The sawmill worker’s daughter, 1947

Austine Cassini and Hjordis Niven, LIFE 1946-48
Austine Cassini and Hjordis Niven, LIFE 1946-48

In the early 1930s Nevada reduced the residency requirement for obtaining a divorce in the state to six weeks, with only one partner needing to be present. The Cholly phrase “Reno-vation” applied to the resulting stream of society uncouplings.

Scooping the super snooper

Igor and Oleg Cassini, Palm Beach, March 1947
Igor and Oleg Cassini, Palm Beach, 1947

Gleeful reporters in Nevada sniffed an impending divorce in early August 1947 when Austine Cassini arrived for a highly un-coincidental six-week stay in Reno. There was excitement at the chance to scoop Cholly Knickerbocker: “The super snooper of Manhattan,” who at the time was reported as being unaware and off enjoying himself playing tennis in Palm Beach, then visiting the illegal gambling tables in Saratoga Springs.

The eager pressmen were undeterred by Austine’s unconvincing claims through the keyhole that she had only come to Nevada to write a book. Even TIME magazine couldn’t resist getting in on the plot:

“Columnist Igor Cassini, who as Cholly Knickerbocker is Hearst’s No.1 i-know-it-all-&-tell-it-all on society, got scooped on a gossipy item involving his stylish wife, writer of society gossip for the Washington Times-Herald. In a rival paper, Cassini read a breathless, unconfirmed rumor that “Bootsie” had settled down in Reno to divorce him.” By 20th August, Igor had been alerted and was on his way to Nevada.

Nevertheless on 15th September, in Carson City, Nevada (described at the time as “a Mecca for divorce-seekers”) Austine’s writing was handed over to a judge. In it she charged Igor with “extreme mental cruelty” and was granted a divorce. To rub salt into the wound, Igor soon found out the true meaning of the late night phone calls which his wife had been receiving from his boss William Randolph Hearst Jr during their ‘commuter phase’. Igor had thought them strange, but Austine explained that nothing was going on and put him at his ease. Just as she had done with Carl Gustaf Tersmeden.

In early October, Igor’s west coast rival Hedda Hopper weighed in: “When Bootsie Cassini marries again, I’m told that it will be into the family that employs her former husband.” Bootsie married Hearst the following year.

Igor claimed that the person hit hardest by all of these “musical chairs” was Hearst’s wife Lorelle, who was divorced in March 1948. According to Igor: “She and Bootsie had been friendly until, as she told a friend, she picked up the extension one night – and heard her husband’s voice: ‘I’m looking out the window, there’s a wind. The trees are swaying, the trees are saying, Bootsie, I love you, I love you.’ Or words to that effect.”

Igor, naturally, once had a fling with Lorelle. He was also affected by the turn of events: “I swore it would be a long time before I ever married again.”

She was only a sawmill worker’s daughter

Hjordis modelling in New York, 1947
Hjordis modelling an American dress, 1947

Around the same time as the Reno-related action, Igor’s relationship with Hjördis also came to an end. According to Swedish journalist Jules Berman, Igor’s interest cooled when he learned that Hjördis did not have “blue blood”. It’s open to conjecture why he thought that she did in the first place. During the summer 0f 1947, Cassini regularly hobnobbed with Swedish royalty such as the New York-based Count Carl Johan Bernadotte, who would have quickly revealed any facade.

To be fair, Hjördis was prone to flights of agrandisement, or at least adding a little fantasy to her past. The fact that her Tersmeden in-laws had royal connections won’t have been lost on her.  Her story is punctuated with unsubstantiated claims: Her father had Walloon ancestry? – Not according to a family member’s DNA. She was named after the famous Swedish singer Hjördis Schymberg?  – Ms Schymberg was ten years-old when our Hjördis was born. She was related to famous Swedish painter Anton Genberg? – No evidence. She was a French marquise through her marriage to David Niven? – No evidence. As things turned out, her real background was an impediment in Igor Cassini’s world.

