New friends and old roles, 1966

Cap Ferrat, 1966. Hjordis and David Niven.
Hjordis and David Niven pose for a Swedish women’s magazine. Cap Ferrat, summer 1966,

Despite the cooling of David Niven’s friendship with Michael Trubshawe, his clumsily expressed [or clumsily reported] wish to rotate ‘chums’ on a regular basis may have referred to his enjoyment of acquiring new friends in Switzerland and France. Quite a few came into his circle during the next few years.

“The turnover is incredible,” an anonymous friend mentioned. “David is always turning up with someone new.”

New chums in the second half of the 1960s included the composer Leslie Bricusse and his wife Yvonne. Leslie wrote ‘Talk to the Animals’ for Rex Harrison in 1967 and later tried to reconcile Rex with David [anything for a laugh]. The Bricusses and others won extra brownie-points by by welcoming the David abnd Hjördis as a couple.

“She would come down to lunch with a big towelling turban around her head. That was her trademark,” Yvonne told Graham Lord. “I know a lot of Swedish people don’t get jokes at all [they don’t??] but she could laugh and was fun. If you’d known her before she got into the vodka bottle she was a devastatingly attractive woman, and we had a lot of fun in the late sixties and early seventies.”

The smooth operator, and the political commentator

During the winter of 1965-66 the Nivens met and befriended the political commentator and author William (Bill) Buckley Jr and his wife Pat. Bill Buckley recalled the event for Forbes magazine.

“On the telephone was John Kenneth Galbraith [the ex US Ambassador to India and a close friend of JFK]. He had under his wing Jacqueline Kennedy, who was trying to get a week’s vacation, skiing. Did I want to join them for dinner at the chalet of David Niven and his wife Hjördis? What Jackie most needed, during that extended period of shock, was to laugh. Making people laugh was a specialty of David’s.”

“I tell a story and everyone laughs. Why do I do it?” David pondered. “The usual reason – I want to be loved.”

David’s vivid anecdotes were becoming something of a tour-de-force. On another occasion, sat at a dinner table with a grumpy Prince Rainier, David proved up for the cheer-up challenge.

“Waiting for the first course to arrive, David launched into an autobiographical account of his seduction at age 15 by an accomplished lady of the night,” Bill Buckley remembered. “He imitated sundry accents. The words spoken were lightly ribald, amusing, evocative. Before the second course was served, the prince was a rollicking companion.”

Bill Buckley also recalled his early memories of Hjördis for Graham Lord. “She was still good company. She smiled, laughed and enjoyed everything, and was very coquettish.”

According to her adopted daughter Kristina, one of Hjördis’ positive attributes was her patience. However, David’s stories could easily wear it thin. Once a source of amusement when they were younger and fresher (the anecdotes that is), Hjördis was now suffering from having to sit through them time and again. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine many wives enjoying multiple versions of how their husband lost his virginity to a 17 year-old prostitute, even with funny accents.

Evan Galbraith, later US Ambassador to France, joined David’s circle and felt that Hjördis was on a different wavelength from the rest of the group.

“You’d go there for dinner and it would appear difficult for her to pitch in,” he told Graham Lord. “She did have a sense of humour and would laugh at a joke, but she got bored with his stories. She’d roll her eyes and go ‘Oh, my God!'”

Wanted. Full-time wife

David Niven with his family. Cap Ferrat, 1966
Hjordis and David Niven with their family. Cap Ferrat, summer 1966.

Hjördis’ personal issues went beyond being a captive audience for one too many of David’s anecdotes. She had her own stories to tell, some of which had festered for years.

In a rare slip, David described Hjördis as: “Moody as hell, of course, as all Scandinavians are. [All of them??] The black moods come on, and I go and hide in the cellar.”

Although it hasn’t been directly stated that Hjördis suffered from clinical depression, she may well have done so. Help with coping can come from maintaining creativity, but that had disappeared through the years.

1966 marked the tenth anniversary of her being offered a starring movie role in Hollywood, and being told to turn it down by her husband. It seems too much of a coincidence that the story began to re-circulate in the press.

In April, a Swedish newspaper reported that: “Hjördis Genberg waived what might have been a very successful film career for David Niven’s sake. He wanted a full-time wife.” Another, more bluntly, wrote: “Hjördis Genberg received two film offers ‘but David said no.'”

