The pitfalls of skiing, 1962

David and Hjordis Niven, December 1961
David and Hjördis Niven, December 1961

Strap on your crash helmet, it’s 1962. A year in which Hjördis Niven spent the middle months staring up at hospital ceilings. David might have viewed this as a welcome time out, if he had concerns about her alcohol intake, but sadly it seems to have been a temporary dry spell. She may have been spurred on by the knowledge, or suspicion, that David spent those same summer months having fun with other ladies.

1961 had not ended particularly promisingly. While David was filming ‘Act Of Mercy’ (eventually re-titled ‘Guns of Darkness’) in Malaga, Hjördis was laid up at home with tonsillitis. When she was sufficiently recovered to join him, instead of a little sun and warmth, she ended up squelching around in unseasonal cold and rain, dressed in headscarf and wellies. [As an aside, David’s co-star was the French actress Leslie Caron, who was sloppily name-checked as “Leslie Carson” in a Hedda Hopper report about the film. Well, it made me laugh..]

Back in Switzerland, David had two tumbles on the slopes within six weeks which persuaded him to cut short his personal ski season. “David stopped skiing as he was about to start filming,” Hjördis explained. At the same time, doubtless inspired by the recent presence her friend Princess Grace in Gstaad, Hjördis was busy re-discovering skiing as a leisure activity, rather than as a tiresome method of getting from A to B.

“When I was a child in Sweden I had been forced to ski, and as a result absolutely hated it. Now, in Chateau d’Oex I came to love it, and these were really happy times for us.”  But not for long. The rain in Spain followed Hjördis to Switzerland, and then an unnerving stranger followed her to the top of a mountain in Gstaad.

All falls day

the Eggli mountain in Gstad.
Contemporary postcard showing scenes of the Eggli mountain near Gstaad.

“It was April 1 – All Fools Day – and we were winter-sporting in the Swiss Alps. It had been raining without a break for five days and the surface now had turned to ice and mush. But now the rain had stopped and everything looked beautiful as the sun sparkled on the slopes that stretched down from a mountain called the Eggli.”

“I was eager to get out for some exercise, so I suggested to my niece and David Junior and Jamie, that we should all go up the Eggli and take photographs, then we would ski back to the hotel. At the foot of the slope, I noticed a man who was a complete stranger gazing at me intently, but I paid no attention.”

“We made the ascent by the téléphérique (cable car) and when we got to the top, to my astonishment, I saw the same man standing there with his eyes fixed on me again.”

“’That man must be a devil,’ I whispered to the boys. ‘He must have flown up here. How else could he have got here before us?’” [Cable car and walked faster?]

“After we had taken the photographs. David Junior and Jamie led the way down to find the best route. My niece went next and I was to bring up the rear. As I passed the mysterious man he said quietly:  ‘I love you’.”

David Junior, Hjördis, David and Jamie Niven in Switzerland, December 1960
David Junior, Hjördis, David and Jamie Niven in Switzerland, December 1960

“I did not reply, but set off down the slope. I must confess that the remark by the stranger had made me nervous. I tried to put it out of my mind and concentrate on my skiing. It is an art that ought to be mastered at an early age, the younger the better, for then you learn to control and co-ordinate the skis and not to fear them.”

“As I shot down the slope, gathering speed and closing the gap between me and the others, I heard the distinctive sound, like rushing water, that meant another skier was behind me. I got frightened. I had an awful feeling that I was being pursued and I did a silly thing, something that, normally, I would not do under any circumstances. I looked round.”

“The inevitable happened. My skis slipped on the hard ice crust and I crashed and blacked out. When I came to, a man was bending over me. ‘You will be all right,’ he said. ‘Help is on the way.’ It was not the stranger who had spoken to me. If it had been, I think I would have died of fright. Actually, I never saw that man again.”

“In spite of my pain, I was amazed by the fantastic organisation that is put into action swiftly and efficiently whenever a skier comes to grief. I was picked up and carried on a stretcher to the big téléphérique that leads down to the village. There, an ambulance was already waiting to rush me to hospital where after an X-ray they found I had broken a leg in fifteen places.”

“I was put into bed and my leg was set, then a weight of 45 lb. was placed on it. Next day, the man who had carried the stretcher up to me on the mountain slope woke me with a bunch of flowers. Everybody was so nice that I could not stop crying.”

The Sunday visitor

David Niven with Pia and Mia Genberg
David Niven at a cocktail party  in Rome for “The Captive City”, with Hjördis’ nieces Mia and Pia Genberg.

“We had intended to leave the day after the accident for Rome where David was to start a movie (‘The Captive City’), but now everything was changed. David flew with me to London instead of Rome, then took me to the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in Oxford. Only when he was satisfied that I was in the best possible hands did he go on to Rome himself.”

David’s reaction before flying out on 3rd April was typically dry: “Between the falls I had a glorious four weeks.”

Hjördis was now on her own. “The next Sunday I was in bed with my leg suspended in the air in a sling when a man in a white jacket with a stethoscope dangling from his neck walked into the private ward where I lay, feeling very sorry for myself. I didn’t pay much attention to him, as I thought he was just another doctor. Only when he took my wrist and said, ‘How is my darling today?’ did I realize that it was David. And every Sunday after that, during the whole nine months I was in hospital he flew through the night from Rome after a week’s filming to be with me from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon.” [She was actually in hospital for four months, followed by a couple of encores, though it must have felt like nine.]

Hjördis Niven. Cool shirt! 1961
Hjördis Niven 1961. Cool shirt! Photo: Hamilton Millard

Hjördis was not exaggerating the damage done to her right leg. On 25th April a report emerged that the injury was worse than first believed.

“Everyone seems to have broken a leg while skiing this past winter,” Sheilah Graham wrote, “and among the worst is Mrs, David Niven’s. David had her flown to Oxford where she is immobilized, strapped to a board.”

The Nuffield’s director, Catalan surgeon Josep Trueta, was brought in to operate on Hjördis. Trueta was a pioneer in treating trauma injuries, with experience in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War and then in Oxford during the Second World War. To the jet-set of the early sixties he was also known for having saved Christina Onassis’ splintered leg after she suffered a similar accident to Hjördis.

Despite the success of the operation, in mid June it was reported that Hjördis was still weeks away from starting to walk again. David meanwhile, his Sunday commitment aside (which he proudly fed to the press), was working and playing as hard as ever.

The Pink Rajah

On 19th June, Hedda Hopper wrote : “David Niven keeps packing to return to here to Hollywood, then gets another picture which keeps him abroad. He starts ’55 Days at Peking’ in the middle of July (in Spain), and Blake Edwards insists he remain to play a crook in ‘The Pink Rajah’ to be shot in the Austrian Alps.”

Before setting off for Spain, David made the most of his weekdays at Lo Scoglietto, paying his son Jamie to go to the pictures while he entertained a girlfriend in the house that was so close to Hjördis’ heart, and generally letting his roving eye rove all it liked. The situation was reminiscent of Igor Cassini’s “commuter phase” in 1947, which led to him being divorced by his wife Austine.

Next page: Narrow escapes and JFK, 1962-1963

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