“The engagement is announced between David, son of the late William Graham Niven and the late Lady Comyn-Platt, and Hjördis, daughter of the late Johan Georg Genberg and the late Gerda Genberg. The marriage will take place quietly in the near future.” (The Times, Wednesday 14th January 1948). The near future, as in by the time you’d read the marriage notice.
Well, actually the wedding was supposed to be on 13th January, except that the stress of arranging it at speed to out-fox the UK taxman and depart the country as soon as possible, contributed to a 24 hour postponement while David fought a dose of influenza. On the 14th January however, “with red eyes, a running nose and a fever of 103 degrees” he rose from his sickbed and the wedding went ahead at midday, to rather more attention than Hjördis expected:
“David had promised that it would be a quiet wedding, ‘Just you and me, a couple of your friends and a couple of my friends,’ he had said. I was a very nervous bride and I couldn’t bear the thought of crowds of people. But when we arrived outside the South Kensington registry office there were great swarming mobs of people – housewives who had queued for two hours, cameramen by the score, even two television vans with their crews. Somehow the news had leaked out.”
“I went there in a taxi with my friend Ulla Bussler, who was one of our wedding witnesses. Had I realised that my worst fears would come true, I don’t know if I’d have just stuck to my original plan and quietly returned to Sweden.”
Video: British Pathé
Between you, me, the lamp-post and half the world
Apparently only a small number of friends from either side were told in advance. However, that was enough for news of the wedding to be reported a day early as far away as Australia. No internet necessary. The resulting crowd of well-wishers were bolstered by shoppers, nurses from a next-door hospital (St Mary Abbot’s, a former workhouse), and workers repairing the hospital – which had received a direct hit from a flying bomb in 1944. The registry office was once the offices for the workhouse. Visiting world press described it as “a shabby 100 year-old building”. It has since been demolished.
“I was nervous, and when we approached the building, I thought I would die of horror! The police officers who had been called in to keep order could hardly keep the crowds at bay. I had never seen anything so scary in my life, and leaned forward to ask the driver to turn around and drive, anywhere, just to get away from it. Away to somewhere where I could call David and say I’d changed my mind. Ulla tried to calm me down. But it was not easy.”
“When I noticed that the driver had no intention of doing what I asked, I tried to get out of the car. Ulla held me in an iron grip. And then we stopped outside the building and there was nothing I could do.”Embed from Getty Images
Just married. Hjördis and David Niven outside the South Kensington Registry Office at 28 Marloes, London, on 14th January 1948
Eventually, Hjördis fixed her smile into position, and made a dash for the registry door along with two bemused-looking witnesses, who had flown in from Stockholm for the occasion.
“I walked up the stairs with police on either side, but a lot of people were still pushing and trying to grab me. Those were probably the most horrible minutes of my life!”
“The Wedding official did not seem to share the people’s benevolent enthusiasm for me. ‘Are you quite sure of what you’re doing?’ he said to David. ‘These foreign girls, you never know who they are or where they come from, or what they’ve been doing.'”
The answers, not that he deserved any, the xenophobic git, were: a/ no, but I have a bad feeling about it, b/ Hjördis, c/ Sweden, but not as far north as Kiruna, and d/ don’t ask.
David Niven’s simple catch-all answer was: “Just shut up and get on with it.”
“David was struggling to stay serious,” Hjördis wrote in 1960, “but I was just nervous, and when we came to the ceremony I answered in Swedish instead of English!”
A mere fifteen minutes later the newly-weds were back outside, married, and off to Claridge’s for wedding lunch followed by a reception thrown by David’s friend Audrey Pleydell-Bouverie.
“A lot of David’s film friends were there,” Hjördis remembered, “Alec Guinness, Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Michael Powers – he was director of ‘The Red Shoes’ – Tony Kimmins and a lot of others. The Duke of Marlborough was also there and many of David’s private friends. It was even rumoured that the royal couple would do us the great honour, but – in truth, to my relief – they did not come.”
Passport to Hollywood
The best man was David’s old army friend Michael Trubshawe, who met Hjördis for the first time the night before the wedding and rather insensitively tapped a raw nerve:
“For some reason I took it into my head to tell her that if she thought that by marrying David she’d have a passport to a Hollywood career, then she was in for a bitter disappointment. She didn’t much care for that and we didn’t speak for fifteen years.”
What Trubshawe didn’t realise, was that Hjördis didn’t need the marriage to provide a passport to a Hollywood career – she’d been turning down offers for two years, and still had an offer from David O. Selznick up her sleeve. By marrying David Niven she was handing over the power to stop her career – whether as a movie star or model.
While in New York, Hjördis had deferred David O. Selznick’s interest, ostensibly due to homesickness. “It was when my longing for Europe was at its height, so I declined his offer to help me out as an actress.”
As Hjördis was leaving the registry office she was asked about a possible movie career and revealed that David had already laid down the law. “Mrs Niven admitted that she had film ambitions, but added hastily: ‘David doesn’t want me to go into pictures.'” She was more firm when asked a second time: “My husband does not want me to go into films, so I shall not take up film work.” Sounds unequivocal, though a couple of days later she sweetly mentioned that, “except for her husband’s objections, she would not mind taking a crack” at a movie career. Or words to that effect. It’s hard to imagine that her English was advanced enough to be talking about taking a crack at things.
It may also mean that she didn’t grasp the absolute finality of David’s stricture, which encompassed any type of career, ever. David’s family background status was town and country houses, servants, and non-working womenfolk. Hjördis came from a family where everyone – both men and women – worked.
The debate about whether women should work after marriage was a familiar one in late 1940s Swedish women’s magazines. “Every girl is trained to work and she’s needed to, so it’s a great problem,” one journalist wrote.
Hjördis was not helped by the United Press reporter stirring up anticipation of her arrival in Hollywood: “Mrs Niven will give the film-colony lovelies plenty to worry about. A tall redhead and formerly a mannequin, she created a small sensation among the 100 housewives and labourers who watched the couple arrive for the wedding.”
Next page: The storybook stepmother, 1948 or take a short detour past a gallery of Niven family wedding photos from 1917-1948