In 1961, Hjördis and David Niven began to settle into their Swiss winter routine. David avoided tension at home by taking up cross-country skiing in Gstaad.
“What he likes most are long solitary walks,” Hjördis mentioned. “Sometimes I used to go with him – but he walks too far for me. He thinks nothing of trudging along for fifteen or twenty miles.” David eventually formed a ski club called ‘DNO’ (David Niven’s Own Ski Club) with a membership of one, himself.
Hjördis was reportedly less active, preferring to venture out in the afternoons to play cards with a group of ladies in Gstaad. However, she still managed to land herself in an almost unbelievable series of scrapes during the decade.
Her diary, had she kept one, would have recorded events such as multiple fractures in a skiing accident followed by six months in hospital – with a water skiing injury thrown in half-way through, an alleged presidential birthday quickie with John F Kennedy, being found unconscious after almost asphyxiating herself with car exhaust fumes, hanging off the edge of a mountain pass after a virtual dry run for ‘The Italian Job’, almost killing her stepson with Swedish exercises, another leg break, getting bitten by a lion(cub), and a croquet [!] accident resulting in a chipped bone in her foot. I mean, she even managed to break a finger during a pillow fight with two little girls. [Awesome]. Quite a lot of that action may have been alcohol assisted. And just when I was beginning to worry that there wasn’t much more to say about her….
There’s no place like Rome
David and Hjördis flew to Rome in March 1961, for David to start work on a largely forgotten string of war movies. A slated film project which did not come fruition was ‘Shocked’, in which David was to play opposite Sophia Loren as a travel agent who didn’t like traveling. Perhaps a lucky escape.
By May, David was filming scenes in the Israeli desert for a gently satirical war movie called ‘My Two Enemies’ (memorably reviewed by Time as “War is heck”). While there, he ended up working alongside his old best man Michael Trubshawe, who had become an actor in the years following Kensington 1948. Trubshawe fell ill, and was re-located to the Nivens’ air-conditioned hotel room, where he was nursed back to health by Hjördis.
David and Hjördis Niven arrive in Rome on 23rd March 1961, to be met by one of the stars of “My Two Enemies”, an Ethiopian gazelle.
Being a care-giver doesn’t fit the perception of Hjördis recorded by Graham Lord in his “Niv” biography, which is probably why the episode did not make the cut, despite the author being granted access to Trubshawe’s interview with Sheridan Morley. However, Trubshawe’s disappointment at finding his friendship with David had cooled since the 1940s was recorded, and Hjördis may well have begun to view him as a kindred soul.
“David never really wanted me to be an actor, and he had never gone out of his way to help me,” Trubshawe told Morley. “But now that we were together, purely by chance, he seemed almost embarrassed.”
In 1961, Swiss law stated that when adopting a child, if one of the prospective parents was over 50 and already had two children by an original marriage, and the youngest child was over fourteen, then that child had the power of veto.
Jamie explained to Graham Lord that his father was worried about the prospect and approached him to beg approval: “‘I know you want to say no because she’s been a terrible mother to you, but you mustn’t do that to me. Please don’t.'” Jamie didn’t have the heart to say no, and showed restraint in only going public with his feelings after Hjördis’ death.
In 2009 he told Vanity Fair: “It just wasn’t something you talked about, the fact that you have a terrible stepmother.”
Kristina was born on 4th June 1961, the daughter of a 22-23 year old Swedish woman living in Geneva. Two weeks later she was handed over to Hjördis.
“One day, we learned of a little baby whom we might be able to adopt,” Hjördis recalled. “I was so excited when David agreed this might be the solution to my yearning for motherhood. And now the great day had finally arrived and I was here with David, cuddling a sturdy little blue-eyed, fair-haired creature whom we had named Kristina.”
“I looked into the sparkling blue eyes in the tiny oval face and thought: ‘She’s mine. My own baby girl.’ Then I turned to David. He put his arm around me.”
“‘Happy, darling?'” he asked. I squeezed his hand.”
“I find it hard to analyse my feelings that day – joy, pride and thankfulness were all mixed up in them. But, above all, for the first time I felt a real mother, happy and fulfilled by the tiny blonde angel who had come into our lives.”
