Separate tables, 1959

David and Hjordis Niven, 7 April 1959
David and Hjördis Niven opening congratulatory telegrams the day after his Oscar win, 7th April 1959

David Niven’s career ascended to a new high when “Separate Tables” was released in December 1958.  On 1st January 1959, on the set of ‘Ask Any Girl’, he discovered that his performance had won the New York Critics Award for best actor. Following a visit to England, he arrived in New York on 23rd January to collect his prize. Alone. (Hjördis had only just won something herself though – a prize for the most original headdress at a Headdress Ball in Hollywood on 20th January for a crown of jewelled snakes.)

A family visit to Sweden for Christmas 1958 had been proposed then jettisoned, but David did manage to whisk Hjördis back to Europe in February for a belated 11th wedding anniversary celebration. While there, they fitted in visits to their friends Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier in Monte Carlo, and Deborah Kerr at her new second home in Switzerland. The general opinion from the trip was that life in Switzerland was simpler and more relaxing than Monte Carlo.

The European trip only became possible when work on David’s next film was put back due to David’s co-star Mitzi Gaynor receiving an invitation to appear on the Jack Benny program. If Benny wasn’t popular enough with Hjördis already, she also received a pearl and diamond bracelet from him as a thank you for her performance on his show the previous year.

Work was never far from David’s mindIt took a flu jab for him to be able to make the London premiere of ‘Separate tables’ on 12th February. Among the various Lords, Ladies, and cinema folk was a (then) unknown producer: “He has the rather edible name of Cubby Broccoli,” an unimpressed journalist wrote.

Nest up, during a flying visit to Stockholm from 15th-18th February, David took Hjördis to see the first non-English speaking stage production of ‘My Fair lady’, and then tried to sign up the Swedish Henry Higgins, Jarl Kulle, for Four Star.

My number one odd-ball character

David ploughed on regardless, determined to either ignore, or view Hjördis’ increasing irritation with humour. Which could only have made things worse. He later jokingly described her as his ‘Number One’ odd-ball character:

“She’s a great eccentric because she’s the most honest woman I know,” he said. “I remember taking her to friends in the country where the central heating of the house was religiously turned off on 1st March. We arrived on 2nd March and it was bitterly cold. Most women would have pretended it was warm and complained afterwards. Not Hjördis. She stayed in bed wearing a mink coat, and refused to budge until we left three days later.” David meanwhile braved it, and grumbled: “I seem to have seen more doctors than friends. I’ve every sort of germ that’s going.”

“You always know where you are with Hjördis. That’s how she is towards everyone. She’s hugely outspoken, which can only be good. I like the Scandinavians’ way of thinking and reacting. They are so open and obvious.”

“What I like so much about Hjördis is that she never pretends,” David announced in his wife’s presence. “If she’s angry, she shows it. The sons and I have a well developed system for issuing storm warnings in such cases. When the north roars, we take cover.”

“I have never thought about what it is about you that I like,” Hjördis responded, not mincing her words. “I think I like you simply because you are a man!”

Oscar and out
Video: Oscars

Back home in Hollywood, the spotlight was still firmly back on David, “the man most likely to win an Oscar” according to one gushing press article, while the Four Star partners were having to deflect industry rumours that they were now “richer than Fort Knox”.

The Academy Awards took place on 6th April 1959. David was by no means confident of winning his Oscar, and managed to look genuinely shocked when he did: rising to his feet when his name was announced, kissing Hjördis, and dashing up to the stage – without falling over [myth busted, sorry] – to deliver a few unrehearsed words by way of a winner’s speech. He had only had 16 minutes of screen-time in ‘Separate Tables’, which simply magnifies his achievement.

Photos of the Oscar night show Hjördis looking tired and ill. Painfully thin, with hollow cheeks, she looked older than her 39 years.

“I had no sleep at all for the last three days and my knees were shaking all day,” she told the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News (a newspaper with way too many words in its title). “The moment before they announced the winner of the Best Actor Award seemed like hours.”

David’s description of her on the night was both colourful and telling, saying that she looked spectacular but was “munching tranquilisers like popcorn.”

Hjördis obviously did not look spectacular enough. Just one year later, David revealed what really caught his eye on the night:

“The most beautiful dress I ever saw was worn by Cyd Charisse in last year’s Academy awards. It was so beautiful that an absolute gasp went up from the audience. As one of the nominees, I was in no condition to notice much that was going on around me – but even I was jerked out of myself. She has a sensational figure and this dress was shimmering gold lame, very finely pleated, very long, with a tight bodice.”

Embed from Getty Images

Hjördis and David Niven on Oscar night, 6th April 1959

Already in serious trouble, the marriage began to dip even further after the Oscars. David and Hjördis were pictured together the next day at The Pink House, excitedly wading through a stack of congratulatory telegrams, but he wasted no time in throwing himself straight back into work, both on TV productions and a mildly controversial new film about premarital sex made in New York, called ‘Happy Anniversary’.  The film’s producer, Ralph Fields, told Graham Lord: “David said he slept with unmarried people all the time.”

