18th February 2018 marked the centenary of Primmie’s birth. She died aged only 28 on 21st May 1946, because of a silly accident that has always made her untimely passing seem so much sadder.
Eighteen months after his wife’s tragic death, on the set of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, David Niven confronted a stubborn Swedish model who was refusing to vacate his canvas chair. They were married six weeks later. However, according to almost everyone who knew David, he never recovered from losing Primmie.
“He never said to me that he considered her the perfect wife and mother,” Hjördis told Woman magazine in 1964, “but I suspect he thought she was. Compared with her I felt so inadequate. I couldn’t cook [neither could Primmie according to her dad], and I didn’t know anything about children. I wasn’t even very interested in dressing myself up smartly and I’m most untidy. I’m sure he couldn’t help contrasting her and all her wonderful gifts with me. At least, I felt he must.”
We’ve looked at Hjördis’ pre-Niven years in some detail, so I think it’s fitting (and interesting) to look at Primmie’s. She certainly packed a lot into her life.
Miss Primula Rollo
She was born Primula Susan Rollo, the only daughter of well-to-do divorce lawyer William Rollo, and Lady Kathleen Hill. Her aristocratic roots came from both sides: she was the great-niece of Lord Rollo of Duncrub Castle in Scotland, and grand-daughter of the Marquis of Downshire. As such, she became a regular on the landed gentry social scene.
From around the age of nine, she was pictured in upper class lifestyle publications such as The Tatler and The Bystander; attending garden parties, balls, hunts, polo matches, more hunts, and horse races. She also made the news in December 1935, following an accident in Munich, when her car was struck by a tram: “The car was wrecked. Miss Rollo received slight injuries.”
What was she doing there?… Primmie’s finishing school was in Nazi Germany.
(If you’ve just done a double-take, it’s well worth taking a look at this Spiegel Online article: ‘British girls in the Third Reich‘).
A British publication pictured Primmie back home a month later, all tweeds and crutches, with the caption that she’d “been in the wars”. Five years later she literally was in the war.
By August 1940, when she met David Niven, Primmie was an assistant section officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. In 1971’s ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’, David described a first shared glance / stare at the Cafe de Paris in London, and then running into her during a lunch-time concert at a museum.
His December 1945 version, possibly embroidered by Hollywood publicists, involved him diving into a slit trench during an attack on an RAF airfield, and landing on top of Primmie. He even provided dialogue for the scene:
“She squealed and her dog bit me. She said ‘Why the hell did you sit on my dog?’, and I said ‘Why the hell have you got a Pekingese in a trench anyway?’ and that’s how we got acquainted.” The story was rounded off by saying that they were married a mere three weeks after the slit-chat.
The meeting bears resemblance to another of David’s unexpected wartime encounters, with his old friend the theatre critic John McClain. “We were reunited in Normandy shortly after D-Day.” McClain remembered, “We both happened to jump in the same shell-hole when a gun went off in the vicinity of the bridge at Carentan. It was explained later that it was one of our guns, but no matter.”
Another alternative story, which did not emanate from David, was that he met Primmie at a pub frequented by the well-heeled personnel of ‘The Millionaires’ Squadron‘ at RAF Tangmere. (Tangmere is on the south coast of England, around 50 miles from Salisbury Plain, where David trained with The Rifle Brigade until August 1940). It is hard to imagine David the storyteller wanting to leave the story as “I met my missus down the pub”.
No matter how they met, love blossomed very quickly. David met Primmie’s parents, and got on especially well with her father, who was serving in the RAF at the Air Ministry and had taken part (as a sailor) in the evacuation from Dunkirk. A wedding was announced on Monday 16th September 1940 and took place on Saturday 21st September at St Nicholas Church, Huish, Wiltshire, one mile from Primmie’s childhood home at Cold Blow.
A very rare 12 seconds of footage from David and Primmie Niven’s wedding, 1940
The choir of the City of London School sang during the musical part of the service, and Primmie, dressed in blue, was given away by her father. The reception was held at Cold Blow, attended by various lords, ladies, and gentlemen.
