Deep red carnations, 1959

Hjordis and David Niven, Monte Carlo, February 1959
Hjördis and David Niven, Monte Carlo, February 1959. Photo: Edward Quinn, ©

On 20th July 1959,  Louella Parsons sombrely reported:

“All of us who have known David Niven since he came to Hollywood are sorry to hear of the breakup of his marriage to the beautiful Hjördis. They may patch it up. I wish they would, but somehow it seems final because I’ve heard rumours for so long that all was not well. I’ve heard that Hjördis’ health has not been good and she’s unable to accompany him on many of his trips.”

Friends were asked for more detail on the recent marital difficulties, but revealed little beyond David wanting to work all of the time, and Hjördis not wanting him to work all of the time: “Mrs. Niven wanted to spend more time among her friends in Stockholm. Niven, however, must devote a great deal of his time to his career here.”

In a rare moment of trying to empathise with Hjördis, David’s biographer Graham Lord wrote that she was: “Deeply depressed after several miscarriages and a hysterectomy, and now that Niv had won the Oscar she was more jealous than ever, desperate to rediscover her own identity and assert her independence.”

Lingering model

Hjördis left David, but stayed close, moving into a small rented house in the bordering neighbourhood of Brentwood.  “At first I wanted to go back to Europe, but I couldn’t really go too far away from David. That is why I moved into a house not far away.”

Pat Medina visited Hjördis to try to re-open lines of communication, but was not impressed with what she found. “She had a few people to lunch and they were drinking an awful lot, and I didn’t like any of them. ‘Where did you find this lot?’ I asked her, and she said that one of them was very fond of her.”

“When she moved out she was having a relationship with this doctor,” Jamie Niven told Graham Lord.

“She thought that if she left him everyone in Hollywood would be after her,” according to Pat Medina, “which wasn’t the case because part of her attraction was that she was Mrs David Niven.”

Honolulu or The Rockies

David Niven with his sons David and Jamie, Honolulu, 1959
David Niven with his sons David and Jamie, Honolulu, 1959

In his distress, David called on friends such as Stewart Granger, who told Sheridan Morley: “One night he suddenly turned up at the house where Jean Simmons and I were living in Hollywood and said, ‘She’s left me. Hjördis has left me.’  He didn’t say exactly why, but I got the impression it was at least partly because for years she was told she was the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, and she now wanted to see whether she could make it on her own as a model. She wanted to be the star for a while: I think that’s understandable. It’s very boring being married to a star and not being one yourself.”

“Anyway, David and I got rather pissed that night, and I began saying that I really thought the split was a very good thing and that he’d be a lot better off without her. I was really just trying to cheer him up and make the best of it; so then what happens? A few months later they get together again, and David tells Hjördis all the awful things I’ve been saying about her, and she never speaks to me again. You really can’t win in cases like that.”

David’s neighbour Douglas Fairbanks Jr told a very similar tale to author Charles Francisco: “Hjördis said that she had always been lucky enough to be the centre of attention before marrying David. In California she felt that she was just the wife. She didn’t think she was interested in being married to a celebrity. I’m afraid I considered that a very trivial reason for separation.”

“So, Niven came to me – terribly upset. I remember telling him in detail what I thought would be the right thing. The usual sort of stuff – ‘You’re absolutely right. She’s not worth you being so upset’ – that sort of thing. Trying to encourage him, you know. To make him feel he was well rid of the whole thing. So, finally they make up. He tells her everything I said, and neither of them talked to me – for about two months!”

[It seems weird that David grassed up his friends, though it reveals some of his desperation to win Hjördis back… No wonder she developed a downer on some of them and became amenable to leave California.]

Deborah Kerr and her soon-to-be husband Peter Viertel also received a visit from David, which Viertel recounted in his 1992 autobiography:

“Hjördis, he explained, had recently asked him for a trial separation, and he appeared to be deeply troubled by her unexpected demand. Relieved not to be told once again what a lucky fellow I was [Viertel was about to marry Deborah Kerr – after both had ditched their previous partners], I listened to the details of his intimate travails and then asked the obvious question: did he want her back? He said he did in a most emphatic manner. He was desperate about the possible break-up of his household and the effect it would have on his two sons.”

“He was planning, he said, to take his boys on a long fishing trip to the Canadian Rockies, hoping that while he was away Hjördis would change her mind. I told him that I wasn’t particularly good at giving advice but that it seemed to me the fishing trip was a mistake.”

