Niven in Hollywood, 1948

David Niven with his new family outside The Pink House, 1948
Hjördis Niven with her new family outside The Pink House, 1948/49

The newly reconstituted Niven family finished the last leg of their journey to Pacific Palisades by train, arriving on Thursday 29th January 1948.

“So we came to California and our house in Pacific Palisades,” Hjördis wrote. “It is located on a hill high above the ocean with a wonderful view of the Pacific Ocean. Vicky Baum built it for herself, but she sold it to David just before his first wife died.”

David eased Hjördis as gently as possible into her new life, taking her on a shopping trip to Beverly Hills on her first day, followed by a visit to the neighbours to be introduced to Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s wife.

“There were some things about California which I immediately loved,” Hjördis said, “the shopping, the warmth, the freedom to go around barefoot in bathing-suits. All that seemed marvelous coming from such a cold climate as Sweden.”

Although the climate in Pacific Palisades could be pleasant and the air fresh, it was not representative of the entire area. This was noted by another new arrival, the English actor Stewart Granger, whose first sight of the Pacific Ocean was from gardens of The Pink House.

“The day I drove down to Los Angeles the temperature stood at 105 degrees in the shade and the smog of industrial Southern California was the worst on record. I don’t mind heat, but smog, a combination of smoke and sulphur fumes – made my eyes so red and sore I worried about make-up tests the following day.” Indeed by April, Hjördis had contracted bronchitis – most commonly caused by pollution and smoking [she was a heavy smoker] – and was shipped off to recuperate in Palm Springs. (The first major Los Angeles smog, in 1943, was so bad that rumours circulated about it being a Japanese chemical warfare attack).

In The Pink

David and Hjordis Niven, January 1948
David Niven and a rather tired looking Hjordis arrive in Hollywood after their two day train journey from New York, January 1948.

“The house we came to in California had never been lived in by David’s first wife,” Hjördis recalled. “They had planned it together, but she had died before they could move in to it. I don’t think I could have gone there if she had ever lived in it.” Primmie’s monogrammed linen and towels were soon moved to the Pink House guest cottage, where David’s actor buddy Bob Coote was in residence.

“It wasn’t easy in the beginning,” Hjördis later said, during a joint interview with David. “For me, marrying you was such a huge upheaval. I had to suddenly adapt to a new man, with two sons, a new country [not that new], a new language, and that whole new strange environment called Hollywood. I longed for home so terribly at the beginning that it was on the verge of traveling back to Sweden several times. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

“Neither did I,” David shot back.

“I felt at first that it was David’s house and not really ours. And that, on top of everything else, provoked our first row. I wanted to move a chair into a different position and David didn’t want me to. It was as trivial as that.”

“Suddenly the dam broke and the flood of all my tears and repressed anxieties, the strain of being inspected by everybody and of living in the glare of constantly popping flash bulbs, the tension and the resentment, all burst forth. I flared up. David went quietly out of the room and left me. And then I wanted him. I searched the house for him, crying: “David, David…”

“At last I found him in the cellars, sadly sorting out some old books. And I was so delighted to see him that I forgot about the argument and just fell into his arms.”

Speaking to an Icelandic newspaper in 1964 (and perhaps inspired by the local geography), David and Hjördis recalled the same scene:

“I thought my wife was cool as a glacier, and then she suddenly erupted like a volcano. I was so overwhelmed that I went down to the basement, locked myself in and cursed.”

“Yes, the poor thing,” Hjördis replied, laughing. “He was there half the day.”

That often-remembered first row illustrated an incompatibility that would never be resolved. In 1957 Hjördis said: “David is more interested in peace than in anything else in the world. The first time I lost my temper he went down to the cellar and stayed there for three hours. He simply won’t fight back – which is very frustrating when you’re itching for a good slam-bang argument.” If David hasn’t fully realised before, now he did, his new wife was a very different proposition than Primmie.

Home, sweet funeral parlour

Hjordis Niven advertising house-paint in February 1958.
Trend-setter Hjordis advertising house-paint in February 1958. Note, no “anthracite”.

On top of his over-riding interest in peace, David’s attitude may have been influenced by wanting Hjördis to feel at home, and to soften the fiery part of her personality. She later claimed to have set about redecorating the house, some of which had only been decorated the previous year to Primmie’s specifications.

“I started with my bedroom, a huge room with wonderful proportions and huge windows. It would be a surprise to David. I moved into his dressing room – which was next to my room – and forbade him from setting foot in my room until it was finished. It had anthracite* black walls, white ceilings and white floors. The windows got thin white curtains with a light pattern in anthracite and gold, the furniture was made of pale walnut and everywhere I had black pillows. And then, when everything was done I opened the door and lead David in.”

“He let out a cry, but quickly recovered. He said it was the worst he had ever seen, and that the room looked like the reception of a funeral agency! But, soon he got used to it, and was actually proud of it… guests were often shown ‘Hjördis’ funeral agency’. In addition, I can say that at least five of my friends copied my idea of having anthracite walls!”

[*The colour Anthracite, which Father Ted would have described as: “Not black –  just very, very, very dark grey.”]

Welcome to Hollywood

David Niven with Hjordis Niven, March 1948
An early Hollywood night out for Hjordis in March 1948. With David at a party thrown for Noel Coward by Joan Crawford .

To help Hjördis settle into the Hollywood community, Bob Coote organised a formal welcome party, which took place on 3rd February in a village of tents and salamander heaters set up in ‘Prince’ Mike Romanoff’s garden. Unfortunately for Hjördis she was already suffering the first of a long series of illnesses.

“No sooner had we arrived in Hollywood than I got measles [courtesy of David Jnr and Jamie]. It was most inopportune, for an enormous party had been arranged for everybody to meet ‘David’s new wife’. All the stars were there – Charles Boyer, Lana Turner, Dick Powell, Ida Lupino, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart. They had all been warned about measles, but they came.”

“I had to wear a high-necked dress because I had a rash all over my throat. I don’t know what they thought of this insignificant slip of a girl that David had picked up in London, but they were all very nice.” The compliment was returned, with the general first impression of Hjördis being that she was “very gracious and charming.” And tall. 5ft 8 is hardly Land of the Giants, but she was still described as “a Viking” by Lilli Palmer, and as “Big!” by raconteur Peter Ustinov. I don’t know what height Peter Ustinov was. Guessing under 5ft 8 inches.

“It was an odd experience,” Hjördis said. “I found myself going up to people I hadn’t been introduced to and greeting them like long-lost friends. I had only seen them on the screen, but somehow the films and reality seemed so mixed up in this unreal world that I could not distinguish between people I had met in the flesh and those whose screen image only I had seen.”

David also had difficulty taking the whole event on-board: “It doesn’t seem possible that this is happening to me after six months in England, where I was on a sound-stage every day.”

“I didn’t get the adventure of sailing on the Amazon River,” Hjordis explained to Allers. “Instead, I ended up sailing to America with David and the boys.”

“Hollywood was an adventure, one that should have scared a little northerner from Sweden. But it never did. Maybe I’m not that easily scared. And, I had David by my side; not easy to impress, and always calm and safe when difficulties were at the door.”

Another reason for not being overwhelmed, (and not a euphemisn!) was: “When you looked behind the beautiful facades, you found that their backyards were so dirty! You can’t be afraid of a beautiful facade when the backyard is so ugly and abandoned.”

Next page: May I introduce… Mrs David Niven

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