David Niven’s last days, July 1983

News of David Niven's death, UK, 30th July 1983
News of David Niven’s death, UK, 30th July 1983

When David Niven arrived back at his chalet in Chateau D’Oex in mid 1983, by all accounts his condition and spirits improved. David’s physiotherapist friend David Bolton visited daily, and Roger Moore arranged for him to use near-neighbour Gunther Sachs’ indoor swimming pool.

She thought nothing

“Every day he would swim and walk a little,” David’s nurse Kathleen Matthewson told Sheridan Morley, “and seemed so much better than he did in France. He really was a different man, much more relaxed than he had been in France.” David’s improvement also seemed to relax his friends and family.

Talking to a TV news crew on 29th July, Roger Moore said:  “He’d come back from France a couple of weeks ago, and was really on the mend. He started gaining weight again, and was increasing his exercise… we thought everything was going to be OK.”

Shortly after David’s death, an American newspaper reported that: “Niven’s ability to shrug off his illness was the reason Hjördis wasn’t at his side when he died. He had so thoroughly concealed his rapidly deteriorating condition that she thought nothing about leaving him alone with Fiona for a few days.”

It also seems like Fiona felt able to leave the chalet for a short time to attend to every-day business. Kathleen was of course ever-present, and Hjördis’ nephew Mikael Wrangstad arrived to help with David’s care. Hjördis’ horrific reaction to her nephew’s presence seemed to illustrate that while David had found peace and calm in Switzerland, her drinking was spiraling her into a very dark place indeed. “She rang from Cap Ferrat and told Mikael his mother was dying and he ought to go back to Sweden,” Fiona told Graham Lord. “This upset both Mikael and Daddy, and was completely untrue.”

Another upsetting development occurred on Tuesday 26th July, when David’s butler Monsieur Andrey died. (His wife was David’s cook).

Away he went. As quickly as that

David’s decline began to accelerate. Kathleen recalled his last three days for Sheridan Morley.

Wednesday 27th July:  “David went to swim in the morning and then meant to go in the evening again but couldn’t because he was exhausted, having failed to sleep in the afternoon because of the heat. That night his sleeping tablet didn’t work so I sat up chatting to him until two in the morning; he was talking now about Primmie and his first marriage.”

(Reminiscing about Primmie was hopefully a comfort to David. He had apparently received a very bitter drunken phone-call from Hjördis earlier in the evening –  a last, horribly misplaced outpouring of her grievances, seemingly centred on his past transgressions. “He had tears in his eyes and her photo on his desk, and he choked as he spoke due to the illness and emotion. It was a very sad scene indeed,” David Bolton recalled. I don’t know if this was Hjördis and David’s last contact. If it was – I can only hope it wasn’t – what a terrible way to sign off.)

Thursday 28th July: “I called the doctor, who said he was deteriorating very rapidly, and there was nothing he could do unless David went into hospital again. But he desperately didn’t want to do that, so I called his sons in America and they agreed that he should be allowed to stay peacefully at home. On the Thursday he couldn’t speak a word, but he was still writing me little notes and David Bolton brought him some oxygen to clear his chest.”

Friday 29th July: “That night I again stayed up with him until three o’clock in the morning… he suddenly began talking again about Primmie, and how happy they had been together and how different his life would have been if she had not been killed. Then he said I really had to get some sleep, but to look in on him and if he was OK he’d have his thumb up. About seven in the morning, I looked in and his thumb was up so I went downstairs to make myself some coffee and just as I got to the bottom of the stairs I heard a sort of noise, as though he’d been trying to get out of bed, and when I got back into his room he had the oxygen mask off and gave me a big smile and held my hand and away he went. As quickly as that.”

Here for the press are you?

Kathleen, David Bolton and Fiona began to contact David’s family and friends with the news of his passing.

An anonymous friend claimed to be with Hjördis at the time, and told an American newspaper: “When Fiona telephoned to say that David had died peacefully, Hjördis was transfixed with shock and grief. The fact that he died without her by his side has affected her tremendously.”

In ‘My Word Is My Bond’ Roger Moore wrote: “Around seven o’clock in the morning of 29th July 1983, I received a call at my home in St Paul de Vence from David Bolton. He said he was waiting for the doctor to come over and sign Niv’s death certificate. I asked who was there at the house. He said only Fiona. He thought there was a nephew of Hjördis around, but couldn’t be sure. Hjördis was in the south of France. I said I’d go over straight away.”

Roger Moore and his daughter immediately raced to Chateau D’Oex. Hjördis arrived in Chateau D’Oex thirty six hours later.

“This evening Mrs Hjördis Niven arrived from the family’s other home, in the south of France,” ITV’s ‘News at Ten’ reported on 30th July, accompanied by pictures of Hjördis’ car approaching the chalet. “She was driven in by friends, who explained she was too distressed to face anyone at the moment.”

“I prepared the best I could for Hjördis’ arrival,” Roger Moore wrote, “and that of Niv’s other children, who were flying in from around the world. By this time, the press were starting to congregate, and in order to spare her the ordeal of having to face the TV cameras I suggested that the car take Hjördis around to the back of the house, where they could drive straight into the underground garage.”

“As she arrived, I went down to the garage. She meanwhile decided to enter by the front door. The car door opened and, with her wig slipping and an empty bottle of vodka rolling around her feet. Hjördis looked up at me and slurred, ‘Here for the press are you?'”

I could hear myself saying, ‘Just get in the fucking house.'”

“It had been no secret that she and David didn’t get on in later life. In fact, she was a bitch to him. I say that with all the conviction it deserves, as David was a dear, dear friend of mine who did nothing but try to please her. In return, Hjördis showed him nothing but disdain.”

Hjördis’ nephew was still at the chalet, and took on the job of reading a prepared press statement when the world’s press inevitably began to call.

“My uncle died peacefully and without pain, shortly after 7am. His last gesture a few minutes before he died was a thumbs up sign. He had been very cheerful and happy, and he had put on some weight. He had been swimming every day.”

The game of life

“When my brother and I were young,” Jamie Niven said in 1988, “we used to play a game with Noel Coward. Noel would say a word, and we had a minute to name as many words with some logical connection as we could. Then it would be Noel’s turn, and of course he always won. If we were playing that game now, and Noel gave us my father’s name, my list would be something like this: charming, gentleman, attractive, sometimes unsure of himself, wonderful story-teller, witty, private but outgoing, considerate, realist, lover of life, giver rather than taker, survivor, kind … demanding.”

Next page: A bright summer’s day in Chateau D’Oex, 1983

 

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