Can Men who are Violently Susceptible to an Alluring but
Unsuitable Member of the Opposite Sex be Saved?
Love is a state in which a man sees things most decidedly as they are not.
Marrying a woman who is incompatible or unsuitable in some important respect is one of the best methods of condemning oneself to exquisite, long-term misery. Is there any way to reduce the odds of a young (or even not-so-young) man making this common mistake when the opportunity of marrying a beautiful and sexually alluring woman presents itself?
[Marrying a beautiful woman at short notice is very risky, since you don’t know who you are marrying. David Niven took that risk twice. The first time he was lucky, remaining happily married for six years until his young wife died tragically in a freak accident. The second time he was unlucky, and that marriage lasted 35 years until his death.]
After a whirlwind two-week romance in 1940, Niven married Primula Susan Rollo, the aristocratic daughter of a British lawyer. The couple had two sons: David Jr. and Jamie. Primula, whom he called Primmie, died at age 28, only six weeks after moving to the U.S., of a fractured skull and brain lacerations from an accidental fall in the home of Tyrone Power. While playing [hide and seek], she walked through a door believing it led to a closet. Instead, it led to a stone staircase to the basement.
Niven recalled this as the darkest period of his life, years afterwards thanking his friends for their patience and forbearance during this time. He claimed to have been so grief-stricken that he thought for a while that he had gone mad. Following a suicide attempt involving a handgun that failed to go off, he eventually rallied and returned to filmmaking.
In 1948, Niven met Hjördis Paulina Tersmeden, a divorced Swedish fashion model. He recounted their meeting:
It had been a long and exhausting day. I was dismissed early in the evening and hurried to get changed so I could go and play with the children. Because of the hours we’d been working, I hadn’t seen them for days. The gate-man stopped me. “Sorry David. They just phoned up. They need you for one more shot.” Furious I stalked back into make-up. Sullenly I sat there while the yellow wig was pinned on my resisting head, and once more like a spoiled child whose picnic has been cancelled by bad weather I glowered my way onto the set and snarled at the prop-man, “Where the hell’s my chair?” “Over there, David. There’s a lady in it.”
The French have the right word: coup de foudre. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life—tall, slim, auburn hair, up-tilted nose, lovely mouth and the most enormous grey eyes I’d ever seen. It really happened the way it does when written by the worst lady novelists . . . I goggled . . . I had difficulty swallowing . . . I had champagne in my knees. Ten days later we were married.
However, Niven’s second marriage was as tumultuous as his first marriage was content. In an unsuccessful effort to bring harmony to the marriage, he and his wife adopted two girls, Kristina and Fiona. Kristina later told biographer Graham Lord that she was convinced that she was Niven’s secret child by another fashion model, Mona Gunnarson. All four of Niven’s children, as well as many of his friends, told Lord that Hjördis, unable to achieve an acting career, had affairs with other men and became an alcoholic . . . . In 1960, while filming Please Don’t Eat the Daisies with Doris Day, Niven and Hjördis separated for a few weeks, though they later reconciled. Hjördis recovered from her alcoholism after Niven’s death in 1983, but returned to it before her own death of a stroke in 1997 at age 78. Niven’s friend Billie More noted: “This is not kind, but when Hjördis died I can’t think of a single soul who was sorry.”
[At the age of 33, Peter Ustinov was well past the first bloom of impetuous youth when he married the highly unsuitable Suzanne Cloutier. How could so intelligent a man with the experience of one unsuccessful ten-year marriage behind him proceed to make a second bad marriage, one that was to last a painful 17 years? Ustinov, himself, sheds some light on the matter with his remark, ‘The more my marriages gravitated towards the rocks, the more insanely idealistic did I become about the limitless possibilities of love, simply expressed and deeply felt.’ In the passage below from his autobiography, Dear Me, he gives a detailed account of his folly, including many of the facts that should have set alarm bells ringing. Mysteriously, he seems to lose sight of these and other ill-boding facts when further on he writes, ‘They [his children] may have at their disposal by then psychological insights which were denied me, and which could explain the irrational with greater assurance than I can, and which could analyze with serenity and precision the sources of my despair.’]
