The moon’s a balloon, 1970-1971

David and Hjordis Niven, 1969 / 1970

In early 1970, David Niven was still struggling to knuckle down and write the book which would eventually be released as “The Moon’s a Balloon”.

On at least one occasion he put in a transatlantic phone-call to Douglas Fairbanks Jnr: “Listen Doug. I’m getting bogged down in this book I’m writing. I remember your father told me a couple of really funny stories about a few things that happened to him during his school days. Do you think it would be alright if I stole them for my memoirs?”

A bemused Fairbanks gave his permission. Other stories from friends and family were remembered, borrowed and polished – the common thread being that David found them amusing and was able to recount them in his own manner. A wholly accurate account of his life wasn’t taking shape, but it certainly reflected the David Niven dinner-host persona which so many guests warmed to, and which Hjördis found more and more tiresome.

The statue with the wrong naughty bits

Hjordis and Kristina Niven, 1970
Hjordis and Kristina Niven. Italy, 1970.

David was proud to avoid film work during the winter months, but at this stage of his career that didn’t require a great deal of effort. (To be fair, he had left a gap in his early 1970 schedule for the abortive ‘Man’s Fate’ project). On 23rd March, he was able to attend a week long David Niven film festival in Caracas, Venezuela, bringing Hjördis along for the ride.

In April, David visited London, where he hoped to persuade American actress Dyan Cannon to join him in one of his irregular movies, “The Statue”, which was due to be shot in Rome from May to June.

Ms. Cannon showed good taste in deciding to swerve “The Statue”. The plot revolved around David suspecting his artist wife of unfaithfulness when her nude sculpture of him seemed to be adorned with someone else’s genitalia. Need I go on? [No thanks.]

“No admirer of David Niven would want to loiter around this coy monstrosity,” was how author Gerard Garrett summed up the results. Journalist Tom Hutchinson was moved to ask David why he made such films. “I like to be with mates,” was the simple reply.

Hjördis may have rolled her eyes at the sight of a 14ft tall sculpture of David dominating the Rome film set, but the project seemed like a strange reflection of the way their relationship was heading. Graham Lord wrote that in 1972 David confided sadly to his school-run friend Sue Bongard that Hjördis had been having an affair “for years”.

The working cruise

David, Fiona, Hjördis and Kristina Niven in France, with Mme. Medecin. July, 1970
David, Fiona, Hjördis and Kristina Niven in France, with Mme. Medecin. July, 1970

Before finishing ‘The Statue’, David was once again looking for assistance with his memoirs. Trubshawe was invited to recall their army days, and David also surreptitiously arranged for Hjördis and himself to take a ‘holiday’ cruise along the coast of Turkey with Rex Harrison, and Elizabeth Rees-Williams – the actor Richard Harris’ former wife. (Roger Moore’s autobiography mentions that Harrison’s wife Rachel didn’t like sailing – so instead he brought along her best friend, the aforementioned Ms Rees-Williams, on his yearly cruises… They married in 1971.)

According to Charles Francisco, David ignored Hjördis‘ objections to him making it a working break, and smuggled a notebook on-board to harvest Rex Harrison’s memories of old Hollywood. When Rex later read David’s book, he complained: “They’re are all MY stories!”

As an aside, the following summer Richard Burton invited Harrison and his fiancee for cocktails on his yacht, and recorded that on arrival: “Rex was already paralysed with booze, so was Rees-Williams. We all agreed after they had left that this couple were among the most unattractive we’d come across in a long time and the thought of their getting married before the end of the month a monstrous joke.”

True life stories

Fiona, Hjordis, David and Kristina Niven, 1971
Fiona, Hjordis, David and Kristina Niven, 1971. Photo: Roderick Ebdon

After arriving for summer at Cap Ferrat, David promised that he would write for at least one hour a day, and then promptly set off for a week of fun with friends in New York, which was rounded off with an earful from son Jamie for putting family last on his itinerary.

Hjördis extracted some family time in August, with a visit to Sweden which she pointedly referred to as “purely a holiday”.

Once David had scribbled beyond his early Hollywood years, he had the much more personal task of writing about Primmie. In the end he got through the World War Two and Primmie years in 43 pages, and then (probably out of a sense of urgency, as his publisher was getting restless) rounded off the book with a similar amount of pages that raced through his 23 post-war years with Hjördis.

Many of the stories involving Hjördis had already appeared in interviews that she had given through the years. They generally concentrated on the late 1940s – early 1950s ‘honeymoon’ period – their meeting, their quick wedding, her introduction to Hollywood, her appearance on the cover of Life magazine, and her shooting accident in Rhode Island. The choices suggested that Hjördis had actively helped with the subject matter. If she did, it went unacknowledged – at least not directly. David’s 1950 novel ‘Round The Rugged Rocks’ had been dedicated to Hjördis. ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ was dedicated to Kira, their Afghan hound.

