For Hjördis Niven, 1951 finished with a change of scenery. After a holiday with David in the south of France, they departed for New York on-board ‘The Queen Mary’. The timing was designed for David to prepare for ‘Nina’, his first Broadway play. “Hjördis was an enthusiastic companion in the ups and downs of my career,” he told The Saturday Evening Post, “and in 1951 she went with me when I toured with Gloria Swanson in a disaster called Nina.” ‘Nina’ ran, or limped, between November 1951 and January 1952. It was initially planned to run until June 1952.
Field research with a 12ft fishing spear
New York 1951-1952 looks like something of a high-water mark for Hjördis in her role as a supportive wife and partner. The producer of Nina, Toby Rowland, told Sheridan Morley: “I remember Hjördis being marvelous. David had no money at all then, and she used to go around in a wonderful rabbit coat dyed bright red. When I told her it was the most extraordinary coat I’d ever seen, she said she had decided to wear something flamboyant until David could afford to buy her the mink again.” David could of course afford to buy her a mink. The bright red fur coat seems to have been a symbol of optimism for Hjördis and was to pop up again.
David continued to look for alternative sources of income, while simultaneously living as if money was no object. Later in 1952 the couple rented a huge apartment on Long Island where they brought along so many servants that there was not enough for them to do. One, a Miss Lindberg, complained that her main task was carrying the breakfast tray into the Nivens’ bedroom.
On 25th February the couple flew out for two weeks in Barbados, bringing along a 12ft fishing spear. [Probably not as hand luggage]. David mentioned that a secondary purpose for the vacation was field research for a comedy / thriller play set on the island that he was writing called “The Rock”. In New York, he had also been negotiating a television adaptation of “Round the Rugged Rocks” (known in the US as “Once Over Lightly”) with himself either narrating or acting in the series. Neither project came to fruition.
The Caribbean vacation was rounded off by a stay at Palm Beach where, inevitably, their presence was noted by Igor Cassini.
Hjördis and David finally returned to Pacific Palisades in the second week of March, where, according to Graham Lord: “they continued to live extremely well and give plenty of parties.”
They became part of the croquet crowd at 20th Century Fox boss Darryl Zanuck’s estate – nicknamed The Palm Springs Yacht Club – where Hjördis’ love of card games lead to her being affectionately described by Pat Medina’s future husband Joseph Cotten as a “gambler” and “canasta addict” along with Pat, his then wife Lenore, and Virginia Zanuck.
“At the drop of a card they would gravitate to their favourite corner, from which would emanate giggles much higher, I’m sure, than the stakes.”
Four star zig-zag
In the middle of the year, David’s luck slowly began to turn, when he ended up involving himself with the movie moguls’ enemy number one [well, maybe number two after them pesky reds]: television.
“I was really washed up,” David admitted a few years later, “and went on the road as the middle-aged roué in [the stage-play] ‘The Moon Is Blue’. We were playing in San Francisco when I happened to run into Charles Boyer. He wanted to know if I could recommend anyone to go into a television company with Dick Powell and him. I grabbed him by the lapels and said ‘yes, me!'”
The resulting production company, Four Star, was initially met with media cynicism – one critic wrote: “The partnership looks hopeless since it’s well-known that an actor can’t get along with himself, never mind two other actors.” Four Star stuck two fingers up to the negative press by going on to become a multi-million dollar business. As well as the regular snipers in the press, David and Hjördis were also at the mercy of the gossip columnists.
In 1948 it was calculated that the average Hollywood marriage lasted for four years and four months. With the Nivens approaching that mark, scrutiny seemed to increase.
“Living in Hollywood is like living in a goldfish bowl if you’re a star,” Hjördis said. “Have a private row with your husband in the bathroom and you read all about it in the papers almost before it’s over. And what the gossip writers don’t see or hear, the more unscrupulous ones sometimes invent.”
“I have known some marriages that were able to stand up to these tremendous pressures because of the strong foundation of love and trust on which they are built, but they are exceptions.”
The pre-eminent Hollywood gossip columnists were Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, their work syndicated in thousands of newspapers and read by millions of people every day. The pair were described by David in a Michael Parkinson interview as: “Immensely powerful – both mines of misinformation. The studios used them. We loathed both Hedda and Louella at this point, we both had problems with them.”
Not mentioned of course, even more annoyingly, was that Hedda and Louella were usually right. Or that Hjördis, just five years previously, had wanted to marry one of the most notorious East Coast gossip columnists.
On 30th June 1952, Igor Cassini’s fellow East Coast columnist Walter Winchell reported: “The Van Johnsons are reported zigzaggy … But so are the David Nivens.” On 1st July, Erskine Johnson, who also worked for David’s friends the Hearsts, teasingly followed up: “The marriage is shaky and almost every guest at Jane Wyman’s big Hollywood party knew why.” [Was it anything to do with Jane?]
“David and I had been divorced many times in newspaper columns,” Hjördis wrote in 1960, “and so had Ida Lupino and her husband Howard Duff. So, when the four of us had dinner together, David and Ida came up with a plan for revenge.”
“Howard and I went to Ciro’s nightclub in Hollywood. We asked for a table near the dance floor. When one was made up for us in a more discreet and inconspicuous location, we wouldn’t hear of it. Everyone there knew who Howard was, and quite a few recognised me. They gossiped and whispered.”
“A short time later, Ida and David made their entrance. Ida is rightly famous for her temper – a few gossip columnists started heading towards the phones. From the where we sat we could see the head waiter’s desperate gestures. David pointed to a table by the dance floor, opposite ours. He had no choice, he had to give them what they wanted.”
“David and Howard looked up, and pretended to see each other for the first time. You could have heard a pin drop. Some reporters were already on the telephones, calling in the ‘story’. David and Howard met on the floor, then warmly shook hands and patted each other on the back. There are many gossip columnists who have still not forgiven us!”
David repeated the story for ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ in 1975. Although he claimed that the stunt was aimed specifically at Hedda and Louella, it was, perhaps wisely given the precarious state of his career at the time, a much more general swipe. In fact Hedda Hopper was able to fully distance herself in her column on 19th September 1952:
“When David Niven heard another recent rumor that he and his wife were separating, he decided to have a little fun with the idea. So he took Ida Lupino to Ciro’s alone, asked for a quiet table, and looked very cozy. They even held hands for a while. The photographers started congregating. As they were snapping away, (Ida’s partner) Howard Duff and Mrs. Niven walked in and asked for a table in an opposite corner. The flashbulb boys went out of their minds. Reporters were telephoned to get out of bed and get the big story. Then, just before Ciro’s closed, the two couples joined at the same table and had a laugh at the reporters.”
The next day David received an indignant phone-call from Hedda’s arch-rival: “Louella called me in the morning and said she would not be woken up for false alarms.”
“In spite of all the talk about this zigzagging, we’re still hanging together,” David announced on Erskine Johnson’s gossip column in October. “She has a wonderful influence on me. I used to be the king worrier of all time.”
Two years later, Hjördis confirmed that he was worrying as much as ever: “He worries about everything, big and little. I never do. I always think that things will work out all right, and they do.”
“In the family, we try to forget that David is famous. When people ask the boys what their father does, he has taught them to answer: ‘He is a very bad actor.’ David think that, in this way, if they every hear anything unkind said about him they won’t be hurt. David never sees his own films. I have to go alone.”
“David considers that he has an excellent memory, is very tidy, and easy to live with. I’m only certain that he’s right about the last virtue. Ever since we met I have known I’m the luckiest woman alive. As David says: ‘We have something quite good in our marriage.'” [Which is ‘quite’ good to hear].
Next page: Hjordis gets shot