Recuperating with Grace, 1956

David and Hjördis Niven arrive at the premiere of Around The World in 80 Days
David and Hjördis Niven arrive at the premiere of Around The World in 80 Days

Despite having stood in the way of the starring movie offer that Hjördis had long hoped for, David Niven still had one avenue open to try and keep her happy at home: “David and I often talked it over. He knew how much I wanted a baby and he wanted one too – chiefly, I think, for my sake.”

David Niven cracks up while posing on the Queen Elizabeth prior to sailing from New York. 1956.
David Niven cracks up while posing on the Queen Elizabeth prior to sailing from New York. 1956.

Whatever issues were surfacing in his marriage, David’s full-on schedule continued unabated, with Hjördis tailing along. By 20th January, weeks before the broadcast of ‘Safe Keeping’, plans were already under way for the Nivens to travel to England for David to star in ‘The Silken Affair’, a movie produced by his old Hollywood neighbour Douglas Fairbanks Jr. A tour of Sweden, Germany, Austria, Greece and Yugoslavia was set to follow, along with two Four Star productions to be made in Italy.

“I’m pretty tired after a stretch of 61 days of unbroken work before the camera on ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’,” David said. “Then I had to make six Four Star  TV films since the first of the year. Hjördis and I think we’d like to do a bit of travelling this year.”

When they began their travels, Hjördis’ spirits seemed high, going by a sighting of them in the Chicago Pump Room restaurant on 21st February: “The most dazzling couple I’ve lamped in a long time,” gushed a Chicago Tribune correspondent, “David Niven and his gorgeous frau Hjördis, Pump Rooming it en route to London. He with a coppery sun tan, she with a flaming red fur coat and flowing tresses. Wow!”

A hat for morale

Hjordis and David Niven, London 1956
Hjordis and David Niven, London 1956

Hjördis and David arrived in Southampton on 8th March 1956, and visited Monte Carlo on 18th April to attend the wedding of their friends Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier. Sadly, just one week later, Graham Lord wrote that Hjördis suffered yet another catastrophic miscarriage with complications that lead to over six weeks in hospital. In early May, Louella Parsons reported:

“David Niven writes me that his beautiful wife Hjördis is recuperating from major surgery but still has to spend two more weeks in bed. ‘By that time I’ll be finished with ‘The Silken Affair’ and we’ll take a leisurely motor trip through Scotland.'”

Hjördis’ physical recovery, however, was not straightforward, and plans were constantly being altered. By 11th May she was out of hospital and planning to recuperate with her family in Sweden. Instead, on 18th May, the couple flew back to Hollywood.

When the Nivens arrived at Heathrow airport they ran slap-bang into a British Pathe camera team. Probably not the best moment. Hjördis understandably wished to hurry David along, but seemed mollified by being chosen to speak a few words to the news-reel interviewer. Questioned about her white organza hat, she said it had been specially made to boost her morale.

Morale cannot have been helped by David announcing that he was leaving for England again on 28th June, for yet another movie.

Hjordis Niven, London Airport, May 1956.
Hjördis Niven, London Airport, 18th May 1956. British Pathe

“Niven says he never worked harder than in England on this last trip,” a Hollywood news report said on 5th June. “The health of his wife, Hjördis, or the lack of it, altered plans for a jaunt around Europe while waiting for production to start on ‘The Little Hut’ *. She’ll remain at home here until she’s able to travel and join David in Rome or London.”

Two days later she was back in hospital, still suffering the effects of the surgery in London. By 22nd June she was well enough to go out for dinner on Sunset Boulevard, with David, Lauren Bacall, and Humphrey Bogart. Neither Hjördis nor Bogey had been out and about for some time due to health problems. Bogart was in fact suffering from terminal throat cancer.

In between courses, David laid out their latest plans: “Hjördis will recuperate on a yacht with Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier. She’ll then fly to Rome to meet me. We’ll go from Rome to visit her family in Stockholm.”

* ‘The Little Hut’ starred Ava Gardner, one of the biggest stars of the 1950s. Roger Moore wrote that: “A decade earlier, Louis B Meyer himself signed Ava, reportedly saying, ‘She can’t act. She can’t talk. She’s terrific!'”

Blonde on a yacht

It’s a measure of Hjördis’ friendship with Grace that she was invited along on what was the newlyweds’ second honeymoon. On 2nd August, she was sufficiently recovered to set off from Hollywood to meet up with the royal couple for a Mediterranean cruise on board the Deo Juvante II – a wedding present from Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Around the same time, news was released that Grace was due to become a mother in February 1957, which must have been difficult for Hjördis, despite her friend’s kindness.

“I’m going to meet Grace and the Prince at their villa near Nice,” Hjördis said on her departure from Los Angeles, “and then we embark on the cruise. I believe our destination is Corsica, but I’m not sure. It’s possible David will complete the film in time to join us there. If not, I’ll meet him in Rome after we get back.”

In an attempt to raise Hjördis’ spirits Grace suggested a radical change of appearance. Hedda Hopper’s typewriter was soon vigorously clicking:

“Mrs David Niven’s friends won’t recognise her since she’s gone blonde. Hjördis went cruising with Princess Grace and Prince Rainier to Corsica. The prince spent most of his time diving. The girls bobbed about on top of the water. Grace suggested Hjördis would look well as a blonde so they mixed up a witches brew and went to work. When she met David in Rome he nearly had a seizure.”

