If things had turned out differently, 1969

David and Hjordis Niven party-on in 1969. No idea why the gentleman in the top hat has a piglet under his arm. [Scottish first footer?]
David and Hjordis Niven party-on in 1969. No idea why the gentleman in the top hat has a blackened face. He also has a piglet under his arm. [Scottish first footer?]
According to Charles Francisco in his ‘David Niven, Endearing Rascal’ biography, David passed time on the flight back from Jamie’s wedding ruminating about this latest milestone in his life, before realising that another might be just around the corner.

“I’ve just had the most terrifying idea,” he whispered to Hjördis. “Do you realise it’s quite possible that in a year, or even less, I might become a grandfather?”

David and Hjördis Niven at a New Year's party, 1969
David and Hjördis Niven at a New Year’s party, 1969

“There’s an awful lot of rubbish talked about age,” David grumbled in a newspaper interview. “All this stuff about middle-age lasting longer. ‘He’s in his middle-age prime,’ they say, talking about someone of 52. Well, if that’s middle-age there must be a lot more people aged 104 running about than I imagined.”

David already hated seeing himself in his newer movies. According to Roddy Mann: “He’d say ‘I have this vision of myself as a young man of twenty-five, and then I see this old poop prancing about on the screen and I really can’t bear it.'”

Putting aside normal everyday vanity, David’s concerns were also work-based.

“It was a no-win situation,” Jamie Niven said. “As he approached 60, he was offered fewer roles, and I suspect he began to worry about the future.”

“Actors don’t retire,” David said. “They just get offered fewer parts.”

Plaster cast

David and Hjördis Niven at a New Year's party, 1969
David and Hjördis Niven at a New Year’s party, 1969

Worries about getting older had been sitting heavily on Hjördis for years. Fiona Niven told Graham Lord that Hjördis had five passports, all of which sliced a few years off her age. For the record, she hit her 50th birthday on 10th November 1969. But only officially. A Swedish newspaper article in 1970 correctly listed David as 60, but reversed Hjördis back to 48. [Hey, if you can get away with it…] For Hjördis, stepping up another decade was always going to be a problem.

Despite pointing out to the Swedish press that the girls helped her stay young, Hjördis’ alcohol consumption was having an increasing influence in her life. David Jr concurred that the girls helped to make Hjördis happier, but added that she always seemed to be drinking, and began experiencing blackouts. When aged five or six, Fiona remembered seeing her mother fall down the stairs, a dreadful shock for a child. In early 1969 reports emerged that Hjördis had broken her leg while skiing.

With no movie projects coming to fruition and Hjördis packed off to hospital in London, David finally set himself the task of making serious progress on his autobiography – at least when he wasn’t otherwise occupied.

“Hjördis Niven still has her leg in plaster after a recent skiing accident,” gossip columnist Marilyn Beck wrote in late March. “And now Antoinette, the Polish governess, has also broken a leg on the slopes. So David has been mother and nanny to his two little girls – between skiing runs of course.”

The cheery storyteller

“He created for himself the character of the cheery storyteller,” Roddy Mann told Sheridan Morley. “I don’t think his life was always a very happy one, and there were times when his marriage seemed (from where I was standing) to be a bloody disaster.”

Although David admitted to Sarah Crichton-Stuart that he was considering a divorce, his duty of love and care towards Hjördis always won the day.

John Hurt observed that Hjördis was “pretty difficult”, though David tried hard to be romantic with her. “He made it his business to adore her because he was a gentleman, but the love of his life was Primmie. Behind that mask he was quite melancholy.”

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David Niven with Hjördis in Monte Carlo, November 1969

Entirely different women

In 1981, Australian Woman’s Weekly asked David if he still thought of Primmie – a pretty daft question.

“Of course I think of her,” David answered. “Often. Primmie is now a marvellous memory which doesn’t intrude at all on my life with Hjördis. If Hjördis and I have a row, for example, never once do I think it would not have happened if I were still with Primmie. Yes, I think of Primmie, but not in a comparative way. That would be impossible. They are two such entirely different women, with their own auras, backgrounds and upbringings.”

“How shall I describe it? Primmie is like a lovely painting. You can never replace a painting by a replica, but you can love an entirely different painting.”

“In many ways he was a very sentimental man, you know,” Roddy Mann told Sheridan Morley. “He used to fantasize about what his life would have been like if Primmie had lived, if things had turned out differently.”

David and Hjördis Niven attending a Red Cross Ball in Monte Carlo, 8th August 1969

Back on the scene

By the summer of 1969 Hjördis was back on her feet, and back on the Monte Carlo social scene which she loved so much.

An Australian celebrity schmoozer met her at a party thrown for writer Paul Gallico (another addition to David’s circle of chums) and described her as “One of the most entrancing and attractive women imaginable – tall, slim, pretty and clever.”

“She was always extremely pleasant and my kids loved her,” near neighbour April Clavell told Graham Lord. “She’d have them over and chat and they’d dance, and they thought she was super.”

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David and Hjördis Niven arrive at Princess Grace’s ‘Scorpio’ bash, 12th November 1969.

On 12th November Hjördis attended Princess Grace’s ‘Scorpio’ themed fortieth birthday party in Monte Carlo, which may have helped as a temporary diversion from her own fiftieth birthday two days previously. Only fellow Scorpios (plus other halves) were invited, which qualified Hjördis. Guests were asked to dress in red.

Richard Burton (who shared Hjördis’ birth date of 10th November) and Elizabeth Taylor were among the guests, and took the opportunity to show off Ms Taylor’s $1 million ‘Taylor-Burton diamond’ necklace for the first time. In his diary, Burton proudly recorded people’s reactions to seeing the diamond [ummm… does this all feel a bit shallow?..], and alluded that he didn’t find Hjördis, or Princess Grace for that matter, the most entrancing women imaginable.

“Elizabeth’s delight in it is a joy to behold, and a very quaint thing to witness is the obvious pleasure that other people take in her wearing it. Even Hjördis Niven and Princess Grace, who are coldish fish [both outwardly serious and probably not easy to impress..], seemed to enjoy her enjoyment. Hard-boiled photographers applauded her for it. And of course, no one can wear it better. The miraculous face, shoulders and breasts set it off to perfection.”  (Burton later recorded David Rothschild’s opinion that Princess Grace’s ultra-serious party-persona made her “a bit of a dead-weight”. )

Upstaged birthday girl Grace wrote that Ms Taylor was “unbearably beautiful”. As unbearable as turning forty, she also noted.

For more on the diamond, the party, and how the necklace looked while set off against the backdrop of Elizabeth Taylor’s chest, see Lisa’s History Room. [Hoi, not so fast! Come back!]

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David and Hjördis Niven arrive in London on 17th November 1969

David provided further short-term distraction for Hjördis, when a few days after the Scorpio party she accompanied him to London for his first movie of the year: ‘Man’s Fate’. Unfortunately it was not fated to progress beyond initial rehearsals.

According to Philip Winch of the Dallas Morning News:  “It is typical of the twists and turns in his career that in 1969 he was announced to star in ‘Man’s Fate’, which promised to be an intriguing adaptation of Andre Malraux’s novel. Motion picture economies forced the cancellation of the project (this was at the height of youth-oriented movies), thus denying Niven what could have been the most prestigious part of his career.” Nuts to that.

The Nivens returned to London on 13th December for another birthday bash, this time Noel Coward’s 70th..  there was no escaping the milestones. Back in Switzerland, the vodka bottle, health problems, and a retreat from the company of friends and family lay waiting for Hjördis in the new decade.

Next page: The moon’s a balloon, 1970-1971

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