There was always a chap with white gloves, 1950-1951

David and Hjordis Niven, 1951
David and Hjordis Niven, 19th September 1951. Original caption: “Movie star David Niven and his wife return from Europe aboard the Queen Mary. Picture was taken as the ship docked at New York. The dress Mrs Niven wears is one she designed herself and had made in Paris. She is the former Hjordis Tersmeden, who was a famous beauty in her Swedish homeland.” Another photo from the series is in the National Portrait Gallery collection. … .. Pardon? What colour was her dress? It was yellow. You’re welcome.

Following the completion of ‘Happy Go Lovely’, David skipped back to Hollywood in October 1950 to make two more movies, including ‘The Lady Says No’ – an ironic title given his recent conquests. In 2002, Euan Lloyd told Graham Lord that David’s philandering continued in California:

“There was one who has to remain nameless because she’s still alive. Madam X and Niv were having this big affair when he went back to Hollywood. She was a major star.”

Hjördis remained behind at Wilcot. Happy and lovely are not descriptions that I’ve heard about her life there. Doreen Hawkins visited and was not impressed:

“It wasn’t a very good move to Wilcot. It was gloomy and Hjördis said she saw ghostly nuns rowing a boat on their lake. I went to lunch there, but Hjördis was hopeless with domestic things and there was no food in the house. She didn’t believe in eating. Hjördis had only got gin. The kitchen was miles away but finally we went to eat some cold meat and a very curious dessert, and there was this man with white gloves serving us. Hjördis always had this thing, even if there was just the two of you having a snack, there was always a chap with white gloves. It was ridiculous.”

Hjördis’ absence from David’s side was interpreted by gossip columnists as domestic strife, then revealed to be because of doctor’s orders in London. She eventually joined him in early December.

California for Christmas

Newspaper advert for the Peter Lind Hayes Show on 21st December 1950, with guest stars David and Hjordis Niven
Newspaper advert for the Peter Lind Hayes Show on 21st December 1950, with guest stars David and Hjordis Niven

On 21st December, Hjördis made her second television appearance of the year, when she and David were guests on the Peter Lind-Hayes and Mary Healy Christmas show in New York. She was reported as being “scared silly” in advance, and indeed it did not go as planned.

She later described turning up, hair lacquered and dressed to the nines, to be stood under a bag filled with the snowflakes. It poured down on her ahead of schedule and by the time she went before the lights she was “a bedraggled, but smiling, lady”.

Hjördis spent Christmas with David in California, then left for England on 19th January 1951 to join David Jr and Jamie, who had been staying at Wilcot with David’s sister Grizel. Hjördis openly admitted to Hedda Hopper that each time she and David returned to Hollywood they were more reluctant to leave. Wilcot’s Niven days were clearly numbered.

David followed in March 1951 once ‘The Lady Says No’ was finished, arriving in Southampton on the RMS Queen Elizabeth, where he was met by his excited wife and sons.

In front of the Movietone news camera and microphone, Hjördis stood patiently, eyebrows dancing away as usual, smiled when David said: “We’ll probably have our honeymoon. We haven’t had one yet,” and then exploded into laughter and wheeled away when Jamie aimed a preschool hay-maker at David Jr. [She was most certainly not their mother, and this said it in letters ten feet tall].

The boys were soon left behind, again, as David whisked Hjördis off on a motoring holiday through France, Switzerland and Italy. The French leg of the tour also fitted in nicely with the wedding of Hjördis’ sister Gerd Karin at the Swedish Embassy on 31st March.


Video: British Movietone [The Nivens appear from 2:01 in the clip]

Although 1950-1951 is portrayed as a low point in David’s film career – we’re talking quantity rather than quality – he remained surprisingly busy. Days after the motoring holiday he left Wilcot behind, yet again, to begin filming ‘Appointment with Venus’ on one of the smaller Channel Islands.

On 10th April it was reported that while strolling along the isthmus that joins Little Sark to Greater Sark the cliff top gave way. David grabbed a safety wire and hauled himself back: “Closest thing I’ve had for a long time.” Apart from having near-death experiences, on 18th April David also took the opportunity to meet the local seigneur, the Dame of Sark.

Embed from Getty Images
David relaxes [tries to get warm more like] while filming ‘Appointment with Venus’ on Sark, 1951, by taking Hjördis for a row

In May and June, work on the movie continued near London, at Pinewood Studios. David was finally able to spend a little time at Wilcot – although according to Errol Flynn the house was sold during those same months. David’s ‘Appointment with Venus’ co-star Kenneth More noted in his autobiography that the Nivens were renting the house when he visited.

