A storybook stepmother, 1948

Hjordis and David Niven, January 1948
Hjordis and David Niven, January 1948

During her time in London, Hjördis stayed less than a mile from the registry office, with a Mrs Kathleen Rivers-Kirby, who told the curious UK press that Hjördis was “very beautiful, with a lovely figure, an excellent sense of humour, and is a very sweet person.” These are all recurring descriptions of Hjördis. References to her beauty appeared beside virtually every written mention of her name throughout the rest of the 1940s, and all of the 1950s, 60s , and 70s.

Hjordis Niven, wedding day, 14th January 1948The short notice left the press little time to find out about the bride. The Swedish Embassy in London was approached – and just mentioned that her former husband was a wealthy business man, while London Film Productions, the makers of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, really pushed the information boat out by describing her as “very lovely”.

The Daily Mail went to the trouble of asking in Sweden, and came back with photos from Hjördis’ modelling years, with an explanation that they were taken before the New Look arrived in Scandinavia and news that “for several years, Hjördis has been known as the no.1 mannequin at the fashionable NK stores.”

London’s Evening Standard contented themselves with news of an autograph fail on 15th January:

“A telegraph boy crossed the road in Buckingham Place last night, rang the bell at the house where David Niven was holding his wedding reception – the day after the ceremony.”

“To a manservant who opened the door the boy presented a sheet of paper. It came from the typists looking on from near-by windows. They hoped Mr.Niven and his guests would fill the sheet with autographs.”

“Back it came with one signature – the manservant’s. Apparently he thought he was signing a receipt for the telegram.” The typists were way too subtle, and probably ran out of time to land the signatures that they actually wanted.

News for America

With an upcoming journey to Hollywood, there was a scramble for information in the USA. On the west coat, Warners actress Viveca Lindfors, who had known Hjördis in Sweden, provided gossip columnist Louella Parsons with a gushing description:

“She’s one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen. Her figure is the most perfect of any girl in Sweden, or maybe in the whole world, and she is a very fine and very lovely person.”

Louella was able to find more detail before the happy couple left London: “I did hear some ‘inside’ about the Niven romance. It seems the bride had been previously married to a very rich Swedish businessman, and was practically on her way home to talk over a reconciliation with him when she met David. It was love at first sight.” Not inaccurate.

On the US east coast, fractured snippets of information were stapled together, mentioning that Hjördis was “not unknown” in New York, having recently been based at the Stanhope Hotel while looking for work in the fashion industry. Igor Cassini could have shed more light than most, but with his next marriage only a few days away, and having written a contradictory report two weeks earlier, he kept out of it.

Inga Lindgren in 1947
Model Inga Lindgren in 1947. Igor Cassini’s Swedish flame until he set eyes on Hjördis. She accepted a holiday invitation to Europe with playboy and Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli, expecting Igor to follow. He didn’t.

The marriage was greeted with some cynicism in Sweden, where the motives of Igor Cassini’s last two fashion model conquests – Inga Lindgren and Hjördis – were questioned: “Who is the most beautiful, and who can marry more millionaires before silver hair forces a quiet home life?”

Igor Cassini, in his Cholly Knickerbocker guise, wrote that Inga Lindgren married Alonso Irigoyen, the Argentinian Finance Minister in September 1947. Alonso’s personal finances were reportedly very healthy.

David Niven’s Hollywood friends were caught out by his sudden marriage. He wrote to Rita Hayworth two weeks before, saying: “I’m coming back to Hollywood soon… still a bachelor” – which was true at the time but revealed nothing of his intentions. Based on the detail provided, it seemd that Rita expected to be David’s first date on his return, and admitted to surprise at news of the marriage.

She quickly demonstrated that she could give up her acting career for married life, by moving to France in May 1948 to marry Aly Khan. [Hold on, haven’t we heard that name before? Ah yes, one of Carl Gustaf Tersmeden’s playboy friends]. Rita became aware of his playboy tendencies and divorced him in Reno, 1951, citing “extreme cruelty, entirely mental in nature.” Sounds familiar.

“Rita Hayworth wanted to be the next Mrs. David Niven,” David’s friend Peter Ustinov said. “Rita was a great deal of fun and extremely beautiful – all that glorious red hair. David loved her, but not enough to want her for his wife. I don’t know if he loved Hjördis, but when she became Mrs. David Niven it made him safe from all the others who wanted to be his wife.”

“I think the attraction was almost entirely sexual”, David Jr commented in 1998.

