Juxtaposed with impossible wealth and glamour, Old Hollywood often seemed to be the keeper of dark secrets and unspeakable tragedies that are hard to believe could exist today in the same capacity. One of these was the shocking, accidental death of actor David Niven’s wife Primmie at a Hollywood party.
“Accent on the first syllable. PRIM-ula. It’s the name of a pretty wildflower, something on the style of a primrose, bluish in color.” – David Niven, explaining to a reporter how to pronounce his wife’s name after their arrival in America.
Primmie was English born Primula Rollo, daughter of Lady Kathleen Rollo (nee Hill, daughter of the 6thmarquess of Downshire) and attorney William Rollo who also boasted an aristocratic background (his grandfather was the 10thLord Rollo and sat in the House of Lords as a Scottish Representative Peer). As such, Primmie, born February 18, 1918, was a fixture of the English upper-class social scene, attending finishing school, garden parties, high teas, and dances in the company of ladies and debs. A proper English rose (or primrose, as her name would suggest), Primmie was blonde, blue eyed, and lovely with her rounded cheeks and sweet smile.
David Niven, born March 1, 1910, also grew up in England and attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, graduating as a second lieutenant in 1930. He joined the Highland Light Infantry and served until 1934 when he left military life for Hollywood. He scored a few walk ons and bit parts until Samuel Goldwyn signed him and by 1938 his star had risen. He was acting in lead roles by 1939 when he decided to return to England to again serve in the British Army as Britain and Germany went to war. He was serving as a rifle brigade officer when he met Primmie in August of 1940.
Most newspaper reports state that Primmie met actor David Niven when he jumped on her in a slit trench during a London air raid in 1940. Some articles take it even further, stating that Niven not only jumped on Primmie, but also sat on her Pekinese who bit him in response. “Why the hell did you sit on my dog?” she reportedly spat to which Niven retorted, “Why the hell do you have a Pekinese in a trench?” Though nearly every American news article about their meet-cute offers this story, it appears it may have been either fabricated by Niven’s studio for publicity to milk the Nivens’ wartime romance or maybe invented by Niven himself. The alternate and more plausible sounding introduction was at a London art gallery while Niven was on leave.
Primmie also did her part for England and the war effort. When she met Niven, Primmie was working for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The two married in Wiltshire, England on September 21, 1940 and soon after began having children: David Jr in 1942 and Jamie in 1945.
Following the war, David was eager to resume his Hollywood career and left for America first to begin wrapping up the loose ends of his former bachelor life. Primmie and their sons (now age 3 and 4 months) took the 2 week journey by boat and arrived in Portland, Maine on March 22, 1946. Two weeks later, they were in Hollywood. David and Primmie immediately got to work filling their social calendars. This wasn’t hard for Niven who was not only part of Errol Flynn’s circle of hard partying lads (though he may have wanted to avoid this particular scene with Primmie), but also the group of English actors in Hollywood who banded together in solidarity and scones. The Nivens bought a home next to David’s friend, actor Douglas Fairbanks, and were fixing it up while they rented what Niven describes in his autobiography Bring On the Empty Horses, as a “Moorish prison of a house” in Beverly Hills. Despite this, Primmie, was apparently very happy and in awe of her new California surroundings. They spent a glorious few days golfing and fishing with Clark Gable at Pebble Beach, then returned home to find a dinner invitation from Tyrone Power and his wife, the French actress Annabella.
The Nivens accepted and arrived at the Powers’ estate on Sunday, May 19, 1946 for what was to be a low-key night of barbecue and after dinner party games. Also attending were film notables Gene Tierney and husband Oleg Cassini, Richard Greene and wife Patricia Medina, Cesar Romero, Rex Harrison and wife Lilli Palmer, and Major Arthur Little of the Marine Corps.
This was quite a group.
Actress Gene Tierney was one of Power’s co-workers at Fox (they had starred in Son of Fury together in 1942). At the time of the party, she was at the height of her popularity, having knocked the socks off of Hollywood a couple years prior in Laura. Her husband Oleg Cassini was a French-born fashion designer (later best known, outside of his fllm costumes, for creating Jackie Kennedy’s trademark “look”) who, like Primmie, had aristocratic roots (he descended from Russian counts and diplomats). The Cassinis’ marriage had been strained for various reasons almost from the beginning (Tierney details the pushback against their marriage from both family and film community, Oleg’s infidelity, and more in her autobiography, Self-Portrait); they would separate a few months after Primmie’s death.
The Powers’ own marriage may have been visibly on the rocks at the time of the party. They would divorce in 1948, but Annabella would testify that she and Power had been having issues in late 1946. She also stated that he frequently embarrassed her by going off on his own when they were entertaining guests. It’s curious to think if any of this behavior was on display that night.