Elizabeth Taylor likened the situation to a dog obeying its owner [ouch]. Swedish feminist Barbro Backberger’s take was that it illustrated the submissive attitude of some women to their partners: “The roles are old and ingrained,” was how she summed it up. Hjördis’ resentment was also old and ingrained.

A recent BBC Timeshift documentary (about the rise of Bingo in the UK in the 1960’s, of all things) struck a chord, with the statement: “We forget how un-liberated women were”. This was illustrated by a shockingly docile vox-pop from the time: “My husband’s the boss. Because he’s the boss I have to ask his consent to go out…”

It has to be remembered that Hjördis and David were people of their time/s, although “docile” is not really a term that could be used to describe her attitude.

No visits to Harvard

Hjördis and David Niven with Fiona and Kristina. Dig those op art dresses!
Hjördis and David Niven with Fiona and Kristina. Dig those op art dresses!

Speaking to Swedish women’s magazine Året Runt in 1966, David said:

“I want my daughters to grow up to be like my wife. I like the Scandinavians’ way of thinking and reacting. They are so open and obvious. If my wife raises Kristina and Fiona to be like her, I couldn’t be happier.” Hmm. Anyway, what he said next sounds a lot more familiar:

“If my two girls want to be actresses, I will to try to stop them. Why? Because I’ve seen too much. If you’re lucky enough to be at the top, it’s a wonderful life, but if not, it’s terrible, because when you finally realise you’re not going to reach your goal, it’s generally too late to do anything else.”

In the same interview, David was asked if his boys had turned out as hoped.

“Yes, they actually have. David is now self-sufficient and a very successful artists’ agent. He speaks Italian and French and is only twenty-two years old. Jamie is at Harvard University studying  economics. I hope he will be ready soon, then he will be able to take care of my business!”

In 2020 Jamie spoke about his father, for a Partnership to end addiction podcast titled ‘Jamie Niven on Growing Up as a Hollywood Kid and Putting Down the Bottle as an Adult’. (The podcast is as blunt as its title, and well worth a listen)

“I have this great friend, Sherry Lansing, who was not only the head of Paramount, but also the head of Fox.  I had a cup of coffee with her, about a year ago, before the pandemic started. And I said to her, ‘Why do you think it is that he never came to see me when I was at Harvard?’ And she said, ‘After all these years, you haven’t figured it out?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Because he was a narcissist, and narcissists can’t tolerate the success of the other around them.'”

“It’s too bad I didn’t have that under wraps when I was about 18, it took until about 73.”

Hjördis was not mentioned in Jamie’s podcast, although there were areas in his life story in which she could and should played a more positive part. Instead, there was a void, that sadly lead to Jamie struggling with alcoholism from the age of fifteen (1960) through to sixty-five.

Interviewer Elizabeth Vargas suggested that the overwhelming memory of Jamie’s younger days was one of loneliness.

“And I think it’s very simple to explain why,” Jamie replied. “My mother died when I was six months old, and I think that’s in a nutshell, right there. John Cheever wrote once that the inescapable fact is that his mother died when he was young, and that lingered with him his entire life. I think that when I see my daughter with her son, for example, and the hugging and the holding and all that good stuff. Yeah, you don’t get that. And therefore, you do come out, at the end of the day, you have to say yourself, you’re pretty lonely.”

“There was some tremendous privileges, don’t get me wrong. Of course there were marvelous moments, and plenty of them, by the way. But it was that under gut thing about always feeling lonely.”

“I think the fact that, that incredible void, it’s one you may not understand. You may not get it for a long time that this happened to you, and this is why you are this way, or this is why you’re sad or whatever it is. But for him (David Jr), and for me, it was the same because whether you’re a two or you’re six months, it makes no difference. You don’t have any memory at all. I’m sure that had a lot to do with the progression of that loneliness and how you sort of staunched it by drinking.”

When Pat Buckley became friendly with the Nivens, she became aware of the emptiness in Jamie’s relationship with his unwilling stepmother. She decided to step in as a mother figure:

“I remember I was talking to (Pat) on the phone, and she was telling me I couldn’t do this and I couldn’t do that,” Jamie told Vanity Fair.

