I want to be free, 1985-1997

Hjordis Genberg
Hjordis Genberg, 1944. Photo: Holmén, Erik / Nordiska museet.  Lo Scoglietto 2017. Photo: Paul Thomas.

On 8th August 1985, Hjördis Niven attended a promotional photo-call at the National Film Theatre in London. Accompanied by Lauren Bacall, she got a first look at a special set of postage stamps due for launch on 8th October in support of British Film Year. Among the well-known faces adorning the stamps was David Niven, smiling brightly out of the 22p edition.

‘They are delightfully elegant,” Hjördis said. “David would be proud to be associated with them.”

Perhaps because of how Sheridan Morley’s revelations in ‘The Other Side Of The Moon’ had torn open her private life in October 1985, Hjördis doesn’t seem to have associated herself with further tributes. Author Charles Francisco managed to interview David Jr and Jamie for his 1986 Niven biography, but had to rely on a 1957 magazine article for words from Hjördis.

Hjördis did however come to David’s defence when required. In October 1987 a UK tabloid newspaper quoted David’s 87-year-old wartime commanding officer Lt Col Hignett as saying that David was a bloodthirsty killer with a fondness for the bayonet. [!] “He was a magnificent soldier but in war the other side, the killer, came out.”

Speaking from Lo Scoglietto, Hjördis responded, “David was not the type of person to do those things. This is a slur on the memory of a fine man.”

On the social

David Niven postage stamp, 1985
David Niven postage stamp, 1985

Hjördis kept David’s Mayfair flat for her London visits, which seem to have been relatively frequent in 1985. On 18th October she was pictured laughing and smiling in the company of interior designer Tessa Kennedy (no relation to JFK) at the charity premiere of ‘Wild Geese II’ in Leicester Square. As an aside, this was the last movie produced by Euan Lloyd, whose previous work had included ‘Paper Tiger’ and ‘The Sea Wolves’ with David.

According to Graham Lord, Hjördis also continued her affair with Andrew Vicari: “For a couple of years, until they had a row and never saw each other again. ‘She was a hell of a nice woman,’ insisted Vicari. ‘We all loved her, and people who didn’t were just jealous. She loved art and painting and bought several of mine.’”

Hjördis doesn’t seem to have stayed in touch with many friends from her days with David, but did make new ones. In 2002 Graham Lord searched some out in London, all of whom remembered her warmly.

“I did find three women who became friends of hers after Niv died and who all said she was very pleasant and not drinking at all.”

One was Jill (Robertson) Hulton, who met Hjördis in 1986, and was married to the Duke of Hamilton from 1988 until leaving for Australia in 1990.

“She was charming. Often I’d stay at Lo Scoglietto for the weekend and she’d always send the car to collect me, and when I left Angus (the Duke) she lent me her flat in Mayfair. She wasn’t drinking at all when I knew her, or if she was it was secretly. She was nice.”

“Another titled lady who met and took to Hjördis after Niv’s death, Lady Christopher Thynn (Antonia Palmer), said, ‘I liked her very much. She was lonely and rather sad and obviously missed David and adored him, but she was charming and very friendly.’ Another of Jill Hamilton’s friends, Roxie Clayton, told me that Hjördis ‘was sweet and spoke fondly about David’.”

The artists Freddie and Fiona Owen also became close friends of Hjördis, through to the end of her life. “We all accepted and loved each other for the trust and companionship we shared together,” Fiona says. “She adored our two children and they thought she was wonderful – they used to spend hours with her in the private sanctuary of her bedroom at Cap Ferrat, chatting and playing. She had a child-like innocence that was delightful and we always felt protective towards her.” Additionally: “She never drank when we stayed with her.”

Home time

Lo Scoglietto for sale, April 1997
Lo Scoglietto for sale, April 1997

By the end of the 1980s, barring the short 1994 resuscitation of the Rainier rumours, Hjördis slipped out of public life and seems to have spent more and more time at Lo Scoglietto and Chateau D’Oex. (Which is fair enough, she turned 70 in November 1989).

Around 1991-92, Christine Lewis had a short spell as her cook / house-keeper at Chateau D’Oex. It was not a happy experience:

“She lived as a virtual recluse, only going into Geneva occasionally to see her doctor. In my opinion she was a very lonely, unhappy lady, who spent hours alone in her bedroom each day. I found it very sad that such a life she must have led had resulted in her current situation.”

“She always spoke about David with great affection and respect,” Jill Hulton told Graham Lord. “She talked about the first wife, and was very upset about the rift between her and the two sons.’”

In ‘The Other Side of The Moon’ Jamie revealed the difficulties he’d encountered with Hjördis in the 1960s after Kristina and Fiona had been adopted: “Some days it got very bad indeed. Other days we’d manage to make a joke of it.” However, interviewed in 1988, he expressed sympathy for his step-mother, regretting her inability to gain equality within the marriage.

