Despite, or perhaps because of his health concerns, David Niven kept busy for much of 1981. According to his director friend Bryan Forbes: “I think he felt that if he could just keep on working, he might be able to fight it off.”
After wintering in Switzerland there was a visit to Hollywood in April for a TV special celebrating Fred Astaire, a novel to finish and then promote, and over the summer months a new movie, ‘Ménage à Trois’, which was fortuitously filmed near Lo Scoglietto, meaning that he could return home every night after work. Although the movie was an enjoyable watch, it brought his physical decline into sharper focus.
“We were shooting very near his home on Cap Ferrat,” Bryan Forbes told Sheridan Morley, “and one morning we were doing a beach scene when he suddenly said. ‘Forbesy I, er, can’t run any more. My legs won’t work,’ and I thought well, it’s very hard anyway to run in the sand, so we did the shot in a different way and that was that. But then he found it very hard to get his mouth around certain words when we were dubbing.”
David Jr remembered: “One day, Bryan came over to me and said, ‘Have you noticed that David’s voice is getting a little shaky?’ So we looked at a couple of scenes and I thought well, let’s not worry now, we can fix that when we do the final dubbing. But his voice grew progressively worse during filming. I don’t mean a drastic change, but every day, as he got a little more tired, the voice would start to slur. I think at the time it was only noticeable on microphone, though, and he certainly had no idea he was really seriously ill until months later.”
Perhaps unrelated, David lost his five-year contract as the face of Maxwell House coffee in September 1981. The Daily Mirror cattily questioned if he’d ever been the right man for the job, considering his lifestyle. “it was a difficult feat of the imagination to see him brewing his cup of instant coffee.”
The newspaper asked Hjördis about David’s reaction. Fittingly, she answered their call from the side of the swimming pool at Lo Scoglietto: “All I can tell you is that he has not been crying on my shoulder.”
Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly
‘Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly’ was handed over to the publishers in February 1981, and received a mixed reception upon release in October. It still topped best-seller charts, but was never going to match the sales of ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ and ‘Bring On The Empty Horses’. Mind you, nothing really could…
Elements of David’s life and stories were still woven into the book. Woman’s Weekly magazine’s Margaret Montgomerie wrote: “Although this one is not autobiographical, there’s a lot of the Niven charm and self-confessed hopes and fears in the main character, Stani. Even the meeting of Stani and his heroine has a familiar ring about it, and you realise that it is as he described his first meeting with his wife-to-be Hjördis – ‘the champagne in the knees’ feeling!”
One reviewer wrote that the book ended on “a troubled note, with a vivid description of a hurricane. Niven has survived two.” Perhaps cryptically, David added that “I wanted to end on that note to show how totally unimportant all our problems are compared to nature gone berserk.”
One of those storms took place during his 1948 honeymoon in Bermuda, and was described later by Hjördis: “David and I had gone on bicycles to visit friends and were on our way back when the hurricane struck. It lasted for two or three hours and created terrible havoc.”
“All the local people locked themselves and their families in their homes, but many of those were knocked flat like a pack of cards. Trees were uprooted and tossed about like matches and all the electricity failed.”
“We came upon a poor goat tied to a stake and bleating with fear. David untied it, led it to the nearest house and hammered on the door. ‘Is this your goat?’ he demanded when a face peered out at him.”
“‘Go away, go away,’ shouted the panic-stricken householder, but we forced the door open further and pushed the terrified animal inside. Then we crawled on our hands and knees all the way home.”
Suddenly they’re looming over me
Promotion for the book kicked off on 3rd October 1981, with David’s third appearance on BBC TV’s ‘Parkinson’ chat-show. The others had been triumphs, but now there was something definitely amiss. David’s speech was slurred, and he kept on having to stop to clear his throat. As a result, his stories lost their way, and lead some viewers to (wrongly) think that he was drunk. David was upset about his performance, and received a further jolt when others expressed concern at how ill he had looked.
