In the opening months 0f 1983 David Niven’s health failed rapidly. In parallel, Hjördis Niven’s alcoholism increased, leading to stories that would create a lasting public impression.
As well as coping with his dreadful illness, David was worried about finances. Although he was a wealthy man, he surprised his son Jamie by expressing doubts about whether he could afford a private nurse.
“David’s concern was resolved when the woman left the Nivens’ employ,” Charles Francisco wrote. “The decision was made by David’s wife, for reasons not related to finances. A new nurse was hired. The original nurse flatly told reporters that Mrs Niven had a serious drinking problem that was further complicating her husband’s gallant struggle for life.” Fortunately, Jamie persuaded his father to hire a new nurse, Katherine Matthewson, (referred to as Kathleen Matthewson in Sheridan Morley’s Niven biography).
Another of David’s concerns was about Hjördis’ future, should she somehow outlive his children. In 1994, the Swedish press reported that she: “became an alcoholic under the severe stress” of David’s final days. A major simplification, but still a rare media reference to her alcoholism, at least during her lifetime.
Sweden’s answer to Florence Nightingale
“Towards the end he needed care 24 hours a day, and he had this wonderful Irish nurse, Katherine Matthewson, who he adored,” David Jr told The Daily Mail. “By this time, Hjördis had pretty much given up. She was not Sweden’s answer to Florence Nightingale by any stretch of the imagination.”
The Nivens’ winter in Chateau D’Oex was characterised by David’s continuing decline, as his everyday joys steadily disappeared, never to return.
“For a man like David, who so loved to swim and walk and ski and sail and talk, gradually to find all those pleasures denied him was unbearable,” Hjördis told Sheridan Morley. “The frustration of trying to say or write something and then finding that he just couldn’t communicate, together with the wasting of the body, made it the most cruel illness.”
In late February 1983, David was flown to London for nine days of treatment at the Wellington private hospital. On Monday 28th, the day before David’s 73rd birthday, press agent Theo Cowan tried to smooth things over with a statement claiming that David was not seriously ill: “We’ve been told he’s in for a checkup for a digestive disorder and that he’s progressing really quite well. He certainly went through a time when he wasn’t in good health, but he has been getting steadily better.”
The press were not about to be fobbed off, and began to dig deeper, initially with little success. Wellington hospital staff were questioned: “He has not had an operation, but is in for a checkup,” one anonymous ‘spokesman’ didn’t really let slip, before refusing to give out the telephone number of David’s room. [The cheek to ask!] A housekeeper back at the Nivens’ chalet was phoned instead and said that when David left home: “He certainly did not seem to be in bad health. He gave me a kiss and said he would be back soon.”
The main focus for information switched to Hjördis, who arrived at Heathrow on Thursday 3rd March, only to be ambushed with questions from a waiting press pack. Although reasonably familiar with one-to-one interview situations, she was not used to being the centre of attention for a ‘mob’ of seasoned, pressuring reporters.
Hjordis revealed that David was: “tired and very weak” and “has a wasting disease of the muscles. I spoke to him last night. He can still speak, but not very well, and he has lost some of the use of his left hand… I have not flown in because there is a great crisis.” Although Hjördis refused to name the disease, the press were quick to come to conclusions. ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’ was a term that once again became familiar to American readers. (Lou Gehrig was a celebrated New York Yankees baseball player, who succumbed to a form of motor neurone disease in 1941.)
Blue clouds turning black
David returned home on 7th March, from where Hjördis – more comfortable and certainly more practiced at speaking over the telephone – provided more details while trying to paint a positive picture for inquiring journalists:
“One of the main reasons he went into the hospital was to put on some weight. He’d lost a lot of weight because since last October, he’d been on a very rigid diet he’d devised himself, thinking it would be better for his health if he were to control what he ate.”
“But he also lost his appetite for eating the way he used to, and he became weak and underweight. The hospital immediately put him on an intravenous glucose drip, and vitamins. As a result he put on about 11 pounds, and really did look better.”
“His voice is his biggest problem because he gets very tired after speaking for five or ten minutes. But David loves to talk for hours and hours. He still goes on and on except he can only do it in short spurts. That’s the thing that annoys him most.”
“David is battling on, nothing gets him down. He’s living more or less like before. He doesn’t have to spend any specific amount of time in bed every day. His medical regime is more or less his own invention. When he’s tired he sleeps, and when he feels fine he goes for walks.”
“He’ll take the car into the countryside where nobody knows him and then goes for long walks up there where no one will bother him. He’s tired of people st0pping him to say how they thought he was dead or dying. He likes to walk alone in peace.”
“He’s started writing his novel again, and he’s two-thirds through it. He’s really concentrating, working on it just about every day. It’s a comedy, and he’s read me parts of it that are really funny.”
Within a few weeks, David was no longer able to continue writing his book, which was abandoned at around 50,000 words. David Jr admitted to Graham Lord that it wasn’t good enough to publish, even if re-worked and finished by another writer. As for David’s voice, it soon became so weak that it was almost impossible for most people to understand what he was saying, which also made dictating his book out of the question.
Bottles all over the house
“While the disease had its way with David,” David’s friend Robert Wagner wrote, “Hjördis was elsewhere – drinking, having affairs.”
“I drank everything, anything,” Hjördis told Expressen in 1994. “I was weak. But who is strong under such conditions?”
“She had blackouts,” Jamie Niven revealed to Graham Lord. “She drank upstairs, on her own, and he told me that they found bottles all over the house. She was drinking easily a bottle of vodka a day; he told me.”
“Once, I walked into the chalet and saw a wheelchair,” David Jr told the Daily Mail. “I was astonished as my dad had spurned all such aids. But the wheelchair wasn’t for him, it was for her. She had fallen down drunk and broken her leg.”
The leg break may have been an exaggeration, but Hjördis’ fall did still land her in the newspaper columns, as well as in a wheelchair.
“It never sprains- but it pours,” the fictitious William Hickey punned, horribly, in UK’s Daily Express on 28th March 1983. “While David Niven bravely fights a wasting disease affecting the muscles, I learn his wife Hjördis has been in the wars herself. Mrs Niven is merely the victim of a painfully-sprained knee. Yesterday’s bulletin from their home near Nice : ‘Up and about and completely mobile.’ And David? ‘He’s fine.'”
Next page: Surrounded by trees and flowers, 1983