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 at 23 Chester Street, London, just a few yards from the Buckingham Palace gardens. They were therefore able to toddle around the corner on 14th November and 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.

On 25th November David was invited to a much more exclusive gathering, as one of Prince Philip’s guests at a “stag party” in the Belfry restaurant club to celebrate the royal baby. The one photo that I’ve seen of the event includes the unmissable figure of his old army friend and best man Trubshawe, but not David.

Thanks to David’s high society connections, Hjördis also got to mingle with members of the Royal Family.

“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  had divorced American department store multi-millionaire Marshall Field III in the 1930s (in Reno, and guess what.. citing “extreme mental cruelty”, sheesh..).

Audrey Pleydell-Bouverie
Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s Audrey Pleydell-Bouverie.

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. [His company’s slogan after all was “Give the Lady what she wants…”] Audrey reached the required age in April 1947. She had already become the owner of a mansion called Holme House, in Regent’s Park, London. Sweet.

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

“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.”

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David and Hjördis Niven on board the RMS Queen Elizabeth, arriving in Southampton on 13th October 1948

The Elusive Pimpernel

Apart from hanging out with royalty, David also had a film to make. ‘The Elusive Pimpernel’ required him to parade around in ridiculous costumes on locations in both England and France. He was accompanied by Hjördis, who was delighted to run into two old friends from her modelling days: the founders of Nordiska Kompaniet’s Franska department, Pelle Lundgren and his brother-in-law Kurt Jacobsson.

According to Pelle Lundgren’s daughter Ritva: “My father and my maternal uncle Kurt went to Paris twice a year to visit and buy at the fashion shows of the grand maisons de haute couture like Balenciaga, Balmain, Dior, Chanel, Grès etc. Once, when they were strolling along the Champs Elysées they heard a woman calling out their names. It was Hjördis who was in a cabriolet with David Niven. She was so happy to meet my father and my uncle and gave them her home address, Chester Street, and urged them to look her up if they were to go to London.”

Unhappy anniversary

The no-expense-spared London lifestyle may have hurt David’s pocket, (Hjördis’ first reaction at seeing Chester Street was “This is exquisite David,. We must take it.”)  but the real hurt soon became Hjördis’ health. In her 30th December Hollywood gossip column, Hedda Hopper reported that Hjördis was “quite ill” and that David was “frightfully worried”.

Perhaps as an escape for some fresh country air, David took Hjördis to stay with Primmie’s mother, who was based in Skillington, Lincolnshire for her beloved fox hunting season. On 1st January the Nivens ventured out to a local antiques shop. “Both Mr and Mrs Niven were very friendly and charming,” the delighted shop owner excitedly blabbed. “We have had business dealings with them quite recently. After chatting and looking around for about half-an-hour they went away by car, with Mr Niven driving.”

If rest and relaxation were reasons for the visit, any success was short-term. The opening weeks of the New Year brought little cheer. On 5th January the Hon. Mrs Rollo fell off her horse during a hunt and was admitted to hospital with a head wound and concussion. A very unwelcome reminder of Primmie’s injuries less than three years before.*

In addition, it was revealed on the 7th January that Hjördis was “seriously ailing”. A further report on 13th January (a time when she should have been preparing to celebrate her first wedding anniversary) said that she was convalescing in a London hospital after a serious abdominal operation: “She’s had a bad time ever since her arrival.”

Hjördis was to suffer a number of dreadful miscarriages in her first decade as David’s wife, and this may have been the first. Each one caused her enormous grief and depression which 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.

Embed from Getty Images
Hjordis and David Niven face the flash-bulbs. New York, 16th February 1949.

The next reported sighting of Hjördis came two weeks later, when she and David attended the first night of Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s performance of ‘School for Scandal’ at the Old Vic, London. Such was the demand for admission that people camped overnight outside the theatre entrance.

When Hjördis was well enough to travel, she and David sailed for New York. They arrived 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 England 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 first trans-USA train journey that pre-fame David took to Hollywood was later described, with a hint of cynicism, in ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’:

“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.”

The Sante Fe Super Chief, 1940s-50s, passing through Californian orange groves

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 had 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 1954 Hjördis 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.”

She later back-pedalled: “David can be pigheaded. He broke his contract and went into his own private depression.”

In August 1949, 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.”

Hjördis remained resolute, and even joined David on the set of his last movie for Goldwyn, despite her earlier aversion. “My wife was always so great, especially during those periods,” David later remembered.

‘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

* Primmie’s father William Rollo died on 3rd October 1962, after falling from his horse and breaking his neck “while fox-cub hunting” (?!)

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