Shortly after moving to Switzerland in 1960, Hjördis and David Niven began a Boxing Day ritual that would last for over ten years. Noël Coward, his partner Graham Payn, and secretary Cole Lesley would travel by train from the village of Les Avants to be met at Château-d’Oex for a day of partying at the Nivens’ chalet.
In 1969, David told columnist Marilyn Beck that he waited for Coward on the station platform: “under a union jack umbrella, holding a tray of Bloody Marys. I wanted to meet Noël with a brass band, but couldn’t find one in the village. We always like to give Noël an interesting welcome.”
Hjördis seemed to enjoy Coward’s visits, although he described her slightly condescendingly in his diary. She was “very gay and charming,” he wrote after one visit, “but fairly silly as usual.”
The 1972 celebration was to be the last. “The Christmas before he died we were all there,” David later said. “We were chatting about what we would do the following Christmas, and Noël spoke: ‘There will be no Christmas. I will not be there.’ He wasn’t that ill, and he was only 72, not old.”
“He orchestrated his end. There were all those revivals of his shows, and then he went to bed and died. He used to lie in bed a great deal. My wife Hjördis and I went to see him. Hjördis is always upset by people who are ill. She asked him, ‘But Noël, what are you doing in bed?’ Noël answered, ‘I’m dying my dear.’ And he did, very soon afterward.” Noël Coward died of heart failure on 26th March 1973.
Ruling the bookshelves
In 1973, David’s movies; the good, the bad, and the mediocre, were all over American TV schedules like a rash. He was also seen reminiscing on talk shows, and heard narrating ‘Survival’ wildlife documentaries.
During the winter months, David worked earnestly on his new book, temporarily titled ‘Opus 2’, and in late February claimed to have written 80,000 words. Columnist James Bacon’s prodding revealed little else: “He won’t say what it’s about except that it’s a combination of fact and fiction.” It was, in fact, a collection of essays about the classic years of Hollywood, as seen through the eyes of someone who had been there, seen it, and slept with it.
At the same time, ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ still ruled the bookshelves. In April, Sheilah Graham wrote: “The paperback publication has been postponed because the hard cover is still on the best seller list in England – number three last week. No book within memory has lasted on the list for one whole year. It was also a best-seller in the USA. If David wants to, he could now write books for the rest of his life.”
Home and away
“His success did not help his marriage, which continued to drift along on an uneven keel,” Jamie Niven told Vanity Fair in 1988. “He did very little to help her (Hjördis); on the contrary, he seemed to be away from home more than ever.”
If Hjördis resented David’s new success as something that kept her languishing at home, his work-rate was also required to maintain their lifestyle among the world’s most rich and famous.
In March, Hjördis skied with Princess Grace and Prince Albert, and was also seen regularly in the company of (I’ll try to keep this short) Gonzalo Víctor Alfonso José Bonifacio Antonio María y Todos los Santos de Borbón y Dampierre, grandson of Alfonso XIII (the last king of Spain), cousin of Juan Carlos (the next king of Spain), and great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria. He was also known as something of a great-great-playboy.
The Nivens were a big enough fixture in the international jet-set to be invited to Madrid in March 1972, for the wedding of Gonzalo’s brother Alfonso (Spain’s ambassador to Sweden) to General Franco’s grand-daughter Doña Carmen. [I hope you’re following this, because you will be tested at the bottom of the page. Oh, OK, not really…].
The wedding’s guest list reported in the press included a cross-section of the royal, ex-royal, super-rich, and (in the opinion of some) super-dodgy, including “Aristotle and Jacqueline Onassis, the Henry Fords, Juan Perón, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, the Guy Rothschilds of Paris, and [Philippines’ first lady and noted shoe-nut] Imelda Marcos”.
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David Niven at the launch of the paperback edition of ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’. The Savoy Hotel, London. 30th April 1973
David and Hjördis were only pictured together infrequently during 1973, such as in April when they were on the judging panel at a beauty contest for cars outside the Casino de Beaulieu. However, later that same month David dashed back to London, albeit grudgingly, to promote the long-delayed paperback edition of ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’.
