“When I first went to Hollywood I didn’t know a soul and was terrified of meeting people,” Hjördis Niven recalled. “At parties I used to ask David ‘What on earth shall I say to all these people? How can I talk to them?'”
“‘Just ask them about themselves,’ he told me. ‘You can never go wrong. If you will listen while they talk about themselves, you’ll be their friend for life.'”
Just in case the social life that Hjördis describes doesn’t sound particularly (or at all) glamorous, we’ll let Austine Hearst gush about a party thrown by Mike Romanoff in September 1949. I’ll even include the fake Russian royalty digs, no doubt inspired by her ex-husband Igor Cassini:
“Prince Michael Romanoff may not be the genuine article when it comes to Russian blue-blood [Bam!] but he’s an Imperial Highness as a host… He and his pretty young wife served EVERYTHING the other evening – from Beluga caviar, lobster mousse, and roasted pheasant to Rhine wine and champagne… The David Nivens were talking plans to come East, and agreeing, yes sir, Romanoff, ‘The Small Monarch’, certainly entertains royally.”
Friends in Hollywood
One new friend for Hjördis was actress Pat Medina, who remembered her as: “Very nice and fun in the early days, we were good friends.” There were other existing friends of David’s who took to her, including Noel Coward, Fred and Phyllis Astaire, and new friends for the pair of them in Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
“I count Fred Astaire among my most special friends,” Hjördis told a Swedish woman’s magazine in 1960. “He is just as entertaining and humorous in reality as he is on film. Now and then he wakes me up with records, because he knows I love dancing and dancing music. At first I felt terribly unsure and nervous – who wouldn’t be the first time you dance with Fred Astaire?”
According to Ritva Lundgren, who’s family were friends with Hjördis, “When newly married to Niven, Fred Astaire asked her to be in a film with him but she declined.” The most likely movie would be ‘The Barkleys of Broadway’, made between August and October 1948.
You should be in the movies
“Our friends in Hollywood include Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, argumentative Lauren Bacall, and temperamental Liz Taylor. Everyone was curious about David Niven’s unknown from Sweden.”
“In Hollywood, we are especially close to Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart,” Hjördis said in 1950. “They are an original and refreshing pair. Above all, I admire Lauren Bacall for her way of managing her husband. Bogart is not easy to be married to. He is very stubborn and flies off the handle at the slightest thing. But she calms him down and wipes away all his worries in a really radiant way. She is among the most intelligent women I’ve ever met and a real personality.”
“The four of us hit it off immediately.” Bacall told Graham Lord. “Their marriage was very happy for the first several years and we always had a great time together.”
Lauren Bacall recalled that Hjördis was always being hit with the compliment “You look fabulous. You should be in the movies.” Despite turning down the offers: “She had herself sculpted [in bronze, you can see it in the Getty image below, which was taken at Cap Ferrat in 1964] and I knew that being a wife was not for her! She wanted a career and to be noticed more.” Maybe so, but the bust was not quite the ego-trip that Ms Bacall described.
“I am no Julius Caesar that I should have a bust to perpetuate my memory,” Hjördis explained, “but I am fond of it for a personal reason. It was sculpted by David’s sister Grizel, a talented artist, whose work has been on view at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.” Grizel, by the way, was not impressed by her sitter: “I didn’t think much of Hjördis.”
Embed from Getty Images
Hjördis and David Niven, Cap Ferrat 1964
In 1960, Hjördis agreed to some name-dropping for a Swedish magazine: “Regarding the three major classical movie heroes, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Cary Grant: Gary is just as you would imagine him to be – calm, confident and smart. And Clark Gable is so nice and cute that you just want to hug him. He’s married to an adorable woman called Kay Williams and I think it’s a rare happy marriage.”
“We sometimes spend weekends in Palm Springs with Cary Grant and his wife Betsy Drake. And I can tell you, ladies, there’s nothing finer than the sight of Cary Grant on horseback, there’s just not! He is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen fashion-wise, in his black jeans and black jacket, riding a white horse! He shoots across the desert like a sheikh on his white charger, while Betsy and I try – unsuccessfully – to keep up as well as we can. David doesn’t ride badly at all, but he is not in the same class as Cary!”
In contrast to David Niven, Cary Grant willingly used his influence to help Betsy Drake win a Hollywood movie contract. After a few years she pulled back from her career to focus on her home life.
