David and Hjördis Niven saw out 1959 reunited, if not reconciled, as guests of William Randolph Hearst Jnr in the palatial setting of San Simeon. (‘Hearst Castle’ as it was also known, became a state park in 1958, although the Hearst family were still able to use it whenever they desired).
Ever mindful, David still remembered to groom his relationship with Hedda Hopper. As the new decade dawned, he phoned to tell her about a new movie project which would keep him busy for the rest of the year:
“I’ve read the first two scripts of Carl Foreman’s ‘Navarone’ and am waiting for the third before deciding.” He decided by the end of January, and life carried on pretty much as before, albeit with Europe as his new permanent base.
Three stars in Las Vegas
Before departure, there was family business to attend to. In December 1959 Hjördis’ showgirl nieces Gudrun and Maj-Lis Genberg arrived from Sweden to perform with the Folies Bergère in Las Vegas. They were also hoping for a break in Hollywood.
However, they soon ran into a dispute with The Folies’ producer Lou Walters – who decided that he wanted his showgirls to perform naked apart from three strategically placed stars. Gudrun, Maj-Lis and their Swedish friend Mona Arvidsson objected, and were on their way home after three months.
Hjördis was fully behind the girls’ decision: “I think it’s damned good that the twins refused to acquiesce to a degrading situation. David and I have gone up to Las Vegas several times, and we will visit again before we go to Europe. The twins are so sweet.” She was keen to point out that the girls, aged 18, were to all intents and purposes still children.
Simultaneously, the girls’ Hollywood hopes were put on hold by a Writers’ Guild of America strike, which disrupted the American movie industry between January and June 1960, and can only have reinforced David’s decision to move to Switzerland. He wouldn’t make another film in Hollywood until 1963.
According to Tom Hutchinson, David was fond of quoting from Sir Cecil Hardwicke’s book ‘A Victorian in Orbit’ : “I believe that God felt sorry for actors so he created Hollywood to give them a place in the sun and a swimming pool. The price they had to pay was to surrender their talent.”
“He had a kind of nostalgia for the old Hollywood,” Hjördis told Sheridan Morley, “which he’d seen disappear with the death of friends like Bogart and Flynn.”
In 1972 Michael Parkinson asked David about the decision to relocate: “It was a mixture of having nearly made a bog of my marriage, and wanting a clean break to start off again somewhere else. And, realising that the movie business is moving to Europe. So, a combination of the two… and itchy feet.”
Pact full of loopholes
In January 1960, Sheilah Graham announced in her gossip column that: “David Niven and wife Hjördis have made a pact — no more separations because of his work, or any other reason. It was being apart that caused the trouble in their marriage.”
David’s close friend Robert Wagner was mystified as to why the pair stayed together. In his autobiography ‘Pieces of my Heart’ he wrote: “Even marinated in alcohol, Hjördis retained much of her beauty, but she had a bleak, dark, driven personality, and David’s invariable response was to do everything he could to placate her, to no avail. As long as I knew them, Hjördis never gave any indication that she loved him.”
“It’s possible that he stayed with her because a divorce would have been very expensive, but his attitude towards her didn’t seem based on finances. It was more like he was doing penance. But for what?” Ten years of indiscretions with other women, perhaps.
Whether the marriage was viewed as open, or just drifted in that direction over the following years, the infidelities on both sides seemed to cause a lot of unhappiness.
In 2005, Sheridan Morley gave his opinion that: “It was a very good marriage for a long time, but it went wrong because she began to drink.”
“I’m afraid Hjördis is just terribly jealous of my fame,” David told journalist Ann Leslie. “That’s why she drinks too much, poor girl. Anyway, it’s all my fault…”
As far as Hjördis was concerned, the agreement to stick with David meant that she could continue to spend and socialise within the A-list, and adopt a baby girl when the time came.
“I think since the separation we had become more secure in ourselves because we realised that both of us could function perfectly well without each other, well maybe not perfectly, but we could at least lead our own lives if we had to,” she later mused. “And then somehow it became much easier to share these lives.”
According to Jamie Niven: “Their marriage went through enormous ups and downs.” There were still occasional good times. However, the downs increasingly outweighed the ups.
Château-d’Œx and Navarone
By February 1960, the shooting of the all-star war movie ‘The Guns of Navarone’ on the island of Rhodes was approaching fast. Hjördis tried to view her departure from Hollywood in a relaxed light: “Before recording, we’ll take it easy, we have already sent the car to Europe. We’ll drive around a little before traveling to Greece. I’ll stay there for a month with David.”
The Pink House was sold to David’s agent friend Phil Kellogg, and the Nivens were soon motoring down through Europe to Switzerland. The emotional tug from Pacific Palisades doesn’t seem to have been strong. Hjördis had spent less than half of the previous twelve years actually living there. David even less, especially since Four Star Productions took-off.
“One thing we determined on after our painful episode of separation,”Hjördis told Woman magazine, “was that we would set up a real home for ourselves where we would stay whenever David’s film commitments allowed it and put down roots.”
Next page: The beautiful ice lady, 1960