Every day you are getting 24 hours older, 1958

Hjordis and David Niven, at Romanoff's Restaurant, 1958
Hjördis and David Niven, at Romanoff’s Restaurant, 1958

After completing “Separate Tables” in January 1958, David flung himself back into work with Four Star. “Our TV company is making 200 films a year,” he told Hedda Hopper.

“When David was not on location he always seemed to be working, and when he came home he brought his work with him,” Hjördis recalled six years later. “So now I was feeling thoroughly demoralised. The artificiality of our lives. The having-to-go-here and the having-to-go-there. It would be such fun if one didn’t have to. Work, work, work. Filming, reading scripts, meeting people, travelling, always complications, always difficulties. We must go here… we must go there…. we must…. we must.”

“It is hard, gruelling work, no less for the star than for the humble extras. It means rising in the early dawn to be at the studio at seven or eight, hanging round for hours until the weather is right or some technical trouble is sorted out, then repeating a scene ad museum until some director is satisfied it cannot be improved. The big scene that occupies perhaps thirty seconds of screen time when you see the end-product in your local cinema has probably been shot over and over again. Fifteen retakes of a single scene are not uncommon. I know all about it for I have watched David go through it. Some stars may give less than their best and get away with it, but not David. He is a perfectionist.”

“Even at home, the film actor has to swot his lines for next day’s shooting, no matter how tired he may be. All this is a physical and mental drain on the star. In some ways it is even harder on the film star’s wife. The strange thing is that we did not have any rows over it. I thought I was being adult and civilised and David always refused to quarrel.”

Shaken but not peeled

The La Paz Guest Ranch, Palm Springs. 1950s
The La Paz Guest Ranch, Palm Springs

In early March 1958, David took Hjördis for a short vacation at the La Paz Guest Ranch in Palm Springs. Additionally, one year after their South American trip was cancelled, he saw that a real break from work was needed: “I’ve planned an extensive tour. I haven’t had a rest in three years. Mike (Todd)’s sudden death made me realise you have to take time out to live! Work isn’t everything.”

Typically, his fear of losing momentum in his career, both artistically and financially, quickly surfaced: “When I get back, I’ll probably he playing butlers to pay for the splurge. But this is a vacation my wife and our two boys have been planning for a long time. Hjördis and I will fly first to the Orient [not Leyton Orient I assume] and the boys will meet us in Europe when their school is out.”

After ten years of poking at David’s repression of Hjördis’ perceived movie star ambitions, columnist Sheilah Graham had still not given up: “David Niven and wife Hjördis go around the world in 90 days while Niven films background stuff for his new series: ‘The Man in the Panama Hat.’ Departure date is mid-April. If David needs a leading lady, he can use his pretty wife..” [Ouch!]

Around the world in 90 days: Japan

“The longest trip I have made was to the Far East,” Hjördis wrote in 1960. “We flew to Tokyo from California with Shirley MacLaine and her husband Steve Parker.”

Ever busy, David chronicled the Japanese visit for the Los Angeles Times columnist Wally Guenther: “It rained on and off, but despite the moisture it was perfectly beautiful. After a couple of nights at The Imperial, we moved into a little Japanese hotel, where we slept on the floor.”

Hjördis’ most baffling adventure in Japan was a visit to a health spa in the mountains.

“With mutual language difficulties, I manage to order a private bathroom,” she wrote. “Things started well enough. A strong lady sat me down in a tiny wooden tub in a very small room, but after she had bathed me, she shoved me into a big, warm pool full of Japanese men. I jumped out terrified. All I had to cover myself with were two large handkerchiefs. Once back in my small private bathroom I found the hotel manager standing there. With difficulty, I managed to drive him out and when I had done that, the lady massaged me with a hot towel between me and herself!”

“She thought I was suffering from some strange reluctance to show myself naked in front of other people. She simply thought I was insane.”

David sent a hilariously tame version of the incident to the Los Angeles Times:

“Hjördis had a massage and was told to go into the next room for her shower. She went happily through a door and came upon 30 Japanese men sitting around having tea. [Tea? Aagh no, not tea!]. She made the world’s fastest exit! Her face is still red.”

Hjördis still had one more awkward situation to face in Japan:

“I caught Asiatic Flu, and was laid up in my hotel room with a 40 degree fever. The hotel were kind enough to put their only television set in my room. I was both moved and grateful until the clock struck five, when a number of people, both guests and staff, began to flow into my room to watch the day’s wrestling match! It’s not exactly what you want when you were as ill.”

Around the world in ninety days: Hong Kong and Thailand

“Hong Kong was fascinating,” David wrote. “It is a perfectly beautiful and wonderfully run city. Great problems exist, however, since the normal population of 400,000 has swollen because of refugees from Red China to over 4,000,000. Although the border is closed now, these poor people are still being smuggled in at the rate of 100,000 a year.”

“The police took us right to the Red China end of the famous bridge and into China, and we peered down the rifle barrels of some unsmiling Mongolian soldiers from a range of two feet! Needless to say, our stay wasn’t prolonged.”

Despite the unusual situations and exotic locations, the holiday did not turn out to be a complete escape for Hjördis, and not just because of her health: “I was really glad to get away,” she said. “It was wonderful – Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok, India. But there was one thing I could never get used to. David was recognised everywhere and we lived in the constant glare of publicity.”

David’s work also followed, with Walt Disney desperately paging him in Thailand with a movie offer. Hjördis’ health problems also followed. She ended up in hospital in Hong Kong, meaning that a planned three-day visit to Singapore to visit an old army colleague of David’s had to be cancelled.