The newlyweds settled to the west of London in a thatched cottage close to the village of Dorney, and near the Hawker aircraft factory where Primmie worked as a boiler-suited bench hand until the arrival of the couple’s first son, David, in December 1942.
The perfect English rose
“She was an absolute darling, the perfect English rose,” was how David’s best man Michael Trubshawe remembered her. “She was kind, she was fun, and she was to be the most wonderful mother for the short time she was allowed. I didn’t think he’d ever really met anyone like her. She wasn’t at all like an actress, she was just the best sort of English girl of that period and one of the last of them; after the war women stopped being like that. Primmie was England in the 1930s: country cottages and small children and all that gentle, lost world of the upper classes at home.”
Peter Ustinov’s very illustrative impression of Primmie was that, “She was like a minor member of the royal family because she smiled a great deal, very generously, and had that slightly mincing talking, rather like the Queen, ‘My husband and I…‘.”
The actor John Mills recalled: “She was a glorious creature, rather aristocratic, but evidently terribly proud of him, very much in love and always happy to let him be the star turn, which is why I think the first Niven marriage was so much easier than the second. Primmie wanted no part of David’s limelight; and every time he told a story she’d laugh uproariously, even though she must have heard it a dozen times.”
English without tears
It is something of a surprise to discover that Primmie had a credited role in the 1944 movie ‘English Without Tears’ (Re-titled ‘Her Man Gilbey’ in the US). The movie was made by the Two Cities production company, who were also responsible for David’s ‘The Way Ahead’. Both were filmed during the summer of 1943 at Denham studios. Primmie played an ATS sergeant [Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British army]. All six of her words were delivered with absolute authority, as she stepped away from her office desk. And no mincing. Bravo.
“Sergeant, where’s the interpreter?”
“She’s waiting outside sir!”
“Well, send her in.”
With the UK filling up with American and Canadian troops preparing for D-Day, Primmie soon became accustomed to Hollywood stars in uniform such as Clark Gable, Bob Coote and James Stewart turning up on her doorstep.
Run-down and hit by bombs
David was released from military service on 31st May 1945, anxious to resurrect his career in Hollywood. Firstly though, between September and December he made one of his most critically acclaimed movies: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’. He starred alongside young Californian actress Kim Hunter, whose wonderful diary impressions of war-battered England were reproduced by US gossip columnist Hedda Hopper:
“I’m in a poor position to say anything about the food situation. Eating in restaurants makes one more conscious of the monotony of the menu rather than the scarcity of food. The rationing program is marvelous. Everyone gets at least a little of everything: no-one really goes hungry.”
Kim also described the studio at Denham, where Primmie had recently been involved in ‘English Without Tears’: “My studio here must have been lovely at one time. But because of the war it’s quite run-down. Besides normal wear, it was also hit by bombs. There must be something about sound stages, however, that places a common bond on people, no matter what their nationality. If I’d walked into Denham with my ears closed I could just as well have been in RKO or Selznick’s in Hollywood. The technicolor make-up is very grayish, almost ghost-like. The lights too, are more bright and glaring.”
“On location again. This time in Devon. David and Primula Niven made excellent guides as well as charming travel companions on the way down. We strolled through the ruins of 14th Century Farleigh Castle, and stopped again at Wells to see the cathedral and had tea at a hotel across the street. It is much more interesting to follow the lanes and by-ways rather than concentrate on ‘making time’. ”
“We’re shooting at Saunton Sands, which has a great resemblance to the Florida coast. Before we could work here, permission had to be secured from the ministry of war. The territory was heavily mined during the war, and many, having broken their anchorage, drift about aimlessly. David Niven found three on a stroll down the beach. They exploded one after another, uncomfortably close. Perhaps the ministry’s answer to us was correct: ‘It’s alright with us for you to work at Saunton,’ they said, ‘but we think your title ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ most apt.'” Quite.