Despite that, Graham Lord wrote that the relationship between Hjördis and her stepsons deteriorated. The fact that David had left her money and properties in a trust fund which David Jr and Jamie controlled, can’t have helped. “Because of the trust we had to have a family meeting in Switzerland every year,” Jamie said, “and it became so cantankerous and acrimonious that my wife stopped coming with me.” Some of the acrimony may have concerned the trustees pushing to sell Lo Scoglietto.

Hjördis apparently thought that the boys ‘were out to get her’. In early 1997 they placed Lo Scoglietto on the market, much against her wishes. Even though the house was too big for her to live in on her own, she always said that her heart belonged there. The sale caused her real unhappiness.

The trustees bought her a smaller house in the area – “the only house on Cap Ferrat without a view of the ocean,” David Jr told Graham Lord with a chuckle.

“It was a distressing end to her life,” Fiona Owen says. “She took us to see her new house in the making but her heart wasn’t in it.” Hjördis died before she had to move.

If the spirit of one of the Nivens still visits the house and garden at Lo Scoglietto, I would guess it is likely to be Hjördis. She would also be the one to believe it could happen.

I want to be free

Hjordis Niven in Chateau D'Oex, 1990s
Hjordis Niven watching the annual International Hot Air Balloon Festival, Chateau D’Oex, 1990s

Hjördis passed away in Switzerland on 24th December 1997, after suffering a stroke, two months after the death of her oldest sister, Gerda Margreta. She had turned 78 the previous month. In her last interview, for a local newspaper in mid-December, she spoke proudly about David, as ‘godfather’ of the annual International Hot Air Balloon Festival of Château-d’Oex. (‘The David Niven Cup’ was the long distance competition).

She revealed that David was actually afraid of balloon flight, and only did it on one occasion, when filming ‘Around The World in 80 Days’.

“He didn’t want me to tell anyone… but he was absolutely petrified about climbing into the balloon. While in flight, he kept his eyes fixed on the horizon, and didn’t stop talking. He was a good actor, and I don’t think that anybody noticed. I think the balloon used for the shoot was tied to the ground by ropes!” she recollected with a smile.

Asked how she and David ended up living in Château-d’Oex, Hjördis remembered being told of a rental opportunity in the village. “I did what I would hate to see others do,” she laughed. “I rang the bell of this chalet that I found so pretty, and I asked to visit!”

Hjördis’ last printed words about David concerned his in-between movie visits to Château-d’Oex: “He was very open and very friendly with everyone.”

Despite the warmth of her recollections, Hjördis had already told her daughters that she did not want to be buried alongside David in the village cemetery. “I want to be free,” she told Kristina.

Instead of joining David in the double plot that he had bought in Chateau D’Oex, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered in “the clear green water” of the Mediterranean at Lo Scoglietto.

“According to the wishes of the deceased,” her death-notice ran, “there was no ceremony and her family took leave of her privately.”

The Hjördis we knew and loved

Six years after her death, Graham Lord’s ‘Niv’ biography became a best seller, and completely changed the public perception of Hjördis. It presented her as an ungrateful, cold-hearted, adulterous drunk. David Niven, despite a few grumpy moments, emerged as someone who endured unhappiness in his life (partly caused by Hjördis, the reader is regularly reminded), while remaining an entertaining charmer with a justifiable roving eye. Autobiographies by David’s friends Roger Moore and Robert Wagner reinforced the negative view of Hjördis, and lead to some unpleasant descriptions of her in tabloid newspaper features over the following decade.

Of course, there are two sides to every story. When interviewed by Graham Lord for ‘Niv’, Lauren Bacall’s last words on Hjördis were: “About a year before she died she wanted me to stay at Cap Ferrat, but she was horrible to me those two days, so rude.”

And on the other hand… Fiona Owen recalls: “I remember Hjördis finding Lauren Bacall a difficult guest at Lo Scoglietto – very demanding on her staff!”

The ‘Niv’ book also claims that in her later years Hjördis became suspicious of her daughters. There may have been complications, but Fiona Owen is clear that Hjördis: “always loved them and worried about them.”

As time passes, and David’s friends have said all they have to say about her, I hope that Hjördis can now be viewed in a different light. I didn’t know her, and am sure that she wouldn’t have approved of a lot of what I have written [understatement], so I feel her story should be rounded off by someone who did know her.

Her friend Fiona Owen has sent a touching description, remembering the lady almost twenty years after her passing, which I feel sure Hjördis would have approved of.

“Newspaper gossip never reflected the Hjördis we knew and loved, she was fun and kind and warm, loyal and constant and we miss her still.”

Hjördis Paulina Genberg / Tersmeden / Niven, 1919-1997

As a “hats off to Hjördis Genberg” tribute, here’s a millinery gallery from her supermodel days in Stockholm. As such, it has been more appropriately titled “Hats on to Hjördis“.