David returned to his family in May, and then bounced back to England in July to make a race-swap comedy-horror movie called ‘Vampira’. “A faulty blood transfusion turns Dracula’s wife black…” ran the promotional headline. Enough said. Still, the movie did have its attractions for David, such as a photo-call at the London Playboy Club, where he was surrounded by young female cast members. “Debonair David Niven, who’s always had a way with pretty girls, hasn’t lost his touch at 63,” the accompanying headline ran, accurately.
As long as the pretty girls weren’t aware that he was 63. In 1979 he told his friend, the journalist Roddy Mann: “If I’m trying to impress someone, I’d just as soon not be reminded how old I am. I once took a highly attractive girl to the boat show here, and we were getting along famously and she was viewing me with decidedly friendly eyes when suddenly this hideous couple hoved in sight – a foul creature with a crone of a wife. To my horror the man came over and introduced himself.”
“‘Good heavens Niven’ he said, ‘I haven’t seen you since we were at school.’ When they’d gone I could sense the girl looking at me a little warily. ‘Were you really at school with him?’ she asked. ‘Absolutely,’ I said. ‘He was the music master.'” [Boom, boom…]
“He took a flat in London, and came to London a lot and misbehaved,” Roddy Mann later told Graham Lord. “The girls were always about twenty-five.”
‘Vampira’ was done and dusted in October. By then, home had switched back to Château-d’Oex. The US press reported that on David’s return he found: “A special message from a special former ‘leading lady’ awaiting him – a professional ‘tart’ named Nessie.” Nessie being the teenage prostitute from one of his favourite stories.
“Nessie contacted Niven to tell him she had read his book and enjoyed it. It turns out the former ‘tart’ is a grandmother living in the mid-west. David says he doesn’t plan to contact the lady when he visits the US next week, that he would rather keep his image of her as a ‘teenage beauty’ intact.”
Whether through design or circumstance, David was now living two distinctly separate lives. He may have viewed the scenario as ideal – if only Hjördis had been willing to count her blessings, ask no questions, and contentedly look after the girls between each flying visit. However, Hjördis was never that bland or docile – although she had always felt too constrained to assert herself within the marriage. Sadly, instead she just sank further into alcoholism, which would control most of the rest of her life, more so than David.
In mid October, David waved goodbye once again, and headed off for yet another US lecture tour. “27 lectures in 31 days,” he enthused. “Absolutely hysterical. Minneapolis, Jacksonville, The Ozark Lounge in Pleasanton, Kentucky… I won’t lecture anywhere near Los Angeles.”
Killed by a vodka bottle and a night table
Sheridan Morley interviewed Noël Coward’s partner Graham Payn for his 1986 Niven biography, and reported that: “A few months after Noël’s death David made it very clear that, without the Master, the Boxing Day celebrations would no longer take place. There was a fame-loving side to him that could prove unattractive.”
Graham Lord’s version was slightly different. “(Cole) Lesley rang and said ‘Shall we see you on Boxing Day as usual?’ but he made an excuse and they never heard from him again.”
There’s nothing laudable in either version, although the excuse presented to Cole Lesley may have been better than average: David and his family spent Christmas 1973 in Kenya. To be more precise, at William Holden’s Safari Club, described by the club’s website as “a watering hole for the glitterati and crowned heads of the 1950’s and 1960’s.”
William Holden had starred alongside David in ‘The Moon Is Blue’ and ‘Casino Royale’, while descending into an alcohol addiction which would eventually kill him. “The fatal fall that ended his life in 1981 was due to a drunken misstep during a solo bout with the bottle in his bedroom,” The New York Sun reported. “To be killed by a vodka bottle and a night table,” director Billy Wilder mused. “What a lousy fade-out for a great guy.”
One of the reasons for David planning a more extravagant Christmas in 1973 may well have been an acknowledgement that Hjördis and the girls had seen so little of him during the year. Despite him being omnipresent on television and in good bookshops everywhere.