Struck on the leg with a plank, 1980

David Niven with David Niven Jr, 1981
David Niven with David Niven Jr, 1981

In January 1980, David Niven returned to India to complete ‘The Sea Wolves’.  He was becoming more and more aware of his undiagnosed motor neurone symptoms: “You know, it’s a funny thing but I can’t get my bloody heel off the ground properly,” he told Roger Moore.

With his 70th birthday approaching, and with the wear and tear of three films in the space of a year, David may have been cheered by his colleagues’ opinions that all he was suffering from was a pinched nerve that would disappear with exercise.

“He’d begun, religiously, to take long fast walks every day, late in the afternoon, after work,” according to Gregory Peck. “He had begun his valiant fight, his refusal to accept muscular weakness, and it was to last for three years.”

Embed from Getty Images
David Niven, with Roger Moore, Gregory Peck and Trevor Howard, filming ‘The Sea Wolves’ in India.

Although affairs seem to have faded from his schedule, David’s outward character remained unchanged.

“I was struck as always by his tremendous charm,” his ‘Sea Wolves’ screen wife Faith Brook told Sheridan Morley, “not a great deal of talent there [How very dare you madam…], it seemed to me, but enough charm to make you forget that. He took so much trouble to make me feel welcome and spent a lot of time with me, at least until the Maharaja of Jaipur’s family arrived for a visit; then, of course, he was off with them. You always had the faint feeling with David that he was looking over your shoulder, wherever you were, to see if anybody more exciting might be coming along.”

While on location, David accepted a “political” invitation to a local dignitary’s house, and duly attended with other cast members. Their hostess had no idea who they were, and after an uncomfortable afternoon –  during which she downed ice-filled tumblers without offering refreshment to her guests –  it was time to make their excuses. Roger Moore recalled:

“David Niven said ‘Well, madam, we must leave.’
‘Oh, aren’t you staying for dinner?’ she asked.
‘No madam,’ replied Niven, and with a beatific smile added, ‘and I hope I never see you again in my life.’
‘Oh, thank you very much,’ she said.”

To David’s relief, ‘The Sea Wolves’ was finished in February 1980, and he was able to return to Chateau D’Oex and find whatever comfort he could in his broken marriage.

“You never saw them together,” David’s friend Valerie Youmans told Graham Lord. This was partly because Hjördis became anxious about leaving home, due to alcohol and associated health problems. David meanwhile had been a rare enough sighting for over a year.

The best years of her life

After Kristina and David’s sessions with the Gstaad-based physiotherapist David Bolton, Hjördis also began to consult him, giving a rare view into her mental state at the time.

“She said she didn’t want to sleep with her husband, and locked him out of the bedroom,” Bolton told Graham Lord. “She had alcoholic problems, didn’t eat, and had a thing about getting old (she had turned 60 in November 1979), and you couldn’t get her into a meaningful conversation of any sort. She would blame him that she was getting old, and for giving him the best years of her life.”

For his landmark birthday on 10th March 1980, David hosted a dinner at the exclusive Eagle Club in Gstaad, where he was a committee member. Among the attendees were his friends Leslie and Yvonne Bricusse, and an assortment of people including ex-King Umberto of Italy. Hjördis was absent. And so, for most of the rest of the year, at least as much as he was able, was David.

Roman holiday

Four days after his birthday, David shot off to Rome at the request of his friend William Buckley, to take part in a slightly strange, privately funded documentary in the Sistine Chapel. While cameras panned around the walls, David, Princess Grace, and Charlton Heston told stories of their chosen Good Samaritans. No TV network bid for the finished result. The cameras swooping over Michelangelo’s artwork, combined with the unfamiliar words from the actors’ mouths, made potential buyers feel that too much was being asked of the viewer.

David was the last of the actors to depart, and was introduced to Pope John Paul II, who’s greeting lead Buckley to believe that the pontiff’s advisors had confused David with a Papal biographer. “Yes. You were very close to my predecessor,” The Pontiff said to David.

David was subjected to more mistaken identity back in Switzerland, caused by the guilt of his multiple extra-marital adventures.

In his excellent ‘My Word Is My Bond’ autobiography, Roger Moore described an impromptu visit to Chateau D’Oex with his wife Luisa, and David Jr:

“Just before we pulled in to the town, David Jr produced a blonde wig and suggested that Luisa put it on. Hjördis came to the door. Junior said, ‘Hjördis can I introduce my date… Roger’s here too, but Luisa couldn’t make it.”

“As Junior was saying this, Niv came down the stairs. He took one look at Luisa, turned on his heel and disappeared back upstairs very quickly. Later on, when all was revealed and the wig removed, Niv explained his actions to me: ‘I knew the face but I couldn’t remember where I’d had her!'”

Go quickly, come back slowly

David continued work on his novel, and sent excerpts to his publisher at end of April. They were not impressed, but still offered a two-book advance of $1,000,050. Spurred on, David kept writing during the summer at Lo Scoglietto. The book was almost finished by the end of the year.

David’s longer than average home time served to increase his worries about Hjördis’ drinking. In some desperation, he wrote for advice from the wife of an old army comrade who had beaten her addiction. Hjördis however refused to admit to a problem, or to receive treatment.

David’s health was also of increasing concern. On a book-related visit to New York he was felled by a sudden violent pain while walking in the street. He described it as feeling like he’d been struck on the back of his right calf with a plank. Subsequent medical tests in England revealed nothing.

“He’s been all over the place working and seeing the children,” Hjördis reported from Chateau D’Oex in early December. “Now he’s coming home to ski and help me wrap the Christmas presents. He’s in for a shock when he gets here though. The temperature outside is twenty below.”

David returned on 11th December 1980, and did not let the cold keep him indoors. This year he was allowed to ski –  there were no movie insurers telling him to avoid potentially dangerous sports –  but he found the required movement more and more difficult. He was a regular visitor at the The Olden Hotel in Gstaad, where he charmed the owner Hedi Donizetti with his enthusiastic ski talk, although it could veer off on sudden tangents: “Am I speaking well?” “Am I limping?”

“He didn’t much like big parties, or the way that Richard Burton used to come here and fall over drunk,” Hedi told Sheridan Morley. “He was a very sober, quiet man and, unlike Peter Sellers, very open. You always knew where you were with David, whereas with Sellers and Burton you never had the remotest idea what was really going on inside their heads.”

David could only hope that Hjördis would be able to sort out her issues, and be willing and able to show him unwavering loyalty while he tried to sort out his health.

Next page: Relationships quite close to home, 1981

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