A well kept secret, 1964

Hjordis and David Niven, photographed en route to Sweden in November 1963
Hjördis and David Niven, photographed en route to Sweden in November 1963

In 1964, Hjördis described life at Lo Scoglietto: “I can speak for the whole family when I say we have found happiness here. David is more settled now than he has ever been.”

“We wanted a family,” David said. “These little girls keep us young.” After the craziness of 1962 and 1963, he and Hjördis seemed to be genuinely playing happy families. Or at least I hope so.

In Switzerland during the early months of 1964, David reported that Hjördis was taking ballet lessons with Princess Grace, and beginning to ski again for the first time since 1962: “Hjördis took her 15 fractures back on the slopes and looked beautiful.”

“Over the years Hjördis invited me to Château-d’Oex and Lo Scoglietto,” her niece Anette remembers. “We talked a lot about what was going on and how she felt. She was a wonderful person. David, who I really loved, was very nice to me and corrected me when my English was wrong. We used to sit by the fire with a night-cap just before bed-time.”

In addition to the upturn in his home life, David’s working life also perked up. He spent part of the year working on two movies simultaneously: ‘Lady L’ was filmed in Paris, Switzerland and Yorkshire, and ‘One Spy Too Many’ (later re-titled ‘Where The Spies Are’) in Lebanon and London. Other projects were allowed to slip by, such as ‘Circus’, ‘Paris 1900’, ‘Jack Be Nimble’ and ‘Honey for the Bears’. For the latter, plans to film in Leningrad were scuppered when the Soviet authorities got wind that the advance script presented to them was a dummy.

David also visited Hollywood in April, to record three one-hour shows for Four Star’s ‘Rogues’ series. His schedule only allowed him to feature in three of the thirty episodes. Such was his unsettled lifestyle that David later looked back on it as a time when he actually had time to spend with his family: “‘The Rogues’ allowed me to live in one spot longer but, like all good things, it ended and I was travelling again.”

Despite all of David’s globe-trotting, it was still over a year before his usual ‘arriving at airport’ press photos began to include his adopted daughters.

Introducing the family…

Hjordis and David Niven woth Kristina and Fiona. Cap Ferrat, 1964
Hjördis and David Niven with Kristina and Fiona. Cap Ferrat, 1964

“For a long time it was a well-kept secret among a few close friends,” David’s friend Roddy Mann wrote. “Then it leaked out.” The leak proved to be more of a slow puncture. The new family were photographed enjoying the gardens and swimming pool at Lo Scoglietto during the hot summer of 1964. At the same time, Hjördis spoke to Woman magazine about Kristina and Fiona and their effect on her life. “This summer in my new home, surrounded by my family, my life is peaceful and I like it that way.”

The family photos were reproduced in magazines by November 1964, while David’s press announcements appeared during the first half of 1965.

“Hjördis and I started talking about adoption,” he explained. “I have no idea who first mentioned it. They were Swedish and we adopted them within the first four months of their lives. The elder girl already knows she is adopted and we will tell Fiona as soon as possible. We will never say how we adopted them. I draw a veil over that. It has been done legally. They will be brought up as our children and share in everything like the boys. The boys simply adore them.”

David Junior told Sheridan Morley of his father’s joy, both at expanding his family – and at re-establishing a settled home life: “He had always wanted daughters, and unfortunately got stuck with two sons, so I think adoption was the ideal solution. It made him and Hjördis very happy.”

Aren’t we both lucky?

Hjordis and Krsitina Niven, Cap Ferrat 1964.
Hjördis and Kristina Niven, Cap Ferrat 1964.

The decision to keep the girls away from the press has been pored over in Niven biographies. Personally, I don’t see any issue. It was never a very rigidly enforced secret, and followed David’s desire to keep the boys’ early lives under the public radar.

Regarding the girls being told that they were adopted, it was a subject that Hjördis held strong views about:

“From the time she was able to understand, I have explained to Kristina that she is adopted, for I don’t believe in hiding facts from children and building up illusions which may be cruelly shattered by someone else.”

