If the reporters wanted a real story about David and Hjördis Niven, they didn’t have long to wait. In October 1952, David Niven travelled back to New York to star in a live television drama, and was then involved in a real-life drama on 1st November when he and Hjördis visited the Peace Dale Game Preserve in Rhode Island, for a weekend pheasant-shooting party.
“All my life I’ve had dreams and premonitions which have come true,” Hjördis later said. “I cannot explain it, but I have learned not to treat these lightly. David calls it Swedish spookiness. I came down to breakfast one morning and said; ‘I don’t want to go out shooting today.’ Everybody stared at me in amazement. ‘Why ever not?’ they asked.”
“‘Because I dreamed during the night that I went out today and that someone shot me.’ There were eight of us in that room and they all laughed at me. But I was adamant. ‘OK’ said our host. ‘Put on a warm coat and take a book.'” David wrote that she sadly replied: “But I will be shot”.
“Twenty minutes later Jane* [the party hostess] shot her,” David bluntly reported in 1966, under a news item titled ‘The Psychic Stars’. For a flourish, he added: “My wife is Swedish, and you know how they are – rather spooky.” [Frankly David… no.]
*In case any of you are thinking… “Jane? Jane… … Jane Wyman?” No, Jane Wyman didn’t shoot Hjördis. On 1st November 1952 she was busy getting married to Fred Karger, 3,000 miles away in Santa Barbara.
“I was walking with my host along a path through the trees when suddenly I was struck down,” Hjördis said in 1964. “I remembered nothing until I looked up to see David’s face a few inches from mine as I lay on the ground. His face was pale and there was a look of horror on it that I will never forget. I could feel blood running down my cheeks. Twelve pellets had struck me, most of them in my face.”
“I had been well and truly peppered. One shot was embedded in the bone, a fraction of an inch from my left eye. It is still there to this day, and the surgeons dare not remove it. Others were spattered all over my face. One had drilled a hole through the flesh of my left arm. Several in my neck just missed the jugular vein.”
In 1971’s ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ David claimed that she had been hit by over thirty pieces of lead. However, six years previously he had more or less concurred with Hjördis’ account: “She got five pellets in the cheeks and seven in the neck and bosom.”
Anything except a mirror
Hjördis was taken to a nearby hospital in Wakefield.
“They rushed me to a doctor who immediately had me in surgery. I was about to lose half of my face when David marched in. ‘No operation,’ he ordered. ‘All right,’ said the doctor, ‘it’s your responsibility’. David got another doctor who gave me shots to prevent complications and who agreed an operation might not be necessary.”
David recounted: “An ex-navy surgeon examined her and gave it as his opinion that if the swollen tissues were operated on at that time, she would be scarred for life. ‘Many will work their way out,’ he said. ‘The ones in deep we can get later. She should be X-rayed frequently to see if any move, especially the one near her jugular.'”
“As I lay in hospital recovering, I was given anything I asked for – except a mirror,” Hjördis recounted. “For days I was not allowed to see my face. I can appreciate now that everyone was trying to be kind, but at the time the polite but firm refusals only magnified my fears.”
“The pain did not worry me very much, but I dreaded meeting friends and relatives for I feared their pity and I was glad that Sweden was so far from my sick-bed in America. But I have a natural resilience and as I got better my moods of depression gradually subsided.”
The day after the shooting [pelleting?], the Associated Press reported that Hjördis suffered only minor injuries after being struck by three spent pellets of birdshot, and had been released from hospital after treatment. The story fed to them may well have been played down, as the news item was syndicated around the world, including Sweden.
That said, the pellets were erroneously reported elsewhere as buckshot, which would have caused much more serious injuries.
“I think prayer helped me a great deal. I only pray when something goes wrong and then I pray all the time. I know this sounds selfish and silly, but I am trying to be honest about myself and I think a good many people are made in the same way if they will only admit it.”
“When the bandages were removed and I found the pellets would cause no lasting damage to my looks, the relief made me quite chirpy. Soon after I was back on my feet again.”
Gossip columnist Edith Gwynn noted in December 1952: “how terribly close Tjordis [who?] Niven came to losing the sight in one eye in that hunting accident. She wore a beauty mark over one trace of the buckshot wounds.” (Gossip columnists weren’t noted for being able to distinguish between different types of ammunition). “It wasn’t more than 1 millionth of an inch from her right orb.”
In late January 1953 Hjördis was re-admitted for plastic surgery to remove the scars. David took a day off from filming ‘The Moon Is Blue’ to be at the hospital with her.
Looking back from 1957, Hjördis said: “Today, my looks are not marred in any way. David says that he has never been so brave in all his life, and so frightened as he was when he walked into that operating room.”
“David was an avid hunter until a few years ago,” she wrote in 1960. “My right side was peppered with (bird)shot during a hunt near New York. It wasn’t him, but one of the other guests, who – I hope – thought I was wild. Since then, David has kept his gun on the shelf.”
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