Viertel recommended that David should take a more high-profile trip to somewhere exotic and full of girls, such as Hawaii, rather than just sitting around a campfire in the wilderness.

David and the boys left for Honolulu on 16th July (the day on which news of the split hit the press), and stayed for a month in a house belonging to Frank Sinatra.

In 1998 David Jr was interviewed Vicky Ward of the Daily Mail. He looked back on the trip with relish.

“I remember one time when they had a big split. He took Jamie and myself to Hawaii. We had a terrific time.”

“A knees up?”

“Oh no, a knees apart. He went through Hawaii like a machete through a pineapple.”

Despite having fun with the girls of Hawaii, Hjördis was still in David’s mind.

David Niven surfing, 1959
David Niven surfing, Waikiki, August 1959

“I took the boys to try our luck on surf boards. Forty eight hours later, the Los Angeles papers were full of pictures of me being helped from the sea with blood streaming down my face – the result of a collision with a rock. Urgent inquiries from Hjördis – a good sign.” But nothing beyond.

Not David’s fault, but the reports were exagerrated. Gossip columnist Jimmie Fidler went as far as reporting on his radio show that David had lost his left eyebrow after falling off his surfboard onto a coral reef. “Just scratched his face, James, still has his two eyebrows,” The Honolulu Advertiser seemed delighted to point out.  [Fidler survived the eyebrow correction, and continued to present his radio show until he retired in 1983, aged 85.]

David’s daytime activities continued into August: “David Niven spends most of his time in the Waikiki sun practising to be a beach boy. He’s already taken two dozen surfing lessons, and hustles business for the Outrigger Canoe Club while he’s resting.”

In David’s absence, Hjördis dipped her toes into the Hollywood social scene, but without flaunting a new boyfriend. On 1st September she turned up at a party thrown by ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ screenwriter James Poe, accompanied, cannily, by Grace Kelly’s publicist Rupert Allan. Not an eyelid was batted. Rupert was gay, and as out as it was possible to be at the time. (He and his boyfriend maintained separate homes next door to each other, and on this occasion arrived separately with women friends on their arms).

Straight outta Brentwood

Back in Brentwood, Hjördis was still holding out. “The  boys were nonplussed and refused to believe it had happened,” David said. “Irreverently, they named her new residence ‘The Summer Pink House’ and visited it daily on their bicycles.” Both Jamie and David Junior later admitted to Charles Francisco that they had been confused by the strange living arrangements, but saw no outward ugliness in the situation. David also became a regular visitor.

“He used to pass by often and call in to see me,” Hjördis remembered, “bringing great bunches of flowers, the deep red carnations and roses that he knows I love so much.”

Bizarrely, two of David’s cheques from 1959 have turned up on auction sites, which cast a light on changes in his attitude towards Hjördis. The first, for $100 on March 5th, is written out t0 “Hjordis Niven” with the purpose added: “food and household expense”.  The next one, for $148.72 on October 1st, is simply written out to “Brentwood Florist”.

As an aside, while discussing autographs in ‘The Garner Files: A Memoir’, James Garner mentioned that: “Gary Cooper wrote checks for everything – gasoline, cigarettes, groceries, meals in restaurants – because he knew most of them wouldn’t be cashed. Coop figured he might as well get paid for signing his name.”

Anyway, back to the Nivens: “David Junior and Jamie also used to call often and I was always pleased to see them,” Hjördis claimed. “Although they were too polite to interfere, I could see they longed to have me back.”

The boys’ visits, coupled with Hjördis’ domestic ineptitude, began the process of ending her Brentwood adventure.

“Diplomatic relations were re-opened between the two establishments, mostly in the form of SOS messages, relayed by the boys. ‘The boiler’s burst – she wants to know what to do.'”

David condensed the events of the time into one of his stories. “One evening she called in distress and said ‘What shall I do? The boiler’s broke.’ ‘I don’t know anything about boilers. Come home.’ So she did.”

“I wasn’t very good about living alone,” Hjördis told Sheridan Morley. “I am not a very practical person, and it never occurred to me to lock a door, because after being married to David for 900 years he was always the one who locked up at night. So he knew the little house I rented would never be locked, and one morning on the way to the studio he just walked into the bedroom carrying his own breakfast on a tray, as though he’d been living there all the time. I realised then how much I’d missed him, and quite soon after that I moved back into The Pink House.”

Next page: Brazil, darling? 1959

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