Actors Richard Greene, Pat Medina, Rex Harrison, and Lilli Palmer (by way of her marriage to Harrison) were part of the tight English expat film community that Niven belonged to and were also newcomers to Hollywood like Primmie. Palmer was German born and Jewish and had fled her homeland in the 1930s when Hitler came to power, eventually settling in London and marrying Harrison. The Harrisons had arrived in Hollywood a month before Primmie set foot on American soil. None of the 4 had yet made a splash in American films, though the train would start rolling for each of them around this time, to various degrees of acceleration.
Another Fox co-worker of Power’s was actor Cesar Romero, who had been working steadily since the 1930s, interchangeably playing villains and leading men of the latin lover variety. He was homosexual at a time when this was taboo and so kept this fact about himself under wraps by often playing the desirable party date of Hollywood’s single ladies. This night, out of the bright spotlight of the publicity machine, he was off the clock and dateless.
Arthur Little Jr. was a wealthy California transplant, originally from New York. He took after his father in the publishing business and was an accomplished polo player who was also good friends with the other partygoers. Two months after the party, he would marry society girl Letha Smith, an event that included the presence of Annabella, Tyrone Power, who served as best man and provided the transportation (by way of his private plane), matron of honor Pat Medina, and Richard Greene, who gave the bride away. At the time of the party, Little had not yet tried his hand at acting, but would soon, perhaps with a little help from his friends (his first appearance was in the Gene Tierney/Tyrone Power 1946 film The Razor’s Edge, which began filming almost immediately following Arthur and Letha’s wedding). The newspapers named him as a “featured player” for Fox, though his sparse 1946-1951 film career amounted to little more than some uncredited walk-ons.
All of the male attendees had been part of the military effort in one way or another. Little was a former Marine Corp Major, according to the newspapers. Greene had served with the 27th Lancers in England. Harrison had been a flight lieutenant for the RAF. Romero and Cassini both joined the US Coast Guard; Cassini further offered his services to the US Cavalry, as his riding experience was in demand. Power became a US Marine pilot, transporting cargo and getting the wounded back home. All of the group were adjusting to life after war and the men who had served were in the process of re-starting their careers after returning from the time they had been away from the screen.
Primmie, a fun-loving girl used to the elite social whirl, an expat far from home, a person who volunteered her services during the war and survived bombings and air raids, had a lot in common with her fellow guests (she also had a brush with acting, earning herself 2 lines in the 1944 English film Her Man Gilbey). They must have had quite a lot to talk about that night over barbecue before the after dinner games begun.
Old Hollywood’s elite seemed to love to mix the childish and the posh whenever possible. Themes and party games were all the rage in the 1930s and 40s. One party game fad included throwing darts at photos of undesirable members of the community (studio bosses, ex-spouses, etc.) with champagne cocktails awarded to those with the best aim. Another involved tuning a radio to the police broadcast then pairing off in teams to race to the scene of the crime. The winners would be the group with the best story to tell following the incident (I bet the cops loved this game). At Annabella and Tyrone Power’s house on May 19th, the game on the menu was Sardines. All of the lights in the home were turned off and Primmie was named “It.” While the other guests all hid together, their bodies squished together in a corner or closet, Primmie hunted for them in the dark. Unfamiliar with the layout of the home and unable to see where she was going, she opened a door that she probably thought was a closet, walked in…and plummeted down the steep cellar steps to the concrete floor below.
The guests heard the crash and found her in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. Cassini and Romero carried her up and it was noted that she was unconscious, but not bleeding. She was taken to St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica and appeared to be on the mend with only a concussion suspected. However, the following night her conditioned worsened and she died following surgery on May 21, 1946 from a fractured skull and brain lacerations.
She was 28 years old and had only been in Hollywood for 6 weeks.
Niven was understandably devastated, for himself and his two young sons, aged 3 and 6 months. He would meet a beautiful Swedish model named Hjordis Genberg Tersmeden 18 months later and marry her soon after. Their marriage lasted, but it’s said that David never got over Primmie.
Tierney, Gene with Mickey Herskowitz. Self Portrait: Gene Tierney. Bekley, 1979.
Niven, David. Bring on the Empty Horses. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1975.
Browne, David. “David Niven’s First Wife, Primmie Niven, 1918-1946.” Hjordis Genberg Niven, WordPress.com, 2019, https://hjordisniven.com/primmie-niven/.
Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey) · Sat, Oct 29, 1988 · Page 36 (care of Newspapers.com)
The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) · Fri, Aug 16, 1946 · Page 14 (care of Newspapers.com)