Narrow escapes and JFK, 1962-1963

Hjordis, David and Jamie Niven.
(Left) Hjordis Niven with John F Kennedy, 30 May 1963. (Right) Hjordis, David and Jamie Niven, Monte Carlo, August 1963.

During the long middle months of 1962, Hjördis Niven spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling of her Oxford hospital room, and had plenty of time to ponder the inner peace which so often eluded her.

“(The accident) was my second narrow escape, the first was when I was accidentally shot while at a house party in America. Both times I received comfort from prayer. Actually, I seldom attend a church service, yet I can hardly ever pass the open door of a church without slipping in for a few moments of quiet meditation. If a service is on, I like to be there in the background, but not to participate. I like the atmosphere and it brings me a wonderful feeling of peace.”

David and Hjordis Niven, 1962
David and Hjördis Niven, 1962

In July 1962, Hjördis rose from her bed and walked, although she still faced months (more like years) of issues with her injured leg… Doctor Trueta was still in consultative contact as late as 1976. When Hjördis was discharged in August, after an earlier false start, it’s doubtful that he specifically advised her against water skiing. It would have been better if he had.

On her return to the Med, Hjördis decided to go water skiing with Jackie Kennedy in Ravello, Italy, took a tumble, and cracked her ankle. Off she went back to hospital. David’s newspaper nemesis Sheilah Graham was quick to come to conclusions:

“David Niven indignantly denies trouble in his marriage. (He says) they’ve been apart a great deal because of the various accidents to her leg.”

On 2nd November, David brought Hjördis back to their home in Switzerland, and then promptly departed to work on the re-titled ‘Pink Panther’ movie in Italy. Once there he visited the Alpine resort of Cortina for ski lessons ahead of filming, and announced that Hjördis was looking forward to getting back on the slopes in the New Year. She was nothing if not stubborn, although her return to skiing was still some way off.

“The leg’s perfect,” David told Hedda Hopper in May 1963. “She can’t run but she walks. She’ll be skiing again in no time.” Possibly in 1964.

Is there anyone at home..

David Niven with Hjördis at the premiere of '55 Days in Peking', 1963
David Niven with Hjördis (and her hat) at the Los Angeles premiere of ’55 Days in Peking’, 1963

Despite hospitals being almost overly familiar, in December 1962 Hjördis and David demonstrated to David Junior that they weren’t really the best people to have on hand during a medical emergency. The sentence “She was no Florence Nightingale” echoed throughout Hjördis’ marriage to David.

“Niven’s 19-year-old son had a narrow one,” the US press revealed. “When he complained of pains in his side, Papa decided he’d pulled a muscle fencing and had him soak in a hot tub; then Hjördis got in on the act and put him through some Swedish exercises. Someone finally had the sense to call a doctor, and an hour later Junior had his appendix removed.” Never have Swedish exercises sounded so painful.

Ironically David made a statement in 1965 regarding Hjördis’ ability to spot illness, which actually told more about them as a mismatched couple:

“She is a spook. A quite extraordinary girl. Did you know she can actually smell bad health? If I’m going to be ill, she knows it. If she’s going to be ill, she knows it. Way in advance.”

Hjordis looks on as David Niven fixes son Jamie's tie at the premiere of 'The Pink Panther', with JAmie
Hjördis looks on as David Niven fixes son Jamie’s tie. Jamie was escorting Prince Rainier’s niece Elizabeth-Anne to a ball in Monte Carlo, August 1963.

The chaos orbiting Hjördis followed her into the New Year, to the point that, well, the following incident would normally be viewed as a shocking, near tragic accident, but ended up as just a short matter-of-fact newspaper snippet in late January 1963:

“David Niven is one thankful fellow. His beautiful wife Hjördis had a close call – but was saved from asphyxiation when she was discovered asleep in their car in the garage. She had been trying to warm the auto before taking it out.”

