The deeper understanding, 1972

Hjordis and David Niven arrive in London, 11th October 1972
Hjordis and David Niven arrive in London, 11th October 1972

In late 1958, Shirley MacLaine witnessed Hjördis, emboldened by alcohol, trying to provoke her husband by flirting with other men in his presence. “I remember thinking I should look for the deeper understanding in everybody,” Ms MacLaine recalled in her autobiography. From around 1972 onwards, searching for the deeper understanding becomes more and more necessary when following Hjördis’ story.

At the beginning of the year, ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ was still climbing top-seller lists. The adoration and attention being showered on David would have been beyond anything that Hjördis had witnessed since his turn as Phileas Fogg back in 1956.

“My father was absolutely thrilled with the success of his book,” Jamie Niven told Charles Francisco. “Thrilled! It opened up a whole new area of work for him – a whole new life really.”

“Look, if one is an actor, one is an egomaniac,” David told Joan Hanauer. “The supreme act of egomania is writing about oneself.”

Matching tie and handkerchief

In January 1972, David set off for six days in the US, combining attendance at his first grandchild’s Christening service with promotional TV spots in Philadelphia and New York.  In his passport he now listed his profession as ‘writer’.

Whether the attention was adoration or outrage, David was having a ball. Speaking about the frosty reception caused by his ultra-loud, grandchild-upstaging Mr Fish outfit at the Christening he could hardly contain himself:

“Very proper eyebrows shot up like elevators. But, then, I have always revelled in being positively outrageous.”

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David on the Dick Cavett Show, aired on ABC TV, 15th February 1972. Note the matching short and tie combo -Mr Fish I presume.

On one New York TV interview he revealed the reasoning behind his book’s dedication to ‘Kira Triandpyllapopulous’. “There were any number of people I would have liked to dedicate the book to, but not knowing whether that act would be considered complimentary or insulting – Kira became the chosen one. Poor Kira suffered badly when I locked myself away to write – constantly moping around and peeing all over the place – so I dedicated the book to my dog.”

“A lot of people tell me very straight-faced ‘Oh yes I know her. She’s a Greek actress isn’t she?’ But really I just made up that name for fun.”

Hjördis was mentioned in a couple of American newspaper pieces, both of which gently poked at friction in the marriage. Mariane Christy name-checked Hjördis: “with whom he once had terrible rows but now everything’s peaceful.”

The Toledo Blade noted that: “Hjördis talks about her husband’s pig-headedness and the provoking way he keeps his cool.”

“Of course, my wife’s right”, David added, keeping his cool. “She’s always right. I hate to give up something when I’m convinced I’m really right. I hate to be proven wrong because you see, once you start being proven wrong, you have to lose faith in yourself a bit.”

“At home his marriage was coming under considerable emotional strain,” Sheridan Morley later wrote, “and closer friends noticed a certain coolness in his relations with Hjördis.”

Hotel Budapest

Among the Gstaad ‘in crowd’ and the international jet-set, emotional strain caused by issues such as being apart, extra-marital shenanigans, and heavy drinking were, of course, not just limited to the Nivens.

In February 1972, while based in Hungary for the movie ‘Bluebeard’, Richard Burton decided to finance a hugely extravagant, booze-fuelled 40th birthday bash for his wife Elizabeth Taylor at the Duna Inter-Continental Hotel, Budapest. Some of the eighty guests, whose number included David and Hjördis, were flown in on a specially chartered plane. Elizabeth was clued up enough to try to dis-invite the young female cast members of ‘Bluebeard’. The party continued over two nights of fine-dining and dancing, with the guests instructed on what to wear, and even told to bring sunglasses for their massive half-time hangovers. Richard Burton stuck to mineral water throughout, but fell off the wagon in the following weeks and also proved his wife’s suspicions about the ‘Bluebeard’ girls to have been premature but correct.

Princess Grace arrived at the party with her lady-in-waiting but without Rainier, who according to author Fiona Ross took the opportunity to meet up with old girlfriends in Monte Carlo.

At Elizabeth Taylor’s insistence, Grace was installed in a specially redecorated hotel suite filled with borrowed antiques. Grace let her hair down, sank beers with Richard Burton’s Welsh brothers, did the conga, and reportedly invited one of the male party guests for some… umm… valuation.

The whole event was as messed up as anything Hjördis left behind at home, but on a grander scale. Unusually, although there are many press photos of the party in full swing, none seem to feature the Nivens.

Hjördis and Elizabeth

“I like Elizabeth Taylor very much,” Hjördis wrote in 1960. “David made ‘Around The World in 80 Days’ with her husband Mike Todd.”

The height of the Nivens’ friendship with Elizabeth Taylor was probably in the 1950s. (Elizabeth married Mike Todd in February 1957). David and Hjördis were invited to spend a weekend with the couple in mid March 1958, at a time when Todd was still flying around promoting the movie using his personal Lockheed Lodestar plane (named ‘Liz’) . Tragically, he was killed on Saturday 22nd March, when the plane crashed in New Mexico.

