewhere much less accessible, though not quite as remote as Rhodes.
“I bought the most beautiful bay and surrounding land in northern Sardinia you could hope to see,” he told Hedda Hopper on 27th October. “Resting after a strenuous go in ‘Guns Of Navarone’ which has another stretch in London.”
All very positive, but the following months did not run smoothly. Sardinia was scrapped in December.
“Hjördis and I were preparing to visit the new property when I was shaken to read in Newsweek that Orgosolo, which is adjacent to our place, had 17 persons killed by bandits in the past six months. The head of police there said, ‘Nobody can police this place – not even the entire Italian army.’ ”
Orgosolo had already acquired the name “Village of the murderers”, and was featured in an Italian movie released in 1961, called ‘Banditi a Orgosolo’. Back to the drawing board. (Actually, the Nivens were ahead of the game. By 1967 Sardinia was being described as the ‘newest rendezvous for the rich and mighty’.)
Defrosting the wife
Embed from Getty Images
David Niven and Gregory Peck give their wives a tour of the set of The Guns of Navarone, Shepperton Studios, 1960. As with most photos of Hjördis with David, there’s not a trace of iciness – although going by that ankle support, she’s been “in the wars” again.
David swerved the Sardinian bandits, but there were still fears for his life in October, when a cut lip picked up in water tank sequence for ‘The Guns Of Navarone’ lead to blood poisoning.
“I’d love to be like Valentino’s old leading lady, Alice Terry,” David announced after his recovery. “She’d do any film as long as she didn’t have to read the script. ‘All I want to know,’ she’d say, is ‘Do I have to get wet or ride a horse.’ They immersed me in water for five hours and I nearly died.”
Relations with Hjördis had not defrosted enough for her to play the dutiful wife, and during his convalescence she pointedly kept her distance. Mind you, she’d been in the wars herself .[Oh, what now?] In August 1960 it was reported that she chipped a bone in her foot while playing croquet.
The Nivens saw out the year in Switzerland. According to Graham Lord, during their Swiss winters [no date specified – it could be the 1970s as opposed to the 1960s], they began to lunch at the The Olden Hotel in Gstaad, where the proprietor Hedi Donizetti took to David but built up a strong dislike of Hjördis : “She was always flirting around, and she danced very sexily with other men at parties, and he was sitting there and he never complained.”
David’s friend and Gstaad resident Taki Theodoracopulos told Graham Lord that: “Whenever they went out there was always a lot of tension. She would kiss everybody on the mouth, and she used to massage complete strangers to make David jealous.”
Even at home, Hjördis had a hard time eliciting reaction from David: “(He’s) the most even-tempered man imaginable,” she told The Daily Mail in late 1960. “But I can always start an argument if I dare to criticise his friends. Fortunately, I like most of them, though he loathes some of mine.”
“Since his refusal to quarrel is more of a virtue than a sin, I suppose you could say David is the ideal husband.”
“The moment you show your anger, you’re bound to lose whatever the argument’s about,” David reflected.
Next page: Come up and see my etchings