By March, David was beginning to despair: “I’m doing the greatest acting of my career in ‘The Pink Panther’. David Jr had an emergency appendectomy. Jamie is in hospital in Rome with hepatitis. Hjördis has had a recurrence of trouble from the broken leg she got skiing. And in the movie, I’m supposed to be a happy, carefree character without a worry in the world. Cheers.”

Despite the regular emergencies, David freely admitted that he was seeing very little of his two homes, and cheerfully informed Louella Parsons that in the past three years he had worked on seven films in six countries.

“We haven’t seen much of them. But I think actors are meant to be gypsies – they should just have a caravan and a dog.”

While David was acting his socks off in Rome, Hjördis was “temporarily abandoned in London” during February 1963. [Dramatic Swedish headline. “Temporarily kept out of harm’s way” might have been more accurate ]. Her one reported task there was to keep David up-to-date with the cricket news from Australia.

During one of David’s frequent absences, construction of his new swimming pool at Lo Scoglietto went horribly wrong. According to a visitor: “In designing it he got feet and metres mixed. It’s over your head in the shallow end and nobody’s seen to the bottom of the deep end without a diving lung.”

Back in the USA

David and Hjördis Niven, depart for Los Angeles, 1st May 1963.
David and Hjördis Niven – all caped-up and ready to go, depart for Los Angeles, 1st May 1963.

On 1st May, Hjördis and David travelled together to Hollywood for the first time in three years. David immediately set to work on “King of the Mountain”(later re-titled “Bedtime Story”) with Marlon Brando, a movie which, ironically, was set in the south of France. [It was re-made in 1988 as ‘Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels’.]

The Nivens’ three-month visit included an invitation to President John F. Kennedy’s 46th birthday cruise on the Potomac river. In his book ‘These Few Precious Days: The Final Year of Jack with Jackie’ author Christopher Anderson described the event:

“[Five months pregnant] Jackie went ahead with plans for Jack’s birthday cruise aboard the ‘Sequoia’. The invitation called for “yachting clothes”. It was a dismal, rainy evening, but the yacht embarked anyway with a full complement of guests, including David and Hjördis Niven. With thunder and lightning crashing all around, drinks were served on the covered fantail, followed by a dinner of roast fillet of beef in the elegant, mahogany-paneled cabin. As the 1955 Dom Perignon flowed, toasts were delivered and the laughter grew louder.”

“Although by now The Twist was decidedly passe, it remained Jack’s favourite piece of dance music. The three-piece Marine Band played the tune over and over until it was finally time for JFK to unwrap his presents.” Which he did with gusto. As the evening became more raucous, and with his $1,000 present from Jackie – a rare engraving, accidentally stomped on by a drunken guest, John Kennedy moved on, to unwrapping his female guests.

Three sheets to the wind

JFK's birthday party on The Sequoia. David Niven is sat opposite the president, beside The First Lady. 1963. No sign of Hjordis
JFK’s 46th birthday party. David Niven is sat opposite the President, and to the left of Jackie. No sign of Hjordis.

JFK kicked off his woman hunt by chasing down old friend Ben Bradlee’s wife, Antoinette ‘Tony’ Bradlee.

“He chased me all around the boat,” she told Vanity Fair. “A couple of members of the crew were laughing. I was running and laughing as he chased me. He caught up with me in the ladies’ room and made a pass. It was a pretty strenuous attack, not as if he pushed me down, but his hands wandered. I said, ‘That’s it, so long.’”

Tony mentioned that Kennedy was not drunk. “The atmosphere probably influenced Jack’s chase,” she said. “I guess I was pretty surprised, but I was kind of flattered, and appalled too.” She only told husband Ben about the incident much later.

Next in the President’s sights was Hjördis, whose decision to play along may well have been influenced by David, who was fully occupied, flirting with the Kennedys’ friend Martha Bartlett. “(He was) whispering in my ear all night, three sheets to the wind,” Martha later said. “I loved it!” [‘Three sheets to the wind’ meaning ‘very drunk’ : a new old expression to me!]

