At home with Hjördis, 1991-1992

David Niven's chalet
The Nivens’ chalet in Chateau D’Oex, pictured in 2013.

Hjördis’ last few years were spent privately at her homes in Château-d’Oex and Cap Ferrat. In the postscript to Graham Lord’s David Niven biography he mentioned that some time after her recovery in the mid 198os: “She lost her battle with alcoholism and became a heavy drinker again, strange and silent, glaring at people in shops.” He also quoted David’s friend Sue Bongard: “When she went into a village shop she was often drunk and difficult and everybody left.”

Mr Lord’s timeline may not be accurate, with Ms Bongard’s quote perhaps referring to a previous decade.

Hjördis’ cook and housekeeper Christine Lewis has very kindly provided a snapshot of life at the Nivens’ chalet in the early 1990s. It differs from the descriptions reproduced above, but tallies with the memories of Hjördis’ friend Fiona Owen, even though their relationships were very different.

The long lost aunt

“Hjördis Niven was a very complex lady,” Christine says. “I did not know her long, but formed the opinion that she led a very sad and lonely life.”

“It was approximately 1991/1992 when my agency Hyde Park International based in Winchester, Hampshire, contacted me with regard to the position with Mrs Niven as Cook / Housekeeper. I was informed that I would be based in Cap Ferrat, but was initially required to go to Switzerland, as builders were working on the property in France. I gave up my previous position and flat in the UK, expecting a permanent job. I felt so happy and privileged to have been assigned the position.”

“I have worked for many rich people in my life, multi-millionaires, all nice people who treated me like family. Prior to going to Switzerland I had several calls from Mrs Niven, and it was like talking to a long lost aunt! We had been having terrible gales in the UK at the time and she was so concerned for my well-being, which made me believe what a nice caring lady she was. However the reality was somewhat different!”

“After a long tiring journey I had expected to be met on arrival at the village station, but no-one turned up and I had to get a cab to the chalet. Mrs Niven greeted me at the door in curlers and jogging clothes, quite a shock! I was concerned to be told that I was the only staff. She also informed me that she had no intention of moving to Cap Ferrat until the builders had completed their work.”

Life in the chalet

1994, Hjordis Niven in Switzerland
Hjordis photographed in the chalet living room in 1994 during a press visit.

Christine was disappointed at the news of having to spend the late winter / early spring in Château-d’Oex, and describes: “the wind howling down from the mountains and the wooden shutters rattling.” The Dutch couple who bought the chalet after Hjördis’ death told Graham Lord that the house was: “Dark and gloomy, with lots of poky little rooms… The three servants’ rooms at the top were amazingly small. The doors were very cheap plywood – what you’d pack your oranges in – and the furniture very unstylish.”

Christine concurs about her quarters: “My room was very small, cold and basic,” but mentions that: “the main part of the chalet was very comfortable. I remember her phone-book on the coffee table. The names were amazing – the Rainiers, the Aga Khan, etc! There were very few personal pics in the sitting room. I seem to remember a signed photo of Noel Coward on the wall, if my memory is correct.” (Not a surprise – Noel Coward was one of Hjördis’ favourite people from David’s showbiz friends.)

“The kitchen was very basic, poorly equipped, with no mixers or blenders. She wanted fresh veg soup, which I duly made, but had to use a basic sieve to blend it, and she hardly touched it!”

“I am a competent cook, but nothing I prepared was acceptable to her, other than a chocolate mousse I made which she loved! I did not feel she was frail or unwell, just very slim, and hardly ate anything, even though it was all freshly cooked. Her breakfast, taken up to her room on a tray, was camomile tea, a fresh croissant, honey, and chocolate yoghurt. She only ate the middle of the croissant and left the ends.”

“I only had half a day off every week, and left her lunch in the fridge. On one occasion when I returned the kitchen was like a bomb-site. She had attempted to make rösti, so there was congealed potato everywhere.”

“When I was able to clean her room, there were wet towels just dropped on the floor; not a tidy lady! There was an exercise bike in the room, and several pictures of her and David together. I read both of David’s books prior to going to Switzerland, and visited his grave in the cemetery in Château-d’Oex. I was quite surprised to see how plain and ordinary it was. Not what one would expect for such a talented and much-loved and respected man.”

Upstairs, Downstairs

Hjordis Niven in 1994
Hjordis in 1994, as Christine Lewis remembers her, although: “She never wore make-up in the house, and dressed in velour-type track suits.”

