A non-participating background presence, 1974

David and Hjördis Niven, Paris, 1974I’m sure you’ve noticed (I certainly have) that from the mid 1960s onwards the year-by-year pages devote more time to the adventures of people surrounding Hjördis, rather than to the lady herself. Well, I could argue, although there’s not much point because nobody has complained [yet], that colouring in the background of her life is still part of her story, especially in the absence of her own words and actions.

I would like to try to keep a firmer focus on her, but it’s not easy. According to friends of hers and David’s, many of whom were shifting around to just being friends of David’s, Hjördis was in the process of retreating from social life outside of home, then inside of home, before finally disappearing into her bedroom with only a bottle for company.

It isn’t pleasant to write about a once lively and adventurous person, now unhappy, and as a result spreading unhappiness to those around her. However, we’ve come this far.

“Hjördis got deeper into the vodka bottle,” Leslie Bricusse told Graham Lord. “She retreated more and more until towards the end we hardly saw her. There was a dark side to her which we never saw in the early days.”

“There was always tension and it got worse,” according to Taki Theodoracopoulos. “She used to stare, and at the end we used to run away.”

Buy it, don’t borrow it

David spent the early months of 1974 working on his new book, which would be released the following year as ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’.  Hjördis was largely a non-participating background presence in it, name-checked in inconsequential anecdotes sprinkled among David’s colourful character portraits of Hollywood folk. (To be fair, David generally took a back seat himself).

Hjördis played a more central role in a few tried and trusted party-piece stories that were probably slipped back in after missing the cut for ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’, such as her accidental roast pig order in 1948 and the Ciro’s set-up in 1952 – when she and David sought to wind-up gossip columnists reporting a rift in their marriage.

Twenty years on there was a definite rift, although columnists’ attentions tended not to wander beyond the sales and content of ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’. One did, however, report David’s slightly bizarre annoyance at someone borrowing rather than buying a copy of the book.

Hjordis and David Niven, Paris 1974
Hjordis and David Niven, Paris 1974

“Real estate developer Charles Fish, who just got back from Monaco, can’t understand how he escaped pneumonia after being exposed to the cold shoulder from David Niven,” Philadelphia columnist Larry Fields wrote. “The incident happened in Rainier-land when Fish, an old friend of the Kelly clan, was introduced to the actor by Princess Grace. Fish mentioned how much he enjoyed Niven’s memoir, and the movie star asked if he bought the book or borrowed it. [Weird question.] ‘To tell you the truth,’ Fish said, ‘I borrowed it from Grace’s sister, Peg.’ Niven promptly stalked off following that admission, after shooting Fish a look chilly enough to freeze the equator.”

When David visited Hollywood to compère the Oscars ceremony in April, his snappy put-down of a stage invading streaker made headlines. His long separations from Hjördis however, were no longer mentioned, while a close friendship formed in Hollywood with a young model / actress called Lesley Rowlatt flew right under the radar.

Press mentions of Hjördis were quite rare in 1974. In August, while David was busy filming ‘Paper Tiger’ in Malaysia and going on something of an over 60’s sexual rampage, it was casually reported that instead of accompanying him, Hjördis had taken the girls for a holiday in Sweden.

Rampant promiscuity

Ken and Pauline Annakin, 1975
Ken and Pauline Annakin, 1975

It is pointless to discuss the state of the Nivens’ marriage by this point – it seems to have become a facade, held together by David’s desire for it to continue, and Hjördis’ lack of drive to get up and go. While friends were scandalised at her finding new relationships and whispering on the phone to no-one knows who, they revelled in David’s more up-front [so to speak] antics.

According to Graham Lord, ‘Paper Tiger’ director Ken Annakin, who had never taken to Hjördis, “chuckled to remember David’s rampant promiscuity in Malaysia”. Annakin’s wife Pauline was also proud to reveal: “He had a minor crack at me.” [I wonder if Ken chuckled about that.] “I know he had at least two of the local British wives.”

In 1986 Ken Annakin told Sheridan Morley that: “This was a very tough picture for David to do, a lot of clambering over rocks in Malaysia, and he was already in pain with a bad back.”

In Graham Lord’s Niven biography, which appeared 17 years after Morley’s and six years after Hjördis’ death, Annakin revealed that: “In the last couple of days his back went, and he had to be flown home flat on the floor of the plane. He told Hjördis that I made him climb some mountains and this was the result. Well, we know damned well his back didn’t go because of that because we never made him climb anything much. He spent a lot of time with two Australian air hostesses, twins.”

Hjordis and David Niven, France, 1974
Hjordis and David Niven. France, 1974

Having spent most the previous two years away from home, David must have seen the decline of his marriage, and also of Hjördis. His public reactions revealed sympathy, guilt, and denial.

In November, Australian Woman’s Weekly reported that “being married to him, he admits, is very trying.”

“When a beautiful woman walks into a room she should immediately get the attention that is her prerogative,” he explained. “If she is alongside someone whose face happens to be well-known she can get pushed aside.”

David also mentioned a visit to England the previous month. “She was terribly funny when we were in Leeds for a charity do. The master of ceremonies was saying how grateful they all were to David Niven, who was so busy and had taken time to come all the way to Leeds. She shouted out ‘What about me? I’ve come as well!’ and she was quite right.”

Swiss mishap

After jetting back to Malaysia, and then forward to Bavaria (to finish ‘Paper Tiger’), David joined up with Hjördis in Chateau D’Oex for the sort of chaotic glögg-powered festive season that they specialised in.

“David Niven is alive, well, and looking forward to his Christmas in the Swiss snow at his chalet near Gstaad with comely Swedish wife Hjördis and their children,” The Daily Express reported, before rolling out the chaos. “It might not have been. A flare-up over the stove in the kitchen set the curtains on fire and began to set the wood fittings alight. When Hjördis managed to douse the blaze with buckets of water Niven received an electric shock as he was putting the lights on his Christmas tree in the garden.” Business as usual then.

Next page: When the snows come, 1975

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