Igor Cassini smelt that something was wrong: “David has often been in New York, alone, always explaining that his beautiful Swedish wife of 11 years, Hjördis Tersmeden, was about to join him. But Hjördis never came..”

One New York event which neither Hjördis nor David could resist, for a bit of shoulder rubbing, was held at the Waldorf’s Starlight Roof in late April – a charity event organised by Mrs Randolph Hearst Junior, the ex-Mrs Austine “Bootsie” Cassini. Igor Cassini was there to report: “When Mrs Hearst puts her finger in the party pie, it turns out to be a terrific mixture, with all the best names you or I would want to drop anywhere. We rubbed shoulders with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – and you know as well as I do that the former King of England doesn’t rub elbows with just anybody.”

Igor, hilariously, also managed another dig at Mike Romanoff: “Titles were all over the place, starting with Prince Dimitri Romanoff (no relation to “Prince” Mike, the Hollywood restauranteur) who’s a genuine member of the Russian Royal Family.”

Half an ear

David’s workload remained irritatingly constant. When his next movie, the Doris Day vehicle ‘Please Don’t Eat The Daisies’ was postponed, he accepted an invitation to attend the Berlin film festival and took off on 23rd June, without Hjördis. He sent jovial messages back to Hollywood, with stories of screaming fans and “acres of hopeful bosoms being photographed by hordes of hopeless photographers.”

There was a shock waiting for him on his return to Hollywood. The increasing attention being showered on him, his increasing absence, and the advancing months towards her unwelcome 40th birthday were further hardening Hjördis’ wish for a separation.

“For eleven years I had lived out of suit-cases and now I wanted to settle down,” she told Woman magazine. “David had been working a lot. Anyone who imagines film work means dressing up and posing for a few hours in front of the cameras, then mixing with fabulous, exciting people at lunch or at publicity parties when off the set, could not be more wrong. I wasn’t tired of David, but I was sick and tired of the life we were leading.”

David looked back on the situation with self-effacing clarity in ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’: “I had fallen into the well-known trap of becoming so wrapped up in my career, myself, and, lately, my success, that I had been taking the most important thing in my life for granted.”

“It was no sudden, fly-by-night decision of mine,” Hjördis explained. “On the contrary, it was the culmination of a long, slow, building-up process and, looking back on it now, [from 1964]  I think perhaps that, while neither of us was entirely blameless, circumstances outside ourselves also played quite a part in it. It was not that I was any the less in love with my husband. I had been thinking of leaving him and even talking about it for a whole year. Poor David! I think he only listened with half an ear to my prattling about going away. Most of the time he was preoccupied with his own problems, mainly connected with his work.”

The trappings of someone else

Hjördis finally left David. The split was announced on 16th July 1959: “We have been living apart for several weeks. No divorce is contemplated. We are trying to work out our very personal problem as quietly and privately as possible.”

“Eleven years of marriage passed and everybody believed that we were happily and permanently united,” Hjördis said. “It came as a great shock to all who knew us to learn that we had separated. That isn’t really quite fair to David. The truth is that I left him. I could see the hurt in David’s eyes when I told him I was leaving him.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’ve got to get away on my own to sort things out. Perhaps when I’m alone I’ll be able to see everything in its proper perspective. Anyway, my mind is made up.”

“With complete honesty, Hjördis explained that she had to find out if she was still an individual,” David reflected, “a human being in her own right, or just the trappings of someone else. It was very painful. Once Hjördis makes up her mind – that’s it!”

“David did not try to talk me out of it.” Hjördis said. “He just stood there trying to be nonchalant  – taking it on the chin, I suppose he would call it  – but he only succeeded in looking like a pathetic and bewildered small boy. For a long time he had known what I intended to do, but he was just as powerless to prevent it as I was. We said goodbye and parted, in a terribly adult and matter-of-fact way, and I moved into a house I had taken not far away.”

“What made it harder was that I could not help feeling in my inner heart that I was letting David down. And not only David, but the two sons of his marriage – my step sons, David Junior and Jamie. True, they were both at boarding school and I did not see a lot of them at this time. But I was David’s second wife and their second mother and now I was walking out on them. All I can say is I could not help myself and I did try so hard.”

This is Hollywood we’re talking about

“I suspect,” Jamie diplomatically commented in 1986, “that some of the problems came because he was away a lot. And I suspect that one of the problems was – and it was a problem which existed throughout their marriage – that he was an immensely popular man. She was an immensely beautiful woman. I think she found it difficult, when she walked into a room, that hardly anyone looked at her first. They all looked at him.”

“I think she never really got it right. I mean, the truth of the matter is that they would look at any well-known movie actor first and any beautiful woman second. In that situation people did – this is Hollywood we’re talking about. And I think it bothered her a lot. I think she found it difficult to cope with his success. And, as she didn’t do anything herself, I think that made it worse.”

It was a scenario that David was well aware of, and that was set to continue.

Next page: Deep red carnations, 1959


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