Nina Alone

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1970s / Biographies and Memoirs

Nina by Nina van Pallandt, Robert Hale, 221pp, 1974

In 2003 Richard Gere appeared in a film called The Hoax, a retelling of a literary con that held the world’s media enthralled for a brief period in the early 1970s. Gere played Clifford Irving, a struggling writer who for a while managed to persuade publishers that he had worked with Howard Hughes on the reclusive millionaire’s autobiography.

Alongside Gere, Julie Delpy appears in the role of Nina van Pallandt, one of Irving’s lovers. Nina’s real-life testimony at the time of the scandal, about whether or not the writer had met Howard Hughes on a trip to Mexico in early 1971, finally helped to discredit Irving’s claims. Delpy has little screen time in the film and portrays van Pallandt simply as a wealthy, selfish individual unconcerned about the havoc she might be wreaking on Irving’s relationship with his long-term girlfriend. But there’s a much more interesting story to be told about Nina van Pallandt, and her autobiography, published in the wake of the Hughes-Irving affair, is of interest to the Pop Music Library because it also tells the story of her time as one-half of the folk and pop duo Nina and Frederik.

If the Clifford Irving hoax is little remembered today, then that must be doubly the case for the musical career of Nina and Frederik. They started singing together in 1957, and for the next ten years played and performed a repertoire of mostly folk and children’s songs across the world, including regular appearances on TV and radio shows in Britain. The couple married in 1960 but after they separated, Nina had a high-profile first solo outing in 1969 singing ‘Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?’ for the soundtrack of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. She went on to make two albums under her own name before starring in films herself during the 1970s.

She was born Nina Møller in Copenhagen in 1932, her wealthy parents having met in England when her mother was attending finishing school and her father was studying for the bar. Nina’s childhood too was very comfortable; I can’t remember the last time I read about the household of a future pop singer where the start of summer was marked by the cleaning of crystal chandeliers. Nina describes herself as having been born “not with a silver spoon, necessarily, though certainly a very pleasant spoon,” and while she also admits to being “spoiled materially” as a child, she doesn’t want for love or kindness from the people around her.

By the time Nina began her career as a singer in her mid-twenties, she had already led a fairly extraordinary life. After schooling in Denmark she goes to Los Angeles and is the first Danish student to study at the University of Southern California. She returns to Denmark two years later, and while music appears not to have played a significant part in her life to that point, she decides to take singing lessons with the soprano Nora Élé. Still this isn’t the start of her career in music; after six months’ work Nora encourages her to continue her studies in Italy, but Nina is unsure and decides instead to give up music and spend several months living frugally in Paris, during which time she attends classes and lectures at the L’Alliance Française and the Sorbonne. Back in Copenhagen, she meets a family friend called Hugo Wessel whom she marries and with whom she goes to live in Chile where Hugo’s stepmother lives.

(From the book) Nina and Frederik at the start of their career, Geneva, June 1957

The marriage isn’t a success so Nina returns once more to Copenhagen. Here she meets up again with Frederik van Pallandt, another friend of the family who is the same age as Nina and whom she has known since her teens. Frederik is the son of the Baron van Pallandt, a Dutch diplomat, and he too has spent his early life criss-crossing the globe. The two of them start playing music together apparently quite casually; Nina describes their early attempts as “folk doodlings”, although the songs in question are those they have learnt from their time spent in other countries and which they now teach each other. The seemingly nonchalant approach to their early career is also typified by Nina’s description of their first recording. Nina recounts an after-show conversation with Bent Fabricius-Bjerre, the head of Metronome records in Denmark known more usually (and rather wonderfully) as Bent Fabric:

‘Would you like to cut a record?’

‘Yes.’

‘When?’

‘Monday.’

‘It’s settled.’