The main questions about Christine’s months in the chalet concerned how much she got to know Hjördis, about Hjordis’ health and well-being, and if she managed any social activity.

“Mrs Niven always called me Kristina, her daughter’s name. I never corrected her to say ‘my name is Christine!’ We did not spend any social time together, it was very much an ‘upstairs / downstairs’ arrangement. I spent the evenings alone in my tiny room, either reading, or writing letters.”

“She rarely spoke to me, other than work-associated, so there was no talk about her life. It was a shame, as I have worked for many very wealthy people, all of whom have remained personal friends, so in hindsight Mrs Niven and I could have had more interaction, but she obviously preferred to remain aloof. I did wonder if she was quite shy, as when speaking to her initially on the phone she had been very friendly and talkative.”

“She lived as a virtual recluse, only going into Geneva occasionally to see her doctor. She seemed a very lonely, unhappy lady, who spent hours alone in her bedroom each day. I found it very sad that such a life she must have led had resulted in her current situation.”

Life on the outside

“My only friend was Anastacia, a lovely girl, who was the daughter of Mrs Niven’s one time housekeeper. Each morning she arrived with fresh croissants and English newspapers from the village (Mrs Niven’s English was very good by the way). I think Anastacia realised how lonely I was, and invited me to her home for dinner and to meet her husband and children. We had a lovely evening!”

“I spent my days cleaning, shopping, doing the laundry etc. I remember washing a Chanel scarf which shrank. I was terrified, but Anastacia just laughed and said no problem. Mrs Niven never mentioned it so all was well!”

“Once a week, Anastacia drove Mrs Niven to see her doctor in Geneva. I never saw Mrs Niven drive. I am a trained nurse so concluded by her medication that she had some type of alcohol related problems. She may even have had depression, her meds certainly made me wonder. All the alcohol was locked-up in the basement. She only drank alcohol-free lager, and did not smoke to my knowledge. Sadly she had not aged well. She had been a stunning woman, so maybe that again had caused her pain, we women are vain creatures!”

“She had only one gentleman caller, while she was out visiting her doctor. He brought flowers, but left no message. When she returned she duly arranged them, she preferred to do this, but made no comment as to who he was.”

“She told me one day to prepare the bedrooms as visitors were coming, which I was very pleased about – company at last! I made all of the necessary preparations, but they cancelled at the last minute!”

“Mrs Niven asked me one day to go to the Patisserie to buy an assortment of cakes as she was expecting visitors. It was no surprise to me when they did not arrive. No reason was given. I was told to share the cakes with Anastacia.”

“She never ventured into the village. I did the shopping. No money changed hands, it was just ‘charged’ to Madame Niven. I can speak French, which was useful as few of the locals could speak English!”

Suchard, and goodbye

“The end of my employment was totally unexpected. She told me she intended to go to America to visit her daughter. It was Easter at the time, and she presented me with the most gorgeous Suchard Easter Egg! She mentioned that she had a friend in Switzerland that may need a cook / housekeeper, but I just thought that if she was anything like her, no thank you! I had been so unhappy in my time there, a totally different experience to what I had been led to believe.”

“My only brief respite was when Mrs Niven went off to France for a week to check on the builders’ progress. I was alone, which was quite scary at night, but I had a whole week to myself, and spent quite a long time on the phone home. To be honest I really didn’t care by then!”

“I would like to think that she was not naturally aloof and unfriendly. Giving me the beautiful Easter egg before I left does not portray such a person. I really had no one to give me further info about her manner and lifestyle. Anastacia seemed quite close to her, calling in each day, but there were no other visitors, apart from the gentleman with the flowers.”

“On my return to the UK I contacted my agency to relate the whole story. I made it very clear how difficult she was, and to consider most carefully placing anyone else with her! They revealed that a previous lady they had sent had not stopped! I was understandably very cross, but was told: ‘Well, it looks good on your CV!’”

“Obviously I was not happy that I had to return to the UK, with no job or accommodation, but I was so relieved that my time in her employment had ended! I did return to Château-d’Oex many years later in the spring, to show my partner at the time the area and the house, which seemed to be unoccupied.” (As an aside, one of the roads running past the Nivens’ chalet is now called ‘Chemin David Niven’.)

“In hindsight I feel very sad that she seemed to be, in my opinion, a very troubled and unhappy lady.”

Next page: I want to be free, 1985-1997