Enough of his sparkle remained however, for Margaret Montgomerie to gush in her article that he looked “as lean and fit as ever”, which must have been music to his ears.
“I ski and swim a lot when I’m in Switzerland,” he replied. “Just now I’m off to America to see my son Jamie, and do some fishing. I love Switzerland, but after a few months there the mountains seem to get closer – you know what I mean – suddenly they’re looming over me, and I have to get away for a while.”
“When I was last there, there was water pouring through the ceiling from a burst pipe. Of course, Hjördis is having a marvellous time redecorating.”
Hjördis remained in France and Switzerland as her 1981 drifted by, while David flew back to the United States for his second visit of the year. As well as calling in on Jamie, David still insisted on helping his publishers push his new book, despite their worries about him over-exerting. The trip included another TV chat show appearance, this time with Dick Cavett.
According to Charles Francisco: “The media reported that David found it necessary to call on several doctors during his November stay in New York. He couldn’t avoid the reporters’ questions because he was walking with a noticeable limp. He shrugged off the problem by saying the doctors thought it was a ‘pinched nerve’, but many newspapers added: ‘It goes back to wounds sustained by Niven in WW2.'”
The Millionaires’ Squadron
Before returning to Switzerland and its looming mountains, David stayed with friends William Buckley in Connecticut, and Loel Guinness in Mexico. Guinness was an old wartime friend, who had been leader of 601 Squadron (known as ‘The Millionaires’ Squadron’) from May 1940, based at RAF Tangmere in West Sussex for The Battle of Britain.
In 1940 David often visited his 601 Squadron friends at their adopted club / pub ‘The Ship’ in nearby Bosham. According to Tom Moulson’s book ‘The Millionaires’ Squadron, The Remarkable Story of 601 Squadron‘: “It was here that he met his future wife, Primula Susan Rollo, who was serving with 601 as a WAAF.” [A third variation on how the Nivens first met.]
Another of David’s friends at 601 was fighter ace Billy Clyde, whose wife Barbro recalled:
“David Niven was a very close friend of Billy’s, but he also liked pretty girls and was quite a womaniser. He had many affairs; with Rosie, Billy’s first wife, and Eliza, Billy’s sister-in-law, etc… , so Billy sent him a telegram saying ‘This is my mother’s address’ and David didn’t take it very well. [This was all before meeting Primmie!] So, later when Billy and I were in New York we had lunch with David and his very pretty Swedish wife. David sat next to me, but he barely spoke to me for fear of upsetting Billy. It was just a big joke that David took seriously.”
Before we move on, one more thing about Loel Guinness – his first marriage ended after his wife ran off with, guess who… Aly Khan…
Memories and regrets
For David, memories of Primmie were stirred again on 29th November 1981, with the tragic news of Natalie Wood’s untimely death. David put his illness aside to invite her husband Robert Wagner and his two children over to Switzerland for the Christmas period. David waited for hours in the snow for them to arrive, and took great care of his friend over the following weeks, using his painful experience of losing Primmie 35 years before. His life was circling back through the years.
David also became re-acquainted with another old wartime friend, the writer Alastair Forbes. “David was a great romantic,” Forbes told Sheridan Morley. “I think that was what really kept his second marriage going through its most difficult times. He couldn’t bear the idea that it might fail. He dearly enjoyed the thought of being a married man, even if in reality it wasn’t always working out very well. He was under a lot of strain towards the end, and not all of it physical.”
“I asked him if he had any real regrets,” Jamie remembered. “He said not about things he’d done, but maybe about things he hadn’t done. There were some relationships quite close to home which he felt hadn’t worked out as well as they should have.”
Hjördis was only in the background of her own story in 1981 (you may have noticed!), but in 1982 she suddenly had a lot of stress and responsibility thrust upon her, which soon proved too much to deal with.
Next page: From Dawn Until Dusk, 1982