David, Fiona, Kristina and Hjordis Niven. Cap Ferrat, 1971
David, Fiona, Kristina and Hjordis Niven. Cap Ferrat, 1971. Photo: Roderick Ebdon

David used exaggeration to add impact to the length of their courtship, which was reduced from six weeks to ten days, while Hjördis‘ 1952 shooting accident now involved her being hit by thirty bird-shot pellets rather than twelve.

The years and order of events seemed to blur in the 1950s (as was also the case with Hjördis‘ own accounts), although one thing which could be said was that most of the stories involving Hjördis happened to her and not Douglas Fairbanks or Rex Harrison… Only the story of her setting David up on his 50th birthday at ‘The Frigate Bird’ whorehouse in Malibu seems dubious, especially as the Nivens had already moved to Europe.

David was finally able to hand over the finished manuscript in February 1971. He resisted all editorial amends, but gave in with the title, which was changed from ‘Five Sides of a Square’ (which everyone hated) to ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ (which everyone hated).

All right everybody, let’s talk about my book

Hjordis and David Niven arrive in London, November 1971
Hjordis and David Niven arrive in London, November 1971

Although she kept a low profile for most of 1971, Hjördis was spotted in Switzerland during February by a pair of envious American visitors, who reported their sighting to columnist Jean Yothers.

“Oh, to be on the ski slopes of Switzerland when actor David Niven is there! That’s what happened to Polly and Conway Kittredge while spending several glamorous skiing weeks in Gstaad. ‘He and his wife were bundled up in real furry ski outifts and were wearing goggles,’ Polly explained. ‘We commented to each other what an attractive couple they were, never dreaming we were seeing David Niven.'”

“She said it wasn’t until the next day when Mrs Niven walked by their table in a restaurant and they heard someone say, “there goes Mrs David Niven”, that they realised they had seen the actor in the flesh.” David’s profile would never be so low again.

David popped over to Hollywood for the “Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund gala” on 13th June 1971. A nostalgic visit to old haunts revealed the sad sight of closed, empty studios. “I am at an age – and stage – where I feel I may be permitted to savour some of the good things of life without a feeling of guilt,” he told Dorothy Manners, and also revealed that his forthcoming book wasn’t an autobiography – something which he really didn’t fancy writing: “Too much like an obituary”.

In September, he visited Munich to make his only movie of the year, ‘King, Queen, Knave’. Filming was completed in November, after which he took Hjördis Christmas shopping in London. By then, the spotlight was turned on him more than ever, and not because of the movie – which received such a hammering at the Cannes film festival that its distributor got cold feet – but because of the huge success of ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’, which had been flying off the shelves since its release in October.

Richard Burton wrote a peer review in his diary: “I read David Niven’s autobiography yesterday in one sitting. It is very funny though not very well written and is, like all actors’ biographies, very anecdotal and full of “and then Mike Todd called me and said ‘Get your ass over here'” etc.”

US reviewer John Crosby wrote: “I was absolutely enchanted with David Niven’s autobiography, but I couldn’t help wondering from time to time if this all happened to one man. And in dialogue? What a memory.” [Well, everyone else took the book to be an autobiography… probably because it’s autobiographical]

However, the book proved an unqualified success, taking David’s public popularity to yet another level. It was not a situation which Hjördis was able to cope with, even though the Swedish press tried to view it from her perspective: “He has written a love story about life with Hjördis.”

In 2005 Simon Edge wrote: “Even though his post-war films were patchy, they included triumphs, including ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ and ‘Separate Tables’. Those successes, together with his great gifts as a storyteller, meant that he got all the attention – an occupational hazard for Hollywood spouses.”

“Instead of handling it,” David’s friend Roderick Mann added, “she got more and more sullen. We were all laughing and joking, but she wasn’t.”

Not that David always wished to attract attention. “When I am in a big city and wish to take a stroll, I walk near the curb,” he told reporter Leo Guild. “Everyone else is looking at the shop windows and they never notice who is walking on the other side of them. It works for me.”

On a rollercoaster ride with Hjordis Niven. Kristina and Fiona, November 1971
On a roller-coaster ride with Hjordis Niven, November 1971

However, when Hjördis was with him the tactic failed. She caught the eyes of passers-by, which quickly moved on to him – even more so now that he was both a successful author and actor.

Robert Wagner told Sheridan Morley about: “Walking into the Connaught Hotel in London and seeing her there, so I went over and said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that David has had this tremendous success with ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ and that people are enjoying it so much?’ and she said, ‘I haven’t read it.'”

“I’m not allowed to talk about my book at home,” David told journalist Joan Hanauer, with tongue firmly in cheek. “For a while, whenever there was a lull in the conversation, I would say ‘All right everybody, let’s talk about my book.’ That’s been stopped. My wife put her foot down.”

Next page: The deeper understanding, 1972

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