In ‘The Other Side of the Moon’ biography, Sheridan Morley honed in on two contradictions at the centre of David Niven’s character. One was that he was a loner who nevertheless needed the camaraderie of the film set. The other was that: “He was a passionate family man who yet relished the occasional affair. (‘Here in London on business,’ he wrote gleefully to a friend in the late 60s, ‘the business is both film and monkey.’)” By 1960, if not well before, ‘occasional’ meant whenever the opportunity arose.
Five years after David Niven’s death, Jamie Niven gave a revealing interview, published in Australia, in which he discussed life with his father in the early 1960s.
“I think he honestly loved Hjördis, but they couldn’t deal with each other. I can sympathise with her to some extent; she was, after all, a very beautiful woman, fun to be with, and it must have bothered her to have him get all the attention.”
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David and Hjördis Niven arriving at a party in Rome, early 1961
A lot of the attention came from women, who found it easy to ignore his marital status.
“The slightly raffish air, the easy relaxed charm, and the military moustache and tall English bearing, these are assets to make any woman turn for a second look at David Niven,” Barbara Grigg wrote in 1960.
For men, well, they couldn’t fail to notice Hjördis, but only after David’s well-known face and affable one-of-the-boys persona.
The scenario was not one which diminished over the years, as journalist Lynda Lee-Potter noted in 1974:
“I know exactly why his wife sometimes wants to scream, because following David Niven through a posh London hotel makes you feel a bit like a lapdog. Waiters step in front of you nearly knocking you over to say ‘Oh, lovely to see you Mr.Niven.'”
“I became so mesmerised by the multiplying entourage who oo-ed and aa-ed behind him that I walked into the gentlemen’s cloakroom instead of the bar.”
“He was very nice about it, yanked me out and said, ‘Oh, you are sweet,’ which is Mr Niven’s stock reply to ‘Gosh you look young Mr Niven, Mr Niven I do think you’re a super actor Mr Niven.'”
“I’m sorry that whispering in girls’ ears seems to have gone out of fashion,” David mentioned in 1969. “I was a great whisperer in my day. Now people yell their phone number across the floor at you.”
“There is the question of other women,” Hjördis reflected. “It would be terrible if they didn’t flirt with David for it would mean he had lost his charm. But I think they make fools of themselves when they overdo it. I used to get mad when they overdid it – not because I was jealous, but because I hate to see a woman throw away her dignity.”
“David Niven addresses women”
In 1960, David was asked (not for the first time, or the last), to describe his perfect woman. And very particular he was too. Hjördis was the template, but certainly had her work cut out to remain so.
“The first thing I notice about a woman is her expression. Beautiful faces are often the dullest ones of all because there’s nothing behind the eyes. It takes a lot more than merely conventional beauty to make you stop, look, look again.”
“My wife, Hjördis, for instance, is certainly a beauty – and this is not just a very fond husband talking – but everything she says and does is reflected in the live, exciting viewpoint of her eyes.”
“Women should try every art known to man or beast to look wonderful and go on looking it – every pill, every lotion, every rinse or whatever. They should keep their chins up till the cranes are lifting them, try their hair every possible way. That’s their job and they should keep at it all the time.” [No wonder Hjördis was worried about getting older.]
“I don’t care how much make-up a woman uses as long as I don’t know, in which case every trick under the sun. But I do hate loads of that pale blue eye-shadow or those graveyard lipsticks.”
“And I can’t stand the poseur who knows all her best angles – or those dreadful women who never dare smile because it gives them lines around the mouth. Woe betide those glassy-eyed creatures: I feel I want to stick a knife in them, if only to wreck that dreadful fixed look.” [Yikes. OK. OK. Calm, calm…]
“I used to prefer blondes. Then I darkened up. I met a dark one and married her. The dark ones can be such beauties, like those wonderful Eurasian girls who are the greatest beauties of all.”
“I wish wonderful dark girls [dark haired that is] – you can see that I’ve progressed from the blue-eyed blonde preference of my youth to tall, dark, elegant women like my wife – in any case, I wish they wouldn’t spoil it by wearing washed out blues and pinks, when they should go in for lovely brilliant oranges and reds and greens.” [As Hjördis did…]
David rounded it off by venting his spleen at beatniks, and sharing his disappointment about women with good figures who hide their bums by wearing “shirts over trousers with the shirt-tail hanging out”.
“I design virtually all of my own clothes,” Hjördis wrote. “I think clothes you buy in shops suit most types, but not me. I think I have a very good sense of colour. I love to put the most bizarre combinations together, and see them suddenly become wonderful and obvious.”
