Lady of the manor, 1950

David and Hjordis Niven in London, 1950
David and Hjordis Niven in London, 1950

As early as April 1948 David Niven talked about buying property  in England, in this case a large farm “as an investment”, but with no mention of upping sticks from Hollywood. By July 1949, after his split with Sam Goldwyn, David spoke to a reporter in Hollywood: “I’m going to switch my base. I shall live in England and only make occasional pictures over here.” He then mentioned the idea of buying a cottage in Wiltshire.

The best little mansion in Wiltshire

In 1950, while renting Randolph Churchill’s house near Buckingham Palace, David was in the process of buying a large 17th century country house – Wilcot Manor in Wiltshire – sporting 10-12 bedrooms, over 70 acres of grounds – some of which were farmed, and a lake that was a designated wild duck sanctuary.

The Evening Standard described it as “one of the most picturesque small mansions in the country.” So, not quite a cottage.

It was a three hour drive from London (at the time), and not coincidentally located just two miles from Primmie’s birthplace and final resting place. Wilcot Manor’s previous owner was Lady Ernest St. Maur, who died in September 1949 at the age of 91.

I still find it hard to believe that David intended taking up permanent residence in England – especially after reading a newspaper rant from April 1950 about midlands and west country villages “ruined” by disintegrating army bases, and by his failure to circumvent rationing. (He proudly brought a huge steak back from a trip to France and then invited guests over to dine, only to discover that it was horse meat.)

Happy Go Lovely

Hjordis Niven with David Jnr, 1950
Chez Randolph… Hjordis Niven with David Jr, discussing a painting by Winston Churchill. June 1950

As far as Hjördis was concerned, she must have felt even more in Primmie’s shadow. When interviewed 14 years later by Woman magazine, she detailed her insecurities about replacing Primmie, resulting in the series being titled: “Second wife, second mother”. Despite that, she still seems to have viewed life with David as something of an unpredictable adventure. Which at the time it was.

In June 1950, Hjördis revealed their plans for the year to Swedish journalist Margit Strömmerstedt:

“We’ll be going back to our house in California first, and then back here again to really move in.”

David cheerfully interrupted Hjördis to say that he loved: “her easy-to-read Swedish humour.” He also hijacked the conversation to lay out his compulsion to entertain and cheer up anyone and everyone. And for an encore he plugged his latest movie. “There are too many people who just walk around waiting for the next bomb to drop. In my opinion it’s a duty, not just when you’re lucky enough to actually feel it, to openly enjoy life to the full instead of bottling things up.”

“I’m also keen to try to raise people’s spirits through the movies I participate in. I hope that I succeed at least some of the time. Right now I’m doing something called ‘Happy Go Lovely’ (“Silly name, but a sweet story,” Hjördis muttered) and it’s a happy comedy shot in colour.”

Production of ‘Happy Go Lovely’ started towards the end of May at Elstree studios, north of London, and continued into late September.

Supremely well connected

Bill and Kathleen Rollo, 1937
Primmie Niven’s parents, pictured with the Belvoir hunt, Rutland, 1937.

The first tales of the return of David’s roving eye date back to the filming of ‘Happy Go Lovely’, and by coincidence or not, the first newspaper stories of marital disharmony began to surface in the same year.

Even during the happiest times of David’s pre-war relationship with Merle Oberon, Douglas Fairbanks Jr mentioned that he was “still playing the field occasionally.” One year after marrying Primmie, David wrote to Fairbanks about: “an uninhibited amorous adventure with a mutual female acquaintance” during a bombing raid in London.

The details of David’s past transgressions are not relevant here, what is relevant is when Hjördis became fully aware of his “adventures” during their marriage, how she coped, and when she reacted. (How she appears to have reacted will become clear as the story progresses).

I don’t know if Hjördis suspected infidelity in 1950, although as David was her third consecutive partner with playboy tendencies she must have seen the signs sooner rather than later.

