May I introduce… Mrs David Niven, 1948

Hjordis Niven in Pacific Palisades, 1948
Hjordis Niven in Pacific Palisades, 1948

“There was no time for us to have a honeymoon on our own together,” Hjördis later recalled. “David had to go straight into a film as soon as we got to Hollywood. I was thrown headlong into the hurly-burly of his life. The social life was something else altogether, and not easy to handle at first.”

“When we arrived in Hollywood we received a lot of ‘welcome’ invitations. Even the biggest stars were curious to see the girl David had caught while filming in England. David’s head, Samuel Goldwyn, had a party for us and so did Ronald Colman – undoubtedly the grand old man of the English Hollywood colony – Gene Tierney and many others.”

One of Hjördis’ first social outings was at the exclusive Mocambo night-club on 8th February, where she had an unwanted ringside seat to witness Gene Tierney’s recently returned husband (Oleg Cassini, brother of Hjördis’ ex) flooring bandleader Xavier Cugat after being accused of chatting up Cugat’s wife. Not the most relaxing night out.

According to Igor Cassini, ‘I’ll wipe the floor with you’ was one of Oleg’s favourite nightclub expressions. Just because he designed women’s clothes, he wasn’t about to stand for anyone taking him to be a lightweight. Lightweight boxer was more apt: “My brother and I mistook ourselves for Dead-eye Dick and Mexican Pete more times than I care to recall,” Igor remembered.

An excuse for a party

“At first I did not take to the bustling artificial Hollywood life,” Hjördis recalled, “It wasn’t anything I was used to.”

“You’d see a face across a crowded room that you thought you knew because you’d seen a photograph somewhere, and you’d go over and say hello and they’d look at you as if you were a beetle that had just crawled out from under their shoe.”

In ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’, David Niven’s lid-lifting book on Hollywood, there is a chapter dedicated to the bustling artificial social life.

“There was always an excuse for a party in Hollywood. Income tax was low, salaries were high, and if a few of those entertained could be deemed ‘helpful to the career’, the cost of the binge could be deducted from tax. An essential was to invite a few press photographers to record on film the presence of the ‘useful’ ones.”

“Hollywood, conscious always of its public image, indulged in a token purity at the beginning of most parties, and while the photographers were snapping away, glasses and bottles were kept out of sight and husband and wives sat close and smiled fondly at each other. Once the Press had departed, freedom of movement, speech and behaviour was restored.”

Looking back from 1950, Hjördis said:  “Though I’ve lived in Hollywood for two years, I can never stop wondering how wonderfully well-groomed the female stars are in private. Every hair is always perfect, and the shades of lipstick and powder are always exactly right. Even though I’ve been in the mannequin profession, where I worked with such things all the time, I almost felt like a beginner in comparison to these actresses.”

Oleg Cassini’s experience as a Hollywood husband, and European outsider (at keast that’s how the Hollywood gossip columnists were keen to portray him), put him in a similar position to appraise the Hollywood community.

“There was no getting past the facade,” he wrote in his autobiography. “This, I found, was often the case with stars. Their ‘personalities’ were little more than a carefully selected assemblage of mannerisms, easily identifiable, easily marketed. Beneath these glorious images and carefully rigged personalities, most were very much the same: workaholics, frantically concerned with their weight, their hair, their lines, and the silent enemy: age. So much was at stake. They didn’t have much room for fun, or compassion, or anything complicated that did not pertain to their careers.”

“On the other hand, the atmosphere was highly charged sexually, and there were constant romances. These were the results of the concentration of a select group of people who had looks, money, fame, and leisure, living in a small area.”

“Friendship among stars was a curious phenomenon. Gene had no friends who might be considered competitors, and this was quite typical. She could be friendly with older women, and men, but no-one her own age really. This was true among male stars as well. The big ones expected to be treated like royalty; each was a sun, with various dimmer satellites swirling about him. For a time I sought to become friendly with Errol Flynn – we played tennis together, his natural dash and flamboyance appealed to me – but it wasn’t possible. Like most big stars, Flynn expected deference from his friends. His circle included lesser stars like Bruce Cabot and David Niven, none of whom questioned his suzerainty.”