Rooster on chicken

David and Hjördis Niven, 1963
David and Hjördis Niven, Los Angeles, 1963

For her controversial, and cheesily-titled 1978 biography ‘Jackie Oh!’, author Kitty Kelley left no stone unturned in her effort to catalogue JFK’s dalliances. Her celeb bios have been described as ‘kitty litter’, but her intense interviews could yield results.

“Kelley’s critics liken her interview technique to an ambush,” People magazine reported in 1978. “One victim was ex-Florida Senator George Smathers, a JFK intimate and the source of many of the steamiest passages in the book (including a rating of JFK as ‘a lousy lover—just in terms of the time he spent with a woman’). ‘She led me,’ Smathers, a Washington lawyer, ruefully admits. ‘The right word is entrapment. It’s silly for a guy like me, a politician who should know better, but she had done a lot of homework.'”

Regarding the party night, Smathers told Kelley that JFK handed him the job of distracting Jackie:

“He shanghaied me to occupy her so that he could go downstairs. Then he disappeared with the wife of David Niven. Jackie came over to me and said ‘Where’s Jack?’ I pointed in the opposite direction and said, ‘He’s over there, I think,’ hoping like hell she wouldn’t go downstairs. He came back about ten minutes later. It was like a rooster getting on top of a chicken real fast and then the poor little hen ruffles her feathers and wonders what the hell happened to her.”

As Smathers was just JFK’s look-out [is this a Presidential birthday or a school disco that we’re talking about?] we don’t really know what happened with Hjördis. However, in 1992, author L. Harmon Zeigler noted in his “Political Parties in Industrial Democracies: Imagining the Masses” [catchy title..], that a complaint from Hjördis emerged in 1991 concerning Kennedy’s lack of foreplay.

The episode has caused a lot of speculation, some of which have become ‘facts’ through repetition – from JFK triggering Hjördis’ depression by passing a venereal disease to her (a ridiculous shot in the dark), through to Hjördis using the situation as revenge for David’s past infidelities. The alleged presidential sex scene really just follows Hjördis’ destructive 1962-1963 pattern.

John F. Kennedy skeet shootiing, while HJotrdis watches from a safe distance. 30th May 1963
John F. Kennedy skeet shooting. Hjördis (in white) watches from a safe distance. 30th May 1963

David and Hjördis were among a small group invited the day after the party to accompany the president and his wife for a few hours of relaxation at Camp David. Nursing hangovers, they travelled by helicopter from the White House lawn.

According to Ben Bradlee: “The Nivens, who had known none of us before, were charming, and it felt like a gathering of old friends.”

“Jack drove to a skeet-shooting range,” Christopher Anderson wrote, “where David Niven cracked everyone up by pretending to be an expert marksman, and then missing every shot.” *

In the afternoon David Niven and Ben Bradlee joined John F Kennedy in his swimming pool to round off a very pleasant day. They passed the time chatting amiably, blissfully unaware that the president had been trying to jump on both of their wives the night before.

There doesn’t seem to have been any immediate fall-out. Quite the reverse. One week later, David and Hjördis were spotted socialising with JFK and members of the White House staff in Santa Monica, at the residence of the president’s brother-in-law Peter Lawford.

“Hjördis told (Princess) Grace about her infatuation with Kennedy,” Pat Medina revealed to Grace’s biographer Wendy Leigh. “She told her, me, and no-one else.”

Next page: Breakfast in bed, 1963

* David’s rustiness with firearms was explained some months later by Hjördis: “David is a real man of the outdoors. He loves fishing, shooting, swimming and skiing. Yet for years after my accident [in 1952, see the rather straightforwardly titled ‘‘Hjördis Gets Shot‘] he never touched a gun. It’s only recently that he’s started again – encouraged by me.”

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