“These English cars sure show the strain of the war years. On our way back our auto whistled, gagged, then stopped. We hitch-hiked into Salisbury. But half-way there the fellow who picked us up had car trouble too. However, he just raised the hood and gave the engine several whacks with a hammer, and off we went, as good as new. We secured another, but it broke down also. We were stranded for an hour while our driver went off looking for parts.”
Going to California
As soon as filming ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ was completed, and one month after his second son Jamie was born, David was shoe-horned onto the RMS Queen Mary along with 15,000 homeward bound American GIs. Primmie and the boys had to stay with her father in London until she could arrange a crossing.
David’s journey began three days after Hjördis Genberg set sail from Gothenburg on 7th December 1945, also solo, on her first trip to America. Their paths may well have unknowingly crossed in New York, where David took some time to unwind before continuing westwards.
Once back in California, David began hunting for a suitable family home, and for members of the opposite sex. Graham Lord spoke to David and Primmie’s friend Pat Medina about the three months David spent in Hollywood ahead of Primmie’s arrival:
“His infidelity was constant and compulsive, even though he loved Primmie so much. ‘It was innate in him,’ I was told by Patricia Medina. ‘Before she arrived in Hollywood Niv was quite busy with the ladies! He wasn’t anybody’s angel. He would have been a Romeo whoever he was married to. It was just in him to be unfaithful.'” Primmie remained unaware.
(It was during this time that Hjördis and Carl-Gustaf Tersmeden visited Hollywood and ended up at a party in Gary Cooper’s house. David had been invited but was unable to attend).
Primmie and the boys were originally scheduled to sail for the US on 3rd February aboard the Queen Mary, packed in with several thousand GI brides and their children. When that didn’t work out, they finally arrived on 22nd March 1946, onboard an old freighter that encountered such bad storms it was re-routed from New York to Portland, Maine. The journey took eighteen days instead of seven.
The experience was very different from Primmie’s previous trip to America. She visited New York with her father in 1938, arriving on the Queen Mary and returning three weeks later in equal comfort on the SS Bremen, which had held ‘the blue riband’ speed record for crossing the Atlantic.
After a stop-over in New York, David brought his family to California. Primmie started life there with a busy calendar of social events.
“David says she can’t stop eating this wonderful food and she never wants to leave a party,” Hedda Hopper reported in April. “Recently they stayed at Anatole Litvak’s until 5am. When they were almost home, she said ‘Let’s go back’. They did, and stayed until 7.”
“Primmie was unique,” Pat Medina remembered. “And she said she’d never been so happy in her life.” Very sadly it was not to last.
HIde-and-seek in the dark
As husband of movie star Gene Tierney, Oleg Cassini moved in the same social circles that Primmie was being introduced into.
“The stars were people who might dazzle or charm you,” he wrote in his autobiography. “They didn’t converse much. I remember one night at a tent party. Gene and I were seated at separate tables, and afterward, on the way home, she complained:
‘You didn’t pay attention to me all night. I was so bored.’
‘Why? Who were you sitting with?’
‘Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart.’
‘Don’t you realise that almost every woman in America would swoon at such an opportunity?'”
“The problem was that everyone was in the same line of work, a very insular business. They worked very hard, all the successful ones, and there wasn’t time to know much beyond industry gossip. And so, when conversation waned, we often engaged in party games, especially at smaller dinners: charades, hide-and-seek, anything to pass the time.”
On the evening of Sunday 19th May 1946, Oleg and Gene were invited to a social gathering at the Bel-Air home of actor Tyrone Power and his wife, the French actress Annabella.
The other party guests included David and Primmie Niven, Lili Palmer and her husband Rex Harrison, Richard Greene and his wife Pat Medina, Cesar Romero, and US marine Major Arthur Little. (Tyrone Power served during the war as a US marines pilot, and was only released from active duty in January 1946).
Oleg Cassini recalled that: “It was an intimate gathering yet formal, as most every [weekend] evening was, the men in black tie, the women in evening gowns.”
“After dinner, and after the conversation began to wane, someone suggested we play sardines, a form of hide-and-seek played in the dark. It was just something to do to be silly, and perhaps do a little creative groping.”