Around the world in ninety days: India

Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Singh Bahadur
Bhawani Singh Bahadur – titular Maharaja of Jaipur from 1970 – referred to by Hjordis as ‘Bubbles’.

“It should have been a wonderful trip, but I was still sick and could not enjoy it as I would have done if I had been healthy,” Hjördis wrote. “In Bangkok, however, I found that coconuts which were first boiled and then frozen were incredibly tasty. I ate them constantly. When we travelled on to Calcutta, rumours of my coconut passion went before me. Five coconuts were handed over to me at the airport, and another ten waited at the hotel! With the best will in the world I could not eat them all.”

“From Calcutta we went to New Delhi. There, we were taken care of David’s old friend ‘Bubbles Jaipur‘, the son of the Maharaja of Jaipur.  The whole thing was like a story from ‘Arabian Nights’ [!?]. Bubbles drove us by car through areas which were famous for their wealth of tigers and cobras.” (The first male heir born to a Maharaja for some generations, he apparently earned the nickname ‘Bubbles’ due to the amount of champagne corks popped to celebrate his birth.)

“Suddenly we entered a sandstorm. We could not see anything and when a lorry came towards us we had to drive off the road, get out of the car and try to get it back on the road again. To do that we needed a lot of fallen branches from the trees that lined the road. I was terrified about lifting branches in the half-dark. It might as well be a cobra or a tiger tail that I got my hands on!”

“Eventually we got the car back on the road and continued. The storm abated, a giant moon shone on us, and Jaipur rose in the moonlight. The whole city is actually rosy colored! Crowds streamed to meet us. They carried wreaths of scented flowers and put them around our necks.”

“When we arrived at the palace we were formally submerged in flowers. The servants arrived and kissed Bubbles’ feet, and he raised them up. Tables covered with the most wonderful food were brought into the garden, and we dined in the moonlight. The next day we rode on elephants in the mountains. We took part in a religious feast, and a priest blessed us and put small red marks on our foreheads so that we would be protected against evil. It was really amazing.”

Around the world in ninety days: Turkey

The incident which Hjördis picked as her personal highlight of the tour took place in Istanbul, and said a lot about her state of mind:

“On the way to the airport our taxi burst a tyre. A column of military armoured vehicles came along soon afterwards and the gold-braided colonel invited me to join him in his jeep at the head of the column.”

“‘Who is that man?’ I was asked. ‘That’s David Niven, my husband.’ I told him. ‘Your husband – oh, let him go with the baggage.'”

“David was relegated to a lorry with the cooks at the rear of the column. he had to sit among a pile of potatoes. I had such a tight skirt on that day that they had to find a spade for me to stand on to get into the jeep. Then the whole column escorted me to the airport. There, everybody rushed to get my autograph. For the first time, David was just ignored. He was rather shaken!”

“I enjoyed this experience because unlike most women, I’m not usually noticed when my husband and I go out anywhere together. For he gets all the attention.”

“People often ask me what it’s like to be married to a movie star. Well, it’s probably just like being married to a dentist or a driver or a farmer… except for the publicity.”

It seems that the glare of publicity was only an issue when pointed at David, whose memory of the incident just mentioned how the helpful convoy was flagged down: “Hjördis was wearing her sari. She just stood in the middle of the road, hitched her sari above her knees and we had help, instantly.” Apart from that, he wrote off that leg of the tour as: “Didn’t care so much for Istanbul.”

The Nivens were back in LA on 5th August after their 90-100 day trip. However, even beloved shared activities were now a source of competition and jealousy for Hjördis:

“David is a real man of the outdoors. He loves fishing, shooting, swimming and skiing. Yet for years after my accident he never touched a gun. He’s a mad keen fisherman. But he’s a snob about it—he will only catch trout on a dry fly because that is the sporting thing to do. Once when he took me fishing in Oregon I caught a huge salmon with my first cast. David fished all day and never caught a frog. He’s never taken me fishing since.”

Will you kindly stop playing with my friend’s husband’s leg

In 2009, David Jr spoke to the The Daily Mail: “Hjördis could be very neurotic. She’d been a supermodel, and she found it very hard not being the centre of attention.”

“She started to look around for men,” Lauren Bacall told Graham Lord. “Getting older did not agree with her and she had several affairs and that was bad news.”

“Imagine you are told that you are the most beautiful woman in the world,” David said, “but every day you are getting 24 hours older. You can get very jumpy!”

David’s future friend Valerie Youmans told Graham Lord that she first met the Nivens at a dinner party in 1958, and was shocked at Hjördis’ over-the-top behaviour with her husband:

“My husband was sitting in a wooden chair with arms and she sat on the floor and put her arm over his legs and started fondling him. I watched this, sort of fascinated, when all of a sudden our hostess said, ‘Will you kindly stop playing with my friend’s husband’s leg’, whereupon my husband took his arm away from the wooden chair arm and her head, which had been on his arm, went clunk onto the wood.”

While filming ‘Ask Any Girl’ with David in late 1958, Shirley Maclaine observed Hjördis in action, and sought to grasp the meaning of her behaviour:

“When she drank, she was quite free-wheeling with other men. ‘Why don’t you simply present your entire package, then?’ David said to her one evening at dinner when she was embarrassingly flirtatious. He was hurt, and she was sarcastic and detached. I remember thinking I should look for the deeper understanding in everybody.”

“We went to do our love scene the next day and David never missed his marks, was always in the light, was letter-perfect in his lines, but never looked me in the eye. I could see why Hjördis tried to provoke him.”

Next page: Stars’ wives, 1958

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