V-necks on display: The cover of a 1958 Nina and Frederik EP

The records Nina and Frederik went on to make were mostly quiet and rather charming, and very much products of their time. Frederik has a pleasing light baritone, and Nina, whose voice is slightly more strident and more heavily accented than Frederik’s, harmonises with him precisely and often inventively. It’s easy to view them in the same way as an artist like Nana Mouskouri, who was hugely popular with British audiences in the 1960s and 1970s through her impeccable delivery of mysterious and beautiful folk songs from continental Europe. With the exception of some of Nina and Frederik’s later work which I’ll come to in a moment, the music hasn’t aged very well. Certainly their image was very wholesome – some of their early shots feature them in v-neck sweaters – and undeniably, they were posh. As their lives prior to a musical career demonstrate, they were very much part of the international jet-set and it’s not difficult to see why this might have provoked criticism. Nina addresses this herself while reflecting on their early fame:

The publicity generated immediately was enormous, but the professional assessment was of two amateurs with no theatrical background – instant success, but it couldn’t last. It did, however, but we had to work extra hard and extra long to overcome the stigma of “society kids dabbling in music.”

Nina and Frederik’s last album together is a more interesting proposition, and although the circumstances of its recording are unhappy for Nina, it’s the one of recording of theirs she talks about in rather more detail. Frederik had long been interested in Sufism, and the 1968 album Follow is something of an esoteric lounge classic. Frederik clearly thought of it as all own work; he wrote all the songs and does the greater part of the singing, and under the musical direction of the great Syd Dale the resulting collection is complex and quite beautiful.

Something had come between them: Nina and Frederik pictured at Ankhor-Wat, Cambodia in the gatefold sleeve of the remarkable Follow LP, 1968

Nina admits in the book to having a secondary role on the record. Frederik had announced in early 1966 that the couple would need to split as he was expecting a baby with a girlfriend, and that henceforth they would only be together to fulfil their existing contracts. Nina describes the couple’s problems as partly to do with Frederik’s Sufism, but in her telling of events the real issue looks to have more to do with his selfism: this, after all, is the man who tells Nina on their wedding day in 1960 that he would continue to stay in contact with a German girlfriend because she provided him with a “soul relationship” which Nina couldn’t offer. He also spends endless time and resources on sailing around the world, a project which will clearly not involve Nina who is left instead to bring up their young children.

The years that followed their split appear to play out more happily for Nina than for Frederik. The intense scrutiny she endures from the Hughes-Irving affair at least gives her some publicity for her own career, and the book opens in April 1972 with her first cabaret dates in New York. After seeing her sing live and appear on TV with Johnny Carson, Robert Altman cast her alongside Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, and she works with the director again for 1979’s Quintet. Jacob Wendt Jensen’s 2012 biography of the singer (in Danish only at the time of writing) notes that when the film work stopped, she undertook work for many charitable causes. In contrast, Frederik didn’t pursue a career in the arts and was murdered in the Philippines in 1994 in circumstances very likely connected with drug smuggling. His obituary in The Independent noted that it was Nina who had brought her ex-husband’s body back to Europe.

New York, February 1972: Nina in the full glare of the world’s media at the time of the Hughes-Irving affair. Her manager John Marshall is on her left. (Picture from Hoax by Stephen Fay, Lewis Chester and Magnus Linklater)

While allowing for the fact that Nina is an autobiography and the subject of course wants to put herself in the best possible light, Nina van Pallandt comes across as being rather likeable. If you’re at all interested in the Hughes-Irving affair, the book is worth reading at least for a fuller picture of Nina’s relationship with the writer, but beyond that Nina is fascinating in her own right. In spite of her privileged upbringing, her story clearly shows that she’s hard working, non-judgemental and surprisingly pragmatic in difficult circumstances; she has a tough time in Chile with her first husband, for example, and when she finds herself stuck in appalling digs during a six-month stint in Blackpool she merely laughs it off, and recalls of the period how much she and Frederik enjoyed watching Tommy Cooper from the side of the stage each night.

Ultimately, you are left with the feeling that music was just one of Nina’s accomplishments which suited her for a while, and when that came to an end, she was sensible enough to move on to something else. Now in her mid-eighties and living near Barcelona, you hope that her final years might be happy and fulfilling ones.

The back cover of Nina Alone, Nina’s first solo LP released in 1971.

 

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