“It’s interesting to have seen Hollywood close up,” Hjördis told Husmodern in March 1950, “but I have never had the slightest desire for filming. It’s enough having one actor in the family, both my husband and I agree.”. [That old mantra again]
“By the way, he says he will soon stop filming before he gets too old and may look for something else. He will finish at the peak of his career. It is possible that he will continue as a director.”
With David’s acting career bottoming out, he was mulling over other avenues. The intention of going into movie production was crossed off the list, as was painting (despite receiving lessons from Hjördis), and other schemes such as introducing popcorn in British pubs, and becoming a gentleman farmer in England. Regarding the latter, in 1949 he went a bit ‘Good Life’ and invited journalists over to show off his home-grown produce in Pacific Palisades, claiming a measure of self-sufficiency.
“He is dependent on nobody and has no fear of things not going well,” Hjördis said. “He has been involved in more projects than you can shake a stick at… He had a go at razor blades in New York and potted shrimps in San Francisco.”
Allowing Hjördis a career doesn’t seem to have entered the equation, although she may have found that easier to accept when David told her that he would soon quit as an actor.
“(Sam Goldwyn) said I could hit the street and keep walking,” David told Seventeen in 1960. “It was a rough time. My wife had been killed – she fell down a flight of stairs – our boys were quite young still. I had to have a nurse and she had to have a cook or she wouldn’t nurse and the cook had to have a maid and I had a house and an entourage I couldn’t afford and wasn’t making a thing.”
“I was desperate,” he told Woman magazine in 1973. “I remember wandering through the hills below our house, praying that I would see a gold seam – not knowing what to do.”
“I’ve often talked to Hjördis about those troughs but she says she never realised they were happening. She didn’t know anything about the movie business and I think she didn’t believe me when I said we were in deep trouble. It meant I didn’t have to bother too much about her hysterics – I just had to keep her out of the shops! It was really grim.”
Once over lightly
Speaking in 1964, Hjördis remembered: “One morning, early in 1950 he woke up and said: ‘All right, we have no money and nobody is going to give me a film. So what am I going to do? I am going to write. In the garden of The Pink House was a little rotunda, so he put a table in it and got a chair and some paper and sat down every morning and within four months he had written a book.”
“He wrote it all in long-hand, starting after breakfast each day and finishing at lunch-time. Then he read aloud what he had written to me. I loved those writing sessions. Sometimes he repeated himself here and there, and I would point it out tactfully, but I would never criticise his work. It was great fun building up the plot and we both had many good laughs as David developed some of the odder characters.”
“I had to put him right on the finer points that a male author could not be expected to know. ‘Look David’, I said once, ‘this dress the heroine is wearing sounds hideous. No man could fall in love with a woman dressed like that!'”
“‘You know best darling,’ he grinned. ‘All right. We’ll scrub that passage. Now what should she wear?'”
“Then I would draw on my know-how of fashion and we would give the girl something really chic and sexy. I did not feel jealous of the women in the book, [well done Hjördis..] nor did I ask David if they were based on real persons, although, of course, I was dying to find out.”
‘Round the Rugged Rocks’ (titled ‘Once Over Lightly’ in the US) was indeed a slightly autobiographical novel. David later said it contained: “Large slices of my own life fictionalised,” and then summed it up as “pretty juvenile”.
Hjördis later described it as “a more or less autobiographical story of a young Englishman’s life and times.”
The book was dedicated to Hjördis, (along with David Jr and Jamie), and some of the anecdotes were recycled later for David’s massively successful ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ autobiography. Cresset Press in London claimed that the book had an initial print run of 25,000. It was also serialised in a womens’ magazine.
In November 1951 David talked about a visit to Philadelphia: “I had quite a thrill coming through a suburban station here. There in a bookshop prominently displayed was my brain child. I stood and looked at it awhile and said to myself, ‘David, you wrote that book. Nobody helped you and the ideas were all yours.'” [Hoi, Hjördis helped, or does that not count?]
“It sold about 12,000 copies in England and the publishers told me that was pretty good for a first novel,” David said. “My American publishers told me it sold very well, but as they never gave me any money after the first advance I don’t really believe them.”
In the end, David continued taking whatever movie parts came his way. He ended up doing a musical with Mario Lanza between December 1949 and March 1950, before accepting an offer from England which necessitated more months away from The Pink House. Before that however, at the start of the new decade his future financial saviour, which hadn’t even been on his hit-list, was to cross his and Hjördis’ path. Television.
Next page: The lady of the manor