When the snows come, 1975

1975 - David Niven and his wife, Hjordis
The original 1975 hard-back cover of David Niven’s ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’, and David with Hjordis and their daughters, Lo Scoglietto, September 1975.

During the 1974-75 winter season in Switzerland, Hjördis Niven continued to recede into the background of her own story, while David finished his new book and defended his previous one – now labelled as an autobiography.

“I absolutely refute Evelyn Waugh’s reasoning that you write an autobiography only when you haven’t got a future. That’s nonsense and I say so!” David told Radio Times magazine. Waugh was subsequently described in the book as a “hornet”and as someone who “grabbed the Hollywood gold and departed at high-speed to rail against the place and to denigrate its inhabitants.” David was eager to continue his writing career, and with put-downs of that quality, why not…?

“I write wherever I am. At home in Cap Ferrat or on the sets of my movies. But I doubt I can dredge my memory bank any more. Perhaps I shall try a novel.”

“He had a natural talent; he could write exactly as he spoke,” Jamie Niven later said. “Writing gave him a new life: now he could make one or two movies a year, lecture in the United States, and spend the rest of his time sitting in his beautiful garden penning his novels and reminiscences.”

Another pack of lies

“The gown worn by Hjordis brought a touch of Elizabeth the First to a Royal occasion.” : Associated Newspapers caption

In March 1975, David’s friend Evan Galbraith offered to deliver ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’ to the publishers. Hjördis bade the manuscript farewell by commenting: “That’s another pack of lies.”

In fact it was more like another pack of Hollywood anecdotes. “It’s not that his stories were exactly untrue,” according to Sheridan Morley, “but that the truth in them was often rearranged to lead up to a better punchline. One specialist US  movie magazine ran a contest to spot factual errors in ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’, and the winner scored well over thirty.”

Hjördis is routinely described as “jealous”. Regarding David enjoying a successful second career, that seems fair comment. He had, after all,  stopped her from having even one career during their marriage. That said, the word “jealous” doesn’t seem strong enough to describe her reaction, or any other woman’s for that matter, to her husband’s extra-marital adventures.

In Graham Lord’s “Niv” biography, the artist Andrew Vicari mentioned that: “She told me that he used to fuck around all over the place.”

Sheridan Morley’s biography slipped in that by 1975: “Niven was living, when in London, with the wife of a journalist on The Times and, when in New York, with another married woman of equal discretion and charm; but he was determined that his marriage was not going to end. He was still fond of Hjördis and passionately devoted to their adopted daughters.” The marriage didn’t end, but wasn’t getting any better, no matter how discrete and charming David’s girlfriends were.

David’s primary lifestyle

With ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’ safely handed in and the ski season over, David switched to his primary lifestyle of movies, travel and extracurricular activity. Movie-making was an area that he became more honest about, especially concerning quality and pay.

“I have an expensive lifestyle to maintain,” he told Peter Haining. “My career decisions have not exactly been based on artistic integrity, which accounts for the fact that so many movies I made turned out to be crummy.”

David and Hjordis Niven attending the Royal premiere of ‘Paper Tiger’, May 1975

One of the less crummy ones was ‘Paper Tiger’, which was beginning its promotional trail. On 1st May, David brought Hjördis, I assume very willingly, to the Royal charity premiere at the Odeon Theatre, Leicester Square, London. He did however, skip later premieres in Monte Carlo and Munich, as new projects were rolling in thick and fast.

‘No Deposit, No Return’, a Disney production, required him to jet off to Hollywood in July, with Hjördis and the girls joining him during the school holidays. Hjördis however, suffered a health scare caused by nicotine poisoning and spent the visit in a $500 a day smoke-withdrawal clinic, “learning how to resist the poison sticks.” Not sure if it worked.

The family flew back to London in August, and were parted once again when David stayed on to narrate more wildlife documentaries. Even accepting that Hjördis’ ability to accompany David was affected by the availability of the girls, the distance between the couple was more than just literal. During their short summer under the same roof at Lo Scoglietto, the distance remained. “David used to come over most evenings in St Jean,” Doreen Hawkins told Graham Lord. “He was very unhappy. I said ‘Oh, David, why don’t you go off and have an affair?’ [Little did she know..]. And he just went silent. They were really unhappy for the last few years and Hjördis had a couple of lovers.”