“On the first day of Kristina’s homecoming I picked her up in my arms and held her close. ‘Now at last we are a complete family’, I told myself happily.”
In 1964 she told Woman magazine: “There was a time during our marriage when I was dissatisfied. But now that Kristina has come into our lives she has given our marriage a new lustre and it can never happen again.”
“Now I had my baby girl, I could watch David and his boys swimming, sailing or just kicking a ball about the lawn and feel closer to them than ever before.”
Well… not quite. Sadly, Jamie was still the target of Hjördis’ bitterness for the sins of his father.
“My relationship with Hjördis really did change,” he said. “She just wouldn’t talk to me, and on some days it got very bad indeed. Other days we’d manage to make a joke of it.”
During an upbeat Swedish magazine interview in 1961, Hjördis’ happy family talk was interrupted by David rushing up from the basement to report that one of the boys had drawn “an ugly angry face in lipstick” on one of the murals.
Hjördis smiled a little and muttered: “Gosh, so stupid!”
Lo Scoglietto, the little rock
For the family’s first summer with Kristina, the Nivens holed up in a spectacular house on the French Riviera called ‘Lo Scoglietto’. (Visiting celebrity party-organiser Elsa Maxwell referred to it in July 1961 as ‘Villa Folies’).
Photographers were soon lurking, but mostly because Laurence Olivier and his new wife Joan Plowright were staying as the Nivens’ guests. Ms Plowright disappointed the snappers by refusing to leave the house, and the couple finally gave up on their visit when Sir Larry glanced out of a window only to spot a telephoto lens pointed straight at him.
“We decided to spend more money than we should and rent something in the south of France,” Hjördis remembered. “I recalled, six or seven years before, having paid a visit to friends who had a villa at Cap Ferrat, not far from Nice.” The villa had previously been rented out to the likes of King Leopold of Belgium and Charlie Chaplin.
“It stood on a rock which jutted out into the Mediterranean and I had fallen in love with it at once. I made inquiries and found that, by chance, it had just fallen vacant, so I persuaded David to take it on a long lease.”
“Those of our friends who knew the villa were absolutely horrified when they heard we had taken it. ‘How could you do this Hjördis?’ an outspoken one said. ‘You’re mad. It’s ghastly.'”
“Yet from the start I saw the possibilities and always visualised it as it was going to be. Above all, I saw it as a haven for the whole family – a retreat where we could all spend our summers together, surrounded by the Mediterranean.”
David bought the house outright in January 1962, from ex French Resistance hero Jacques Bounin. To all outward appearances, family life appeared to have settled on an even keel.
Jamie Niven understandably remembered the time less favourably: “In 1960 he sold the house in California and moved to Switzerland, and soon after they adopted my sister Kristina. Next they bought a beautiful house in the south of France, but life had not got better for them. The early 1960s were not good years.”
“When she became bitter,” he told Vanity Fair, “she found an easy target for her anger in me, and I always stood up for him which made things worse. He would return after making a movie and be furious because there was so much tension in the house.”
“David and I made a pact,” Hjördis revealed in 1964. “We wanted Kristina to lead a normal life without fuss and the inevitable publicity she’d receive if the press were to hear about her.”
“So for three whole years, although she has been with us in London, Paris, Rome, and even Hollywood, her secret has been kept.”
“We landed at airports and walked through groups of waiting pressmen to the customs followed by Kristina and some good friend and no one ever suspected a thing.”
During their autumn 1961 return to Switzerland, the Nivens were visited by Swedish magazine Vecko Revyn. The feature is bland until you realise that despite all the excited family talk, a new member was present, but kept out of sight and not mentioned.
The press still became aware of Kristina rather quickly, but didn’t bother to make a fuss. Her presence was noted – just about – in a syndicated news story published six months after her birth:
“Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher’s nursemaid hired to tend to their three children in Rome for $2000 a month while Liz lenses Cleopatra has quit. She has gone to work for Hjordis and David Niven for a mere $500 a month. Reason: the Nivens only have one child.”
Next page, Lo Scoglietto – The little rock, or head off on a slight tangent: Pia and Mia Genberg