One of Igor’s pet peeves was people upgrading their background. An excellent example was a run-in at El Morocco in April 1949 with Hollywood restauranteur Mike Romanoff, which ended up with Romanoff, despite rumoured Mafia connections, receiving a black eye.

“He called himself prince,” snarled Igor, “I referred to him by his real name, Mike Gerguson, prince of the Bronx”.

Romanoff’s fake Russian royalty was just a huge joke to the Hollywood community. David Niven and Humphrey Bogart were among a group who decided to crown him in 1950, and did so with props including an ermine robe and gold sceptre. Romanoff was not displeased, and displayed the crown under glass in his restaurant. When David Niven gave Romanoff a bulldog pup, he named it Mr Gerguson: “in honour of the name some people say is his real moniker.” Igor would not have been amused. David Niven later dedicated a chapter of ‘Bring On the Empty Horses’ to Mike Romanoff.

When a mischievous newspaper revealed that Hjördis was merely the daughter of a humble Swedish sawmill worker, Igor’s interest in her reportedly dropped even further.

Five yeas after the event, Allas magazine set the scene for Hjördis’ last meeting with Igor:  “As so often in the past few months they met at The Stork Club. Hjördis believed that Cholly would now finally say the decisive words and ask her to become his wife.”

“But at that moment, Cholly Knickerbocker transformed into Count Igor Cassini and inferred that his family could not possibly entertain the idea of him marrying the daughter of a Swedish sawmill worker. He was certainly not a gentleman, and he deeply offended the woman who loved him.” Indeed. What a complete Count.

If Igor Cassini’s attitude was indeed influenced by Hjördis’ background, and not just a great big excuse, his own prejudices lay outside of a piece written for Cosmopolitan in 1946, about American society’s swelling numbers.

“Society across the pond developed an effective method for keeping bothersome intruders from its sacred precincts. Unless you had a title you were hopelessly out of the social whirl. Society in America is what business and politics are – an opportunity for those who come from below to make the grade above.” He then named example members of the social elite such as politician Harry Hopkins: “who scaled the ladder from an obscure beginning on an Iowa farm.”

Hjördis apparently took Igor’s shabby attitude on the chin, and masked her true feelings with hollow laughter. “Never would he know how deeply he had hurt her,”according to Allas.

A Tersan will call

“Tersan called and asked how I was getting on, and I told him.” Hjördis revealed in 1953. “‘We can get married then’, Tersan said.” Good old ever-hopeful Tersan.

“I was in New York for three months,” she recounted. more vaguely, in 1960. “Then came the summer and it became terribly hot. I was taken by a longing for Europe, and traveled to France.” By coincidence, her original US immigration sheet stated that she only intended to stay until the “End of August”. That turned out to be fairly accurate, even after being hurriedly crossed out upon arrival.

With her US re-entry permit safely renewed, and options open, she smiled sweetly and set off, ostensibly for a long holiday. Her Cinderella story in Allas described the scene. Cue the orchestral swell:

Hjordis Tersmeden and her hat. New York, 1947
Hjordis Tersmeden and her hat. New York, 1947

“Hjördis embarked from La Guardia airport. She flew to Paris, dressed simply in a dark suit and a small hat with feather. [A small hat with an enormous feather? See photo.] No one noticed her, no reporters crowded around her. Around her beautiful mouth a few furrows could be glimpsed. She felt deeply hurt and disappointed with everything. She was homesick for Europe, but did not wish to go to Stockholm.”

Jules Berman later wrote that: “The embarrassment of the incident forced her to stay away from her homeland for two years.” Typically with Hjördis, it wasn’t that straightforward.

In June 1947, a Swedish newspaper reported that she had finally been charged with drink driving [using the fabulous Swedish word “rattfylleri”] after her collision with a lamp-post the previous year.  Hjördis left the country while under investigation, and according to the Dalsland Provincial News could only escape her court summons by staying out of Sweden for two years. Whether or not the incident weighed on her decision-making, she wouldn’t visit Sweden again for almost three years.

