New friends and old roles, 1966

Hjordis Niven, mid tolate 1960s
Hjördis Niven, late 1960s

Despite David Niven’s roving eye, and the cooling of his friendship with Michael Trubshawe, his clumsily expressed [or clumsily reported] 1965 wish to rotate ‘chums’ on a regular basis may have referred to his enjoyment at acquiring new friends in Switzerland and France. Quite a few came into his circle during the next few years, and remained close for the rest of his life.

“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 welcomed the Nivens as a couple and didn’t approach Hjördis with preconceived notions.

“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.

“The first time…. 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.”

I shall remain your mother until I die

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!

Bill’s wife Pat became friendly with Hjördis, but more particularly with Jamie. She soon became aware of the schism between Jamie and his unwilling stepmother, and stepped into the breach 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?'”

Anecdotal kryptonite

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, despite funny accents and embellishments.

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. A full-time wife

Hjordis Niven 1966
David Niven with Hjördis, and Polish actress Magda Konopka. Rome 1966. The photographer mistook Hjördis for one of her 25 year old nieces, Mia and Pia Genberg. In your face Anno Domini!

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 now began to 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], which can’t have endeared her. 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  a term that could be used to describe her attitude.

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. On a more prosaic level, their earlier happiness could still, occasionally, be re-captured.

Life can be wonderful – with money

In early 1966, David and Hjördis were interviewed by Leo Guild for a regular 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. “What ever they [they?] earn, they spend. They enjoy, or try to enjoy, every penny that comes in.”

“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.”

“David Niven leads an international kind of life that has to be the envy of every ambitious male in the world,” Guild continued, “when he’s not yachting with Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, or playing roulette at a casino in Nice, or skiing in Switzerland with his family.”

The second ingredient of their marital contentment was given 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 also 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.

The clown of tradition

In ‘But What Do You Actually Do?: A Literary Vagabondage’, his old friend Alistair Horne painted a poignant picture of David, and 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 because of his status as a much-loved actor, or excused because his second wife was unable to turn a blind eye.

Sadly Hjördis’ protracted reaction didn’t let up when David fell ill towards the end of his life, and 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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