The first Rat Pack, 1955

David and Hjördis Niven with the first Rat Pack, 1956
Photographed from the stage at the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas – David and Hjördis Niven with the first Rat Pack, 1955. L-R: Hunphrey Bogart, Sid Luft, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Ellie Graham Goldfarb, Jack Entratter, Mike Romanoff, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Romanoff, David Niven, Hjördis Niven.

I haven’t really mentioned booze yet. Considering that Hjördis’ reputation since her death has revolved around alcoholism; that seems like an oversight. However, chronologically there isn’t really that much to report before 1955. During the early years of her marriage to David Niven there are precious few references to her alcohol consumption beyond attendance at cocktail parties.

April Clavell (the wife of author James Clavell), was friendly with Hjördis from the late 1960s, and told Graham Lord that she believed Hjördis acquired a very bad reputation for “alcoholism” back in her young days in Sweden. That could be entirely due to her 1947 summons for drink driving in Stockholm, reported in the local press at a time when a rattfyllerist could end up with a two month prison sentence.

Apart from that incident it just seems that she was no lightweight party-goer, which was probably a good thing considering her husbands’ social lives.

Hjordis and David Niven in Las Vegas, 1955
Franks Sinatra climbs up to join Judy Garland and Dean Martin on stage at the Sands Hotel, 1955, watched by (among others) David Niven and Jeanne Martin. Hjördis is more interested in the bottle of JB whisky on her table.

The nation’s most publicised non-conformists

Hjordis and David Niven greet Angela Lansbury in Las Vegas, 1955
Hjördis and David Niven greet Angela Lansbury in Las Vegas, June 1955

It’s only the advent of the first, short-lived, Hollywood ‘Rat Pack’ in 1955 that places Hjördis within an upfront drinking culture. She and David were part of a group of friends who jokingly took the ratty title and engaged in such pursuits as celebrating Independence Day on Humphrey Bogart’s yacht (an occasion romanticised by David Niven in his autobiography and rubbished by Richard Burton in his diaries), as well as traveling en masse to occupy the front row seats at Noel Coward’s comeback appearance in Las Vegas on 7th June, and Judy Garland’s show at the Long Beach Auditorium on 11th July.

In May 1956 a Hollywood journalist attempted to dissect the different strata of Hollywood society. The millionaire top level was dubbed ‘The Pioneers’ – the likes of Walt Disney and Sam Goldwyn. The second level were groups of big, established stars such as David Niven and Humphrey Bogart, collectively titled ‘The settled set’:

“On rare occasions, one might toss a sizeable party for visitors like Noel Coward or Laurence Olivier. But, most entertaining is done at small dinner parties. The groups intermingle but there are some clearly defined nuclei. Among them: The whimsical Holmby Hills Rat Pack with Lauren Bacall as den mother; Frank Sinatra, pack-master; Humphrey Bogart, rat in charge of public relations.”

Frank Sinatra chatting with Hjordis Niven, 1955
Frank Sinatra on his yacht, chatting with Hjordis Niven. 1955-56

Lauren Bacall is usually credited with coming up with the Rat Pack name, borrowed from headlines used at the time to describe juvenile gangs preying in Los Angeles. Holmby Hills was where Bacall and Bogart lived – known in 1956 as “the rich section of Beverly Hills”.

It was “America’s most exclusive social group,” according to Mike Romanoff, with tongue firmly in cheek. “It’s the one social group that stresses a capacity for sour mash bourbon over social background. The charter members include some of the nation’s most publicised non-conformists.”

Actually the Rat Pack was just a name for an amorphous group of Hollywood celebrities and friends of the Bogarts, who met at Romanoff’s for lunch whenever possible or convened at the Bogart house in Holmby Hills two or three evenings a week to chat and drink. With the occasional outing thrown in.

Humphrey Bogart with Hjordis Niven, photographed through a telephoto lens at an Oscar night celebration in Romanoff's, 1952.
Humphrey Bogart with Hjordis Niven, photographed through a telephoto lens at an Oscar night celebration in Romanoff’s, 1952.

For the Judy Garland show, the associate producer dropped names like confetti when listing the celebrities who had bought tickets, including the Nivens, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and Frank Sinatra. The group chartered a bus, complete with bar, to liven up their journey. The bus promptly got caught in traffic and took two hours to make the short trip to Long Beach. “The pack was practically siphoned off the bus,” a news feature reported, “and Judy got the whole lot up on stage with her. Once they got on stage they didn’t know how to get off.”

An audio recording of the evening includes the gradual arrival of the merry pack members on stage. (Not an unusual occurrence so it seems). It would be hard to imagine Hjördis willingly joining them up there, and in fact she and David were about the only ones who didn’t. Even Mike Romanoff got up, laughingly introduced by Frank Sinatra as “His Highness, Prince Michael Romanoff.” Twice, to no great reaction. I guess most of the audience didn’t get the joke.

In 1960, Hjördis wrote about the more sedate elements of the Nivens’ social life:

The Holmby Hills Rat Pack, dining at Romanoff's in 1956.
The Holmby Hills Rat Pack, 1955.

“In our group we usually met for Sunday lunches, because most people were busy with film work and rarely had the time or energy to go out and let off steam in the evenings. We usually met half-an-hour beforehand, and took a dip before an exceptionally unconventional lunch, mostly served as a buffet or picnic. After lunch, some wanted to either play tennis, go back to the pool, or just sit and talk in the sun. At about eight o’clock everybody goes home.” [All very mature.]

One regular visitor to The Pink House was Grace Kelly: “She used to come in the morning when she wasn’t filming, and swim in our pool,” Hjördis remembered. “She also used to stay and eat leftovers with me.” Grace also used to spend a lot of time with David.

Trouble brewing

The fall-out depression from Hjördis’ miscarriages seemed to trigger more overt cries for attention from her always-busy other-half. Considering David Niven’s love of work, she really had to go some to get it.

Graham Lord’s ‘Niv’ biography mentions that feigning illness was one of Hjördis’ weapons. “She was a bit of a hypochondriac,” Pat Medina said. “If anything didn’t go to her liking she gave a great performance of being ill and getting better, and I knew they were not always happy.”

Despite rumbles of trouble, the year ended on a high note with a Rat Pack party at Frank Sinatra’s house in Palm Springs. For Hjördis the note was heightened by the knowledge that 1956 would dawn with an unexpected, high-profile acting job which had just landed in her lap…. even more unexpectedly, it came with David’s approval.

Next page: Safe Keeping

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