In sardines, only one person hides, and everyone else does the seeking. Once the hider is found, the seeker squeezes beside them in their hiding place. Hence ‘sardines’. Hence ‘creative groping’ if you happened to be a Cassini brother. Primmie was chosen to hide while the others counted to one hundred.
“It was during this process that I heard a thud, and didn’t think anything of it,” Oleg remembered, “until I began my search and heard moaning. I found a door, opened it, and almost lost my balance. It led to a lower level, a garage-like area with a cement floor, but the first step was very tricky, greater than expected. The moaning was distinct now, and sounded serious. I couldn’t find the light and called for Tyrone. He came immediately, and there, fallen in a heap at the foot of the staircase, was Primula Niven. She appeared to be semi-conscious.”
“Mrs Niven was ‘it’,” Lili Palmer explained. “She was groping around for a closet door in the dark. Apparently she found the door leading to the basement and crashed down the steps.”
“David and Tyrone carried her to the living room and placed her on a sofa,” Oleg Cassini continued. “A doctor was called; he came quickly. He took her pulse, looked into her eyes – you must imagine the rest of us gathered around in our evening clothes quietly watching, stunned. Niven perhaps was the calmest of all, in his classic British manner. ‘She’ll be alright,’ David kept saying, as if to reassure us. ‘Don’t worry, she’ll be alright.'”
“He was saying this even as they put Primula in the ambulance. The diagnosis was a concussion; the doctor wasn’t sure how serious it was, and thought it best that she be taken to the hospital for observation.”
At 9pm Primmie was taken to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. By the evening of Monday 20th she seemed to be on the road to recovery, but instead took a turn for the worse, and died following surgery at 1.30am on Tuesday 21st. (The surgeon was Dr Raymond Brandsma, who ten years later diagnosed Humphrey Bogart’s cancer of the oesophagus).
At her funeral service on 23rd, the minister read out a message thoughtfully written by David to comfort his friends in Hollywood.
“Primmie and I were married six years ago. She has given me two little boys and complete happiness. I am infinitely lucky. She always longed to come to California after the war and share my life here. They were the six happiest weeks of her life.”
“I am quite certain that she would like you to know that the main reason for her happiness was the great sweetness and kindness of all of you, my friends, towards her.”
“Niven was composed throughout,” Oleg Cassini wrote, “consoling the rest of us, it seemed. His composure set the tone for the occasion; if not for that, Gene might have really fallen apart. She was in tears, very emotional, but quietly so.”
In England, The Times printed a touching obituary, written by “a correspondent” who had obviously known Primmie (referred to as ‘Prim’) for many years:
“The death of ‘Prim’ Niven came as a great sorrow to her many friends, for she was one of the gentlest and sweetest of characters. She had a great sense of humour and rare capacity for enjoying life., but wherever she might be seen – in the hunting field, in the ballroom, in the WAAF during the war – she always had a sweet, rather shy smile in her blue eyes which seemed to be watching some vision that only she could see. It was, perhaps, her quiet thoughtfulness which gave that impression. She seemed so at peace with the world and everyone, appearing at the same time to be amused by it all. Her delicate beauty brought joy to all who knew her and wherever she went she radiated happiness.” Still enough to bring a lump to the throat.
Primmie’s second son, Jamie, was less than 18 months old when his mother died. It took thirty five years for David to be able to answer his questions about her, after diagnosis with motor neurone disease.
“It pained him to talk about it, and he never wanted to get into it with me. Other people talked about her, they told me how beautiful she was, what a great sense of humour she had.”
“Daddy never talked a lot to us about our mother,” David Jr mentioned in 1998. “There wasn’t a whole lot to say. It was a terrible shock – he was suddenly stuck with two little boys and having to make a living at the same time. It was tough.”
“I remember him telling me she’d gone on a journey and wasn’t coming back.”
A Primmie gallery
Sometimes pictures can tell a better story than words. Here’s a gallery of images featuring Primmie, taken between 1935 and 1945. I hope you find them interesting.