Stars’ wives, 1958

Hjordis and David Niven, 1958
Hjordis and David Niven in the 1950s

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. 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 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. In short, David most probably didn’t want Hjördis to notice, and desperately (tragically may be a better word) wanted to view her as the new Primmie – the 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 payback, which she was capable of pursuing relentlessly. Another option was to leave David – one 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.

The silken affair

Artwork from the US back cover of David Niven's semi-autobiographical novel "Once Over Lightly". Late 1950s reprint
Artwork from the US back cover of David Niven’s semi-autobiographical novel “Once Over Lightly”. Late 1950s reprint

The risk of Hjördis finding out was never far away, but did not cramp David’s style. In 1956, while filming ‘The Silken Affair’ at Elstree in England, and while Hjördis was either pregnant or suffering from the aftermath of a particularly terrible miscarriage – he took the opportunity to try to  gently seduce nineteen year-old model and aspiring actress Shirley Anne Field. Ms Field was one of a group of “special girls” used to add something easy-on-the-eye to movies, and was playing a small role as a French maid. In her autobiography ‘A Time for Love’, she wrote:

“I was getting up at dawn to catch the bus to work and returning at six in the evening, if I was lucky. It was a long day and, when the window rolled down on a passing Rolls-Royce and the distinguished man inside offered me a lift, it was hard to say no. Mr Niven laughed when I said I was worried people might talk.”

“‘I’m sorry my dear, I would dream of besmirching your reputation,’ he said. Later that week, when it was pouring with rain, the Rolls-Royce pulled up again. ‘How do you feel about besmirching your reputation tonight, my dear?’ Well, it was raining, so I laughed and got in.”

“I continued to get lifts from him most days after that. A few weeks later a parcel with my name on it arrived on the set. Inside was a beautiful lace blouse with a card from David Niven: ‘I hope this won’t ruin your reputation any further’, it read.” [Hmmmm…]

“I thanked him and, as I walked away, he said: ‘One night, when you haven’t an early call, would you care for a well-behaved dinner with me?'”

“A few nights later I went to dinner with him at Les Ambassadeurs, a very expensive, exclusive club. Now I knew why he had been so sweet and given me the blouse. Everybody was beautifully dressed and it was the only thing I possessed that was right.”[Bless…]

Graham Lord wrote that David’s “seduction technique was cruelly interrupted by the drunken arrival of Errol Flynn, who tried to flirt with her himself.” Errol Flynn was by this stage hanging out with Carl Gustaf Tersmeden’s playboy crowd.

David’s game-plan was perhaps only temporarily paused, Ms Field’s tale ends on the subject of Errol Flynn. She seemed appreciative of his gentle approach. Compared to David some experiences with interested older men around the same time were a lot less seemly – David Niven’s old director friend Otto Preminger for one flew into a rage with her, threw furniture, struck her face and drew blood, then still hoped to sleep with her.

Stars’ wives show

While in New York on 19th September 1958, David’s solo presence was reported by Igor Cassini: “David Niven is in town but without his lovely Hjördis.” Despite speculation that her absence was due to the growing rift in their marriage, on this occasion the reason was an unspecified illness which laid her low during autumn. In early 1959 she claimed to be finally 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…”

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).

Jacky Benny with Hjordis Niven, October 1958
“Jack Benny signs four stars’ wives to appear on his show Sunday night. From left: Mrs David Niven, Mrs Bob Hope, Mrs Dean Martin, and Mrs Ray Milland”

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:

“The Committee for the Improvement of Beverly Hills”, October 1958. Muriel Milland, Dolores Hope, Hjordis Niven and Jeanne Martin with Jack Benny
“The Committee for the Improvement of Beverly Hills”, October 1958. Muriel Milland, Dolores Hope, Hjordis Niven and Jeanne Martin with Jack Benny

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’ acing 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.”

She then mentioned how she spent her days while David was 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.”

David’s crack papering was even more impressive. 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

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