It certainly wasn’t based on stimulating conversation. In early 1948, Modern Screen magazine mentioned that Hjördis spoke ‘an enchanting brand of English’, and quoted David as saying “Oh, I know she sounds good, but she doesn’t make sense, you know.”

David called Sam Goldwyn to say “She’s beautiful, and I’m the luckiest man in the world.” Goldwyn in turn offered to run off copies of David’s movies for Hjordis so that they could become better “acquainted”. Subtle dig?

The penny drops

Hjordis and David Niven on the voyage to New York, January 1948
Hjordis and David Niven on the voyage to New York, January 1948

As well as needing to evade the taxman, David was also on orders from Sam Goldwyn to be back in Hollywood by 2nd February.

With barely any time to take in their new circumstances, the happy couple were driven from London to Southampton on Saturday 17th January 1948 to catch the RMS Queen Elizabeth, bound for New York. Hjördis claimed that it was only then that she woke up to the full reality of her new role:

“When we had driven for a while, David suddenly said, ‘Now let’s go and get the boys’. At first I did not understand what he meant, but then it came to me that he meant his sons David and Jamie. In the general hurry of the wedding he had forgotten to tell me that they would be on the same boat as us and that we had to pick them up.”

“(On the ship), the door of an adjoining cabin burst open. There were David Jr and Jamie jumping around excitedly to greet their Daddy. It had never dawned on me that they would be coming with us; it may sound silly [yes, it does a bit], but until this moment it just hadn’t occurred to me that I was becoming mother to those two motherless young boys. I was so besotted with David that I just wanted to be with him.”

During a particluarly off-hand interview in 1960, Hjördis told a more fantastical version of the story: “The day after my husband and I were married we boarded the Queen Mary, and he introduced me to two little boys. ‘These are my children.’ He hadn’t mentioned them before.” It wasn’t what actually happened, probably more a memory of how it felt at the time. David, being a lover of tall tales, happily added the re-write to his repertoire.

To be fair, it seems that David chose to gamble that all would be well rather than pointing out the situation earlier and risk spoiling the dream. For Hjördis, the penny finally dropped regarding her new married life.

“Right away I started making problems. Would the children resent me? Would I be a storybook stepmother? What would they call me? I was frightened of them. David was trying hard to be the perfect father, but he was apprehensive, too.”

“The first morning on the boat, little David and Jamie came to my bedside. They stared curiously, but favourably on me and were apparently still not really clear on where I belonged in their lives. Jamie picked a flower from my breakfast tray, handed it to me and said: ‘I want to give this to Mummy.’ I dissolved in a rosy glow of love. Jamie in his own little way had broken the ice.” Almost.

Embed from Getty Images

Hjördis and David Niven on board the RMS Queen Elizabeth, January 1948

Rex Harrison and his actress wife Lilli Palmer were on the same Atlantic crossing. On arrival in America, Lilli was grilled by Louella Parsons. “Lilli tells me that Mrs Niven is a darling,” Louella  repeated, “and that David’s two boys called her Mummy at their first meeting.”

January 1948 - David and Hjordis Niven arrive in New York
“David Niven and his bride, the former Mrs Hjordis Tersmeden of Sweden, appear to be concentrating on the ice floes in New York harbor that delayed the docking of their vessel. The couple is en route to Hollywood.”

In her Swedish memoirs Hjördis wrote: “I must now take care to mention that I am unusually lucky in terms of my stepchildren. There are two very delightful boys and we have been well-matched to each other from the very beginning. At first they did not know what to call me, but then Jamie, the youngest, began to say ‘Mummy’ to me and then Little David did the same thing.” That was not to last. “Now they call me, like everyone else does, ‘Nej'”.

“The name ‘Nej’ came about when I was newly married to David and my English was pretty weak.  I used to always say ‘Nej’ [Swedish for ‘no’] instead of ‘No’. Of course, I now say ‘No’ in English, but the name stuck, and I’ve had to accept that it always will.”

Hjördis answered her stepmother doubts by coming up with a simple solution to her new status, which she stuck to rigidly. She decided that she was amenable to be a big sister or a best friend to the boys, but was not going to be their new mother. It was not a decision that she ever felt inclined to change.

“When she arrived she could hardly speak any English, but she was very young – only 28 – and terrific fun to begin with,” David Jnr told the Daily Mail in 2009. “She used to say she never wanted to be a replacement for our mother.”

“I have never thought of myself as a stepmother – or even as a mother,” Hjördis said in 1954. “And I think that’s a good thing. The boys are David’s and we agreed that he should take all decisions concerning them.”

Next page: Niven in Hollywood

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