In late July 1948 Hjördis and David Niven boarded the SS Britannic, bound for Liverpool and then Claridges Hotel in London. On arrival the couple were happy to chat with the waiting press. “The twelve-day voyage was really our honeymoon,” David said. “It has been wonderful, so has Hjördis.” Hjördis added, in her best Yoda: “Just like a honeymoon it’s been, but tomorrow we have to go out and look for a flat.”
Present company excepted, David explained that Hjördis was not yet feeling the love for the Hollywood community: “She doesn’t like film stars.”
One slightly put-out Hollywood reporter wrote: “She doesn’t care two hoots for the business of making pictures. They wanted to show her the studio when she visited with David. ‘No thanks’ she declined, politely.”
She thought that she could be Garbo
Unsurprisingly, at first Hjördis was most comfortable in the company of fellow Swedes. In ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ David brought their visits vividly to life: “Some highly decorative Scandinavian ladies now augmented the weekly gatherings…. Viveca Lindfors and Signe Hasso were often present.”
Even Greta Garbo arrived unexpectedly at The Pink House one day – where she had lived earlier in the decade – just hoping to look around for old times’ sake. Happy days for Hjördis, who according to David made a new friend; and one who was an inspiration to her. Lauren Bacall later commented: “She thought that she could be Garbo.”
Garbo, originally Greta Gustafsson, started her working life as a soap lather girl in a Stockholm barber shop, then in 1920 landed herself a PUB job in Stockholm – by which I mean a job at Paul Urbanus Bergström’s department store. During her two years there she was chosen to model hats for the store’s catalogue, and also modelled for Hjördis’ future employers, Leja.
“I remember how nervous and shy she was the first time she came here,” Ms Westling of Leja’s model school revealed in 1942. “Her hair was in complete disorder, even though she had just come straight from the hairdresser. Our famous Greta Garbo has always had hard-to-handle hair. The first thing I had to help her with was a proper combing. Nevertheless, she participated in several shows before leaving for America.”
Greta Garbo’s career timeline diverged from Hjördis when she enrolled at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Dramatics, and was slapped across the face with a mackerel in one of her first film roles. Two decades later, Hjördis was persuaded by her fiance Carl-Gustaf Tersmeden to turn down an offer from the Academy.
Garbo was eventually brought to Hollywood by Mauritz Stiller, a Swedish director signed by MGM, who was adamant that she come along too. According to The American Weekly in 1949, Garbo failed her initial screen-test. Stiller insisted on a second chance and personally prepared her. Success. Then immense success – when her performance in ‘The Torrent’ caught the public’s imagination and launched her on the road to becoming a living legend.
Garbo was only able to speak Swedish when she first arrived in America. Not a problem in the silent era, although MGM were so worried about her heavy Swedish accent that her first talkie picture was only released in 1930. They had nothing to fear, the headlines screamed ‘Garbo talks!’ and her popularity continued to soar. She made her last movie in 1941 at the age of 36, and retired with absolute finality from the public eye.
Garbo still socialised with trusted friends, and by 1948 there was a noticeable increase in sightings. One of those was with Hjördis and David on a yacht anchored in Toyon Bay, which presented the surreal sight of Garbo scrubbing the decks, David fishing off the side, and Hjördis (most surprising of all) cleaning the cabins. “Her presence on the cruise was partly attributable to her friendship with Hjördis Niven, the movie actor’s Swedish wife,” The American Weekly wrote in January 1949.
Oddly, when asked to name-drop for a Swedish magazine in 1960, Hjördis recalled only a single meeting with Garbo, during the 1950s: “It was on the Riviera that I met Greta Garbo for the first and only time of my life. It was aboard Onassis’ yacht ‘Christina’. She made a very deep impression on me, and so did ‘Christina’. Everything was so insanely fine on board , and they had wonderful paintings by El Greco.”
Despite David’s frequent protestations of poverty, it all being relative of course, he managed to live the high life for the vast majority of his marriage with Hjördis. In April 1948 he bought a 45 foot ketch, and christened it by inviting Hollywood friends such as Lilli Palmer, Rex Harrison, Ida Lupino, and Bob Coote on a first trip to Catalina Island. David had previous yachting experience from summers spent on The Isle of Wight, but had not been prominent in Hollywood’s yachting set. The renewed interest may have been driven by Hjördis, who had already been married to a noted yacht-owner.
Location, location, location (?!)
David was understandably royally grumpy about being forced to uproot his family from Hollywood to England, again, especially for another overblown costume-disaster of a movie such as ‘The Elusive Pimpernel’. He hit back at Sam Goldwyn by being as awkward as possible, despite Hjördis’ misgivings. On arrival, he announced that he was only there for a quick costume-fitting, and then called in an allocated six-week holiday.
“David decided it was time for a honeymoon” Hjördis recalled. “Suddenly he said: ‘We both need a holiday. Let’s just drop everything and we’ll have our honeymoon now!'”
On 20th August David and Hjördis set off back to New York on the Mauretania, and then to Bermuda for a land-based honeymoon… via Hollywood. [!] David later admitted that his behaviour was “indicative of an unhinged mind”.
Despite feeling the full-force of a hurricane called ‘Dog’ halfway through their five-week break, the Bermuda honeymoon remained a very happy memory for both newlyweds.
“Actually it all worked out for the best,” said Hjördis. “A honeymoon just after the wedding when I was all worked up and tense would have been a disaster and might easily have soured our marriage for ever.”
“As it turned out, it was heavenly. We took a tiny cottage. It had just two rooms – a living room and a bedroom. We swam all day long and spent hours at underwater fishing and catching lobsters.”
“Looking back on this part of my life, I can recapture some of the rapture we enjoyed,” Hjördis recalled sixteen years later. “We found we had many interests in common besides being deeply in love. I lost a lot of my shyness and made some real friends who are still my friends.” (The new friends included Noel Coward, who arranged a welcome for the couple by having a brass band hide in their bedroom).
“I enjoyed traveling and David took a quiet pride in showing me wonderful new places. Certainly there was no cloud to cast a shadow over those wonderfully happy, blissful days.”
And David felt exactly the same about his beautiful, expressive, and rather highly strung new wife: “I revelled in Hjördis’s forthrightness, honesty and laughter as the holiday sped by.” It was a golden time, which he held on to the memory of when things eventually did turn sour.
Next page: Back to earth, 1948-1949