The perfect wife and mother, 1949-1950

Hjördis Niven and The Pink House, 1948-49
A rare pensive image of Hjördis Niven, 1949

Recovering from her miscarriage was never going to be easy for Hjördis, but it doubtless helped to have David more available than usual. According to David’s friend Doreen Hawkins: “He always loved Hjördis and treated her wonderfully.”

“When I first married David, he used to be furious because I always left the top off my toothpaste tube,” Hjördis told Woman magazine. “He was fanatically tidy. He would not dream of taking his clothes off without hanging them up and he used to get irritated if they were ever moved. He’d be up for breakfast every morning fully dressed and eating it downstairs in the dining room like an English gentleman. I always had my breakfast in bed.”

David and Hjördis Niven on the cover of VeckoRevyn magazine. Sweden, 9th December 1949.
David and Hjördis Niven on the cover of VeckoRevyn magazine. Sweden, 9th December 1949.

“He never throws his clothes on the floor, and doesn’t flick cigarette ash all over the place, because he doesn’t smoke.” [Which neatly explains the lack of ash-flicking… Hjördis though, seems to be describing her own habits.]

“Getting up is one of the few things on which we disagree,” she said in 1954. “David doesn’t mind it, no matter how early: I hate it, however late.”

Aside from different habits, Hjördis had difficulty coping with her position in the household as a second wife and mother:

“It did not take me long to find out that being married to a widower who is also a film star is something to live up to, especially when his first wife was so well-loved as David’s was.”

Hjördis did try in different areas, but was simply a different person.

“There were one or two hilarious dinner parties when Hjördis would suddenly decide to deal with the catering,” Viveca Lindfors remembered, “only because of her broken English we’d end up with stuffed pigs and weird desserts.”

“At the same party when we had the jumbo pig, we invited Clark Gable to dinner,” David later wrote. “We’d asked Viveca Lindfors, too, and she brought her mother who spoke no English. Clark asked, ‘What do I do for the old bird?’ and I assured him the best thing to do was to give her a whole umbrella stand full of schnapps. A little while later when Clark asked Viveca’s mother, ‘Have you been in this country long?’ she went completely berserk and got up and sang for an hour!”

Mischievous younger brothers

David & Hjordis Niven with their dogs, 1949
David and Hjordis Niven in their swimming pool at Pacific Palisades, 1949, with dogs Baba and Suzu, just after David completed ‘A Kiss With Corliss’.

“In a way I was jealous of David’s first wife, but it wasn’t anything one could fight,” Hjördis reflected. “He never said to me that he considered her the perfect wife and mother, but I suspect he thought she was. Compared with her I felt so inadequate. I couldn’t cook, I didn’t know anything about children. I wasn’t even very interested in dressing myself up smartly and I’m most untidy. I’m sure he couldn’t help contrasting her and all her wonderful gifts with me. At least, I felt he must.”

In 1949 David bought Hjördis a pair of large white poodles, Baba and Suzu, to accompany (and outnumber) his boxer dog Phantom. Phantom had been a present from friends in the aftermath of Primmie’s death.

Any neuroses caused by the shadow of Primmie can’t have been helped by David coming out with lines such as: “The strange thing is that Hjördis and Primmie have become one person to me. They are totally different, yet…”

Speaking long after the publication of his 1985 David Niven biography, which avoided looking too closely at the second marriage, Sheridan Morley said:

“He certainly married on the rebound from his first wife’s death. He had two small boys to bring up and was very frightened at being a one-parent family. He married to give the boys a mother.”

Doreen Hawkins witnessed the early days of Hjördis with David Jr and Jamie: “She always made it very clear that she wanted children of her own, and that she was not going to be a kind of substitute mother trying to step into Primmie’s shoes.”

After interviewing Hjordis in 1961, Swedish magazine Vecko Revyn (Weekly Review) reported that she hadn’t entered the Niven household as a “forced new mother” but as someone to fill the house “with whimsy and laughter.”

Hjördis Niven with step-sons Jamie and David Junior, c.1949
Hjördis Niven with step-sons Jamie and David Junior, c.1949

“I remember her romping around with the boys in the garden of The Pink House or leaping into the pool with them,” Doreen Hawkins continued, “but she never looked upon herself as their mother. She was very fond of them, and in the holidays she’d spend time with them, but in a way she always treated them as mischievous younger brothers rather than stepsons – it wasn’t a maternal thing at all.”

Hjördis’ insecurities and jealousies, readily admitted, seemed to take a larger hold the longer she went on without having her own children. (It’s interesting to consider how she felt in her relationship with Igor Cassini, when his wife was not just alive, but still married to him).

“I had two fine stepsons who adored me,” she later said, without complicating matters by reciprocating, “a beautiful home; in fact all the things a woman longs for but does not always achieve. Yet sometimes in the long nights when the family was asleep I would shed a few tears. I wanted a baby of my own so much.” Her lack of empathy for David Jr and Jamie, the “two motherless little boys” also surfaced.

“She told the boys to stop calling her Mummy,” Pat Medina told Graham Lord. “She said ‘You have to call me Hjördis, you can’t call me Mummy.’ Jamie was so upset that he locked himself in his bedroom.”

“Hjördis was more of a companion rather than a mother,” Jamie told Sheridan Morley. “There were moments when we had a lot of fun together and other moments when it got very tricky. She didn’t act like a mother and she made it very clear that she never wanted to be our mother.”

Hjördis’ hands-off strategy may have worked with older children, but with little ones whose mother had died… awful.

Swedish magazine Allers backed her on the subject, referring, coldly, to a “Swedish neutrality policy… and it has given the happy result that she is not their stepmother but their best friend.”

“I’m more like an older sister to them than a mother,” Hjördis told the Daily Mail in a 1960 article titled ‘I Confess’. “In fact I sometimes worry if there should have been more of a mother-child element in our relationship. Will they, I wonder, miss in later life the true mother influence they haven’t had?”

Next page: Hi Society, 1949-1950

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