As the 1960s progressed, the Nivens’ fractured home life remembered in later years by friends and family became increasingly at odds with the loving normality portrayed by Hjördis and David.
David brushed aside problems in his marriage, describing a happy if slightly peppery union as seen through the eyes of the ‘David Niven’ character that he played in film and public. “David Niven was a creation of the Hollywood studios and himself,” Sheridan Morley said in 2005. “He was a very much more complicated and thoughtful, moody man than his public image would allow.”
Hjördis Niven could also tell a story as well as she could smile for a camera, although her interviews came across as increasingly sugary and uninvolved. That said, they are probably a window into how she genuinely felt on her happier days. It therefore seems right to reproduce her words, even if they often contrast with other people’s observations.
Lazy days indeed
On their return from America in mid 1963, the Nivens spent a first summer together as owners of their newly refurbished home at Cap Ferrat.
While David worked on his fitness with pursuits such as water-skiing, swimming and sailing, Hjördis – perhaps mindful of her bone-shattering accidents the year before – didn’t extend herself beyond reading, arranging flowers, and making interminable phone calls.
Peter Ustinov described her as “a slave to the telephone.” Just two years previously Hjordis was less enamoured, at least of having to answer its call.
When an interview was interrupted by the family telephone ringing, Hjördis sighed and wished that she could cut the cord to stop it from it ringing all day every day: “There’s no point in shouting for ‘David’, because either both of them run to answer, or no-one does.”
The Nivens’ near neighbour at Cap Ferrat was Doreen Hawkins, who described Hjördis’ inert lifestyle to Graham Lord: “Hjördis used to have a late breakfast in bed, but only when she rang the bell. She used to say to me ‘What are you doing all that cooking for? You’re a fool to do it.’ So she had a butler, a cook, an upstairs maid who did all her clothes and things, a cleaner, a washing woman, a gardener who also did the pool, and an assistant gardener.”
Hjördis also had a nanny for Kristina, and succeeded in making her parenting sound rather hands-off:
“One day I was changing into a pair of slacks in my bedroom when there was a light tap at the door. ‘Yes, who is it?’ I said. ‘Come in’. A young blonde girl entered the room quietly.” (Who could possibly be the “titty Australian blonde” that David referred to in a letter to Noel Coward – and who proved sadly unsuitable – despite looking young and efficient.)
“‘Excuse me ma’am,’ she said. ‘I’m worried about Kristina. She keeps on sobbing and I can’t make out why. And she just won’t tell me what’s wrong.’ I glanced in the mirror and saw the reﬂection of the girl. She looked young and efficient. Her eyes showed the warm, sympathetic nature that made her so well-suited for her job as nanny to our little adopted daughter. [Yes, yes, get on with it..] But I noticed a worried wrinkle on her brow. I finished changing quickly and ran a comb through my hair. ‘Let’s go down,’ I said. ‘I’ll see what I can do.'”
“Kristina lay sprawled on the lawn beside the swimming-pool, one tiny fist clenched against her cheek. She had cried herself to sleep. [In an unsafe place]. ‘What’s the matter, darling?’ I whispered, gathering her in my arms and rocking her gently. just then David came along. ‘Hallo, what goes on here?’ he demanded, staring at the child’s tear-stained face. I told him Kristina had been crying again, that I had suspected for a long time that all was not well with her and that now I was sure I knew the reason.”
Love, luxury and loneliness
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David and Hjördis Niven (with fantastic towel and hat combination) pool-side with Kristina. Lo Scoglietto, 1964
“‘I’ve been watching her, David. She’s lonely. That’s what it is,’ I explained. ‘Oh, I know she gets plenty of attention – piggy backs from you, romps in the pool with me and the boys [romps in the pool were reportedly the extent of her involvement with the boys during the Pink House days]- and Nanny dotes on her. That’s all very well, but don’t you see, she has no permanent companions of her own age, kiddies like herself that she could play with on equal terms every day?'”
“David nodded and I could see his eyes were troubled. ‘Now you mention it, darling, I have noticed it. Pity in a way there’s such a big age gap between her and the boys.’ David was right. It was one of the problems I had to face as a second wife and second mother. How to be friend and adviser to two step sons who were now grown men and at the same time bring up an adopted daughter in the international atmosphere David insists on.”
“Poor little Kristina! She was surrounded by every kind of luxury; there was no toy or plaything she lacked. This had been her life: love, luxury – and now loneliness. When I broached the subject of Kristina’s loneliness, David said: ‘You’re absolutely right, darling. There’s no substitute for companions of her own age and that is what she is going to get.'”
“Every morning after that talk on the lawn, David took Kristina to the beach at Villefranche-sur-Mer, while I went to market. I went along with them whenever I could. We avoided the private plages where the well-to-do take their pleasures primly, fenced off from the common herd, and went to the crowded public beaches where Kristina quickly made a host of friends.”
“It was wonderful to watch our little girl opening out as she romped on the sand, chasing other kiddies, building castles, playing ring o’roses. David I noticed was infected by the spirit and was enjoying himself as much as Kristina, running races with her, making sand pies and turning up his trousers to dance at the water’s edge – not at all what you expect of a dignified Englishman, or rather Scotsman (he is very pompous about this).”
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David and Hjördis Niven romping in the pool at Lo Scoglietto with Kristina
“After we discovered Kristina’s need of other youngsters to play with, he continued to take her to public beaches at Villefranche. Then one day a friend told us of another young girl who had been suddenly orphaned. She was seven and a half months old, blue-eyed and fair-haired like Kristina, and Swedish. David turned and looked at me. I looked at him. ‘If you’re thinking what I’m thinking…’ I said.”
“David laughed. ‘Of course it could be the solution.’ ‘Oh, David!’ I slipped my arm round him and squeezed him tight.”
Hjördis and David visited Sweden for a week in mid November 1963 . “It’s three years since I was last here,” David said. “My wife must visit her siblings in Gothenburg and I took the opportunity to come along as I have a few days off.”
The Nivens had their second adopted daughter with them for Christmas in Chateau D’Oex. Most sources – including David – claim that Fiona was adopted aged four months.
“Kristina is the happiest little girl on the Riviera these days. She loves her baby sister, whom we have named Fiona, and if she ever cries nowadays it is not through loneliness. We’re happy, too. For now we are six – two big boys, two little girls and two proud parents. We adopted Fiona because we knew she would make us all wonderfully happy – we just pray we can make her wonderfully happy, too.”
In ‘Niv, the authorised biography’ Graham Lord wrote that: “By the end of 1963, Jamie and David Jr told me, Hjördis was quite impossible at home, though for most of the sixties she could keep up a public facade of cheerful normality when she chose. ‘It was pretty terrible,’ said Jamie. ‘You were an unwelcome guest in your own home.'”
Next page: A well kept secret