Lady of the manor, 1950-1951

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

While renting Randolph Churchill’s house near Buckingham Palace, David Niven was also in the process of buying a country mansion called Wilcot Manor, a three hour drive from London (in 1950), which was not coincidentally located a few miles from Primmie’s birthplace and final resting place.

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

David cheerfully interrupted Hjördis’ chat to say that he loved “her easy-to-read Swedish humour,” and to mention how much fun they had together. He also laid out his compulsion to entertain and cheer up anyone and everyone.

“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.”

Cold lunch at Wilcot

Wilcot Manor House, David Niven’s 1950 house purchase

Happy and colourful is not a description that I’ve heard apply to life at Wilcot Manor, where Hjördis seems to have been packed off to later in the year, and again (for certain) in early 1951. Primmie’s brother Andrew reckoned that David may not have spent more than a few nights there. Doreen Hawkins visited and was not impressed:

“It wasn’t a very good move to 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.”

By coincidence or not, the first hints at marital disharmony began to appear in newspaper columns in 1950, and also the first tales of David’s roving eye making its comeback. I don’t know if Hjördis was aware at this early stage, but as he was her third consecutive partner with playboy tendencies, she must have seen the signs sooner rather than later.

‘Happy Go Lovely’ was mostly filmed at Elstree Studios, north of London, which may have given David the extra space to operate. His smooth pick-up technique and the volume of subsequent beddings impressed the production company’s publicity manager, 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.”

Doctor’s orders

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

In October David skipped back alone to Hollywood in order to make two movies, including ‘The Lady Says No’ – an ironic title given his recent conquests.

“There was one who has to remain nameless because she’s still alive,” Euan Lloyd told Graham Lord in 2002. “Madam X and Niv were having this big affair when he went back to Hollywood. She was a major star.”

David may have quickly become aware of the dangers of high profile affairs. Later in the decade he claimed to avoid trysts with actresses. Hjördis’ absence from his side until early December was interpreted by the gossip columnists as domestic strife, then revealed to be because of doctor’s orders in London.

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, with another British movie in the offing for David, set out for England on 21st January 1951 to join David Jr and Jamie, who had been staying with David’s sister Grizel at Wilcot. Hjördis openly admitted to Hedda Hopper that each time they returned to Hollywood they were more reluctant to leave.

David followed in March, 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].

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

The boys were soon left behind, again, as David whisked Hjördis off for 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 in Paris on 31st March.

Passing the time

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

Back in England, Hjördis kept spirits up with her love of gambling. David had bought a greyhound the previous year, 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.

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

Living in England, in general, did not work out. Wilcot was sold in May, and on 14th September 1951 Hjördis and David packed their (twelve) bags and sailed to New York for a new adventure, where David had been offered a role in a Broadway play.

Next page: Broadway and break-up stories