And now, a quick aside courtesy of Igor Cassini, concerning playboys. “Hugh Hefner was to build an empire on the premise that you, too, can be a playboy, which is not true. Americans, for that matter, are not gifted in that role, which may be more of a point in their favour than a demerit. They are totally un-schooled in the gratuitous beau geste, drink too much to get it up when it counts, are riddled with guilt, have gone to the shrink; in short, as playboys they are a bore, the one unpardonable sin.”

Movie work gave David extra space to operate. His smooth pick-up technique and the volume of subsequent beddings impressed the ‘Happy Go Lovely’ production company’s chief publicist, Euan Lloyd: “He’d invite them to a lunch, perfectly respectable, and then suggest dinner and a dance. His build-up was astonishing and his conquests numerous.”

While David was filming and philandering, he moved his family out of London to stay in the countryside… with Primmie’s parents. Although long separated, the Rollos were both residing temporarily at Market Overton in Rutland, a place described in the press as “quite a hunting and social centre”. Which is why they were there.

Hjordis Niven, Bembridge, 1950
Hjordis and David Niven attending the Bembridge Sailing Club annual dance on 5th August 1950. Hjordis is being positively appraised by Primmie’s uncle, General Robert Laycock.

On 8th July, Hjördis was even called upon to open a church fete.”A last minute ‘hitch’ [possibly very suitable wording] due to film studio work prevented David Niven from performing the opening ceremony in the grounds of Market Overton Old Hall on Saturday,” a local paper reported,”but those present were fully compensated by the charm of his Swedish-born wife, who deputised for him.” Well said.

The local vicar introduced Hjördis to the crowd by saying how disappointed everybody was about David’s absence. Thank you vicar. Charmed I’m sure.

David did manage to fit in some socialising with Hjördis and the country-set, including a dance at his old sailing club at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. The Nivens were joined there by Primmie’s maternal uncle, General Robert “Lucky” Laycock.

Time for another aside: Laycock was described in ‘Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited’ as “brave, charming and supremely well connected”. One very useful connection was David Niven, who used his influence in the early years of the war to rescue Uncle-in-law Bob from a dull staff-officer job in Cairo. Laycock ended up leading a commando group, and signed up David’s nemesis, the writer Evelyn Waugh. Waugh described his new post as “a more melodramatic force than the Marines.”

Moving to the country

Wilcot Manor House
Wilcot Manor House, David Niven’s 1950 house purchase

There’s no definite date (yet) for the Nivens’ move to Wilcot Manor. Probably around September 1950. What is definite is that it was sold on again within a year, and that  Hjördis and the boys spent more time living there than David. In fact, Primmie’s brother reckoned that David may not have spent more than a few nights.

“I let the Pink House for a year, took the whole family to England, and moved into a haunted manor house in Wiltshire,” was how David introduced this short and slightly surreal episode in ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’:

“Hjordis somehow remained calm and outwardly unaffected by the rapid changes in our fortunes [possibly because they had just moved into a large house, were still hanging out with the rich and famous, and he was still making one movies, crappy or not] but my new role as a country squire was hard for her to digest. In the autumn she came rushing to find me – ‘Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! The garden is full of dogs and men blowing trumpets!’ Philip Hardwicke and Philip Dunne were merely following tradition. The opening meet was held each year at our Manor House.”

David then went on to describe a jolly scene in which Hjördis revisited her waitressing days after he “dispatched (her) outside with bottles of port and slices of fruit cake.” [The hunt was most probably the Tedworth, who still meet and drink port at Wilcot Manor).

A few months later, Evelyn Waugh shone a different (and gruesome) light on the day: “Did you hear about Philip Hardwicke and Philip Dunne’s opening meet? These two buffoons are Joint Masters of a pack of hounds, insist on hunting the hounds themselves and quarrel of course furiously. The opening meet was at their best subscriber’s house, they all sat about having drinks and wrangling who was going to hunt until P.Hardwicke claimed precedence from rank and decided to move off. No hound was in sight. Tremendous trumpeting and gallopings about, then sinister sounds from the farm quarters where they were at length found in the pig sty, devouring a sow with all her litter.” [What a way to end a page…] Sorry.

Next page: There was always a chap with white gloves, 1951

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