David Niven was buried on 2nd August 1983, a bright summer’s day, at the same local church in Chateau D’Oex where he had gone to pray for Kristina’s recovery six years before. His funeral was attended by family, friends, the world’s press, and a stream of onlookers -at least until the vicar fruitily asked the latter to ‘fuck off’ before the interment.
Hjördis initially refused to attend. She relented (though apparently only at the last minute), and unfortunately, but not surprisingly, arrived fortified with alcohol.
Despite tales of her having to be held upright throughout by Prince Rainier, TV footage shows Hjördis walking up the church steps unaided. OK, she looks decidedly pale and dazed, but then again many widows would be at their husband’s funeral. She wears a distant (and slightly disconcerting) smile, although the most disconcerting thing is the very narrow space left for her by onlookers lining the steps. Get out of the bloody way!
Resting firmly on the arm
Walking in single file was soon no longer a requirement, and Paul Callan of the Daily Mirror described her entry into the church as “walking in with determined dignity, resting firmly on the arm of a slow moving Prince Rainier.”
Once inside, Hjördis’ bitterness quickly surfaced. According to David Jr she refused share a pew with both him and her other stepson Jamie. Very sad both to read and report.
“Niven’s widow was calm and poised throughout the service,” the Associated Press reported, although Paul Callan noted: “Sometimes during the 40 minute service she fidgeted nervously to hold in her sadness. And Prince Rainier glanced consolingly at her as she frequently lifted the edge of her black veil to dab her eyes with a tiny lace handkerchief. Beside her sat her two daughters. The girls held hands and stared at the floor.”
Gstaad resident Yehudi Menuhin and seven of his students played an andante from Mendelssohn’s string octet, because, as he told Ann Leslie: “Mendelssohn loved Scotland, where David was born.” [OK…].
He later saluted David as: “an incredibly courageous man who was a talented artist and author. He showed incredible courage during the two years of his illness and was always in good spirits and thinking of others rather than himself.”
The warmth felt for David was exemplified by a balding man in dark glasses who sobbed throughout the service. Afterwards he spoke to Ann Leslie: “I’m Bernardo. I was his cook for ten years. I’m very, very sorry. I cannot speak, he was such a wonderful man. I’m very sorry…”
Back outside in the open air Hjördis looked decidedly more fragile. Paul Callan felt that all-round: “the controlled, down-beat, stiff upper-lip Englishness of the occasion shattered slightly.”
“Hjördis Niven wept openly as she flung three handfuls of pink rose petals into the open grave. Then Hjördis was led carefully and tenderly away on the arm of Prince Rainier.” [Very carefully and tenderly written.]
Petals in the mud
Journalist Ann Leslie was also in Chateau D’Oex, for the UK’s Daily Mail. In her autobiography she remembered: “As the world’s press – and Niven’s old friends like Prince Rainier of Monaco, Yehudi Menuhin and Audrey Hepburn – gathered for the funeral, a fellow resident in Chateau d’Oex, the writer Alistair Forbes, took me aside.”
“‘Rainier’s finally persuaded Hjördis to come, but he’s very worried. He and I will hold her up at the graveside, but we wonder if it would be possible for you to persuade your colleagues not to point out that she’s terribly drunk?’”
“I assured Alistair that British readers, who loved Niven, would not thank us if we wrote about the boozy behaviour of his widow at his funeral or the fact that she’d had to be persuaded to attend it in the first place. When Hjördis threw rose petals into his grave, only Rainier’s and Alistair’s grip on her arms prevented her from following the petals into the mud.”
“As I penned sentimental words about how Hjördis, overcome with grief, looked ‘pale, smiling with a kind of feverish courage’, I knew that as a truthful journalist I should have added, ‘Actually, she was overcome by the bottle…’ One of his sons by Primmie, who knew I’d been economical with the truth about his stepmother’s behaviour, wrote to thank me profusely for ‘your sympathy and support, in the circumstances’.”
Journalist Roger Lewis was perhaps not aware of Alistair Forbes’ request. In his book ‘What Am I Still Doing Here?: My Life as Me’, he remembered the editorial criticism that his piece received:
“Just one thing! Sometimes you become a little rude or flippant in your reviews. Recently for example we’ve had to change quite a lot, eg. in the David Niven review, the reference to Prince Rainier preventing Hjördis from toppling into the grave.”
“One day I must publish the Director’s Cut of my articles,” Lewis added. “Can you believe that Prince Rainier had to offer David Niven’s widow his arm at Niven’s funeral because she was pissed and couldn’t keep upright?”
On 27th October 1983, Hjördis attended a memorial service for David at St Martin-in-the-Fields church, London. She was photographed outside with David Jr, impeccably dressed with hat and veil. She then stepped away from the gaze of the press for at least, ooh… two or three months.
Next page: The Other Side of the Moon, 1984-1985