In 1988, Jamie Niven spoke to Vanity Fair about the decline of his father’s health. “A friend called me from England in 1982 to say that he had seen my father on a popular British talk show, and that it had seemed either as if he had been drinking or as if something was wrong with his speech. After watching a tape of the show, I called my father to say that I had not liked what I had seen.”
“He said he thought maybe he had suffered a slight stroke, and we agreed that he should come to the US and visit the Mayo Clinic [based in Rochester, Minnesota].”
David’s biographer Charles Francisco recorded that: “David’s flight from Geneva landed at New York’s Kennedy Airport on the morning of Palm Sunday (4th April) 1982. Jamie met him at the airport. David was due to check in to the Mayo Clinic that evening. Jamie asked his father to give him a call as soon as he received the diagnosis.”
“Several days later he called from Minneapolis. ‘The good news.’ he said, ‘is that I didn’t have a stroke. The bad news is that I have a form of motor neurone disease and have only 18 months to live.'”
“I went to the airport to pick him up and found him, to my amazement, in high spirits. In the car going into town, he said. ‘You know, I have been very lucky, really. Your mother’s death has been the only great tragedy in our family.'”
Bringing home the news
After interviewing Jamie for his 1986 biography, Charles Francisco wrote: “Today, Jamie feels that their basic ignorance of the destructive powers of the disease kept both him and his father relatively calm and stable in the awful hours following the death sentence. On Good Friday 1982 (9th April), David waved goodbye to Jamie at JFK airport.”
Regarding the dates, Charles Francisco is very specific, although he could be referring to the final confirmation of the diagnosis. David’s friend William Buckley recorded that David first visited the Mayo Clinic in February 1982.
Francisco wrote that David decided to hold back telling Hjördis until he was back home in Switzerland. He wanted to deliver a more upbeat message to her and the girls – “preparing them for the worst but letting them know that he wasn’t going to permit anything to really change… Hjördis weathered his announcement about as well as he could expect.” Which I assume was not well.
“He was determined to fight it like mad,” David Jr told Francisco, “in every way possible. He was prepared to try everything, go everywhere, and see anyone.”
“His friends were incredibly supportive. He was scheduled to make a movie with Blake Edwards, and when he wrote to him saying he might not be able to speak by then, he got a cable back: ‘Learn your lines. Much love, Blake.'”
The movie was ‘The Trail of The Pink Panther’, a macabre lash-up of new material and out-takes from previous Panthers featuring the late Peter Sellers. David reprised his role from the first movie, but only visually. Sadly his voice proved too weak to use, and was dubbed (without his knowledge) by the impressionist Rich Little.
“Niven was inaudible,” Little told the New York Post in 1983. “I was told Robert Wagner and Capucine shot scenes with him and didn’t know what he was saying, but as a tribute to him they played it straight and said their lines as though he was part of the conversation. The muscles in Niven’s neck were already going and his voice was a slur.”
When Little unwittingly revealed his post-production work during a 1982 radio interview, the world’s press focused on David with increased intensity.
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David and Hjördis passing through Heathrow Airport, London, en route to Nice.
August / September 1982
News reports suggested that David had suffered a heart attack or a stroke. “I have today consulted my expert Swiss doctor,” David responded, “and his considered view is that I am very possibly still alive.”
On 3rd September The Sydney Herald printed a photo of David and Hjördis at Heathrow, and reported: “The actor denied reports that he was ill, saying that he was suffering from a pinched nerve.”
The author’s Swedish wife
“Here in Hollywood,” an American journalist wrote, “Niven’s son David Jr tells me that, contrary to the dire reports coming out of Europe, his father is ‘resting easy’ and ‘working on a new novel’.”
Well aware that his million dollar advance called for a second novel, David had the new book under way by January 1982. However, its anti-terrorism theme soon gave way to a story about a divorced author, which in turn became an achingly autobiographical account of an author suffering with motor neurone disease. The book was reportedly titled ‘From Dawn Until Dusk’.
