The moon can be something of a burst balloon, 1976-1977

Hjördis and David Niven, 1977

David Niven only made one movie in 1976, a Disney production called ‘Candleshoe’, filmed in the San Fernando Valley and Stratford-upon-Avon. Not that he was obeying his doctor’s orders to take things easy – during the shoot he also tried to get his new novel under way. “I’ve lost complete control of the characters,” he despaired. “It’s like lunatics running the asylum.”

Miss Rhodesia is in London

David also appeared to be making a serious attempt to smooth out his marriage, albeit without directly addressing Hjördis’ alcohol problems, and without dropping his extra-marital adventures.

“I can’t have dinner with you tonight,” David informed his friend Leslie Bricusse, “Miss Rhodesia is in London.” Hjördis was by now showing her darker side to David’s friends. Even accepting that she had personal issues, it’s not hard to see how she came to view them with suspicion and bitterness, and why she would phone to check up when David said he was dining with them.

David meanwhile remained outwardly upbeat. While filming, he sent news of his family to Hollywood columnist Dorothy Manners*: “Hjördis is beautiful, and the girls speak in some kind of slang when they want to cut us out of their conversations.”

*Dorothy Manners took over Louella Parsons’ column in 1965 at the age of 62, after 30 years as Louella’s assistant. A very patient lady.

Get me David Niven

When ‘Candleshoe’ was finished in late October 1976, David shoehorned in a flying visit to Lo Scoglietto, and then shot off to New York for more book promotion.

Although his film work was reduced, it was now by choice. “I can put it this way,” David explained to George Feifer. “Scripts with a David Niven type often come my way. To be fair, I play them as well as anybody. And it has been incredible that I’ve survived quite this long in a rapidly declining business.”

In James Garner’s fame-hating autobiography, he listed the four stages of an actor’s career. Applied to David they don’t get past number two:

1/ Who is David Niven?
2/ Get me David Niven.
3/ Get me a David Niven type. [But not David Niven himself]
4/ Who is David Niven?

Building bridges

With Fiona and Kristina packed off to Le Rosey in Gstaad (described in 2015 as “the most expensive boarding school in the world”), David and Hjördis could spend more time together, both home and away. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, his bridge-building was no great success. Frustration, fuelled by alcohol, exerted an increasing control role over Hjördis’ life.

When in Chateau D’Oex, the Nivens frequented the Olden Hotel in Gstaad (David more than Hjördis), although not usually at the same time. David was remembered there for his affable and long-suffering disposition, Hjördis, sadly, for her alcohol consumption and raucous behaviour.

In early January 1977, a UK newspaper reported the lack of joy in David’s winter season. “With his wife ill at home, and his teenage daughters romancing on the floor of a Gstaad disco the other night, David Niven, watching from a table, looked uncharacteristically glum. Clearly at 66, the moon can be something of a burst balloon.”

Music for the bored or angry

Hjordis and David Niven, early 1977
Hjördis and David Niven, early 1977

In February, David again cut short his skiing season. With apparent reluctance, he returned to England for yet more book promotion – this time the paperback edition of ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’.

During the tour he recorded ‘Desert Island Discs’ for BBC Radio. The show asked celebrities to choose ten pieces of music which they would take if stranded alone on a desert island.

David’s choices showed him as more of a family man than a music lover. Most of his selections were other people’s favourites. He chose three gentle disco / funk records to remind him of life at home with his daughters, and (hilariously) a bombastic version of Verdi’s ‘Celeste Aida’ to remind him of fractious times at home with Hjördis:

“This is an aria from Aida with (Jussi) Björling the great Swedish tenor, and this is a great favourite of mine because my wife is Swedish, and she adored this man and adored this particular piece of music. When she got bored with me, or angry with me, she used to put this on, when we were living in California… full blast…… but…. I love her very much…… This is a favourite piece.” [Ear plugs in..]

Saved by little gifts

In March 1977, the lightweight UK celeb magazine ‘Weekend’ printed an article where David revealed his efforts to please Hjördis, which in light of their real-life problems seems quite tragic. The title was ‘Gifts that saved David Niven’s marriage’, although ‘Gifts that David Niven hopes will save his marriage’ might have been more apt:

“The veteran star is constantly giving his Swedish wife little gifts. He’ll tuck some jewellery under a pillow or arrange for a bouquet of flowers to be delivered to her breakfast table. Sometimes Niven will tuck a locket in his pocket and pretend to find it accidentally when he and his wife are together again.”

“Just giving pays me back a hundredfold,” David was quoted as saying. Hjördis’ quote seems even more off-centre: “It’s been the basis for our staying so much in love.”

At least they could agree that they didn’t want to reveal too much. Or anything.