“‘I am not your real mother Kristina,’ I told her. ‘But I chose you for my daughter. That shows you are extra special to me. Aren’t we both lucky?’ She smiled and hugged me.”

“I feel too, that there is no point in hiding her any more. She is completely secure and she is a very important part of my life. I find it hard to remember what our lives were like before she came on the scene, for she has changed them so much and given such new meaning to our marriage.”

Friends and neighbours

David and Hjordis Niven with Princess Grace of Monaco. Cap Ferrat, c.1964-65
David and Hjördis Niven with Princess Grace of Monaco. c.1964-65

Even before Lo Scoglietto had been fully restored and redecorated, David and Hjördis entertained distinguished neighbours such as Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco.

“We’re seeing Grace and Rainier constantly and very privately,” David mentioned. “Last night they dined with Hjördis and me at our villa – it’s unfurnished and we haven’t had time to remedy that yet – with packing cases in lieu of chairs and everybody being very good sports. We had candles in old bottles and champagne in new ones. Yesterday we had Sam and Frances Goldwyn and Romy Schneider along.”

Hjördis claimed that in her earliest days in Pacific Palisades, Grace had been one of very few stars to openly welcome her into the Hollywood community. That is slightly askew. Grace Kelly only arrived in Hollywood in 1952, by which time Hjördis was well settled… but, that’s how she recalled the genesis of their friendship. David Jr later remembered: “I first met Grace in the early fifties when she used to visit my father in Pacific Palisades.”

As well as having previous history with Cassinis and Kennedys, Grace and Hjördis also shared an earthy sense of humour. While David loved to stretch and embroider his anecdotes, Hjördis preferred the one-liner: “I can boil water very well,” she once quipped when asked about her cooking skills. Other examples suggest that she would have been at the front of the queue to buy car window stickers in the 1980s: “I am always allergic to penicillin and sometimes allergic to my husband” was engraved on a gold disc which she wore around her neck in the 1970s.

Prince Rainier and Hjordis Niven watching dancers perform at a charity bash in Monte Carlo, August 1964
Prince Rainier and Hjordis Niven watching dancers perform at a charity bash in Monte Carlo, August 1964

“Grace and I used to love going over to Lo Scoglietto,” Prince Rainier told Sheridan Morley. “She and Hjördis always got along very well together.”

At a reception in Monaco for the 1966 movie ‘Grand Prix’, a journalist noted that Grace was happy to momentarily escape her royal duties and sit in a corner with Hjördis to compare notes on their children.

That said, Hjördis was already happy to postulate that she had inherited a title through David.

“David is certainly a man of parts. Few of his fans know that he is a French marquis, but it is true. His mother, a Frenchwoman, was the Marquise de Gacher and the title goes to the eldest son. David’s brother had it and when he died it passed to David. Which makes me a French marquise, I suppose.”

“We often joke that we should buy a nice dilapidated castle in France and call ourselves the Marquis and Marchioness. But our friends don’t need to worry, it won’t go beyond a joke.”

David’s mother was Henriette Degacher. She was actually half-French, born in Wales. David kept a family tree which showed that she was was decended from an 18th century lord of Chateau de Caumont,  a castle now used as a wedding venue with views of the Pyrenees.

(As a note: Carlos Madrid has looked in to Hjördis’ claim, and found nothing. She may have believed it, but it doesn’t look like it’s true. However, if she had married Igor Cassini back in 1947 she would have become a Countess).

“David would never dream of using his title. He sees no intrinsic merit in it, since he did nothing to earn it. ‘It’s not like my Oscar,’ he once told me. ‘I don’t mind showing that off. After all, I worked hard for it.'”

One likely source of the misunderstanding / joke / fib is that David’s 1949 movie ‘The Elusive Pimpernel’,  had an aristocratic character called the ‘Marquis de Gacher’. There was also a ‘Trubshawe’. David often took the opportunity to amuse himself by naming characters in his movies after friends or family.

Next page: Living in the lap

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