David Niven wrote that she was only prevented from returning to Sweden in late 1947 by fog at London airport.

Postscript for some of the characters of 1945-1947

Before readers of David Niven’s biographies and autobiographies get into more familiar territory, I’d like to indulge myself with a quick look at some of the other people in the 1945-1947 section. The soon to emerge Jet Set (a phrase coined by Igor Cassini) seems not to have been a particularly large circle. Many of the people already involved in Hjördis’ adventures were still connected in different ways with her over the following years, a fact which David Niven may have underestimated during his extra-marital adventures.

Igor Cassini with his second wife, Darrah Waters
Igor Cassini with his second wife, Darrah Waters

Despite his promise to himself Igor Cassini did not take much of a breather after his divorce, and re-married on 22nd January 1948 (one week after Hjördis and David Niven): “Within a year [four months] I met and married Darrah Waters, a tall, blonde and beautiful Yankee from Upper New York State.” Not royalty, but from a wealthy New England family.

TIME magazine reported his marriage in fairly caustic terms:

“Married. Igor Loiewski-Cassini, 32, squealy Hearst chitchatterer (“Cholly Knickerbocker”); and Elizabeth Darrah Waters, 20, stately blonde ex-model.”

Their marriage hit the rocks in 1952 during a trip to the south of France when Elizabeth ended up enjoying the attentions (ahem) of Carl Tersmeden’s playboy friends Porfirio Rubirosa and Aly Khan. Igor re-married and continued his Cholly Knickerbocker column, noting the New York visits of David Niven and Hjördis, who was never referred to as anything less than “the lovely Hjördis.”

(Regarding TIME, there was also a sprinkle of pepper in their announcement of Hjördis and David’s wedding:

“Married. David Niven, 37, sparrowy, Scottish-born cinemactor (Raffles, The Bishop’s Wife), and Hjördis Demberg Tersmeden, 27, red-haired Swedish ex-model.” [Demberg?]

By the time of his encounter with Carl Gustaf Tersmeden in Palm Beach, 1947, Oleg Cassini was an established fashion designer. He was also in the process of being divorced from film star Gene Tierney, with whom he had eloped in July 1942. They were married by a justice of the peace who dutifully ignored the phone ringing frantically throughout with calls from their disapproving studios.

Oleg Cassini with Gene Tierney
Oleg Cassini with Gene Tierney

Oleg’s tempestuous marriage was riddled with less than honourable behaviour. “I want to meet you at my lawyer’s,” Gene Tierney told him one morning. She then produced Oleg’s balled-up underwear, which sported an unmistakeable smear of lipstick in a compromising position.

That said, they both admitted that their marriage was mutually beneficial, with Gene one of the best-dressed stars in films and Oleg established as one of the foremost designers in Hollywood.

Oleg moved to New York in 1947, where he opened a fashion house with Tierney’s financial assistance, and ended up as Jackie Kennedy’s personal designer. After a second, final, break-up from Gene, around 1954 Oleg became engaged to one of Hjördis’ greatest friends, Grace Kelly. Kelly’s Catholic father did not approve on religious grounds, so Oleg called in his Catholic “friend” Joe Kennedy, who agreed to have a talk with Grace. Joe then proceeded to tell her not to marry Oleg on religious grounds. Hjördis and Grace’s friendship has been puzzled over, but their Cassini and Kennedy encounters gave them plenty in common.

Austine “Bootsie” McDonnell (Cassini) Hearst enjoyed a long marriage to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst Jr. They were married on 29th July 1948. David Niven and Hjördis became regular weekend visitors to the couple’s San Simeon estate from the very early 1950s. In 1956 Hjördis was even invited to recuperate there following surgery. No sign of any grudge from the ex Mrs Igor Cassini, who possibly appreciated the assistance in easing her journey towards becoming Mrs Hearst.

Next page: Sitting in David Niven’s chair

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