Escape to Monte Carlo, 1977-1978

Hjordis and David Niven, 1978
Hjordis and David Niven, 1978

In November 1977, while David Niven was in Egypt filming ‘Death On The Nile’, he heard that his daughter Kristina had been seriously injured in a car accident in Switzerland. Kristina was rushed to hospital in Lausanne, where she remained in a coma for days.

David’s old friend Valerie Youmans (whose husband had been fondled by Hjördis back in 1958) told Graham Lord: “We spoke to them in the lobby of the Beau Rivage Hotel in Lausanne the night after the accident, and he looked drawn, but she was drunk of course.”

Charles Francisco wrote that David did not want to leave the hospital at all, and only did so when “Kristina’s doctor told him that prayer would be more useful than his presence.”

“There were certainly more movies made by David Niven than sermons listened to by David Niven,” David’s friend William Buckley told Francisco. “Yet it was on the closed doors of St Peter’s (in Château-d’Oex) that he threw himself at midnight when his daughter was comatose after that terrible accident.”

Although there’s no mention of Hjördis following suit, she did claim to have received comfort in prayer following her 1952 shooting accident, and 1962 ski crash.

I want to see what I looked like

Hjordis, David and Kristina Niven, Gstaad, 1978
Hjordis, David and Kristina Niven, outside the Olden Hotel, Gstaad, 1978

Kristina eventually began to make slow progress, and despite her full recovery not being completely assured, David returned to complete ‘Death on the Nile’.

“There was something infinitely touching about him,” David’s friend and co-star Peter Ustinov told Sheridan Morley, “because it was just the time of Kristina’s car crash and that worried him terribly and made him for the first time seem very frail. He was always dashing back to see her in hospital and praying she would pull through, and the filming wasn’t altogether easy.”

David, unusually, declared that he wanted to watch his performance in the movie. “I shall see ‘Death on the Nile’ because I want to see what I looked like when I was keeping something that worried me dreadfully a terrible secret.”

William Buckley told Graham Lord that he met up again with David and Hjördis in February 1978. “He looked a lot older, but I didn’t see any change at all in Hjördis: she was very painted up.” Which I suppose shows what wearing make-up can do.

Later the same month, Kristina returned to recuperate in the family chalet, and David felt confident enough to head off for another location shoot, this time on Rhodes for ‘Escape to Athena’ – produced by David Jr.

During filming, David (Sr!) was caught in reflective mood by an American journalist. He displayed both modesty and insecurity about “the rather silly business of acting… At best we’re playing children’s games. We get up in the morning, put on funny clothes. And we get paid for it.”

David didn’t allude to the fruits of his labour, but his interviewer filled in the gaps: “What is not silly about Niven’s work is that it gives him a mansion in the south of France, along with a chalet in Switzerland; so much money he needs a brace of accountants to keep various governments from claiming it in taxes; and fame that assures him of the best table in the best restaurants, anywhere in the world.” It also helped him and Hjördis maintain their long-term friendships with Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco.

Platonic lovers

Princess Grace with David Niven
Princess Grace dancing with David Niven

A lot of books have been written about Grace Kelly, with only a few scratching the surface of her friendship with David Niven – mostly to decide if it ever got physical. From what we’ve seen of Hjördis’ personality, it can be fairly safely assumed that she wasn’t aware of any goings-on.

“Hjördis knew it was never a physical relationship with Grace, and that David believed they would be reunited after death,” a US tabloid [weirdly] wrote, attributing the quote to a friend of David’s. Another friend was recorded as saying: “He loved Hjördis as a woman and a wife, but the feelings he had for Grace were different. It was an amazing bond that lasted half a lifetime, and nobody – Prince Rainier or Hjördis – could understand it.”

David Jr’s feeling was that David and Grace simply enjoyed a long, platonic relationship. “They definitely loved each other and were very, very close to each other,” he told Grace’s biographer Wendy Leigh. He also pointed out the practical and logistical impossibilities of them having a post-1959 affair in Europe.

Homely, perhaps, isn’t how you would think of describing Grace Kelly since she became a princess, but that’s exactly what she’s like as a friend,” Hjördis wrote. “Grace and David talked about old memories (of Hollywood), and Grace enjoyed it a lot.”

“My father was very protective of both Grace and Rainier,” Jamie Niven said. “I don’t think Grace and my father had a love affair while she was married to Prince Rainier.” Which leaves it open that they may have hooked up at some point before Grace married Prince Rainier.

“David told me he had an affair with Grace in Hollywood. He loved her.” David’s friend Sir John Mortimer bluntly told Wendy Leigh.

In his Lo Scoglietto and Château-d’Oex years, David had no trouble in seeing Grace regularly. He was helped by the fact that Hjördis shared his love of the pomp and circumstance of Monégasque royalty, and proudly counted Princess Grace of Monaco as her closest friend. Beyond that, as accomplished actors, David and Grace were well equipped to disguise any stronger feelings that they might have shared. Grace’s old fiancé Oleg Cassini said about her: “She was two people. All actresses are two people.”