“Hair styles? Change and variety I love,” David said in 1960.  “My wife experiments constantly, and I’m always about two styles behind. I’ve just got used to the one before the last. Actually I talk bravely about experiment and change, but the day my wife walked in a platinum blonde my knees buckled. She’d been staying in a yacht with Princess Grace off Corsica and they’d nothing to do, so Grace bleached Hjördis’ hair for her.”

Perhaps after noting the restorative effect of Hjördis’ boating trip,  David had another of his spur of the moment ideas, this time to buy a 65ft yacht in the south of France. “It was a nice idea while it lasted,” he later said, “but we wouldn’t get enough use out of it.” A second idea, to spend part of each year living in Monaco, or nearby (at the request of Princess Grace, who was already tiring of royal protocol), would have to wait another three years.

Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, David Niven and Hjördis Niven, at the premiere of Around The World in 80 Days, New York, 16th October 1956
Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, David Niven and Hjördis Niven, at the premiere of Around The World in 80 Days, New York, 16th October 1956

The second part of Hjördis’ recuperation was the long-planned motoring holiday through central Europe, ending in Stockholm. David kept Hedda Hopper sweet with a postcard-type description: “The cleanest city in the world” he said about Stockholm. “They are totally unimpressed by movie people. We expected some glamour in Vienna. We couldn’t get into a hotel there; so stopped at a little resort just outside. Took mud baths and drank health water. Our next jaunt will be to New York on 16th October, for the opening of ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ with Mike Todd.”

Hjordis and David chat at a cocktail party, November 1956
Hjordis and David chat at a cocktail party, November 1956

‘Around the World….’ opened to rave reviews and took David’s standing to a whole new level. Despite that, he continued to take any work which was going, and followed his huge success with a succession of unremarkable movies. One was ‘Oh Men! Oh Women!’ in late 1956. The title’s enough to put you off.

Actor Tony Randall was making his movie debut and later recalled conversations on set with David: “When he talked about having girlfriends he said ‘It’s absolutely necessary, old boy, absolutely necessary.’ He meant you get bored with your wife and you have to do something to re-awaken your libido, and he had the soul of a playboy.”

David’s reputation preceded him. In 1957’s ‘Separate Tables’, 23 year-old Priscilla Morgan played the part of a waitress. She was befriended by David, who invited her and other English cast members to visit The Pink House, although he did not try to seduce her.  “Everyone said that he would,” she told Graham Lord. Oddly, considering that she must have met Hjördis, she added: “When I met David years later he said, ‘Oh Christ, I didn’t half fancy you!’ and I said, ‘Well, you should have said something.'”

“I’ve always liked women,” David stated, “and some have liked me. The danger of being an actor is that actresses tend to be more seductive than traffic wardens. But I’ve always dodged the entanglements. One wife is worth more than a hundred starlets.”

The silken affair

In their wealthy circles, the risk of Hjördis finding out about David’s extra-curricular activity was never far away, but did not cramp his style. While filming ‘The Silken Affair’ in England, and while Hjördis was either still pregnant or suffering from the aftermath of her miscarriage, he took the opportunity to try to  seduce a nineteen year-old model and aspiring actress, Shirley Anne Field. Ms Field was one of a group of “special girls” used to add something easy-on-the-eye to movies, and was playing a small role as a French maid. In her autobiography ‘A Time for Love’, she wrote:

“I was getting up at dawn to catch the bus to work and returning at six in the evening, if I was lucky. It was a long day and, when the window rolled down on a passing Rolls-Royce and the distinguished man inside offered me a lift, it was hard to say no. Mr Niven laughed when I said I was worried people might talk.”

“‘I’m sorry my dear, I would dream of besmirching your reputation,’ he said. Later that week, when it was pouring with rain, the Rolls-Royce pulled up again. ‘How do you feel about besmirching your reputation tonight, my dear?’ Well, it was raining, so I laughed and got in.”

“I continued to get lifts from him most days after that. A few weeks later a parcel with my name on it arrived on the set. Inside was a beautiful lace blouse with a card from David Niven: ‘I hope this won’t ruin your reputation any further’, it read.” [Hmmmm…]

“I thanked him and, as I walked away, he said: ‘One night, when you haven’t an early call, would you care for a well-behaved dinner with me?'”

“A few nights later I went to dinner with him at Les Ambassadeurs, a very expensive, exclusive club. Now I knew why he had been so sweet and given me the blouse. Everybody was beautifully dressed and it was the only thing I possessed that was right.”[Bless…]

Artwork from the US back cover of David Niven's semi-autobiographical novel "Once Over Lightly". Late 1950s reprint
Artwork from the US back cover of David Niven’s semi-autobiographical novel “Once Over Lightly”. Late 1950s reprint

Graham Lord wrote that David’s “seduction technique was cruelly interrupted by the drunken arrival of Errol Flynn, who tried to flirt with her himself.” Errol Flynn was by this stage hanging out with Carl Gustaf Tersmeden’s playboy crowd.

David’s game-plan was perhaps only temporarily paused. Ms Field’s tale veers off on a tangent about Errol Flynn, but she seemed appreciative of David’s gentle approach. Compared to David, some of her other experiences with older men were a lot less seemly. David Niven’s old director friend Otto Preminger for one flew into a rage with her, threw furniture, struck her face and drew blood, and still hoped to sleep with her.

Reflecting on her miscarriages, Hjördis said: “I felt that if I had a baby of my own it would bring us all closer together. David is the most kind and considerate man in the world and he showed it most after my many disappointments.”

Next page: Bonjour Tristesse : Hello Sadness

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