Back to earth, 1948-1949

Hjordis Niven, cover of Sketch magazine, London, 1948
An overly touched-up photo portrait of Hjördis Niven, on the cover of Sketch magazine, London, 1948

On 5th October 1948, David and Hjördis Niven’s long awaited honeymoon ended with them flying BOAC from Bermuda to New York, jumping on the RMS Queen Elizabeth to Southampton, and finally dropping their suitcases in a luxurious rented pad in Chester Street, London, a few yards from the Buckingham Palace gardens. They were therefore able to toddle around the corner on 14th November to join the crowds outside the palace gates when Prince Charles’ birth was announced.

The Queen Mother and David Niven, 1947
Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) at the Royal command performance of the Bishop’s Wife, 1st December 1947. A subdued looking David is on the left, three days before he first met Hjördis.

As well as viewing the Royal Family from a distance, Hjördis also managed to meet them in person, thanks to David’s high society connections.

“The Queen Mother and her husband, the late King George VI, had promised to come to our wedding reception which was given at the home of a personal friend of the Queen [and of David’s, naturellement]. Unfortunately, their heavy list of public engagements prevented their coming, but a year later this same friend gave a cocktail party and invited us. The King and Queen were there.”

The Queen’s friend was her lady-in-waiting, Audrey Pleydell-Bouverie, who divorced American multi-millionaire Marshall Field III in 1930 (in Reno, and guess what.. citing “extreme mental cruelty”, sheesh..). As part of the settlement she received an extra $2 million if she lived to the aged of 45. No doubt Mr Field wished her the very best of health. She reached the required age in April 1947, and became the owner of a mansion called Holme House, situated in Regent’s Park, London. Sweet.

Mrs Pleydell-Bouverie was (hilariously) described by the Evelyn Waugh as a “strained, nervous, cross-patch of a woman.” In turn, Waugh was described by David Niven as a “hornet”. Happy days.

Embed from Getty Images

David and Hjördis Niven on board the RMS Queen Elizabeth, arriving in Southampton on 14th October 1948

“When I was taken up and presented to the King, who I had not met before, I was shaking and trembling at the knees. I felt I was living in a dream. Can this really be little Hjördis, the village girl from Sweden, among all these grand folk? I wondered. What shall I do? What shall I say?”

“The King must have realised I was nervous for he took great pains to put me at my ease. ‘I am sorry we were not able to make it to your reception,’ he said. Then he told me very sincerely how he had first met the Queen and won her, adding that he was very lucky to have such a fine woman for his wife.”

Unhappy anniversary

The no-expense-spared London lifestyle may have hurt David’s pocket, but the real hurt was Hjördis’ health. On 30th December it was reported that she was “quite ill” and that David was “frightfully worried”. The New Year brought little cheer. By 8th January 1949 she was “seriously ailing”, and a week later (at a time when she should have been celebrating her first wedding anniversary) a further report said that she was convalescing in a London hospital after a serious abdominal operation.

Hjördis was to suffer a number of dreadful miscarriages in her first decade as David’s wife, and it seems that this was the first. Each one caused her enormous grief and depression which, from what we’ve already seen of her character, would have been long-lasting and very difficult for her to come back from.

As a definition, any unwanted pregnancy loss prior to the 24th week of pregnancy is considered a miscarriage. Even now, miscarriages are still a relatively common occurrence, affecting nearly 15% of all pregnancies. However, repeat miscarriages suggest that there may be an underlying medical condition. Around 1 in 100 couples experience recurrent miscarriage.

When Hjördis was well enough to travel, the couple returned for a short stay in New York on 16th February, requiring two taxis to ferry their 34 items of Vuitton luggage from ship to hotel, before continuing their journey back to Hollywood by train. Hedda Hopper summed up their time in London as “a siege of illness abroad”.

Although she did not profess to be an Anglophile and was rather snotty about David keeping his British citizenship, Hedda greatly enjoyed her trips to London. According to David: “she picked up a bogus ‘English accent’ complete with the longest ‘A’ in the business. On her return she informed me that London was ‘arbsolutely farntarstic’.”

