Darts and black velvet, 1947

Hjordis Genberg, 1947

Hjördis Niven’s ghost-written autobiographical series for Woman magazine in 1964 presented a version of her meeting with David Niven that neatly wrapped a ribbon around what is a rather [OK then, very] romantic story: a naive young Swedish model on holiday in England is invited onto a film set, and meets the star of the film after accidentally sitting in his chair. They fall in love. They get married shortly afterwards. Bless. Rewind. So, how did she really end up in David Niven’s chair?

A ‘Where’s Hjördis?’ type Swedish press article from 1st December 1947 described her as: “The Swedish star mannequin who went to America to make her fortune as a model and to marry Count Cassini.”

How her career had developed remained out of reach – beyond a photo of her modeling for a Christmas card – but the piece did report that she had left New York and was in France, where she had met up with her former husband, Lieutenant Carl Gustaf Tersmeden.

“At first I was in Paris, and then I went down to the Riviera,” Hjördis later revealed. “There, my path crossed with Carl Gustaf’s. We were both a little older, and had perhaps become a little wiser during our time apart, and decided to give our marriage another chance. We had always been at our happiest on the ‘Symfoni’, and now we agreed to sail together around the coast of Africa.”

“Tersan travelled to Sweden to equip the boat for the journey and I went to England to visit some friends who had been asking me to stay with them.”

London fog

Hjordis Genberg modelling Dior fashions in New York, 1947.
Hjordis Genberg modelling Dior in New York, 1947. This is the same suit that she wore on her wedding day in 1948.

The next stop on Hjördis’ European vacation was London, or at least what she could see of it through the fog. Fog (or smog) was a frequent part of British life, especially during the winter months when the increased smoke from domestic coal fires joined factory pollution and sank back to earth in a blinding, choking haze rather than dispersing into the atmosphere.

Smog on 7th November 1947 (the worst for eighteen months) covered most of England east of a line between from Salisbury Plain to Liverpool. It paralysed transport; three train crashes killed 5 people and left 80 injured, cars and buses were abandoned due to a complete lack of visibility, and two-thirds of flights were grounded at the new London (Heathrow) Airport.

On the day when Hjördis was due to fly from London to Stockholm the smog was back, stretching the length of England from Dover to Carlisle. This time it led to one reported death, and more transport paralysis. In the dreadful visibility one aircraft even taxied into a building at London Airport.

“I was in England for only one week en route from America to Sweden,” Hjördis explained. “In London, I met an old acquaintance from my time in Stockholm, Ture Reuter. He asked if I would like to accompany him to a movie studio where they were just finishing the recording of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. It was a big film in colour, he said, and the main character was David Niven.”

The pieces of the jigsaw slowly fit together. Hjördis’ friend Ture Reuter was a Swedish ship-owner. His film director friend, Anthony Kimmins, was an ex naval-commander who at the time was slogging through ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ at Shepperton. The studio was only eight miles away from Heathrow airport. Good time for a visit.

The queue at Shepperton Studios canteen in late 1947. Vivien Leigh, Alex Korda, David Niven (snigger), Anthony Kimmins and Kieron Moore.
A classic photo – one of my favourites anyway. The queue at Shepperton Studios canteen in late 1947. Vivien Leigh, Alex Korda, David Niven (snigger), Anthony Kimmins and Kieron Moore. Don’t fancy the look of that soup.

“David has a wonderful way of making every woman he talks to feel important and attractive. Among his many virtues he is a fabulous listener. In fact he has cultivated it as an art,” Hjördis told Woman, remembering their first meeting. “That day on the film set it worked right enough. I was charmed, captivated, enslaved by this man. The funny thing was I really didn’t know anything at all about him. I had never actually seen any of his films and had only rather vaguely heard his name.”

“At the end of the filming on the day we first met, he said to me: ‘Have you ever been to an English pub?’ ‘Never’. ‘Let’s go to one then.'”

“He took me, along with my friend and his director, to a little riverside pub. There we played darts, drank pints of beer and then he asked me: ‘Have you ever had Black Velvet?’ which I soon discovered was stout with champagne. And, as young as I was, I was conscious that he was showing off in front of me, just like a young lad with his first girlfriend. I cannot deny that I loved him for it.”

“We had a very nice time, and I remember thinking that it was a long time since I’d had so much fun and laughed so much.”

“When we left he said: ‘You’ve seen a typical English pub, now you must see a typical English club. I’ll pick you up tomorrow.'”

“So, the next day he took me to lunch at Bucks. I don’t remember much about it. I only remember David, so sweet, so gay [old meaning of word!], so charming.”

“That was nearly our last meeting.”

Cocktails, phone-calls and hatred

Hjördis in January 1948. Where did she get that hat?

“He was going away to stay with friends in the country for the weekend, and so was I. He suggested that he should call for me on the Sunday evening and bring me back to town. ‘I’ll ring you first and let you know what time I’ll be along for you.’ he promised.”

“All through the weekend I dreamed about him, but Sunday morning came, Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening and I did not get a telephone call from him. I became frantic.”

“Funnily enough my host and hostess couldn’t stand my woebegone face any longer. In the end I went back to London with some of the other guests. I felt deeply depressed and thought it was shameful of him. At the same time however I was worried, in case something had happened to him.”

“On Monday, I was still waiting to hear from David. But he did not call. I became angry. I knew that nothing serious had happened to him, otherwise it would have been in the newspapers.”

“On Tuesday evening I was at a cocktail party with some of the people with whom I had spent the weekend. A cheery, red-faced man sauntered up to me. ‘Well, have you seen David Niven?’ he asked, giving me a wink.”

“‘What do you mean?’ I demanded, taken aback.”

“‘He rang up on Sunday morning when you were out for a walk. I thought I’d play a joke on him so I told him you’d gone back to London with another chap.'” [I assume that a career in comedy did not follow].

“I left the man without a word, went straight to the phone and rang up David in his hotel suite. Luckily he was in. I was nearly in tears as I told him the story. he didn’t comment but just said: ‘What are you doing now?’ ‘I’m at a cocktail party with a lot of horrible people,’ I told him, ‘I hate them all – every one of them.’ And at the time I really meant every word of it.”

“David said: ‘I’ve got to be on the set at the crack of dawn. Come and have an early dinner with me.'”

At least, that’s her 1964 version. In 1957 she described David’s reply to her phone call rather differently: “He said, in a voice which I like to think was shattered with emotion: ‘I thought you were so awful I wasn’t going to call you ever again’.”

Next page: A marriage proposal

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