18th February 2018 marks the centenary of Primula Niven’s birth. She died on 22nd May 1946, aged 28, due to a silly accident that has always made her untimely passing seem so much sadder.
In early December 1947, on the set of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, David confronted a stubborn Swedish model who had been refusing to vacate his canvas chair. They were married six weeks later. Primmie, however, still played a large part in both of their lives. According to almost everyone who knew David, he never recovered from his loss.
“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], 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.”
Miss Primula Rollo
We’ve looked at Hjördis’ pre-Niven years in some detail, so I think it’s fitting (and interesting) to also look at Primmie’s. She certainly packed a lot into her life.
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.
Primmie met David Niven in late August 1940, by which time she was an assistant section officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. In 1971’s ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’, David wrote about their first shared glance / stare at the Cafe de Paris in London, and then running in to her some time later at a lunch-time concert.
David’s 1946 version of how they met involved him diving into a slit trench during an attack on an RAF airfield, where he was quickly joined by Primmie and her Pekingese dog: “The dog bit the seat of my pants and the WAAF married me ten days later.” The story bears a resemblance to another unexpected wartime encounter, 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 well-heeled personnel from ‘The Millionaires’ Squadron‘ at RAF Tangmere.
No matter, 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. An impending wedding was announced on Monday 16th September 1940. It took place on Saturday 21st September at St Nicholas Church, Huish, Wiltshire, one mile from Primmie’s childhood home at Cold Blow.
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 gentleman.
The newlyweds settled in a thatched cottage near the village of Dorney, west of London and near the Hawker aircraft factory, where Primmie worked 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.”
Primmie can be seen from 1:15:00. She is listed in the end credits as ‘Primula Rollo’.
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.
David was released from military service on 31st May 1945, and anxious to resurrect his career in Hollywood. One month after his second son Jamie was born in November, David was shoe-horned onto the Queen Mary, already crammed in with 15,000 soldiers bound for New York. Primmie and the boys remained with her father in London until they could arrange a crossing. David’s return began three days after Hjördis Genberg set sail 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 home for his family, 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 before 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 finally arrived in the US on 22nd March 1946, on 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 in style on the Queen Mary and returning three weeks later in equal comfort on the SS Bremen, which had recently held ‘the blue riband’ speed record for crossing the Atlantic.
Primmie was thrilled with California, and started her life there with a busy calendar of social events, due to run until David began work on a new movie at the end of May 1946. “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.
In July 1946, 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.”
A Primmie gallery
Sometimes pictures can tell a better story than words. Here’s a gallery of images featuring Primmie, taken between 1935 and 1946. I hope you find them interesting.