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 the state of Nevada reduced the residency requirement for obtaining a divorce to six weeks. Crucially, only one partner needed to be present. The Cholly phrase “Reno-vation”was 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

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.

The eager pressmen were undeterred by Austine’s unconvincing claims through the keyhole that she had only come to Nevada to write a book.

For a time Cholly Knickerbocker “The super snooper of Manhattan,” was unaware. Instead, he was busy playing tennis in Palm Beach, and doing whatever else he did in Palm Beach. After sheathing his racquet he even stopped off to visit the illegal gambling tables in Saratoga Springs.

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 finally on his way to Nevada. Despite his late dash, Austine’s writing was handed over to a judge on 15th September in Carson City, Nevada (described at the time as “Mecca for divorce-seekers”). In it she charged Igor with “extreme mental cruelty” and was granted a divorce.

Musical chairs

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?  (If that’s what you’re thinking, good question!)

Well, it was mostly down to Hearst’s wife Lorelle, who took a four-month vacation in Europe between May and August 1947, unknowingly 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 didn’t know why.

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. It’s how his newspaper career was launched. 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. These people did not hang around.

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 came to a halt. According to Swedish journalist Jules Berman, Igor’s interest had already 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 Manhattan-based Count Carl Johan Bernadotte, who would have seen through any facade.

In 1949 it was reported that when in New York, Carl Gustaf Tersmeden stayed at Bernadotte’s apartment. The newspaper responsible even printed the address: 29 East 64th Street. Privacy be damned.

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.

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. (She may have borrowed Carl Gustaf’s grandfather Versteegh’s background). Related to famous Swedish painter Anton Genberg? – No evidence. And later… a French marquise through her marriage to David Niven? – Probably just David teasing.

The fact that the Tersmedens 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 of the latter.

In 1938 Igor’s brother Oleg had a short, weird marriage to New York socialite Merry Fahrney. “Merry parlayed their brief conjugation into the courtesy use of a title and continued for some time to call herself Countess Cassini improperly,” Igor wrote, “she was not the first to play the title game.”

Ms Fahrney’s 1947 relationship, with a former first sectretary of the German embassy, was reported relatively gently. Until, two days later, Igor caught the couple out-and-about in New York, with Merry using a title:

“Eric von Strempel, the former Nazi diplomat, exiting from a Longchamps restaurant with madcap Merry Fahrney, the former Nazi Sympathiser… trying to hide under the name of Baroness Berlingieri. Baron Berlingieri was her short-lived second husband.”

Mike Gerguson, prince of the Bronx

One of Igor’s pet peeves was people upgrading their background [you don’t say], and Hjördis’ desperation for acceptance may have lead her straight 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. His ‘socially-distinguished’ parents’ are currently living on the banks of the Arkansas River  – in an Army pup tent! 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 a gold sceptre. Romanoff was not displeased, and displayed the crown under glass in his restaurant. When David Niven gave Romanoff a bulldog pup, his-not-royal-highness named it Mr Gerguson, to David’s amusement: “in honour of the name some people say is his real moniker.” Igor would not have been amused. David Niven was sufficiently tickled to dedicate 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:

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. [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’ early years in the US 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.)

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

Despite his promise to himself Igor Cassini didn’t take much of a breather after his divorce, and re-married on 22nd January 1948.

“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 examined 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.” [As long as they don’t give themselves fake European titles, right Igor?]

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, which may be due to the rapidity of their union.

The marriage hit the rocks in 1952 during a trip to the south of France, when (according to Igor) Elizabeth ended up enjoying the attentions (ahem) of Carl Tersmeden’s playboy friends Porfirio Rubirosa and Aly Khan.

As ever with this tangled story – honestly, I wish it would be just a little more straightforward –  according to the Miami News, it was Darrah who divorced Igor, in Marion, Arkansas, on charges of being “jealous and high-tempered.” She quickly re-married, to George Emmanuel (right-hand man of Greek shipping billionaire Stavros Niarchos) and returned to Europe in May 1952. [Are you lost yet?]

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 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, both admitted that their marriage was mutually beneficial, with Gene one of the best-dressed movie stars and Oleg one of the foremost dress 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

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