“Grace was very friendly with Hjördis Niven,” Bernard Combemale, manager of the Monte Carlo casino, noted. “No one could understand why Grace would bother with her. She was an alcoholic.”

Let her stay in her room

David and Hjordis Niven at Princess Caroline's wedding, July 1978
David and Hjordis Niven at Princess Caroline of Monaco’s wedding, July 1978

“Hjördis had a strong personality but was a borderline alcoholic, led the even-natured Niven a merry dance [it takes two to tango], and in the process alienated many of his closest friends. All except Grace, whom Hjördis considered her best friend,” Wendy Leigh wrote. By 1978, despite keeping up appearances, Grace’s patience with Hjördis had begun to wear thin.

Grace’s friend and biographer Gwen Robyns said that: “Grace wasn’t nice about Hjördis, she wasn’t nice about her at all. She said ‘She’s terrible. She drinks too much.’ I said ‘Look at that wonderful hair.’ Grace said ‘That’s not her hair. That’s a series of wigs.’ Hjördis wasn’t her best friend at all.”

A very sad state of affairs, although it seems that Grace only vented her frustration in private. David Jr later recalled the full span of Hjördis and Grace’s friendship: “At first, Hjördis and Grace were friends and they used to play canasta together, but then Hjördis got tricky. During the difficult years, you didn’t know whether she was going to turn up for lunch or not, and she was so tricky that people would say: ‘Let her stay in her room and not come down.'”

“We called Hjördis ‘Jaundice’,” Sir John Mortimer rather nastily told Wendy Leigh. “David used to take us out of the house to avoid being with her. We were all invited to Roc Agel (Rainer and Grace’s private retreat in the hills overlooking Monaco) but Jaundice didn’t go.” For Hjördis to miss that sort of outing shows just how large her problems had become. While researching this website, I came across regular references to Hjördis socialising with Grace. By coincidence or not, they quickly run dry after 1977-78.

There by the Grace

David Niven in the garden at Lo Scoglietto, 1978
David Niven in the garden at Lo Scoglietto, summer 1978

In June 1978, the Nivens threw a pre-wedding lunch party on home turf for Grace’s daughter Princess Caroline and her playboy fiance Philippe Junot. The event was a supportive gesture for Grace, who was unsure about her daughter’s soon-to-be husband.

On 28th June, the entirely fictional columnist ‘William Hickey’ (probably Nigel Dempster in disguise) reported on the event:

“Among the 56 guests: Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, Princess Caroline and Philippe Junot. Not to mention Rainier’s bewildered looking young son Prince Albert [I don’t know why that’s funny, but it is..]. We all arrived at once in the ocean-side courtyard outside the Niven home, Lo Scoglietto.”

“Pursuing our cars along the twisting Cote d’Azur highway was a cavalcade of motorbike-riding paparazzi photographers. In the excitement, Gregory Peck shunted his Hertz-hired Mercedes into the front of Cary Grant’s car, as guests jumped clear.”

“The sumptuous lunch, in the garden overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean, could not possibly have been nicer. The champagne was the very best Mr Niven could serve.”

“Frank Sinatra looked rather unhappy. I’m afraid to say the most unhappy looking pair were Caroline and Junot.” Caroline apparently felt upstaged by the Hollywood A-listers at what was supposed to be a gathering in her honour. She must have realised that it was really aimed at her mother.

Hjördis may also have felt overshadowed. Leslie Bricusse told Graham Lord: “I was wandering down to the far end of the garden where there was a bronze head of Hjördis, and I heard her say to Cary Grant; ‘So you see, darling, I don’t suppose I shall ever have what I really want.'” What did she really want? To feel on a more equal footing with the other guests perhaps. [It’s hard to make other guesses that don’t involve her using a time machine…] What Cary Grant probably just wanted was to book his car into a garage.

Why muddy the water?

From September 1978 David spent two months in England, filming the mini-series (also edited down to a movie) “A Man Called Intrepid”. While there he was interviewed, in the presence of Hjördis, about his crumbling (or already crumbled) marriage. One thing that David could say with all sincerity, was that he was proud to be part of a long marriage, something he had wanted since meeting Primmie.

However his printed words on the subject come across as evasive – with a bit of denial chucked in: “I don’t look for affairs and never did. If there were flickers or temptations, I always committed somewhere else. I avoided affairs partly because of my Scottish puritanism [ha!] and because I don’t see the point in stirring up trouble when you are happily married. Marriage is difficult enough anyway, so why muddy the water?”

Shifting attention to his wife, the journalist observed: “Hjördis, who was once described by Niven as a ‘mad Swedish lady’, makes no comment about her husband’s assessment.”

Next page: Two words: Mon-ey, 1979

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