“I could give one character MND,” David suggested to his publisher. “It might just help the thousands who are going to get it. Would it be too gimmicky? Also someone would have to write the last chapter.” According to Charles Francisco: “He had to stop work on the last novel because he could neither hold on to a pen nor dictate his thoughts.” The last chapter was never written.
In David’s story, the author has a Swedish wife called Ulla, possibly named after Hjördis’ friend Ulla Bussler, a witness at their wedding in 1948. In common with Hjördis, ‘Ulla’ has a drinking problem, which, according to Graham Lord, was not yet out of control, and she “still seems to care for him.” In the real world Hjördis was beyond the control of David’s pen, although Jamie quoted a positive reference to her in a letter written by David around the same time.
“In a letter to Pat and Bill Buckley, he spoke lovingly about Hjördis: ‘My voice is far from getting better and I am having a tough time keeping my weight up… Mum is stuck with all phone communications and has revealed a hidden talent!.. She is being terrific.”
Around the clock
David’s illness and the news reports about it hit steadily harder. On 12th September, The Copley News Service in San Diego revealed : “I am indeed sad to report that David Niven is seriously ill. The urbane and charming star reportedly is suffering from ‘a terminal illness’ and is being nursed around the clock by his Swedish wife, Hjördis, in his $5 million villa in the south of France.”
“David just laughed at the headlines,” Hjördis told a US newspaper in March 1983. “It seems gossips take a delight in killing people off before their time. One incredible evening a person phoned and said ‘I’ve heard the news Mrs Niven – I’m so sorry he’s dead.’ This was before he even went in to hospital and he was sitting with me at the table having dinner.”
“At first he became very depressed over the stories of how gravely ill he was, but he learned to laugh at them.” Hjördis then said that David got into the habit of driving into town to buy the English and French papers: ‘I want to see if I’m dead yet.'”
Princess Grace accidentally added to the rumours, probably while trying to play down the truth of David’s illness: “He has to my sorrow suffered a mild stroke which has impaired and slurred his speech.” David’s reaction was: “If I’d known she was going to give me a medical, I’d have tried to enjoy it more.”
The reports became even more difficult to fend off after 14th September 1982, when David’s beloved Grace was killed in a car crash. His illness precluded him from attending the funeral, where he was represented by Hjördis.
In his autobiography, Robert Wagner described what happened when he tried to give Hjördis an unwelcome pep talk about her responsibilities. She quickly hit back and stopped him in his tracks:
“When he was diagnosed, I told her, ‘Hjördis, you have to be here for David now; he needs you.’ Her response was a simple declaration: ‘I never loved him anyway.’ My reaction was a combination of shock, anger, and despair.”
David Bolton’s view was that Hjördis was in denial. “In that situation people can be cross and think ‘How dare you die on me? How dare you expose me to all this pain and grief?”
“When David got really sick Hjördis simply couldn’t handle it,” Yvonne Bricusse told Graham Lord. “Everybody handles things in different ways but I didn’t like her for it. Here was this lovely man in his hour of need and she should have been there for him, but her way was to hit the Fernet Branca.”
In despair, David wrote again to his old army colleague (whose wife had beaten her alcoholism some years before). “Chaps like you and I are going to do nothing to either start or stop things happening ourselves,” came the reply, “that can only be the choice or decision of the other person.”
Perhaps as a final, nuclear attempt to jolt Hjördis into action, David tried writing directly to her, asking for a divorce. Kristina told Graham Lord: “It was also a love letter, saying how much he loved her and always had and always would. I think he hoped it would stop her drinking but in the end he never gave it to her.”
In November 1982, the Nivens moved back to the Swiss mountains. With them went a dedicated full-time nurse for David.
Hjördis and David’s story at the time was not all darkness. When artists Freddie and Fiona Owen were invited to visit Chateau D’Oex, they were warmly welcomed and looked after throughout their stay. (Fiona had been commissioned to illustrate a book of poetry by Kristina Niven, later published as ‘Pour Toi’.)
In December, Hjördis released a short press statement to curb some of the rumours about David’s health, to the effect that David was suffering “A muscular disorder, but it is not cancer or a heart attack as many people have supposed.”
Next page: David Niven and Lou Gehrig, 1983