As was always the case, at least for a few more years until David’s rising fame put her under a permanent eclipse of the star, Hjördis’ incredible beauty ensured that she received her fair share of attention and caused more than a few cricked necks. Igor Cassini chuckled about a conversation overheard at the luxurious St Regis hotel in New York:

“The Duke of Albuquerque asked a bellhop the identity of the beautiful tall girl whizzing by. The bellhop says: ‘That’s Mrs. David Niven. She is Swedish and was considered one of the great beauties there’.”

The Santa Fe Chief

The trans-USA train journey which David took to Hollywood was later described, with a hint of cynicism, in ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’:

“Leaving New York on the 20th Century Limited at 6pm and standing respectfully aside while famous movie stars smiled for the New York papers as they were escorted by railroad officials along a red carpet to their sleeping compartments. [I assume that by 1949 David was walking on the red carpet]. On arrival in Chicago the following morning, the sleeping cars were shunted around the marshalling yards and by noon were tacked onto the rear of the Santa Fe Chief, which two days later puffed to a stop at the Union Station, Los Angeles, where the famous movie stars perched on plies of matching baggage, and smiled for the Los Angeles papers.”

On 22nd February, the Nivens made their brief stop-over in Chicago, where Hjördis was subjected to what must be the worst smörgåsbord joke in human history.

“You are the most unbored looking smorgas we have ever feasted our eyes upon!” the Chicago Tribune reported. [Note, no-one took individual responsibility] “What is meaning this?” asked Hjördis. “Please don’t try to explain,” Niven told the newspaper men. “It’s a lost cause – but she’ll keep after me, and by the time we reach Hollywood, I’ll convince her it’s a compliment.” David, you have two days. Good luck.

Worse than the joke [really?], the Tribune reported that: “Niven was distraught over rumours that he plans to quit Hollywood. ‘I’ve got three more years with Goldwyn out there, and I hope, many, many more years.'”

There’s gonna be a showdown

David and Hjordis Niven at the Photoplay magazine awards, April 1949.
David and Hjordis Niven at the Photoplay magazine awards, April 1949.

However, with control of his career now more important to him than ever, David still decided on a showdown with Sam Goldwyn. There was only ever going to be one winner.

On Monday 20th June 1949 David Niven strode into Sam Goldwyn’s office and announced that on completion of his next movie, another mediocrity which he had been unwillingly signed up for, he would be going freelance. Goldwyn put up no resistance, and David entered his wilderness years as an actor. “I believed my own publicity – that I was God’s gift to Hollywood,” he said. “Still, I was pleased to have my freedom – until I found out that other studios weren’t exactly breaking their necks for my services.”

In August, David fixed his smile back into place and told the LA Times: “Now I’m free, and I like leisure. I think Sam Goldwyn is the best producer in the business. The trick is to get in the pictures he produces and not be loaned out for somebody else’s.”

“David can be pigheaded,” Hjördis mentioned in 1964. “He broke his contract and went into his own private depression.”

In 1954 she admitted to her part in David’s decision. “When the film industry was in rather a slump, David, who was under contract to MGM, was hired out by the studio to make films for other companies. He was lucky. That meant we still had a cheque coming in every month. But he wanted to freelance and the only thing that stopped him was the thought that he had me and the boys to look after. I could see that he was worrying, but at last I persuaded him to launch out on his own, for I was convinced that he would make good.”

“My wife was always so great, especially during those periods,” David remembered.

Hjördis remained resolute, and even joined David on the set of his last movie for Goldwyn, despite her earlier aversion. “A Kiss for Corliss” starred 21-year old Shirley Temple in what proved to be her final film. It isn’t known if Hjördis was aware that back in February 1948, when David O.Selznick had been keen to sign her up, he’d also been leading the pack to sign Shirley Temple’s two-week old daughter Linda. Linda did not end up in the movie industry.

Next page: The perfect wife and mother

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