Hollywood’s top two gossip columnists, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, were deadly rivals, and in the case of Hopper especially, not to be taken lightly. David Niven dedicated an illuminating chapter of ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’ to the pair, and, despite starting off by saying that he often wished that they would leave and never return, he still revealed a level of warmth and admiration for them. That was possible because he was always careful to keep both on-side, with Hedda Hopper fed updates from his travels, and Parsons – the more personable of the two, even invited to visit The Pink House in February 1955.
“We were all whores,” David said in 1975. “It was much easier to go with them than against them.” And in return, Hedda and Loella did not make public unfiltered elements of David’s life.
For David, Parsons’ home visit was an opportunity to present a cozy version of his life and marriage: “Hjördis and I have much the same tastes. We love to go deep-sea fishing more than anything in the world, and whenever we get a little money together we indulge this extravagance. We love to travel too, when we’re in the money.”
Igor Cassini wrote that Louella’s interview technique “was to exude an almost grandmotherly sympathy, then run hot or cold: either she gushed in print or she guillotined…”
For David and Hjördis, she always gushed. Louella’s daughter Harriet obviously felt that it need not have been so. After reading a chapter about her mother in ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’, she said that “David Niven was very cruel to mother in his book, and mother had been so good to him.” (For a very interesting interview with Louella’s niece, also called Louella, check out author Martin Turnbull’s website).
Louella may not have gone for the jugular in her dealings with David, but was sharp enough to point out that his heavy workload was pushing home life aside: “But David, you haven’t had much time to travel lately, between working in England and Hollywood.” David hastily shot back: “Thank God, I haven’t had time for anything but work.” Now that the work was there, he was taking very opportunity.
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Lauren Bacall, David Niven and Hjördis at the premiere of ‘The Barefoot Contessa’ in Los Angeles, California, on 5th November 1954
In March 1955, David managed to fit a break into his schedule. In ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ he wrote: “Hjördis, who had just suffered through yet another miscarriage, was particularly delighted when we took off for a long-planned two weeks’ holiday with Noel Coward at his home in Jamaica.”
David’s dates may be a bit sketchy here – although many of the stories relating to his marriage in his book are basically true (if rather embroidered), they do tend to jump around back and forth in time. As he and Hjördis were busy partying (both attending and throwing), in February 1955 , he may have been remembering her 1954 miscarriage.
Either way, Jamaica didn’t provide much respite. “David Niven – always known as ‘Dearest Chum’ – arrived with his wife Hjördis, of the exquisitely beautiful face and figure,” Coward’s partner Cole Lesley later wrote.
Noel Coward recorded that: “Nivens arrived on Tuesday. David was feeling rather ill and the next morning he burst out into a flaming attack of chicken pox.” With Coward wishing to keep a healthy distance, the nursing duties fell on Hjördis.
“Hjördis has many wonderful qualities,” Cole Lesley observed, “but those of Florence Nightingale-cum-hausfrau I think she will admit are not among them, though she did her best. Pathetic looking trays of food and changes of bed-linen were left halfway on the long flight of stairs leading to the guest-house.” With David not yet fully recovered, Hjördis flew back alone from Montego Bay on 23rd March 1955 .
David flew out a week later, reassuring the Jamaican press that: “I had a lovely, lovely time… The last week on the island and the first three days made up for all the chicken pox in the world.”
Superfluous on a film set
On 29th April 1955, Hedda Hopper out-scooped Louella Parsons to report that David had landed the lead role in Mike Todd’s upcoming blockbuster ‘Around the World in 80 Days’.
“During the first post-war decade my father made one bad movie after another, and was unemployed for long periods,” Jamie Niven told Vanity Fair in 1988. “It must have killed him, because, like all actors, he hated not being wanted or needed. Everything changed for him with the making of Around the World in 80 Days.”
Without catching breath following his illness, David jumped straight back into action. The production took up the rest of 1955, and spilled into 1956. Which was great for him, but not so great for Hjördis.
“It was always a problem when David had to go on location. I felt lonely and missed him terribly if I did not go along with him. Somehow I could never settle down when I was left alone, although he called me on the telephone whenever he had a spare moment.”
“And it was not I much better if I accompanied him, as I often did, because he always wanted me with him. For then I felt I was in the way. The officials and technicians couldn’t have been nicer to me, but I soon realised that wives, or any relatives, are superfluous on a film set. There was nothing for me to do all day and I just had to stand around twirling my thumbs. Everybody else was engrossed in work and had no time to spend in idle gossip.”
While accompanying David to Spain, to film ‘Around The World in Eighty Days’ she did at least get a good scare:
“Out driving one day David saw an enormous Spanish castle, hundreds of years old, loaded with Old World atmosphere and charm. But no bathrooms. David offered to buy it, but the real estate man turned him down. Later that evening David thought it over. ‘What an escape! I nearly bought a house without plumbing. I must be crazy.’ Bright and early the next morning the man was at our hotel – Mr. Niven could have the house at the price he’d offered. ‘No, thank you,’ said David. ‘Not this morning. You’re too late.’ I breathed again.”
Next page: The first Rat Pack, 1955