[If you want to know about the next owners of Wilcot Manor: In 1955 it was in the hands of the Earl and Countess of Westmorland. The Earl was Queen Elizabeth II’s ‘Lord-in-Waiting’. I’ve heard of the term Lady-in-Waiting before, but Lord-in-Waiting’s a new one to me… Anyway, in 1957 the Westmorlands sold the house to Sir Ivo Mallet, the UK’s ambassador in Spain.]

The Nivens’ housekeeper at Wilcot was local lass Eileen Bartlett, who spoke of meeting a variety of stars there, even Frank Sinatra. Kenneth More was invited to stay for a weekend break during filming – despite David’s sense of competition with his younger co-star.

Hjördis and David Niven in 1951
Hjördis and David Niven at the Epsom Derby, 30th May 1951 with Peggy Miller Mundy

The visit has been well recorded, probably because it’s so bizarre.

Ever the genial host, David introduced More to Hjördis, then plied him with alcohol during dinner and after Hjördis had gone to bed. Once More was inebriated, David persuaded him to break up an ugly yellow and black harlequin-patterned chair and throw it on the fire.

“For some reason David seemed deliriously happy,” More wrote. “Next morning when I came down to breakfast, Hjördis was looking worried. ‘What has happened to the chair?’ she asked. David, po-faced, said “Kenny burned it, darling.'” “You burned my chair?” Hjördis shrieked, and refused to speak to More for the rest of his painfully awkward stay. In fact, More reckoned that she never forgave him.

Passing the time

David and Hjordis Niven, Longchamp 1951
David and Hjordis Niven with Lord Hardwicke, at Longchamp for the French Derby, 24th June 1951.

While living in England and having her furniture nefariously disposed of, Hjördis kept spirits up with her love of gambling. David bought a greyhound in 1950, and told a London newspaper: “My wife is crazy about greyhound racing. But I’m not a betting man. Betting’s a mugs game.” Hjördis was therefore a mug.

There was also the opportunity to get dressed up for events such as the Epsom Derby, where she was photographed in May 1951.

“I am a bad gambler,” Hjördis admitted. “I hate losing. Once I went to a race-track and lost all of the house-keeping money. David was very cross and said we would have to live on hot dogs for a week.”

Still, she could have been worse.. “She was playing a roulette table in Las Vegas, using 10-cent chips,” David told the LA Times. “Beside her a tall man in a 10-gallon hat was throwing $100 chips. When he’d lost about $10,000 Hjordis looked at him and said ‘That’s not the way to do it.’ So the man shoved his stack over to her saying: ‘Here little lady, you show me how.'”

David was able to deal with some of Hjördis’ foibles with humour, which she took in good heart. For her birthday in 1950 he presented her with two Irish Hospital Sweepstakes tickets (dodgy lottery tickets based on horse-racing results). Hjördis immediately reciprocated by handing David two tickets from her purse – traffic citations which she had been handed in the US for forgetting to drive on the right-hand side of the road.

An even better example of Hjördis’ strong sense of humour, that lived long in David’s memory, was related by journalist Howard Kissel. “He still remembers a long train ride through Europe after finishing a film in England where he was paid in cash. At the time there were extreme limitations on the amount of cash a British subject could take out of the country, and it was Hjördis’ idea – which made him extremely nervous – to conceal the money in the second layer of a box of chocolates.”

“As each border arrived and customs inspectors came through the train, Niven’s fears rose. The very last border was the one into Italy, where they were going to spend their vacation – and the money. It was the first one where an earnest customs inspector decided to go through their luggage. Finding nothing amiss, the inspector was going to leave the compartment.”

“Niven was tremendously relieved until he heard his wife ask: ‘Would you like a chocolate?’ The man rifled through the candies until he found one he liked and wished the Nivens well.”

“‘I think what terrified me was the thought of prison.’ David admitted. And doubtless, Hjördis knew it.

Despite the occasional fun and games, living in England did not work out, and in the second half of the year David’s normally busy working-life entered an unwelcome quiet patch. Following a recommendation by Noel Coward, David and Hjördis packed their (twelve) bags and on 14th September 195 1 left for New York, where David had accepted a role in a Broadway play with veteran actress Gloria Swanson. There were reports that Jane Wyman “wants to make a picture with him as soon as possible”, but definite work had to take precedence.

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