Mr Niven’s brand of peerless charm, 1965

David and Hjördis Niven, 1965
David and Hjördis Niven, 1965

In 1965, journalist Roddy Mann excelled himself both in describing David’s Jet Set popularity, and with his knowledge of prehistoric lobe-finned fish: “Mr. Niven’s brand of peerless charm, of course, is almost as extinct as the coelacanth. Which is why he ranks so high on the guest list of every hostess I know in London, New York and the Riviera.”

The neutral woman’s-eye view was rather sharper. “Was that archetypal English gentleman too good to be true?” Maureen Paton wrote in her review of a gushing 1985 Niven TV documentary. “The irrepressible womaniser could even make the merry cuckolding of hordes of husbands look like a service to humanity. Perhaps the Hollywood film star’s whole life was just an elaborate act. He certainly had enough incentive to put up a popular front.” She also highlighted Hjördis‘ conspicuous absence from the programme.

In May 1965, David readily admitted to Peter Evans that his loyalties could wane as time passed: “I hate having the same bunch of chums, and never changing them. It must be awful, all getting old together, decrepit together, and finally dying together.”

“Two of the chums at the house at the moment are Mia and Pia, beautiful nieces of Hjördis,” Evans noted, softening David’s statement. “They are actresses in Rome.”

“I adore being surrounded by pretty girls,” David added.

The smell of soap

David and Hjördis Niven lunching in their Swiss chalet, April 1965
David and Hjordis Niven lunching in their Swiss chalet, March 1965

After some non-productive time spent staring out of his Chateau D’Oex chalet in early 1965, David took a deep breath and sat down to write a promised guest piece for actress and beauty guru Arlene Dahl’s syndicated newspaper column. He was aided by having been asked to write about one of his favourite subjects – the opposite sex.

Perhaps inspired by life at home, David plunged into precise details of his likes and dislikes, with Hjördis blatantly in his mind throughout. David’s ideal woman at the time seemed to be her polar opposite.

“My attitude about women can be summed up rather simply: I love them!” David began, before venting some frustration. “Not all of them, to be sure.”

“Like any man, I, of course have certain preferences. I am inclined to favour a woman with a well-scrubbed look and a hint of colour in her cheeks – put there by an early walk in the chill air rather than by rouge. The smell of soap on a woman’s skin or the hint of shampoo lingering in her hair is perfume enough for me.”

“I’ve always felt that an overly perfumed, cologned or otherwise scented female must be setting a trap and is using an aromatic ‘smoke’ screen to hide her movements. The hair on the back of my neck stands up when one like that is nearby.”

“On the other hand, when I’m around a woman who has nothing to offer but a hint of heather, my hair also stands on end – [steady!] – but for a different reason.”

“If she is attired in a simple but tasteful outfit, I’m even more intrigued. That is the key: simplicity. It should carry right through cosmetics, clothes, shoes, coiffure, and – yes, even to the decor and furnishings of the living quarters.”

David and Hjordis Niven relaxing at La Scoglietto, 1964
Hjordis Niven owns David at Scrabble. [Nice thought, but it looks like Backgammon]
“Having arrested my eye by her physical appearance [Um, David, don’t forget you’re married dude!] this ideal female will sweep me off my feet entirely if she talks to me, not to the floor, uses correct grammar, and discusses subjects in which I have some interest.”

“I think most men seek this kind of woman. If they’re lucky enough to find her, they’ll be quick to ask at parting: ‘When may I see you again?'”

Perhaps Hjördis read through the piece, as she’d previously done with ‘Round The Rugged Rocks’… after rising late, spending time applying make-up, spraying on her trademark lily-scented perfume, fitting on one of her growing collection of bushy wigs*, and settling herself in one of the chalet’s taste-free rooms. In the aftermath, it’s hard to imagine that she’d have felt inclined to either engage him in interesting conversation or sweep him off his feet. Or read his next book – even if it became a best-seller. Either way, David enjoyed the writing experience. Very soon afterwards he contacted publisher Jamie Hamilton with the tentative idea of writing an autobiography.

[* In the mid to late 1960s it was common for glamorous women to wear wigs. My young aunt had a collection, and even wore one on her wedding day. It fascinated me as a child because she really didn’t need them.]

“David adores all women,” Hjördis blandly mentioned in 1964. “He’d rather be with them than men unless the men are old friends. He’s tremendously loyal, not only to the well-known ones like Rex Harrison, Sir Laurence Olivier and Douglas Fairbanks, but to the ones he was at school with.” Rex for one might not have agreed.

It’s damnably unfair

David Niven and his family, Lo Scoglietto, summer 1965

“It’s damnably unfair,” a frustrated Rex Harrison told David’s publisher [sounding like one of his speak-sing songs from ‘My Fair Lady’]. “Take me and Niv. [Da-da-dada] He screwed every woman in Hollywood who stood still long enough. But he’s only had two wives  – Primmie, who died so tragically; and then Hjördis. So the world reckons he’s Mr Nice Guy. With me, when I fall in love with a woman I want to do the decent thing and marry her. Because I’ve had six wives they call me ‘Sexy Rexy’.” [I have heard worse insults, but Rex apparently found it too ‘end of the pier’, ie. common.]

The old Hollywood friendship between David Niven and Rex Harrison crumbled as the years passed, and awkwardness reigned when they were surreptitiously brought together at a party in 1977, by mutual friend Leslie Bricusse.

“Curiously, Rex and David Niven just didn’t get on,” Roger Moore mentioned in ‘Last Man Standing’, “and Rex was always rather pissed off with Niv, saying ‘He’s been on the Cap long before I arrived, yet he’s never invited me for dinner or a drink.'”

“They have been living within half a mile of each other at Cap Ferrat throughout the summer,” columnist Nigel Dempster revealed, “and as someone who knows them both says: ‘They have taken care not to meet. Their dislike of each other has been the talk of the coast.'”

David and Hjordis Niven at Cap Ferrat, 1964
David and Hjordis Niven at Cap Ferrat. On the look-out for Rex Harrison.  (Not really)

“The kindly Bricusse did not tell either of them that he had asked the other and when they arrived, as one eye-witness tells me, ‘they appeared studiously to avoid each other.'”

“After what seemed an eternity to Bricusse, the tanned Harrison turned, smiled as he does on the screen, stretched out his hand and said at the top of his voice: ‘David, how lovely to see you.’ Rather like two duelists being nice to each other before shooting each other’s heads off, they shook hands in the theatrical manner to which they are accustomed.” [Yeah, yeah. And now the good bit…]

“In the middle of the following silence. Niven’s Swedish-born wife Hjördis swept up and chirped: ‘Fancy seeing you, Rex. Where are you living these days?'” [Wallop!]

Next page: New friends and old roles, 1966

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