While browsing in Mr Moroni’s newspaper shop in Soho, I saw the photograph of a strikingly beautiful girl on the cover of a pulp magazine. There was a story about her in it, with a teasing phrase under her picture, ‘J’adore les contes de fées’ (I love fairy-stories). Pretending it was for a non-existent cook, I bought it along with all the other foreign magazines I took regularly. I carried it to the theatre.
Three days later, my French agent André Bernheim appeared in my dressing-room after the performance, accompanied by the very girl on the cover of the magazine. Her name was Suzanne Cloutier, and she was a young French-Canadian actress who had played Desdemona in Orson Welles’s film of Othello. She was now in England to act in a film of Herbert Wilcox’s called Derby Day, and André Bernheim asked if I would kindly look after her when he had gone. She spotted the magazine on my dressing-table, and I truthfully told her the circumstances of its purchase. Such providential acts can sometimes rush one into an impression that destiny is a work.
She told me she was on the run from Orson Welles, that his representatives were searching high and low for her to implement a contract for which she had not been paid. Her work in Wilcox’s film must therefore be considered clandestine in the extreme. An executive from Paramount Pictures, with whom she had a long-term agreement, and I set her up in a remote but comfortable hotel, and an improbable detective story began, at the culmination of which we ran straight into Orson Welles in a fashionable restaurant.
He was perfectly charming, surprised to see her, and asked kindly how she was. The small talk bore no trace of malice nor of any desire to implement a contract, and all Suzanne’s efforts to appear frightened could not turn Orson into the Svengali he patently had no ambition to be.
A little later, while dancing—yes, I had been dragooned into this unsuitable pastime—she told me her mother was a German Jewess called Braun and that her father was descended from an Indian Chief with a name I cannot today recall, but that, apart from that, she was British and defiantly French, and as such had been denied the privilege of learning her own language, which she spoke perfectly well, by the villainous Anglo-Canadian authorities. All this was said with utter conviction, and even if I found most of it hard to swallow, these tales had an undeniable comic charm, in which the fact that she seemed to take them so seriously was not a minor ingredient.
People were enchanted by her freshness, her extraordinary capacity for invention and her acumen in pursuing her ends, and I must admit, I was among them. And even if one never quite knew when to reach for a pinch of salt, she had said it herself. She loved fairy-stories—‘J’adore les contes de fées.’
[After being rejected four times by the woman of his choice, Arnold Lunn ended up happily married to her because of his absent-mindedness—on this occasion it took the form of putting two letters into the wrong envelopes. Doubtless he would have married the beautiful, witty woman to whom he was engaged at the time, had she not dumped him. It was a near shave.]
After my fourth proposal had been rejected Miss Northcote felt that it was unfair not to give me a definite congé [parting ceremony or dismissal], which she did. A few weeks later the lady undergraduates’ magazine published a brilliant review of my articles in the Isis. I was flattered and intrigued and invited the unknown reviewer to meet me. “Ten to one,” I remarked to a friend, “that she’s got side whiskers or a beard, but it’s worth taking a chance on it.” The reviewer replied that she could not come to tea with me in Oxford because she had just been sent down (another link between us), but that she would meet me in London. So we met at the Author’s Club. The reviewer had neither side whiskers nor a beard. On the contrary, she was beautiful and witty, a dangerous combination. We exchanged the scintillating epigrams which were the period pieces of the Edwardian age, and, mortified by a sudden lull in the conversation, I proposed to her, to see what she would say. She accepted me to see what I would say. She was never in the least in love with me, but she thought that it would be fun to be engaged. She had literary ambitions, and to the novelist in embryo all experiences are valuable. We exchanged letters in which sentiment and humour were felicitously blended, and during a visit to her people I came across, while searching at her behest for a book, no less than six drafts of the first ingenuous love letter that she wrote to me. I produced these six drafts with a slight air of reproach. She looked at them with interest. “I could not make up my mind,” she said, “whether to send you the letter I actually sent you or this second draft. . . .”