“I said, ‘You know, you’re not my mother. You can’t talk to me like that.'”

“She said, ‘I have been your mother, Sonny, and I shall remain your mother until I die.’ So I became Sonny to her, and I would call her up and say, ‘Mother, how are you today?'”

Life can be wonderful – with money

In early 1966, David and Hjördis were interviewed by Leo Guild for a US newspaper feature called ‘Late blooming romances’ in which married couples shared the secrets of their happiness. [Stop laughing at the back]. The Nivens’ formula was summed up by the headline: ‘Life can be wonderful – with money’.

“David and Hjördis think they have the recipe for enjoying life,” Guild wrote. “Whatever they [they?] earn, they spend. They enjoy, or try to enjoy, every penny that comes in. David Niven leads an international kind of life that has to be the envy of every ambitious male in the world”

“I have two exquisite homes,” David explained, “and to keep these going, along with our expensive tastes, I have to jump to cover expenses. The object in life is to derive pleasure from it. Unfortunately it requires a great deal of money – spending money – to enjoy life.”

The second ingredient of their marital contentment was listed as age difference, but looks more like taking the opportunity to appear younger, and spin tales for their interviewer. David and Hjördis’ given ages in the feature were 55 (correct) and 36 (not even remotely correct, she was 46).

“According to David Niven the ideal marriage is made by a man at least 10 years older than his bride [Either he was taking a dig, or taking the piss]. David, the charmer, is 19 [!!] years older, and outside of one separation, they are a happily married couple. Hjördis wants to keep young, so is diet and exercise conscious.” Sort of.

“I get most of my exercise picking up children’s toys,” Hjördis admitted. “But I do snow and water ski.'” [As many hospitals in Europe could testify]

In addition, Hjördis managed her fair share of retail exercise. In the 1960s she was a customer of fashion designers Irene Galitzine and Valentino (Garavani) – along with Elizabeth Taylor, Sofia Loren, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo.

While David was filming in the summer of 1966, Hjördis attended a Vera Maxwell fashion show in Monte Carlo, held as part of ‘American Week’. Over five tons of genuine American food were specially flown in for the event, including steaks from the iconic Gallaghers Steakhouse in NYC, and guacamole and chili beans from Texas.

For me, one of the biggest mysteries in Hjördis’ story is why she got back together with David in September 1959, and then stayed with him. So I asked my wife. “Money,” she said, before adding that she didn’t think I was making their lives sound glamorous enough. [What about the five tons of genuine American food?]

The clown of tradition

In ‘But What Do You Actually Do?: A Literary Vagabondage’, David’s old friend Alistair Horne painted a poignant picture of the man, and the course of his marriage.

“Like the clown of tradition, David’s capacity for laughter was tinged by a lot of sadness on the home front, always well concealed. He never got over the tragic, accidental death of his first wife, Primmie. His second, Hjördis, could not keep up with David’s fireworks, she took to the bottle and became increasingly morose. David suffered but never complained, he made a joke of it.”

For all the words written about David Niven, it’s quite rare to find mentions of his extra-marital ‘fireworks’ which aren’t either brushed aside (with a quiet pat on the back) because of his status as a much-loved mid-century womaniser, or excused because his second wife was unable to turn a blind eye.

Sadly Hjördis’ protracted reaction didn’t let up, and eventually crossed a line which shocked and alienated his friends, who squarely blamed her for the ills of their union.

Cultural revolution to California

Hjordis and David Niven, 1967
Hjördis and David Niven, 1967

In 1966 David was shocked at being approached to play a more mature version of another suave womaniser, James Bond. This was for another spy spoof – the completely whacko ‘Casino Royale’. Filming in the middle months of the year meant time away from his girls, although he commuted from London at weekends until filming wrapped up in August.

A second surprise was a potential visit to China at the height of the Cultural Revolution. A magazine reportedly offered David $100,000 to go and record his impressions of the country. For a number of probably very good reasons, the trip didn’t take place. The next long distance trip would be to Hollywood in 1967.

In the mean time, David remained at home and finally began to jot down his stories for an autobiography which would later emerge to acclaim from almost everyone – except Hjördis.

Next page: The Nivens at Lo Scoglietto, 1967

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