David Niven’s souped-up work-ethic continued in 1957. Persuading him to sign up for a movie was not difficult, as Nunnally Johnson, the screenwriter and director of ‘Oh Men! Oh Women!’ noted: “You ring the Pink House and he usually answers himself. You ask how he is. Fine. You ask how Mrs Niven is. Fine too. Why? Then you ask if he’d like to read a script. Love to, old chum. Then you send it around, he reads it and does the film. Unless, of course, he is busy.”
One thing after another
On 14th January the Nivens’ friend Humphrey Bogart died of throat cancer, effectively spelling the end of the first Rat Pack. David visited him regularly until the end. Hjördis is not recorded as doing so, although as David mentioned in 1975, and was sadly soon to experience first hand: “Hjördis is always upset by people who are ill.”
Bogart very much appreciated visitors as his health failed, but understood why some friends were absent: “They’re afraid of death and they don’t want to be reminded of it,” he explained to his wife. Ms Bacall, however, remained angry at those who stayed away.
Hjördis was, however, one the first friends to call over to support Ms Bacall on the morning following Bogart’s death. Bogart died on the day of the Nivens’ ninth wedding anniversary.
Soon after, David and Hjördis penciled in an ‘off-the-beaten-track’ break, fitted around visits to Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela and Peru to promote “Around The World In Eighty Days”. Other work wasn’t going to be left out entirely… David also planned to photograph backgrounds for a Four Star TV series. That was as chilled as life was at the time. However, in March 1957 he accepted a movie role in ‘My Man Godfrey’, and the trip was summarily ditched. Hjördis can’t have been amused. Instead, she was taken for a vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“My husband is always going to buy a house, besides the one we live in, of course. In Jackson Hole, where we vacationed after he finished ‘My Man Godfrey’ at Universal Studios, he almost bought a cattle ranch. I had a few harried moments, as I am not exactly the cowgirl type.”
A narrow escape – but two real blows fell in April. On 9th it was reported that Hjördis had undergone “minor surgery” at St. John’s hospital in Los Angeles, and on 20th her first husband Carl-Gustav Tersmeden died of heart failure in Stockholm, aged 40. Fittingly, the next movie on David’s conveyor belt was ‘Bonjour Tristesse ‘(Hello Sadness).
The movie required David and Hjördis to up-sticks again and move to the south of France for five months, although departure was put on hold when Hjördis fell ill again. An initial report on 10th May suggested that she had a virus, but by 22nd May things looked a lot more serious: “Hjördis Niven, wife of David Niven, is very ill. Doctors report her condition as critical.” Worrying times for David, made worse by the fact that Hjördis was being treated in the same hospital where Primmie had died.
Graham Lord mentions that Hjördis’ heartbreaking string of miscarriages ended with a hysterectomy. This may have been the moment.
“I wanted a baby of my own so much – a little girl,” Hjördis remembered. “And sometimes when my hopes were raised and then dashed it was more than I could bear. Ever since our marriage I had longed to have a baby, but after years of bitter disappointment I just had to accept that it that was not to be.” No baby, no career. Sad and desperate times for Hjördis.
In June, David tried hard to paint a positive picture for Sheilah Graham. “I’m almost afraid to talk about my good luck. I’m happily married, in excellent health and have money in the bank. But I’m sure that the morning after you write this, I’ll wake up divorced, ailing and destitute.”
Hjördis and David finally set sail for France in July, where they rented a villa in San Tropez ahead of work starting on ‘Bonjour Tristesse’. Later that month Hjördis took the opportunity to fly solo to Sweden, prompting an obviously jumpy David to pre-empt and quosh any resulting separation rumours.
All in the family
Among the family visited by Hjördis were her sixteen year-old nieces, Gudrun and Maj-Lis Genberg, daughters of her brother Karl. Both would soon follow a similar early career path to their aunt (who was occasionally mistakenly referred to as their cousin).
While working as fashion models in Stockholm, Gudrun and Maj-Lis were signed up by show producer Lou Walters for the famous “Folies Bergère” revue, and by late December 1959 were performing as Folies showgirls at the Hotel Tropicana in Las Vegas.
In the early 1960s they became leading models at the Patou fashion house in Paris and cover girls for European magazines, before breaking into (mostly Italian) movies under the names Pia and Mia Genberg.
Hjördis’ beauty was also recognised, once again, in September 1957, when she was named in another top ten loveliest women list – this time nominated by the celebrity photographer Antony Beauchamp. One of his rather heavily over-painted photos of her had previously been used on the cover of London’s Sketch magazine back in March 1949.
“Producers here and in America have asked her many times to go into films,” Beauchamp said. “They were sure they would make her into a major star. But David firmly said ‘No’ to all offers on her behalf.”
The others in Beauchamp’s top ten included actresses Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and Audrey Hepburn, and royalty in the shape of the Maharanee of Jaipur, and Princess Niloufer – one of the last princesses of the Ottoman Empire.
Beauchamp had also selected Hjördis in two earlier listings (back in 1949 and 1951). In 1951 he described the special ingredients of her photographic beauty:
“Mrs. David Niven is a typical Scandinavian beauty. Humour and intelligence give her a warm expression, a wonderful provocative took. She is the only one on my list who is not in movies.”
In addition, Hjördis ended up posing for the artist Mati Klarwein (best known for album artwork such as Miles Davis ‘Bitches Brew’) after he caught sight of her while visiting the set of ‘Bonjour Tristesse’.
Advice to the fairer sex
Hjördis certainly didn’t need beauty tips from David. Despite that he was asked by US beauty guru Arlene Dahl to provide “advice to the fairer sex” in April 1957.
“People nearly always look as old as they are, with few exceptions,” David said. “Cosmetics and all the rest only make women look better for their age. If I were to give women any advice, it would be to remember how old they are and adorn themselves accordingly. I hate to see mutton dressed as lamb.”
Ms Dahl readily acknowledged that Hjördis: “once the top model in Stockholm, knows her clothes.”
“She does one thing, though, that drives me absolutely mad,” David added. “She buys expensive Paris gowns and then takes them apart and redesigns them!”
“When I asked David about the most fascinating women he has known, he named, besides Hjördis, Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner, and Schiaparelli’s daughter, Gogo: “because they are beautiful, unpredictable, and don’t give a hoot for convention. Above all, they have humour. The most beautiful woman is ugly without that.”
Ms Dahl was to ask David the same questions again at least twice within the next ten years. His answers did not remain the same.
Next page: Understatement of the century, 1957