A few days later I wrote two letters, announcing my engagement, one to a literary friend and the other to Miss Northcote. My first letter was a pen picture of my fiancé which rather pleased me. I kept a copy. It would be useful as material for a novel. I did not keep a copy of the letter to Mabel Northcote and I did not enjoy writing it. And then I put the letters into the wrong envelopes. Worse still, the first letter contained a phrase tolerant of an interpretation which I had never intended, an invidious comparison between my fiancé and Mabel. She assumed that I had chosen this oblique method of conveying to her the news of my engagement and my own estimate of my good fortune in escaping from a previous entanglement. I was horrified when I discovered what I had done, and followed it up with a letter of apology and a call. A few weeks later my fiancé told me that I had ceased to interest her; my stock of epigrams had run dry, so she broke off the engagement.
[Arnold Lunn’s brother, Hugh Kingsmill, was not nearly so lucky in love as his older brother. In Richard Ingram’s book God’s Apology—the title was taken from Kingsmill’s remark that ‘Friends are God’s apology for relations’—the author describes the character weaknesses that led Kingsmill to marry someone who was totally unsuitable for him.]
Kingsmill was further hampered by the attitude of his wife, Eileen. They had been married in 1914 when Kingsmill was twenty-five. Eileen Turpin was a woman of simple, rather puritanical, tastes who disapproved strongly of her husband’s literary activities. Such opposition a stronger man would easily have overcome. But in all his dealings with women Kingsmill displayed a fatal weakness. He was incapable of a natural relationship with a woman. If women didn’t attract him, he ignored them. If they did, he fell hopelessly in love, writing letters which, he admitted to [his friend Hesketh] Pearson, ‘for sentiment would make Barrie blush, and for imbecility would make the inmates of Colney Hatch [an asylum] sit up and take notice’. . . .
The possibility of his being sent to the Front arose and his wife became hysterical, begging him to have an “accident” which would keep him out of the action. When he was eventually posted to France he thought it best to keep from her the fact that he was in the trenches and pretended in his letters that he had a job at the base.
Eileen alternated between moods of hysteria and excessive affection. During the latter she would try to extract ludicrous promises from Kingsmill: “If I die first you’ll kill yourself at once, won’t you?” Or indulge in romantic fantasies: “We’ll grow old . . . and when we’re very old we’ll live in a little hut and you’ll be such a darling fat old man, and we’ll just be there alone, and we’ll die in each other’s arms.” Kingsmill acquiesced wondering why he was so weak: “All this ritual of reassurance, oaths of suicide, asseverations of fidelity. Supposing he made a firm stand, and told her—what? That he had occasionally been unfaithful and had no intention of committing suicide if she died first. He shook his head—not practical politics”. . . .
Things at last reached a crisis in 1927 when Eileen discovered the manuscript of his latest novel Blondel, and shocked by the account of a love affair it contained, extracted a promise from Kingsmill that he would destroy the book. He was now in a hopeless position, made more so by his falling in love shortly afterwards with a young woman called Gladys Ranicar, whom he met in Switzerland. In a sudden onrush of emotion combining elements of passion, remorse and self-pity he decided to leave his wife. She refused to give him a divorce and appealed to his father, Sir Henry, who threatened Kingsmill with dismissal if he left her. In the meantime, Gladys made it clear to Kingsmill that she could not see him again. There followed a last and well-meant attempt by Sir Henry and his eldest son Arnold to reconcile Kingsmill and Eileen, but it ended disastrously with Kingsmill, who was by this stage in an almost hysterical state, leaving his job and his wife and child for good.
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