Many years later David admitted: “Errol Flynn was a great chum. You always knew where you stood with him. He would always let you down. He really was a shit. It didn’t matter at all once you knew that. You must love people with their faults.”

May I introduce…. Mrs David Niven

David and Hjördis Niven, Hollywood, March 1948
David and Hjördis Niven, Hollywood, March 1948

In addition to being dropped into the shallow world of the Hollywood social scene, there was also the matter of Hjördis losing her identity, which would rankle for the rest of her life. As she explained to Sheridan Morley:

“When we got to Hollywood, I found I just didn’t understand the mentality. At parties I was always introduced as ‘Mrs David Niven’, whereas in Sweden I had always been known by my own name.”

During her first marriage there had actually been some debate in Sweden on how to name-check Hjördis and her equally well-known husband. One exasperated journalist in 1947 threw his hands up: “Hjördis Genberg with her husband, or Mr. Tersmeden with his wife, whichever you prefer…”.

It was a situation that also rankled with Oleg Cassini, after being black-balled by the Hollywood studios for having dared to marry Gene Tierney:

“I had to do something soon or life would pass me by. I certainly had no intention of merely being Mr Gene Tierney. Sometimes, when I was out and about in Hollywood I would hear people saying: ‘Look, there goes Gene Tierney’s husband.’ I hated it.”

Model suggestions

Hjordis and David Niven, Hollywood, early1948
Hjördis and David Niven, Hollywood, early 1948. From news feature “Stars and their new brides”.

Once Hjördis had met David’s Hollywood friends, he promised to visit Sweden the following summer to meet her friends and relatives. In the end Hjördis’ grand return didn’t happen until 1950. By that time any fall-out from her Igor Cassini fiasco was long-since replaced by interest in her marriage to a film-star.

“It’s so wonderful to see David Niven so happy again,” Louella Parsons wrote on 2nd February. “The new Mrs Niven is tall, fair, and so beautiful, but David says he wants a normal home life and that his wife is not interested in making pictures.”

“As David’s wife I was an object of attention,” Hjördis later said of her early days in Hollywood.

The initial press attention centred on whether Hjördis was planning a movie career. Before running up the steps of Kensington Registry Office in January, she was reported as being on the verge of signing a movie contract with David O. Selznick. In late February she finally turned the offer down. However, that wasn’t the end of it, it was just the beginning.

In Sweden, reports went so far as to say that negotiations were under way for her to receive both a contract and a movie role: “Competition is sharp for the Swede, who has benefited greatly from Sweden’s reputation in Hollywood.”

“Two major studios are offering screen tests to the new Mrs David Niven – a real beauty,” Jimmie Fiddler wrote on 29th February.

Three decades later in ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’, David referred to Fiddler as “a particularly nauseating gossip columnist”, and related a story where Errol Flynn flattened him in a restaurant with one punch, before receiving a retaliatory fork in the ear from Mrs Fiddler. Anyway, that’s enough violence. Sorry.

On 18th March, Hjördis joined fellow Swede Viveca Lindfors for lunch on the Warners lot, her first visit to a film studio since meeting David. The visit lead to an immediate fast-track movie offer.

An LA newspaper reported that Hjördis “declined a film break, despite the fact the bid came from so able a director as Delmer Daves. Hjördis was visiting her husband on the set of ‘A Kiss In The Dark’ just when Jane Wyman was being photographed as a model, and during the course of conversation with Daves gave some good technical suggestions because of having been a model in Europe herself. Struck by her beauty, Daves asked her if she wanted to take part in the scenes, but she said, ‘Thank you, no.'”

