Hjördis’ broken digit aside (thanks to an apres-ski pillow fight), the biggest Niven family event of 1968 came on 6th July, when David’s son Jamie married Fernanda Wetherill in ‘The Hamptons’, USA.
In the months before the wedding, David made one of his better latter-day movies, ‘Before Winter Comes’, in Austria. Actor John Hurt also starred, and told Graham Lord of his time spent with David.
“He loved being naughty and was very flirtatious,” Hurt cheerfully mentioned. “He was a total gentleman and never played at home [except if his wife was in hospital]. If his wife was to catch him in bed with a girl he would deny it; to do anything else would be rude.” Bless.
Wine, women and gender bias
Hurt’s impressions epitomised a strange acceptance of male infidelity as just a bit of laddish fun – compared to the scorn poured on female infidelity by both men and women. Can you imagine the paragraph above appearing in the same tone if it were about Hjördis?
The same thing goes for Hurt’s comment on David’s alcohol consumption: “He liked his wine – he probably drank two bottles a day – and the odd scotch, but he wasn’t a boozer.”
“I don’t smoke, but I drink enough wine so that I should own my own vineyard,” David told a New York newspaper in 1973. “But I’m a very lucky man to have my health – and my family.”
In 2012, David’s biographer Graham Lord unpleasantly summed Hjördis up as an “adulterous, drunken bitch“, even though for much of the Nivens’ marriage he recorded that David matched her drink for drink, and was streets ahead in the adultery stakes. The mitigating circumstances lifted from interviews with David’s friends were: a/ when he was at home he always made an effort to be kind and romantic to his wife, and b/, he retained his gentlemanly demeanour even with a skin-full.
Once the movie was completed, David and Hjördis took a short break to Istanbul, the scene of one of her rare personal triumphs, when in 1958 she had the pleasure of receiving celebrity status from a Turkish military convoy while David had to travel in the back of a spud wagon. Happy memories.
“Before Winter Comes” screenwriter Andrew Sinclair was amused to note that David always complained mildly if recognised in the street or stopped for an autograph, but was genuinely agitated if he wasn’t recognised.
One rare instance of Hjordis being recognised ahead (or in this case instead) of David happened back in May 1950, in London of all places:
“A photographer recognised Mrs. David Niven in the stalls at the Vaudeville last night,” the Evening Standard wrote. “After he had taken her picture he wrote down her name, turned to her husband who was with her and asked ‘And what is your name, please?’ Niven said: ‘It’s still me.'” [Yikes. That does sound genuinely agitated].
Frock jacket, foulard and stick-pin
When David booked himself and the girls into Long Island’s Irving House hotel for Jamie’s wedding, he asked for his presence to remain under the radar. However, for the wedding itself he put considerable effort into making sure that he would make the biggest impression of all.
“I made straight for Blade’s [the most ‘in’ tailor in London at the time],” David admitted to Roddy Mann.
“‘I don’t want to look like mutton dressed as lamb,’ I said, ‘but I do want something interesting.’ So they made me an Edwardian frock coat in pale grey. I couldn’t wait to wear it.”
David’s wedding worries then shifted to the early July humidity within the church, which could cause… sweaty armpit rings on his new coat. [Noooooo!!!..]
According to New York society columnist ‘Suzy Knickerbocker’ (Igor Cassini’s successor Aileen Mehle): “He jumped into a big black limousine and directed his driver to the nearest shirt (shop). They sold him five shirts and pointed him in the direction of the local five-and-dime store, where he bought a pair of women’s dress shields. His friend, Lauren Bacall, helped him into them – you wear them like a bra fellows.” [Thanks Suzy..]
“At my wedding he became the centre of attention,” Jamie remembered, “arriving in a pale grey Edwardian outfit complete with a knee-length frock coat, foulard and stick-pin. When my brother, who was best man, saw him in front of the church, he said, ‘What the f**k has the old man got on?'”
Jamie apparently let it be known publically that he was upset by the upstaging. Speaking in 1998, David Jr seemed more sanguine: “I understood Jamie’s point but I thought the frock coat looked quite fun.”
One old friend creased David up by venturing that he looked like a slave auctioneer from a historical novel.
Other comments overheard included; “Gee, he looks right out of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’.” Another was: “Like a day in Ascot.”
“Clear to see the noted actor snared the lion’s share of stares with his tight frock coat,” one correspondent wrote. “Runner-up for attention was his wife Hjördis, who had a period look about her costuming too. Pure Gainsborough. Floppy straw hat, long curls.”
Suzy Knickerbocker’s wedding reception report described Hjördis as: “A thing of beauty in yellow printed chiffon dress trimmed with green and yellow ostrich feathers and a big brimmed hat of the same chiffon. Marvelously willowy, she seemed to float through the tent, and was just as fresh after shaking 700 hot hands in the receiving line as when she began.”
That said, her chiffon and feathers were pushed well below the adventures of David’s armpits.
David told journalist Joan Hanauer of how publicity had become a routine part of his life. “For 15 years I was with Goldwyn. His publicists pushed his product – me. People might say Niven hits his wife and drinks the bath water – but they didn’t say ‘Who is he?'” And they still didn’t.
“Being centre stage was his lifelong raison d’etre” Jamie commented, “and he was marvellous at it, but from time to time it put a strain on his family.”
“Any actor who denies the size of his ego is a damned bloody liar”
The scene stealing also encompassed the christening of Jamie’s daughter in 1972.
“Grandaddy Niven arrived at the solemn service attired in a navy pin-stripe suit punctuated by a blaring orange wide-collared shirt and matching tie,” Marian Christy wrote. “In addition to being a standout, he was a distraction. The priest shot him a piercing remonstrative glance before proceeding with the service.”
“I have Mr Fish of London make me ties and shirts. It’s all so distinctive and notice me,” David admitted. “Any actor who denies the size of his ego is a damned bloody liar.”
“He could not understand how parents who were actors could push their children into the limelight,” Jamie Niven said in 1988. “I often felt he was deliberately keeping me at arm’s length.”
“I rebelled against him in real anger only once. It was the summer of 1970. I was 24, and my wife and I were living in New York. I knew from the society columns that he had been in the city for a week, having fun, seeing his friends. On his last day in town, he called me at work and asked if I was free for lunch.”
“On the way to Le Mistral, I decided to put an end to the pain of his rejection, at least as I perceived it. After ordering, I explained to him how hurtful he could be, and he clearly was not happy to be taken to task. As the long-awaited sole arrived, I threw my napkin down and said, too loudly, ‘I think that you will find that you need both plates of food – one for you and one for your ego.’ The scene nearly killed me, and I felt absolutely ghastly for months.”
“Then one of his friends interceded, suggesting that, without telling him, she and I might arrange things so that we could see him on an equal basis. “You can start things off by taking him to lunch.” It worked. Soon he and I became very close, and remained so until his death 13 years later. I felt I was his best friend, because I had actually dared to stand up to him.”
“I thought then, and still do, how sad it was that Hjördis could never quite win him back as I had through that lunch at Le Mistral.”
Happy birthday no thanks..
David’s second and last film of 1968 was a silly caper comedy called “The Brain”, which turned out as badly as his 1967 output. David’s movie career appeared to be faltering. Sheridan Morley described his recent run of movies as “at best an advanced career death-wish.”
Another problem was looming. Hjördis was reportedly terrified of getting old and losing her looks, and was due to hit her unwanted landmark 50th year. 1959 had taken a turn for the worse as she approached her 40th. 1969, probably by no coincidence at all, would be the start of another rocky road for her and those around her.