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 and David had an unwanted ringside seat to witness Gene Tierney’s 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.

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

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.”

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 were also the twin matters of Hjördis losing her identity and importance, 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.”

“Then 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.”

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…”.

Once Hjördis had met David’s Hollywood friends, he promised to visit Sweden the following summer to meet her friends and relatives. Tentative plans for a Swedish visit in the summer of 1948 had already been squeezed out by a lack of time, and in the end Hjördis’ grand return didn’t happen until 1950. By that time any fall-out from the Cassini fiasco was long-since replaced by interest in her marriage to David Niven.

Model suggestions

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

“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 returning to the US to sign a movie contract with David O. Selznick. In Hollywood in late February, she 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.

“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 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.'”

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.

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.

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. Stand well back. Go for it 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.”

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.'”

Next page: Life cover, 1948