Brazil, darling? 1959

Hjordis Niven, October 1959
Hjördis Niven, October 1959

“As the weeks passed and I lived alone with plenty of time to think, I found, as I had expected, that I was beginning to see my life in its proper perspective,” Hjördis explained. “I realised I had perhaps been a little selfish and, as a wife, too possessive, demanding time that David just couldn’t give me.”

“The coming together again of David and me was no clear, sudden decision any more than the parting was. It just happened.” Hjördis told Woman, who portrayed the separation and reconciliation in fairly saccharine terms.

“I think he finally broke me down when he started to bring along his lunch in a parcel from the studio when he visited me. This really touched my heart more than any words from him could have done. It brought home to me as nothing else could the loneliness of his life as a bachelor-husband.”

Well, he wasn’t all that lonely really. Graham Lord was told of one young girlfriend with whom David was apparently “madly in love.” Jamie Niven said: “Maybe he just couldn’t face the idea of getting divorced, or maybe he didn’t want to, and his life was just OK because he was away a lot of the time.”

“‘I’m the happiest man in Hollywood’ David said on the day I moved back home,” Hjördis told Woman. “Then he proposed we should have a second honeymoon. ‘What about Brazil, darling?’ I nodded happily, too full of emotion to speak. All the same, the separation did us both good and for that reason I don’t think either of us regrets it. It was a very healthy thing to do and it cleared the air.”

Hjordis Niven, 1960
Hjordis Niven, 1960

In the ‘Niv’ biography, Pat Medina painted an entirely different picture: “She knew he was getting a lot of money from Four Star and thinking of going to live in Switzerland, and she wanted the money. That was another thing that she and I had a disagreement about, and towards the end we didn’t see much of each other.”

She also remembered David saying: “Hjördis came back just in time because by then I was nicely tucked in with someone else.”

David Jr rounded up the episode with impressive economy: “He and Hjordis eventually patched it up.”

All in all, David managed to pack quite a lot into a separation which lasted just three months. Hjördis it seems, had a less active time of it. Her doctor friend must have faded from the scene fairly early on, unless he spent a lot of time diving behind sofas and hiding in wardrobes when David or the boys dropped by. The modelling career that Stewart Granger hinted at did not happen, and it would be a surprise to find that she had put any effort into it.

On 29th September 1959 the Associated Press reported: “The David Nivens are back together again. Now they plan a two week vacation together in Brazil late next month.’We have worked things out in the happiest possible way,’ Niven said. ‘We are utterly delighted.'”

On 3rd October. Louella Parsons clambered into her pulpit and book-ended her initial report about the separation:

“All of us who admire and love David Niven and his beautiful wife Hjördis, are happy they are back together again. They don’t call it a ‘reconciliation’ and they handled their separation and their getting together with such good taste. Probably the Nivens will be happier now because whatever troubled them has been sorted out.”

“One thing sure, David didn’t seem happy the few times I saw him at dinner parties. Hjördis made no public appearances, but remained quietly with friends.”

Well, nearly.

Louella’s New Year sermon / column showed once again how David’s charm was able to preserve his personal privacy: “David Niven: Treasure your new-found happiness with your lovely wife Hjördis. You two are one of Hollywood’s most charming couples.” Amen. David also won an award from the Hollywood Women’s Press Club in December 1959 as “most co-operative actor”.  The co-operation was time well spent. In reference to another  media-friendly star from the time, a journalist said: “We saw enough of his private life that we didn’t need to ask any more questions.”

Big key, little key

Hjordis Niven, 1960
Hjordis Niven, 1960

Apart from a few days in Bahia in late October, David and Hjördis’ second honeymoon in Brazil was not the quiet holiday that the cancelled 1957 South American trip was intended to be. That said, he did turn down a Roberto Rossellini movie called ‘Blackout in Rome’ in order to go, though it did point the way forward for his career, geographically.

David described the Brazilian holiday as more like a state visit: “as guests of the government.” This involved being whisked around in the presidential plane, and the presentation of a key to Rio de Janeiro by President Juscelino Kubitschek.

“We were feted, cheered and mobbed wherever we went,”  David wrote. When the President presented David with the massive golden key, Hjördis couldn’t resist a joke with a jab: “What about me? Can’t I have a little one too?” A small replica was duly made and delivered. David later remembered what he was thinking when his key was being presented: “We were on the balcony with the President handing me this damn great key, and all I wanted was a good script. It was a time when I just couldn’t get a job.” Business as usual from both sides.

However, if their personal relationship seemed doomed to slide back into the way it had been before, efforts were being made for a fresh start in new surroundings. Hollywood was changing. As a place to live – a  young neighbour was murdered by burglars in late 1959 –  and as a place to work, as David was now more in demand for European productions.

Soon after their return to Pacific Palisades on 6th November, and just before Hjördis’ unwelcome milestone 40th birthday on 10th, they made a pact to sell up and move to Europe. Setting up home in Switzerland became a definite plan by the New Year. Taxes in Switzerland were less heavy than other countries, and friends such as Deborah Kerr and Noel Coward already had homes there. Around the same time, Hjördis tellingly described Hollywood as having a “stimulating though often artificial atmosphere.”

“My life seemed to have a void in it,” she later reflected, “and things became so serious that I did leave David for three long months.”

“We felt we were missing something.” David said. “It’s absolutely awful to live in a house, have enough money to pay for the groceries, and have no children. The boys were already in orbit, so Hjördis and I started talking about adoption.”

After encouragement from the women friends such as Lauren Bacall, Hjördis agreed – with the stipulation that the baby should be Swedish, and a girl.

Next page: Niven in Europe

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