Life cover, 1948

Hjordis Niven on the cover of LIFE magazine, May 1948
Hjordis Niven on the cover of LIFE magazine, 17th May 1948

“Quite soon after we arrived, LIFE magazine was doing a feature on ‘The ten most beautiful women in Hollywood’ and they chose me as one of them; I didn’t realise that was supposed to be such a big honour, because I’d often been on the covers of magazines at home in Sweden.”

In fact the feature was “Hollywood wives and daughters”, and featured eight women photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe from “a group of women who, although as handsome as any movie stars, are not in the movies.” Hjördis was one of three with modelling backgrounds, although LIFE ruined their compliment of choosing her for the front cover with their description: “The beautiful woman on the cover is Mrs David Niven.”

The feature was subtitled “Pretty as stars, they live without fanfare” and came within a pat on the bottom of being rather patronising. “These women all live in Hollywood and call the stars by their first names. But only one (Georgianna Young, now Mrs Ricardo Montalban) has ever been in a movie. She once had two minor movie roles. [No mention of ’13 Stolar’ or ‘Sjätte Skottet’ then? Come on Hjördis!] Their simple, tasteful clothes and gracious homes, their hobbies of painting, golfing, and their interest in their children all represent a new kind of Hollywood.” It’s hard to imagine that Hjördis would have been over-enthused about being made a figurehead for such a group. (Though she did like painting and golf..)

The Swedish Daily News took great pride in Hjördis’ achievement, pointing out the extraordinary beauty of girls from the north of the country:

“Just look at Hjördis Genberg, who not long ago sold caramel at the bus station in Ornsköldsvik [she did what?], but now lives in Hollywood and who’s beauty was immortalised this summer on the cover of LIFE magazine. A choice that made millions of American girls green with envy.”

“I don’t know what I had done to deserve this, but I was shocked at the amount of jealousy it provoked,” Hjördis recalled, and gave an example which confirmed her initial reaction to life in Hollywood:

HJordis Niven with Louis Jourdan, June 1948
David and Hjordis Niven at a cocktail party with Louis Jourdan and his wife Berthe, June 1948

“I remember going to a party at which some actor came up to me and said, ‘And what did you have to do to get on the cover of LIFE?’ It was all rather like that.”

The Hollywood press reaction was much more positive: “In a beauty contest I’d back Mrs David Niven against all the glamour girls in Hollywood” gushed one newspaper. There was also a fresh round of speculation about a potential movie career. An exasperated David once again clarified the situation: “She has never acted and never intends to act.”

In Palm Beach, Florida, the reaction was more of surprise and recognition: “Palm Beach wasn’t mentioned [boo hiss!], but the face of last week’s LIFE magazine was once a familiar one around the resort… especially on the sands of the Coral Beach Club… as Mrs Carl Tersmeden.”

There was also the issue of Hjördis’ tentative command of English. David reported in April that his wife’s English was fine, “except when she gets tired, then she just laughs.”

Hjördis Niven posing for Town & Country magazine, for their November 1949 issue.
Hjördis Niven posing for Town & Country magazine, November 1949 issue.

Hjördis also posed for some beautiful fashion photos in the November 1949 edition of Town & Country. The magazine were contacts from her 1947 New York modelling days, so this was no return to her former career in front of the camera. Unfortunately.

English-born gossip columnist Sheilah Graham was quick to press a few buttons after LIFE hit the shelves: “Mrs David Niven will stay off the screen, if she wants to please her husband. And I know she does. Every time I bring up the subject with David, he’s pretty strong about wanting his wife to be a wife only. It must be tough for her though, to refuse so many tempting offers.”

Sheilah appeared to feel a connection with Hjördis, having also left her first husband to seek fortune in America. She was known for being outspoken and relentless in her pursuit of a story, and, unlike Hedda and Louella, was willing to portray David as a controlling husband.

Portrait of a woman

HJordis Niven painting, 1948
HJordis Niven painting, 1948

Despite having already turned down numerous offers, two months later Hjördis was still receiving movie proposals. In ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ David described: “A stampede of producers with offers of contracts. Mercifully, she just laughed and said she was too busy getting to know her husband.”

“Everyone wanted to sign her,” David later recalled / exagerrated. “They all thought she was the greatest thing to hit Hollywood for years. Even David Selznick [again] was among them. The blandishments were electric and they really turned it on for her. But she amazed them all by saying no.”

As an aside, it was also reported that Hjördis received an offer from a greeting card company for one of her paintings. It probably came to nothing:

“I have always been a possessive person. For instance, I won’t give away or sell my paintings. I am so possessive that I don’t even want to sell a reproduction.”

“Since the days when I did fashion drawings for a woman’s magazine in Sweden, I have kept up my interest in art. Now I do paintings, mostly faces of children and women. They are happy faces and usually tell a story. I always paint at night when my imagination is most alive and free to roam. I paint the faces against tremendously rough, uneven, backgrounds and I think a little of myself goes into each one of them.” Her favourite subjects were David Jr and Jamie.

There were other attempts through the years to part Hjördis with her paintings: “A lady wanted twelve canvasses from me for her art salon in Paris, and I couldn’t do it.  It doesn’t sound like a wise decision, but I couldn’t be separated from them. I once gave a painting to a friend and was unhappy about it for several days.” She also gave a painting to her youngest sister…

Hjördis Niven confronted by one of her old paintings, 1950
March 1950. Hjördis confronted by one of her old paintings at her sister’s flat: “Damn, Kerstin, why on earth do you have that horrible old thing on the wall?”

Two examples of Hjördis’ artwork have emerged. First up (above) is a slightly disturbing (and more than slightly crap) painting with a “behind the mask” theme. Most probably that would date it back to her modelling days at the latest. Hopefully it was just conceived and painted after a bad day at the office.

Hjördis saw it hanging in her sister’s flat in 1950, and was photographed viewing it in mock horror. Her reported reaction was: “Damn, Kerstin, why on earth do you have that horrible old thing on the wall?”

Painting of St Pauls Cathedral
Painting (allegedly) by Hjördis Niven, 1949

Painting no.2 is a fairly dire copy of a famous photo of St Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz in 1940. It was later shown off by David on American TV. Chances are it may not be one of hers at all. At least I hope it isn’t. Hey, maybe the colours are amazing.

Hjördis’ interest in painting seems to have waned as David’s increased.

“He paints everything from the garden gate to landscapes,” she later complained. “I went to art school in Sweden and I am supposed to be a rather good artist. After our marriage David gave up golf (he said he would rather follow me around than a small white ball) and bought several books on painting. And now he paints circles around me! It’s rather irritating.”

The Elusive Pimpernel

In the same month that Hjördis appeared on the cover of LIFE, David received unwelcome news that he was once again being loaned out to Alexander Korda for a daft costume movie in England. It would mean being away from Hollywood for five months. As with the year before, David packed up his family along with the boys’ new nanny Evelyn Walne, and unwillingly set off for England. There was no time for Hjördis to listen to further movie or modelling offers. Her nomadic life as an actor’s wife had begun.

Next page: A whirlwind romance, 1948 or take a quick look at a gallery of Hjördis’ magazine cover appearances through the years.

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