In the early 1930s the state of Nevada reduced the residency requirement for obtaining a divorce to six weeks and, crucually, only one partner needed to be present. The Cholly phrase “Reno-vation” applied to the resulting stream of society uncouplings.
Scooping the super snooper
In early August 1947 gleeful reporters in Nevada sniffed an impending divorce 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 was reported as unaware and playing tennis in Palm Beach. He then stopped off at 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 was on his way to Nevada.
Nevertheless, on 15th September in Carson City, Nevada (described at the time as “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 now saw the true meaning of the late night phone calls that Austine received from his boss William Randolph Hearst Jr during their ‘commuter phase’. Igor 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, west coast gossip queen Hedda Hopper ‘subtly’ revealed: “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.
So, how did this increasingly long chain of infidelity find the time and space to operate? Well, it was mostly down to Hearst’s wife Lorelle, who took a four-month vacation in Europe between May and August 1947, giving William Randolph Jr and Bootsie extra space for their activities, and in turn presenting Igor with more time to pursue Hjördis, even though he wasn’t aware why. For a while.
Igor claimed that the person hit hardest by all of the “musical chairs” was Lorelle, who was divorced by Hearst 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 married again.” It would only be a few months.
She was only a sawmill worker’s daughter
As an encore to the Reno-related action, Igor’s relationship with Hjördis 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 seen through any facade.
According to Berman, when a mischievous newspaper revealed that Hjördis was merely the daughter of a humble Swedish sawmill worker, Igor’s interest in her dropped even further.
To be fair, Hjördis was prone to flights of agrandisement, and not averse to adding a little fantasy to her past. Her story is punctuated with unsubstantiated claims: Walloon ancestry? – Not according to a family member’s DNA. Related to famous Swedish painter Anton Genberg? – No evidence. A French marquise through her marriage to David Niven? – Probably just David teasing.
The fact that her Tersmeden in-laws had royal connections won’t have been lost on her… or that marriage to Igor Cassini would have made her Countess Cassini. Igor was well aware.
A few years earlier, Igor’s brother Oleg had a short, weird marriage to New York socialite Merry Fahrney. Igor’s take was that: “Merry parlayed their brief conjugation into the courtesy use of a title and continued for some time to call herself Countess Cassini improperly… she was not the first to play the title game.”
Mike Gerguson, prince of the Bronx
One of Igor’s pet peeves was people upgrading their background, and Hjördis’ desperation for acceptance may have lead her into that particular minefield.
Igor displayed his disdain, and willingness to expose, in his 25th April 1947 Cholly Knickerbocker column:
“The funniest phoney in New York cafe society today is a fellow who uses an impressive ‘von’ before his cognomen, trying to pass as a member of European nobility. Actually he comes from Fort Smith, Arkansas, and is the son of a labourer. Mike Romanoff could never have done better. Maybe this fellow should go to Hollywood.”
Talking of “Prince” Mike Romanoff: Igor’s reaction to fake Russian nobility could lead to fisticuffs. He had a run-in with the decidedly non-Romanov Hollywood restaurant owner at El Morocco in April 1949, 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.
Igor tranforms into The Count
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.
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 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:
“Hjördis embarked from La Guardia airport. She flew to Paris, dressed simply in a dark suit and a small hat with feather. [Or 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 over the following years, a fact which David Niven may have underestimated during his extra-marital adventures.
(* Not all of Igor’s coinages were classics. His description of El Morocco’s clientele as “cafelegants” was seriously sub-par.)
Despite his promise to himself Igor Cassini didn’t 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 [ie. four months] I met and married Darrah Waters, a tall, blonde and beautiful Yankee from Upper New York State.” All of which was OK by Igor.
The Cassini brothers’ titled backgrounds helped them to establish themselves within American society at its highest levels. Oleg wrote that: “I considered myself a member in good standing not only of cafe society, but among the fading remnants of real society, filled with the descendants of the Mayflower and the 19th century industrialists with estates in Connecticut and on the north shore of Long Island.”
Igor examoned American society’s swelling numbers in a piece written for Cosmopolitan in 1946, and also touched on his Eurocentric ground-rules:
“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.”
Elizabeth Darrah Waters was from a wealthy New England family. She did not have to burnish her background. That said, she obligingly converted to Russian Orthodox in advance of the big day.
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.”
Unlike Hjördis, Elizabeth was never mentioned in Igor’s ‘Cholly Knickerbocker’ column.
The 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 Hollywood dress designer. He was also (temporarily) separated from film star Gene Tierney, with whom he had eloped in July 1941. They were married in Las Vegas by a justice of the peace who dutifully ignored the phone ringing frantically throughout with calls from their disapproving studios.
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, both admitted that their marriage was mutually beneficial, with Gene one of the best-dressed movie stars and Oleg one of the foremost designers in Hollywood.
Oleg moved to New York in 1947, opened a fashion house with Tierney’s financial assistance, and eventually ended up as Jackie Kennedy’s personal designer. After a second, final, break-up from Gene, Oleg became engaged to one of Hjördis’ greatest friends, Grace Kelly.
Having already been exposed to Hedda Hopper’s public disdain of his marriage to Gene, a second round opened with Hedda postulating in her column what Grace could possibly see in him. “It must be his moustache,” she concluded.
According to Oleg: “I’d had enough of this, and sent her a telegram: ‘Okay, Hedda, I give up. I’ll shave mine if you shave yours.'”
Grace Kelly’s Catholic family also did not approve of the engagement. Oleg called in his Catholic friend Joseph Kennedy, who agreed to have a talk with Grace. Joe then proceeded to tell her not to marry Oleg on religious grounds, and even made a play for her himself. Hjördis and Grace’s friendship has been puzzled over, but their Cassini and Kennedy encounters gave them a great deal 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. (The place was described by Igor Cassini as “a startling heap of Disney Gothic.”)
In 1956 Hjördis was invited to recuperate there following surgery. No sign of any grudge from the ex Mrs Igor Cassini, who may have appreciated the assistance in easing her journey towards becoming Mrs Hearst.
Next page: Sitting in David Niven’s chair