It’s therefore hard to imagine that the release of Igor Cassini’s 1977 autobiography ‘I’d do it All Over Again‘ would have been welcomed by Hjördis. In particular, an intimation that Hjördis used her early days with David to try and lever Igor into divorcing his wife and committing to her instead. (Chronologically inaccurate by the way – Igor’s wife divorced him in September 1947 – three months before Hjördis even met David). Aided by promotional interviews with Igor, American newspaper readers asked questions that were syndicated all over the country.

Q: “Hjördis Greenberg [Greenberg??] Tersmeden Niven, who has been married to actor David Niven for all these years – was she ever married to the late Joseph P Kennedy or to Igor Cassini?”

A:  “In the middle 1940s she was friendly with both men, more friendly with Cassini than with the elder Kennedy.”

Perhaps no harm done, though the release of Kitty Kelley’s ‘Jackie Oh!’ in October 1978, with its Hjördis / son of Joseph P Kennedy revelation may have been a lot more awkward.

Anyway, let’s go tangential. As Igor Cassini and Louella Parsons have been name-checked on this page, here’s an extract from Igor’s book, which mentions Louella in retirement:

“Friends were concerned because she no longer went out, and feeling that she must, arranged to take her to an opening. The apocryphal sequence begins with Louella dressing while her nurse runs down to get her a hooker to give her needed strength. [A what?? Ahhh – 1920s-40s slang for ‘a measurement of alcohol without definite amounts’… I assume!] One friend arrived early, and before the nurse can get to the door, Louella answered the bell, stark naked except her red shoes and a matching bag. The nurse got her dressed, whereupon she excused herself to go to the john. Ten minutes later, out she came: ‘That’s the dullest movie I’ve seen in years. I’m tired and I want to go to bed.'”

Two score jet setters on a train

Kristina, David and Hjördis Niven, 1977
Kristina, David and Hjördis Niven, 3rd July  1977

While based at Lo Scoglietto, Hjördis could still be tempted out by her friend Princess Grace, more often than not adorned with her now trademark sunglasses which seemed to grow larger with every passing year.

In late May she joined Grace at the nearby Cannes Film Festival, and in October joined her and “two score other jet setters” [was this penned by somebody from the 17th century?…] for a 40 minute, 15 mile symbolic last run of the Orient Express from Nice to Monte Carlo.

Meanwhile, David’s restless itinerary continued unabated. In June he scooted off to London to record ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ as an audio book, and was “very handsomely paid” for advertising Maxwell House coffee and American travellers’ cheques. Finally, in July, David was escorted [dragged?] through London Heathrow by Hjördis and Kristina : “before leaving for a month’s holiday in Nice”, as in going home.

Something difficult

David Niven at Lo Scoglietto, 1977
David Niven at Lo Scoglietto, 1977

At Lo Scoglietto, David was visited by George Feifer from the UK’s  ‘Sunday Telegraph magazine’. Feifer pre-empted the expected Niven charm offensive by speaking to the couple’s friends and neighbours:

“Niven’s neighbours, both at the Cote d’Azur villa and at his splendid chalet near Gstaad say he rarely leaves his home for parties. But when he does make an appearance, he ‘seems to have a compulsion to cheer everyone up – especially the wallflowers and the depressed.'”

Despite Feifer’s wariness, and his appraisal of Lo Scoglietto as sterile, and unlived in (because it hadn’t been lived in for much of the year?), he was quickly won over by David’s eagerness to be viewed in a positive light. Hjördis was not there, having departed to help Kristina prepare for attending a wedding in Switzerland. Therefore, she could only be described using snippets of gossip from peers, and by ear-wigging into a phone-call between her and David:

“Jet Set women who admire her beauty also suggest there is something difficult about her: she is rumoured to have moods that are almost as hard on Niven as herself. When she calls, they converse mainly about the preparation for the elder daughter’s wedding appearance.  Although the parents obviously take the venture very seriously, Niven’s voice is full of ‘public’ bonhomie, as if they were a sprightly pair in a romantic comedy of Hollywood’s 1940s. ‘That’s absolutely divine darling. I do hope Kristina will be all right…'”

David Niven at Lo Scoglietto, 1977
David Niven at Lo Scoglietto, 1977

David was due to join Hjördis and Kristina the next day: “He will bring a black dress and rope of pearls (which used to be his mother’s) from his wife’s safe.”

All very cozy, except that David and Hjördis were not a sprightly pair in a 1940s romantic comedy. As the year progressed, David was apparently thinking of calling time on their marriage, in favour of a 35 year-old woman known to Jamie and his wife Fernanda. Both told Graham Lord that they were keen for David to take the jump.

The break did not happen. In November, while filming “Death On The Nile” in Egypt, any plans that David may have had for a new life were suddenly halted by news of a car crash in Switzerland involving his daughter Kristina.

Next page: Escape to Monte Carlo

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