According to David Niven’s biographer Graham Lord, Hjördis stayed at Lo Scoglietto in the months following David Niven’s death and “drank herself into a stupor every day, which caused numerous rows with Fiona” (her daughter). Hjördis’ friend Fiona Owen simply says: “The fact that her life fell apart when David died was hardly surprising.”
Many of David’s friends took an unsympathetic view. “I was in London when David died but I couldn’t bear to see Hjördis and pretend I had any affection for her, ” Robert Wagner wrote in ‘Pieces of my Heart’. “I waited until after the funeral and then went to the cemetery and left flowers at David’s grave. After David died, most of his friends simply shut Hjördis out.”
David’s friends may not have needed to avoid Hjördis during two events held in his honour in Chateau-d’Œx : a special paratroop jump to open International Hot Air Balloon Week on 22nd January 1984, and a memorial concert at the Anglican church on the first anniversary of his death.
Rumours of Rainier
At David’s funeral Hjördis had clung on to Prince Rainier’s arm. Barely five months later rumours appeared linking them in another way.
“Aren’t Prince Rainier and Hjördis Niven seeing each other in quiet, out-of-the-way restaurants? Aren’t they planning a quiet wedding in Switzerland?” Ms Donna C of Las Vegas breathlessly [nosily more like] asked an American newspaper in January 1984.
A mini-flood of similar questions was answered with: “Papa Rainier may be heading back to the altar soon. Word is, he and David Niven’s widow, Hjördis, are very, very close.” Word is, the rumour seemed very, very spurious, but it still took a hold.
Variations of the story popped up into June 1984. It then took something of a breather, for ten years, before picking up where it left off.
Second time around, it was sourced in New York. “Yesterday, royal circles in Monaco were abuzz with speculation after a New York newspaper reported that Prince Rainier had proposed,” UK tabloid reporter Ivor Key [made-up name?] wrote on 1st January 1994.
“The Prince has often invited Hjördis to his Monaco palace or stayed at her luxurious chalet [Uh-huh. In which decade?]. A confidant of Rainier broke the news of the proposal while dining at Shin’s Oriental restaurant in Manhattan!” [So, now we know where the confidant was dining.]
The newly resurgent rumour was stamped on quickly and emphatically. “Prince Rainier of Monaco has no plans to marry the widow of David Niven,” Stars & Stripes’ no-nonsense report stated on 6th January:
“‘One wonders how such a completely baseless rumour managed to spread’ said Jacqueline Berti, director of the principality’s press-centre. Prince Rainier noted that he had not seen Hjördis Niven since her husband’s funeral in 1983, Berti added.” Which seems the saddest part of the whole non-episode.
That said, the original Grace & Rainier / David & Hjördis friendship was primarily based on Grace & David’s friendship. Fiona Owen remembers that Hjördis considered the gossip pairing her with Rainier “a ludicrous joke.”
In March 1994, Hjördis described David’s last days at Lo Scoglietto for a journalist, and was asked whether she would consider getting married again. Her answer: “No, never!”
The David Niven legacy
Graham Lord’s ‘Niv’ biography noted that over a year after David’s death, Hjördis “finally admitted that she needed help, and checked into a French clinic for alcoholics.” It seems she was encouraged by the doctor friend she had met at the Wellington hospital back in March 1983.
Her absence from the BBC’s ‘Hollywood Greats’ 1984 television documentary about David, broadcast in the UK on 8th January 1985, was noted by TV critic Maureen Paton, who sharpened her pencil and got dissecting:
“The great raconteur, who died in 1983 was an elusive tale to the last. Justice wasn’t even done to his finest qualities. They were only vaguely sketched by famous friends like Peter Ustinov, who talked sweepingly of the playboy’s profundity and intelligence without going into specifics. It was as if everyone were still too spellbound by the force of the man’s personality to see him clearly.”
“Niven’s second wife Hjördis adopted two girls and from then on cut her stepsons dead. Niven was too busy filming for the boys to take their grievances to him. And neither Hjördis nor the daughters would contribute to the programme, so that chapter remains a mystery. As was the man himself.”
The Other Side Of The Moon
” I heard that Hjördis quit drinking and filled up her time by socialising,” Robert Wagner wrote in his autobiography.
“Hjördis seemed miraculously cured,” according to Graham Lord. “She took up with a gay couple, helped with an AIDS foundation, and was coaxed out for dinners and parties by Andrew Vicari.”
Hjördis’ gentle return to public life in 1985 came during a wave of David Niven books and tributes. For a while she was willing to participate, and agreed to be interviewed by Sheridan Morley for the first David Niven biography, ‘The Other Side Of The Moon’, which sought to look beyond the force of the man’s personality.
Both as a writer and as the son of actor Robert Morley, Sheridan had known David on and off for many years. When the biography was suggested to him in 1983, his first instinct was to run the idea past David Jr: “He wrote back a remarkably enthusiastic go-ahead which included an agreement to talk to me about his father, without any request to see the manuscript before publication.”
In the book’s acknowledgments, dated March 1985, Morley continued: “I have to thank the three other members of David’s family who were all equally generous in their agreement to talk to me, again without any demand for control or even sight of the manuscript: David’s widow Hjördis, his sister Grizel, and his younger son James.” Hjördis for one got more than she bargained for.
Compared to Graham Lord’s 2003 biography ‘Niv’, published six years after Hjördis’ death, ‘The Other Side Of The Moon’ is quite gentle, for the most part, particularly when dealing with David’s second marriage. However, the introductory chapter – ‘1985’ – lets slip somewhat, and is pretty strong stuff compared with what had been written about the Nivens up to that point in time. And, those are the pages that Hjördis probably read first.
Sheridan Morley describes “an often deeply unhappy second marriage,” which is downright stark compared to the rest of the book, as is a statement summing up the conflicts within David’s personality: “Niven was a devoted father and husband who went through the female population of Hollywood like a mechanical digger.” Discussing the content of David’s two autobiographies, Morley recounts a story which (unsurprisingly) was not included in either: about an older David confusing an offer involving the term ‘blow’ (marijuana) with the more familiar ‘blow(job)’ at a party, which lead to him enthusiastically dropping his trousers in front of a screaming actress. And to round it off: “Nor did David ever talk or write about his long and cheering affair during the 1970s when he was living, whenever in London, with the wife of a distinguished investigative journalist on The Times.” Again, hardly a surprise that David didn’t include that story among his published anecdotes.
‘The Other Side of the Moon’ was published in October 1985. Hjördis’ reaction was revealed in December by Larry Fields of the Philadelphia News:
“David Niven’s widow Hjördis is furious at author Sheridan Morley for tattling in his ‘The Other Side of the Moon’ biography that Niven towards the end of his life had a secret mistress in London as well as a secret love in Frump City.” [Frump City = New York? Doesn’t sound like a compliment.] Fields also tacked on that the Hjördis / Rainier rumours were appearing again. Oh, give it a break!
In the same month, Dick Kleiner of NEA quoted Sheridan Morley as saying that all he had heard from Hjördis and Jamie after the book’s publication was “a thunderous silence”.
“He did receive what he calls ‘an icily polite’ note, wishing him well, from David Junior,” Kleiner wrote, “and also ‘a nice letter’ from David’s sister Grizel, saying ‘David is in there.'” Well, it still says something that Grizel liked the book.
Next page: I want to be free, 1985-1997