Rocket to the stars, 1950

Hjördis Niven. Screenshots from US TV, 1950
Hjördis Niven on American TV, 1950: ‘Rocket to the Stars’

In early 1950, Jerry Fairbanks Productions of Hollywood completed the first films of a new half-hour TV series called ‘Rocket to the Stars’ – basically elongated adverts for the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 automobile. Hence the Rocket, driven by a grinning pair called Johnny and Lucille, visited the stars – the first being “The David Nivens”. [Poor Hjördis was no longer even a Mrs].

Previews mentioned that “the series shows stage and screen personalities in home backgrounds”. In the show, Johnnie and Lucille arrive (eventually) at Pacific Palisades, sing the “Make a date with a Rocket 88” jingle, and pull up outside The Pink House. After admiring the pool and the view, they are met at the door by David and Phantom.

Hjördis and David Niven. Advert for the “Rocket To The Stars” TV Show, 2nd May 1950

Inside, David calls “Yawdiss” who arrives to haltingly greet the visitors: “I’m so pleased to meet you. So nice of you to come,” in a deep, rather smoky voice. She looks excited but very nervous. By comparison, for David it’s just another opportunity to ham it up.

Lucille then tortures Hjördis by setting her up for her second line: “Mmm something smells good. Something Swedish? Something special?” For Hjördis, the line proves too much to cope with. With maximum effort she almost stumbles through: “I’m not sure about Swedish cooking any mo… David keeps me so busy with those…. hamburgers and hot do-ogs!” Before the end she breaks up with nervous laughter, which comes across as really sweet.

The group smile among themselves at a lame David joke about “Swede burgers”, while Hjördis innocently beams straight out at the film-crew. She seems relieved to walk out of shot with Lucille, at David’s suggestion: “Darling, take her to the kitchen, give her hundreds of recipes.” [Lucille may have ended up disappointed..]

Out on the patio the group are entertained by ballroom dancers Veloz and Yolanda, during which Hjördis is the only one who doesn’t remember to keep smiling, at least until the camera is obviously pointed at her and David. She then does her best model smile while her eyebrows shuffle around trying to get comfortable, before asking “Anyone hungry?” in a very heavy Swedish accent. A platter of Swedish meatballs and nibbles shows up, looking like something from Good Housekeeping magazine. Which it probably was.

Hjördis later recalled the quality of the cookery presented to guests at The Pink House. “I can probably say that our lunches were among the most popular, but this was due primarily to the fact that I had two talented Swedes in the household and we could offer Swedish smörgåsbord. There were even those who thought we had the best food in all of California! Sometimes we didn’t even bother to organise gatherings in advance. If anyone called, we’d invite them in for a hamburger, or to help us with the Sunday roast.”

During the Nivens’ years in Pacific Palisades, cooking for themselves was not the couple’s strong point. “We were tremendous friends with Jimmy (Stewart) Granger and Jean Simmons,” Hjördis mentioned in 1964. “Jean couldn’t cook at all. Jimmy used to do it – and was astonishingly good at it. I couldn’t cook either. If I had nobody to cook for me I would open a tin of baked beans and eat out of the tin.”

David tried his hand, but probably shouldn’t have. “Once, but only once, he tried to cook a steak in the wood ashes of our fire and we had to air the house for three days afterwards. There was soot everywhere and the steak was burnt to a cinder.”

On 14th January, Hjördis celebrated her second wedding anniversary – it had already outlasted her first by nine months – with a party attended by the likes of David O. Selznick, who was there for champagne and smörgåsbord rather than to chase her with a movie contract.

Misundertood in Mayfair

Hjordis Niven, Ascot 1950
Hjördis Niven, Ascot 1950. Actress Vivien Leigh arrived wearing exactly the same outfit – causing Hjordis to crack up with laughter.

‘Rocket to the Stars’ was all good innocent fun, and plainly enjoyable for Hjördis despite her discomfort. Late 1940s / early 1950s television did not always seem at ease with itself either, although it would soon have the power to make David a rich man, enhance his acting reputation, and give Hjördis a dream opportunity. The show may well have opened David’s eyes to the possibilities offered by the new medium.

“I don’t think that television will in any way reduce the influence of movies,” he said in June 1950. “On the contrary, there will be a lot of new movies, and a lot of new actors needed to cover television’s needs.” Positively sage-like.

Before the May 1950 broadcast of ‘Rocket To The Stars’, David landed another movie role in England. And so, once again, the Pink House was rented out and the family uprooted. No Sam Goldwyn to blame this time – although David’s first task was to shoot extra Goldwyn-influenced scenes for ‘The Elusive Pimpernel’, which looks like it was almost as big a mess as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’.

The family landed in Southampton on 10th March, bringing along as much food as they could into a country still in the grip of rationing, and immediately revealed plans to visit Hjördis’ family in Sweden. It would be her first return in three years. At a Mayfair cocktail party, Hjördis was overheard talking about her upcoming trip: “Maybe I’ll stay a month, maybe a year..” The conversation was reported globally as trouble at home rather than homesickness.

Friends and family

Hjordis Niven, Stockholm 1950
Hjördis Niven with one of her friends in Stockholm, Mrs Märtha Reuter. 1950

Hjördis’ long wait to visit Sweden ended on 24th March 1950, when she flew to Stockholm, where she was greeted by a reception committee of four of her siblings. The local press was also there – surprised to be told that their superstar model was now just a London housewife.

“I don’t understand what I did to get such an adorable man as David,” Hjördis told Husmodern magazine. “And he is even more charming and nice in reality than he appears in his movies!”

“David Niven has been so surrounded by beautiful women,” Husmodern gushed, “that more than just beauty is needed for him to fall in love. The most striking thing about Mrs. Niven is of a woman who has received so much from nature but can still be so unconventional as well as beautiful. And she is kindly disposed to everything and everyone.”

“‘I love people,’ she says. She has an incredible amount of friends wherever she goes. Here in Stockholm, her old friends have kept her busy every minute. ‘She has never been calculating in any way, and she still isn’t,” one friend says about her.”

Hjordis Niven at The Empress Club, London. May 1950
Hjordis Niven at The Empress Club, London. May 1950 – a club with rooms comparable to the palace at Versailles. David always stretched his budget in order to move among the highest echelons of society.

The visit lasted for around ten days, with David arriving at a later date, reportedly due to toothache.

Back in London, the Nivens moved out of Claridges Hotel, and by June were renting a house owned by Winston Churchill’s son Randolph in Catherine Place – a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. [If the stone was thrown by a fairly powerful robot].

“There is not much left of the shy, insecure girl who began modelling in Stockholm a decade ago for 300-400 krona a month,” visiting Swedish journalist Margit Strömmerstedt wrote. (300-400 krona was still quite a bit higher than the average male wage in early 1940s Sweden).

“We are finally able to relax, in a family house,” Hjordis said. “Staying in a hotel became desperately tiring – it’s so nice and comfortable here.” But not for long.

Next page: Lady of the Manor, 1950-1951

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