A second visit two weeks later also drew an offer. On this occasion Hjördis stood quietly on the sidelines, but to no avail. When studio boss Jack Warner arrived for one of his periodic check-ups she was spotted, and, unaware of her identity, Warner suggested a screen test. Hjördis’ response (probably embellished by David, who related the story), was: “I prefer to be a housewife and let my husband do the acting.”

If Hjördis was trying to suppress any movie ambitions, this was not helping.

She’s got a big enough job...

Talk of housewife Hjördis in the movies had to be repeatedly stepped on by David: “She’s got a big enough job getting used to her ready-made family…” But not stepped on hard enough. Hedda Hopper drilled deeper and wrote in April :

“Mrs David Niven’s new friends believe that if she was offered a screen role she wouldn’t turn it down, in spite of the fact that she has declared that David would do the acting in the family.”

“Many people have asked me if I would like to try the acting profession myself,” Hjördis later wrote, “and it is clear that every now and then the thought has crossed my mind. I have had a lot of attractive offers. Not just the one from the Drama in Stockholm, but also others.”

“David told me that he didn’t want me to go out to work, especially as a model or film actress: ‘One actor in the family is more than enough’ he always said.'”

A 1963 interview with Allers magazine neatly sums up the situation. When David briefly left the chat, Hjördis had a small opportunity to talk about her early days in Hollywood:

“The film world was new to me. Sets trembled if you accidentally poked them. Perhaps it can be said of me that I have learned the first and hardest lesson of the good ‘movie wife’. It’s called being able to disappear and yet still be there all the time.”

“I learned, slowly, to amuse myself while David filmed. He came home in the evenings, tired and nervous, and just wanted to know that I was there… ‘Hjööördis! Where are my slippers?'”

“Why did you never film? You were so beautiful…” Allers asked.

“Of course there was an offer,” ‘the returning David answered, and took over the story’. (Allers‘ words, not mine).

“She was beautiful. Film producers caught one sight of her, and rushed to me. ‘Where did you find her?'”

“‘She’s Swedish,’ I answered. That has been a magic word ever since Greta Garbo moved to Hollywood. ‘And she’s my wife’, I added calmly.”

“Did Hjördis think about the offers and temptations? Perhaps? I didn’t know, I still don’t know. [David, she is literally sitting beside you.] She never told me exactly how much – or even if. ”

“We talked about it once. I told her what she meant to me. I said, as all selfish, infatuated men do: ‘I want a wife. Someone to hold my hand. Someone whose hand stays in mine, if I have a cold, or am feeling sad, or discouraged. Or if one day I think I’m going to die… Hjördis said nothing. But Hjördis stopped.”

A Philistine film review

1948, David Niven with Jane Wyman
David Niven and Jane Wyman compare lengths. ‘A Kiss In The Dark’, 1948. At the time, Jane Wyman was married to actor / future US president Ronald Reagan. They divorced in 1949.

Author Gerald Garrett’s view of ‘A Kiss In The Dark’ from his 1975 ‘The Films of David Niven’ book, is worth repeating for a few reasons; as a slice of social history, as an indicator of the quality of David’s movies at the time, and because it’s funny. Over to you Gerald:

“This is one film that Niven should have turned down flat. Apart from its triteness, it is one of those nasty little pictures that illustrates Hollywood’s philistine streak: in this case we see the genuine artist (the dedicated concert pianist – David) pulled from his pedestal and converted to the full vulgar life enjoyed by your average moron in the street – the worst sort of playing to what the industry used to call the cloth cap and muffler trade.”

David may have had an inkling of the film’s quality, going by a chat with columnist Gene Handsaker: “David Niven says the most disconcerting thing for a movie actor is to look up from a tender love scene or what he hopes is a seemingly funny comedy scene to see a visitor watching glumly. ‘Must visitors to the set always look as if they had just witnessed a horrible auto crash!'”

Next page: Life cover, 1948

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