Piecing together David Niven’s last months is a very saddening experience. The man himself put on a brave face for those around him, which must have helped them to some extent despite the speed of his deterioration.
An anonymous family friend told an American newspaper that: “David knew he was dying for at least the last four months, but he was determined that he wasn’t going to let it spoil his life or the lives of his loved ones.”
“His main concerns were what he was going to do that day, who he had to telephone, who was to visit. He hated to waste a moment of his life.”
“His friends were wonderful. They had been calling regularly from London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Switzerland, everywhere, since his illness was public knowledge. Then, when David’s voice became so weakened that it was a strain for him to talk on the phone, they started visiting the house.”
“Old friends would call to see him,” Sheridan Morley wrote, “and Hjördis would have to warn them not to show how shocked they were by his condition.”
Anger, jealousy and revenge
Despite her usefulness on the telephone, Hjördis’ alcohol problems seem to have continued to twist and amplify her behaviour.
“She became very strange,” April Clavell told Graham Lord. “Her mind was not working rationally.”
In 2011, Jamie Niven told The Daily Mail: “I always sensed a great deal of anger in her. She was angry with him, angry at his fame and success. It was jealousy, I think. And when she drank, that anger intensified.”
“Look at him,” she reportedly snapped when David’s friend Ken Annakin visited. “He can’t tell his stories now!”
Beyond David’s fame and success, Hjördis’ anger appeared to be focussed on his years as a womaniser. Looking back at 1983 from 1994, she (seemingly at random) dropped in: “Of course, I knew he had other women.” This hints at what else was playing on her mind at the time, and may have fuelled a dreadful need for last-minute revenge.
While David was being treated at The Wellington hospital, Hjördis befriended a doctor (perhaps a throwback to her old childhood dreams of marrying one) and even invited him to Lo Scoglietto. Unsurprisingly, his presence was not popular with the rest of David’s family, the least of the reasons being that he brought along supplies of alcohol for her.
Another of Hjördis’ admirers was Monte Carlo based artist called Andrew Vicari, who was blindingly up-front about their relationship when interviewed by Graham Lord. “I adored Hjördis, and I’m proud to have been her lover. I went to Lo Scoglietto when David was alive and not yet ill and he regaled us with stories, but they seemed to be an ill-matched, incompatible couple. They were two of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I don’t know whether he was upset by my fling with her… [let’s guess ‘yes’…] Maybe.”
In parallel, Hjördis was suspicious of David’s new nurse – despite his condition – and unhappy about visits from his friends.
“Hjördis never wanted or encouraged people to visit David at the house in the South of France when he became ill,” Roger Moore wrote in ‘My Word Is My Bond’. “She seemed to resent his friends and the affection they held for him.”
“Bryan Forbes was staying with me and desperately wanted to visit, but Hjördis made it clear he was not welcome.”
“‘We’ll just drive over, knock on the door and go in,’ I suggested.”
“I can’t recall if Hjördis said anything, nor would I have taken any notice. By this time Niv had a terrible speech problem. He would speak slowly and very hesitantly. Bryan, bless his heart, like all Englishmen speaking to foreigners or people with an impediment, spoke very loudly.
“‘D-don’t shout, I am not deaf,’ said Niv.”
In May 1983, David’s friend Roderick Mann and his wife paid David their final visit:
“Roger said I should bite the bullet and go, so I went up to the villa, but it was horrendous because I literally couldn’t understand a word David was saying, and he seemed to have shrivelled within his clothes. We sat in the garden and just looked at each other and he was still smiling and the brain had stayed active but nothing else.”
Mann’s experience of the visit, together with collected stories of Hjördis’ behaviour towards David in his last months, lead him to write a play called ‘Chalet’. I can’t find any record of it being performed, though it doubtless painted a very black picture of Hjördis. “Roddy changed the names but the play is about Niven and Hjördis,” according to actress Alexandra Bastedo.
Death watch in The Med
When alone, David would sit for hours at the end of his garden, watching the boats go by. While doing so, he began to notice something odd.
“David noticed increasing signs of what he considered ‘death watch'”, Charles Francisco wrote. “Telltale signs of sunlight reflecting off telephoto lenses from windows across the street. He saw the same evidence from small boats cruising the water in front of his house. He curtailed his daily walks in the garden.” He was right to do so, but too late.
Two French photographers managed to take some spectacularly tasteless shots of David: a frail figure underneath a wide-brimmed straw hat, looking ill and gasping for breath. Worse, the photos were reproduced by English and then American tabloid newspapers, which upset David and infuriated his family and friends.
“David kept saying that he wanted to leave Cap Ferrat and go back to Chateau D’Oex,” Hjördis told Sheridan Morley, “but that he wanted me to stay and have a rest from him for a while. The air was very clear up there, and he thought the change might be good for him.”
“Three weeks before his death, Niven went to his Swiss chalet to escape a heat wave in France,” a friend later told an American newspaper. “David found it hard to breathe in the hot sticky weather.”
Farewell to Lo Scoglietto
Roger Moore visited David shortly before he left for Switzerland. “The only exercise he could manage was swimming with the aid of an inflatable ring. He had a very attentive Irish nurse who would patiently help him. As he came in from the pool that day, Hjördis appeared.”
“His voice was weak, but Niv proudly said, ‘I swam two lengths.'”
“In a cutting voice she replied, ‘Aren’t we a clever boy.'”
David knew that he only had a short time to live, but also feared for Hjördis’ future, despite (or perhaps because of) her uncontrolled behaviour. In 1994, Hjördis claimed that David suggested a suicide pact:
“‘We’ll dive into the pool hand-in-hand. Go down three times but only come up twice’. Suicide was a shocking thing to suggest and he suggested it several times. Life became a pure hell for us. I think he saw suicide as a good solution for both of us. I saw how he was fading away, and he saw how I was going down hill. But what could I do except take his suicide proposal as a joke? Nevertheless, I said to him, okay, we’ll do it.”
Jamie Niven visited his father often, and in 1988 described their last goodbye. “He was in the garden, sitting at a table in the sun, looking very small surrounded by the trees and flowers he had planted years before and loved so much. The garden had a beautiful rotunda, and Princess Grace of Monaco. who had been a frequent visitor before her death, said a British Army band should play tea music there every afternoon. When I said I would see him again soon, he shook his head sadly and said with great difficulty, ‘Bye, boy.'”
Accompanied only by his nurse, David left Lo Scoglietto for the last time in mid July, and flew to Chateau D’Oex. “I was going to join him there a few days later,” Hjördis told Sheridan Morley. But she never did.
Next page: David Niven’s last days, July 1983