“We actually flew in ‘Liz’ two days before the crash,” Hjördis recalled. “It was a terrible shock for Liz Taylor. She is a distinguished, emotional person. People often think of her as being hard and calculating, but she’s not like that at all. She’s a typical child of the moment. Whenever she wants something at any particular time, she must have it straight away.”

One of the things that Elizabeth wanted, three months after Mike Todd’s death, was Eddie Fisher – the husband of actress Debbie Reynolds.

“She and Eddie Fisher wanted to seek shelter in our house when the news came to light that they were going to marry one another,” Hjördis wrote in 1960. “We refused, because we understood that not only would the press know that they were with us, but we were also one hundred per cent certain to get involved in the whole scandal, and we did not want that. Liz got mad at me, but now we are good friends again.”

According to Richard Burton, the friendship was not fully restored. His diary for September 1967 mentions a lunch with Noel Coward: “We talked about D.Niven and how, though they had been fast friends, he cut E. dead for seven months when she was involved in the ‘scandal’ with E.Fisher and how though we were still friendly it could never be the same again.”

A whole new complex

Hjördis took great pride in her friendship with Princess Grace. It helped that David was always keen to groom his own friendship with the Grimaldis, particularly Grace, who was a regular visitor at both Chateau D’Oex and Lo Scoglietto.

David’s friend Sue Bongard also visited the chalet, where she encountered Hjördis. “She was always perfectly pleasant to me, and would tell me about parties at the palace in Monte Carlo, and her friendship with Princess Grace, but I always felt she lived in her own little world. She was cold, and never smiled.” Mrs Bongard’s daughter Gaynor told Graham Lord that the chalet: “wasn’t a happy house… Hjördis wasn’t a happy mummy.”

David and Hjordis open the new gorilla complex at Jersey Zoo, on 30th April 1972

After decades in front of camera lenses, Hjördis was always able to smile on cue, and did so in April 1972, when she and David played the part of minor royalty by unveiling a plaque at the new Brian Park Gorilla Complex in Jersey Zoo. The photos and newsreel footage of the event make it feel very sad that David and Hjördis were not the happy couple their public faces suggested.

On 24th July, Hjördis was photographed again, this time with Kristina, Fiona, and holidaying Greek singer Demis Roussos, cutting the ribbon to launch the La Palme D’Or Florale in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, a very few miles from Lo Scoglietto. Despite occasional events to tempt her out, Hjördis’ public appearances were becoming more localised and less frequent. By contrast, David was filling up his international schedule for the rest of the year. As his world continued to open up, Hjördis’ was closing tighter around her.

The Swedish-born volcano

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Fiona, Kristina, Hjordis and Demis, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, 24th July 1972. Not Hjördis’ finest sartorial moment. Mr Fish and his kipper ties seem to have spread to the girls.

In the summer of 1972 David attempted to keep a low profile, as he searched for the time and inspiration to follow-up ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’. He still managed to fit in two more trips to the US before the end of the year. In early September there was a flying visit to Hollywood, rounded off by a dash into top-end fashion boutique Giorgio’s to pick out “a carload of outfits” for Hjördis. Next up, following advice from Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Cary Grant, he decided to take himself and his book onto the US lecture circuit – excepting the west and east coasts in case old friends and acquaintances turned up to heckle.

David and Hjordis Niven arrive in London, 11th October 1972
David and Hjordis Niven arrive in London, 11th October 1972

On 11th October David travelled from Geneva to London, accompanied by Hjördis, where the smiling couple were photographed as they walked through Heathrow airport. One Swedish newspaper captioned their snap by describing Hjördis, less kindly than normal, as “Swedish-born volcano Hjördis Genberg.”

David told waiting reporters that: “Next month, armed only with an absolutely appalling urge to be frightened, I’ll be coming to America to begin a tour of the college lecture circuit. Actually I don’t have a clue what I’ll be talking about. I’ll just improvise on the spot I think.”

Two weeks later in New York, David was pictured, grinning ear to ear with his date – named as ‘Ann Todd’ [not the diminutive English actress] – hanging on to his arm outside the exclusive 21 Club restaurant. No big hurry with the lecturing so it seemed.

David Niven, Detroit, 31st October 1972
David Niven signing autographs during his lecture tour. Raleigh Hall, Detroit, 31st October 1972.

When David did eventually head westwards, Jamie claimed that his father found the lecture circuit “an absolute delight.” Perhaps part of David’s enjoyment was his escape from domestic problems back in Europe.

Tom Hutchinson wrote that: “David Niven liked people, and he carefully hid whatever unhappiness he felt behind an attractive mask of self-mockery and genuine modesty.”

“I think you had to know him very well to realise he was covering up deep personal problems common to a lot of us,” Gregory Peck later mentioned. “Despair, loneliness, feelings of rejection, vulnerability – things that would have driven almost anyone to despair.”

How Hjördis felt can only be guessed – probably exactly the same – except that she had already been driven to despair.

Next page: Drifting along on an uneven keel, 1973

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