Hjördis was no saint, and it would be incorrect to portray her as the only wronged party in the marriage. That said –  alcohol, medication, frustration and increasing insularity may have made her feel exactly that way.

Bring On The Empty Horses

Hjordis and David Niven lunching at Cap Ferrat, 1971
Hjordis and David Niven lunching at Cap Ferrat, 1971. Photo: Roderick Ebdon

By now, David was also expressing frustration, and responses to questions about his wandering eye were losing some of their usual discretion and charm. A newspaper reader asked gossip columnist Marilyn Beck whether there was any truth in a rumour that David had fallen in love with Sophia Loren during the making of ‘Lady L’ back in 1965.

Ms Beck relayed David’s reply: “Niven confesses he flirts with all his leading ladies, but claims it’s just to refresh memories of bachelor days when he roomed and roamed with Errol Flynn. The actor says about Sophia: ‘It would have been easy to fall in love with her.. she’s an earthy bird with a beautiful bosom. But, off the screen, her husband Carlo Ponti (or an entourage) is always around her.'”

David mentioned in ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’ that Cary Grant had fallen in love with Sophia back in the 1950s, but lost out to Carlo Ponti (whose lawyer managed to extricate him from an existing marriage through the Mexican courts, and then for an encore married him by proxy to Sophia without either of them knowing. Neat trick!). Grant was already married, but still replaced Sophia with a Yugoslav look-a-like called Luba – who had been Ms Loren’s stand-in on the 1958 movie “The Key”.  Nothing shallow there. Luba by the way had previously been involved with Hjördis‘ first husband Carl Tersmeden. Oh what a tangled web they wove.

‘Bring On The Empty Horses’ was released in September 1975 to mixed reviews and massive sales. It stayed at the top of the American best-seller lists for eighteen weeks, and remained among the top twenty sellers for close to a year. In the UK the book occupied a place in the bestseller list for two years.

David was annoyed at some UK reviews, and much happier with those in the US. He obviously missed a particularly cutting piece by New York Times writer Anatole Broyard:

“With all his easy sympathy for the ‘losers’ in Hollywood, Niven does not hesitate to paint an unflattering portrait of a man who had more to lose than most. Here is how he described F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘I spent the greater part of that night with Scott Fitzgerald listening to an outpouring of woe, charm, lost-youth, sadness, boasts, family disasters, fears, hopes, pure babbling, and a lot of coughing.'”

“Fitzgerald was coughing because he was dying of tuberculosis, but Niven was not at the death scene, so he can only say that it was ‘a crashing bore to be pinned against the bar, the recipient of so much self-pity.’ Chances are that Fitzgerald WAS a bore at the time, but one wonders whether, in the endless drinking bouts with Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn, the author did not gratefully endure much more.” [Ouch!]

Considering that David was remembering an event thirty years in the past with such feeling, he may also have been referencing situations closer to home and closer to the present.

White nights

David Niven and family, Switzerland 1977
Fiona, David, Kristina and Hjordis Niven,  1976-77.

By October 1975, David was back in Hollywood again, this time for a satirical whodunnit called ‘Murder by Death’. “Luckily for Columbia they paged him during the fall, when the children are in school,” Dorothy Manners wrote.

“He loved to work, and he had a real horror of being idle,” David’s London agent Dennis Selinger told Sheridan Morley. “Even when things weren’t going too well with his marriage, he always kept that twinkle in his eye which people recognised and liked.”

In the heat of Hollywood, David looked forward to winter in Switzerland. “When the snows come our happiest times are being together. We ski the days away and the wonderful white nights are perfect at our chalet.” He also added: “I’m so flushed with success I’ve decided to write another book.”

The 1975-76 white nights and family time were shaved off at both ends. David visited Australia in November 1975 to promote ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’ and ‘Paper Tiger’, started writing his new book on 3rd January 1976, and then packed his bags for New York.

“I have had a sinister letter from my doctor insisting that I take it more easy,” David wrote to his UK publishers.

Sheridan Morley put David’s hyperactive schedule around this time down to: “…finding in movies an escape from areas of his private life that he really could not or would not face too closely.”

Next page: The moon can be something of a burst balloon, 1976-77

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