In a marriage which gradually became riddled with affairs on both sides, Hjördis always seems to end up as the bad guy in books and articles published since her passing. Probably because David attempted to operate discreetly – Hedda and Louella were kept onside with news regularly fed to them of his everyday activities, and he generally avoided trysts with other film stars in Hollywood.
According to actor John Hurt: “He was a total gentleman and never played at home.” Playing away seemed to be another matter entirely. David was apparently completely open with his sons about his frequent affairs, which can’t have helped their relationship with her.
“I don’t really know why he and Hjördis never divorced,” David Jr told Vicky Ward. “I guess they must have had something but it was a very on-off relationship. He never flaunted his infidelities to her. I’m sure she was equally unfaithful.”
David didn’t want Hjördis to know about his extra-marital activity, and desperately (tragically may be a better word) wanted to view her as the new Primmie – a quiet unassuming mum at home.
However, Hjördis was not the sort of person to behave as David wished. (That said, no-one knows how Primmie would have reacted had she become aware of David’s womanising).
Hjördis’ grievances lead to alcohol-fuelled payback, which she was capable of pursuing relentlessly. Another option was to leave David – which she began to consider.
Whether she was fully aware of David’s activities, Hjördis appalled David’s friends by operating right under his nose. Always an open flirt, she began to up her game. Pat Medina told Graham Lord of one of Hjördis’ affairs which she became unwillingly dragged into: “I think she had a go with a plastic surgeon who was removing a scar. She told me she liked him very much and wanted to meet him, and she met him a my place. And she saw him again often.” The meetings on neutral ground suggest that Hjördis’ boyfriend already had a wife or girlfriend at home.
If her willingness to give as good as she got was intended as a deterrent, it backfired. David didn’t give up philandering, and even gained acceptance from his friends. “He did have affairs. He would have been a fool not to,” Doreen Hawkins told The Daily Express in 2005.
Stars’ wives show
In October 1958, David and Hjördis were among a trainload of Frank Sinatra’s friends who travelled to see Judy Garland perform in Las Vegas. One newer member of the group was actor Robert Wagner, who mentioned Hjördis in his autobiography ‘Pieces Of My Heart’:
“Niv’s eventual nickname for her was ‘Nej’, which is pronounced ‘Nay’, and is Swedish for ‘no’, which she said all the time. By the time I met David he was having affairs, as was Hjördis, who was also emptying a lot of bottles into the bargain. David’s method of coping with this was to pretend that nothing was wrong.”
The same month, Hjördis was offered a final belated acting opportunity. ‘The Jack Benny Program’ was an extremely popular television comedy show which ran for many years. In season nine’s ‘Stars’ Wives Show‘, first broadcast on 2nd November 1958, Benny rounded up a group of Hollywood wives: Hjördis, Dolores Hope (Bob’s wife), Jeanne Martin (Dean’s wife), and Muriel ‘Mal’ Milland (Ray’s wife).
They were banded together on the show as “The Committee for the Improvement of Beverly Hills”, where they met the mayor with a view to getting rid of Jack’s ‘moving eyesore’ of a car, and having it moved to the working class Boyle Heights area.
[The show survives in the CBS archives, preserved on 16mm film, although there are apparently no plans to make it available]
Journalist Harold Stern was at rehearsals and wrote: “When Mal Milland and Hjördis Niven told their husbands they were doing Jack’s show, the reaction was, ‘You crazy? That’s a live show!'”
True to form, Hjördis was very nervous ahead of her appearance: “I hope Jack will let us sit down so no one can see my knees knocking.”
Jack Benny realised that he had four non-professional actresses on his hands, and was quick to put them at their ease: “Now, look, I want all four of you to relax on this show. If you break up or forget a line, it’s all right. I don’t want you to rehearse too much either. That would spoil everything.”
The show played upon the fact that his guests were Hollywood housewives rather than professional actresses:
Dolores Hope: “I’m sorry Jack, but I have to leave the rehearsal at 3 to pick up the children.” Jeanne Martin: “I’ve gotta leave too, for a Mothers’ Club meeting.” Mal Milland: “Excuse me Jack, but there’s this art class I’ve been attending.” Hjördis Niven: “Gosh, I forgot! I’ve an appointment at the hairdresser’s!” Producer, Hilliard Marks: “Gee, Jack, won’t it be great next week when we go back to using plain, ordinary, temperamental actresses?”
Hjördis was happy to discuss her TV appearances with columnist Steven Scheuer, but also mentioned that she wasn’t really all that keen on being an actress: “If I did, I would want to be good, you know. And that takes a lot of work.”
A lot of work, her interviewer suggested, that she would never have the time for, quoting David’s Four Star associate Dick Powell’s assertion that “Niven is generally off somewhere traveling and seldom in Hollywood.”
“We never know where we’ll be next,” Hjördis glossed. “We live from week to week and it’s great fun.” Where they were next (one week after the Jack Benny show broadcast) was Austria and Sweden, with Hjördis kept safely out of the way of any further TV or film offers.
When Hjördis’ acting ambitions were asked about in Sweden, she countered. “It has to be said that I simply do not have time! Being married to David takes up every moment of my life.”
Marital and physical health
Hjördis described, in fairly vague terms, how she passed time while David was away making movies: “That’s when I take care of relationships – with all old friends and acquaintances, take care of everything that has to be done for the family etc. and always be there when David happens to be available. Then he has his television company to take care of, and that also takes a lot of time. When he is free, we almost have more to do.”
In late 1958, health issues returned to take up a lot of Hjördis’ time. While in New York on 19th September 1958, David’s solo presence was reported by Igor Cassini: “David Niven is in town,” he noted pointedly, “but without his lovely Hjördis.” The scenario was repeated in late November, when David travelled over to publicise his new movie, the aptly titled ‘Separate Tables’.
“His wife was scheduled to meet him,” New York columnist Kate Cameron wrote on 7th December, “and they were to spend a weekend with his younger son Jamie, who attends school in New England. But Mrs Niven fell ill and the star flew back to California without completing his schedule. Mrs Niven is recovering, I learn, but is still confined to bed.”
In early 1959 Hjördis claimed to be recovered, both emotionally and physically, and reflected over her life to that point: “It has been a long journey, from my poor childhood home to my current position…” It’s the first instance that I’ve found of her directly mentioning her health.
Graham Lord mentioned 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.” Sad and desperate times for Hjördis.
David’s papered over any cracks as best he could. Aware that his piece would be read by Hjördis, he told The Saturday Evening Post: “It has been a source of wonder to me that a man could be so fantastically lucky twice. Hjördis will be embarrassed by practically anything I say about her in this article. So let it suffice to say that only a very special person could pick up the shattered and lost little family that was mine at that moment, and weld it into the happy group it has become ever since she appeared on the scene.”
In the coming year the welding was about to become undone.
Next page: Separate tables