The other side of the coin
In early 1961 a slightly poetic female journalist in France declared that being married to David Niven “the British film charmer with eyes bluer than a Scottish lake” would be no bed of roses. “David was extremely flirtatious it first,” she wrote after meeting him. “He is very touchy [as in tactile], and definitely drinking too much.” Hjördis, she mentioned, remained calm and composed.
In April the story was repeated in Sweden, which must have set alarm bells ringing. David claimed that he was pulling himself together, because he loved Hjördis (who had already shown that she was capable of leaving him), and due to the memory of Errol Flynn.
“I think of Errol Flynn, a splendid fellow and a kind friend, and how he died… he drank too much. Thinking about it sends shivers down my spine. I don’t want to end up like him. I have to pull myself together, become a better person and stop drinking. Let’s toast his memory.” David then raised and sank a large glass of milk.
“He couldn’t bear excesses of any kind,” Hjördis told Sheridan Morley. “Smoking, drinking, pills all worried him. If I took a sleeping pill he used to worry. He never even took aspirins.”
David may have cut back on his alcohol intake, but did not cease his approaches to female journalists. Ann Leslie interviewed David several times in the 1960s. In her autobiography ‘Killing My Own Snakes‘ she mentioned one particular meeting at the Connaught Hotel in London:
“He asked me, ‘Look, do you mind coming up to my suite for a few minutes? I’m expecting a call from LA.’ But calls from LA do not require to be answered without trousers or underpants, and in any case the phone never rang. I suddenly realised I’d fallen for that oldest of ploys, ‘Come up and see my etchings’. Making hopefully urbane and witty excuses, I left.”
“But then ‘the perfect English gentleman’ began spreading rumours about me which ranged from ‘Ah, Ann Leslie, always available!’ to ‘Ann Leslie, typically spinsterish convent girl! Maiden Aunt Annie, I call her!'”
“Perhaps big stars like Niven felt they had a droit de seigneur and were so miffed when the ‘maiden’ didn’t agree that they turned extraordinarily spiteful.”
Public and private
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David Niven embracing background actresses. Rome, 1958
Despite tension in the Nivens’ marriage becoming common knowledge in their social circles, it remained unknown to the public at large, who saw chirpy, anecdote-laden interviews with David, and photos of jolly family gatherings. Interviews with Hjördis mirrored David’s to the extent that it was hard to view them as anything other than a regular, happily married couple, dealing with each other’s foibles with a smile and a joke. There certainly were tensions at home, but also moments of domesticity and fun, that show how they were able to stay together for so long.
“He was a very funny man,” Hjördis told Sheridan Morley. “Once when we’d had some terrible row, he simply got out of bed and went to his dressing room and came back stark naked except for a top hat. You really couldn’t stay angry for very long at a man who behaved like that.”
“Life with David is champagne or beer – caviar or fried-up leftovers – giant festivities with the whole of café society or a comfortable evening in front of the fire,” Hjördis wrote in 1960. “When we are on our own, we sit and talk about the day’s news – David is very interested in politics – but we also read, and listen to music. I prefer to novels, while David devours biographies, travel stories, scholarly literature and history.”
“In terms of music, we both like everything from Beethoven to Cha Cha. We go through phases when we’re crazy about a particular composer or some kind of music. But in terms of art – primarily painting – we are significantly more constant in our taste. We love modern art and go to all the exhibitions that we can and buy everything that we like and can afford. David paints in oil and seeks his inspiration in the outdoors, painting almost exclusively landscape. I draw, but mostly clothes.”
“David and I love to swim, and are totally fascinated by underwater fishing. Both of us, and the boys, are enthusiastic skiers, though truth be told, the men in the family are rather more enthusiastic than I am. The other day, when we were talking about skiing, I complained that the preparations take so much time and that we have to calculate in at least one hour to queue for the ski-lift, and another five minutes for the lift.”
“Jamie, the younger of the boys, answered with a ring of superiority: ‘We already know that skiing takes up a lot of time because you need at least two hours to put on your ski make-up. Get up earlier, never mind about putting on your face, and just go out looking like a normal person.’ I got the point.”
“When the boys aren’t at their school near Boston, we try to stay home with them as much as possible. We have fun together almost once. David is phenomenal with children and will do anything to make them feel happy. But you can hardly call them children any more. David Jr. is seventeen years old. Jamie is fourteen and currently has an almost sickly interest in food. Well, I shouldn’t say sickly, because in this case, the whole family love good food.”
In December 1960, press photos emerged of the Nivens kitting up to ski, and of family Christmas celebrations. Amidst the cheer, David was readying himself to tackle four new movies in early 1961.
Next page: Cap Ferrat and Kristina, 1961