I’ve learned to be happy ever after, 1954

David and Hjördis Niven rowing near their Surrey home, August 1954
David and Hjördis Niven rowing near their Surrey home, August 1954

Part of Hjördis’ recuperation from her 1954 miscarriage was spent staying at Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick’s rambling home in Palm Springs. A place so huge, according to David Niven, that people often drove in off the road, thinking it was a hotel.

It wasn’t until June 1954 that Hjördis was sufficiently recovered to travel to London with David. During their four month-long absence the The Pink House was rented out to Gene Tierney (Oleg Cassini’s ex-wife as of 1952), who decided to save on daily intercontinental phone-bills by inviting her playboyfriend Aly Khan [oh no, not him, again..] over to visit. Their relationship was described by Igor Cassini as “an affair that spanned three continents”.

When Gene came out of the other side, she decided upon a life without playboy types: “I made sure my beaux were mostly businessmen and so-called solid citizens. Not that the other men in my life weren’t solid, because they were very solid. But they were colourful people, and colourful people can be wearing on the emotions.”

Byfleet Manor

Byfleet Manor
Byfleet Manor & gardens. http://www.byfleetmanor.com

With Wilcot Manor in the past, the Nivens set up home south of London – at Byfleet Manor near Weybridge in Surrey. (The building was split into separate dwellings).

“I stayed with the Nivens in Byfleet, England, when I was about four years old, along with my mother and brother,” Hjördis’ niece Anette remembers. “Their house was a former monastery, which was haunted. It was a beautiful old house with lots of rooms, corridors, and thick walls. It was very dark, and had a big garden beside a river. We had a nice time there, but the nights were scary for a child. My brother and I went there a couple of times during the summers, without our mother.”

The earliest written reference to Byfleet Manor was in 727, when the land was owned by Chertsey Abbey. From the 14th century it became a home for royalty, with Henry VIII said to have spent much of his boyhood there. The present manor house was built in 1686, incorporating earlier features. Fittingly, as far as David Niven was concerned, it was requisitioned during the Second World War and used as a training base for British and Canadian officers before their departure to France.

For David, the house was a very handy six miles from Shepperton Studios, where he began filming ‘Carrington V.C.’ from late June into August. The movie was a further upturn in his fortunes, and proved to be a great critical success. According to The Spectator magazine: “David Niven, who seems on the face of it to be miscast for a semi-tragic role, gives one of the best performances of his career.”

In recent years, Byfleet Manor has starred in ‘Downton Abbey’ as the Dowager Violet’s house. [The Dowager… the lady who got all the best lines in the show.] In a further Niven connection the actress who played the Dowager, Maggie Smith, appeared alongside David in ‘Death On The Nile’ and ‘Murder By Death’.

David and Hjordis Niven in the gardens at Byfleet Manor, 1954
The Nivens’ home in Surrey, 1954

During her summer in Surrey, Hjördis was asked to contribute a magazine piece about her life: curiously titled “I’ve learned to be happy ever after, as Mrs David Niven”. In it she tried to count her blessings and describe her relationship with David Jr and Jamie.

“Young David, Jamie and I are perfect friends. Now the four of us lead such a happy life that I sometimes don’t realise how happy we are until something makes me stop and think about it – like writing this.”

In 1955, David described Hjördis’ relationship with the boys for Hedda Hopper, in its most positive light. “How can I be so lucky? I’ve been blissfully married twice. It’s grand how Hjördis has taken over my children. Actually, she didn’t try to take them over. She said she would never be their stepmother, but always their best friend.”

A life with Niven

David Niven with Jamie and Hjördis. England, 1954
David Niven with Jamie and Hjördis. Surrey, England, 1954

“Being married to a film actor means that the family is always on the move,” Hjördis wrote, “and sometimes we have to be separated from the boys. A couple of terms ago, young David started at an English boarding school. Next term, Jamie will be staying in England too. So the family will be split up this autumn. This is the first time we shall be without Jamie and the thought makes us very sad.”

At the same time, David was doing his best to cheer her up.

“Sometimes he teases me by playing the fool. I have to say: ‘I simply won’t laugh.’ And I don’t. If I did I would never be serious.”

“What really annoys him is when I laugh at him trying to touch his toes. He can never understand why he puts on so much weight – while I remain slim. He says I should eat more and rest more, that I’m forgetful and unpunctual. He calls me the Terrible Swede. When he leaves for the studio at 7am, I do rest more. I go to sleep again!”

Hjördis and David Niven, August 1954
Hjördis and David Niven, August 1954

“We love to swim and sail, paint and draw, and play cards. But he won’t play against me. He says he always loses. About money we both agree emphatically. We spend every penny we lay our hands on.”

“David and I enjoy travelling. We are gypsies at heart. In fact we have similar tastes in almost everything. We don’t like crowds, but enjoy entertaining. When we do go out we like it to be an occasion for tiaras and medals – the lot – or our oldest shirts and jeans. No in-between.”

“David is easy to live with, kind, and always ready to go out of his way to prevent other people from being hurt or slighted. One night at a party at which there were several very attractive women, he went straight over to talk to a rather plain girl, standing alone. Later, when I asked him why, he said that the pretty girls were getting enough attention and he didn’t like to see a girl standing alone. This thoughtfulness prompts all of his actions.”

This facet of David’s personality was also asked about by journalist George Feifer in 1977: “I’ve heard you work diligently at taking party flowers from the wall. Is this compassion on your part?”

“Not a bit,” David replied. “I have curiosity, not compassion or charity – and I’m often right: this type is usually miles more interesting than the rest of the field.”

In a familar-sounding situation, the Nivens return to California in September 1954 was threatened with delay due to Hjördis’ health, reported in the UK press as food poisoning.

The perfectly decorated house in which nobody ever actually lived

Embed from Getty Images

“David and Hjördis Niven at home near Weybridge, Surrey, with Skipper the dog, 1954. The Nivens’ other pets were left in the care of Gene Tierney in Hollywood”.

In November 1954 Hjördis won an accolade from celebrity and society photographer ‘Baron’ (Stirling Henry Nahum) as one of the fifteen most glamorous women in Hollywood. The other nominees included Marilyn Monroe, Jean Simmons, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Lauren Bacall, Leslie Caron, Elizabeth Taylor, Cyd Charisse, Barbara Darrow, Kim Novak, and Taina Elg. Hjördis was the only one who was not an actress. Baron’s photos, including his study of Hjördis, were later donated to the National Portrait Gallery in London.

However, comment began to appear about the amount of make-up which Hjördis was applying, even though it was possibly a reaction to having been shot in the face. Roger Moore, new to Hollywood in 1954, remembered seeing David with Hjördis on the set of ‘The King’s Thief’ in early 1955. He told Graham Lord:

“They were always hand-in-hand then. Hjördis was very glamorous and people stood with their mouths open when she walked on set, though I always thought she wore too much make-up. In fact Tony Curtis once told her so, which pissed her off.”

David and Hjördis Niven, 1954
David and Hjördis Niven. Surrey, 1954

Pacific Palisades neighbour Richard Haydn saw a lot of David and Hjördis due to their shared interest in gardening. His description of Hjördis is one of the most jarring moments in Sheridan Morley’s Niven biography, which otherwise treads on eggshells, written as it was while she was alive and contributing:

“She was wonderfully decorative, and always smelt gorgeous, but there was something odd about her. She always looked like a perfectly decorated house in which nobody ever actually lived, and David treated her rather like a precious toy that might get broken if you were too rough with it.”

Next page: Around the world, and around the house

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