[The excerpt below is from David Niven’s memoir of Hollywood, Bring on the Empty Horses, 1975. It consists of an entire chapter near the end of the book, and describes in riveting detail a nightmarish experience that Niven claims to have had in connection with an actress friend. If Niven had known what picking up that early morning phone call would require of him, he may well have just let it ring. As it was, the mission of mercy that he embarked upon by responding to that summons was hellish in the way that only close contact with someone in the throes of mental illness can be hellish. It could be argued that fear of life-long remorse kept him at his station for three days and two nights when every fibre of his being longed to escape. But he was trapped. His doctor friend had insisted that, “Till [her husband] gets here, she must not be left alone whatever happens.” Nobody wants a friend’s suicide on their conscience, and to avoid it one will give of oneself above and beyond the call of normal charity. But whatever his motive, the act itself was an act of gift love of a very high order.
Niven alters various details of fact in order to disguise the identity of his friend, whom he calls “Missie.” However, an Internet post from a certain Julia provides the following information: ‘Although most reports say this is all Vivien Leigh, it is mostly about Lana Turner, with some details of the actual weekend long breakdown coming from an episode Niven had with Leigh. This comes from my father who was part of that social circle back in the day.’ Niven was a gifted story teller, and was not above combining experiences and people to improve his art.]
“Let’s pull ‘em up and head back,” said my companion, a general practitioner from Santa Monica. “It’s gettin’ late, and nothing’ goin’ to hit now.”
We reeled in our lines, and he gunned the motor; it was four o’clock in the afternoon, and we’d been trolling for marlin since six o’clock in the morning. “Just one of those days, I guess.” He sighed. “We might just as well break out the scotch!” We had an hour’s run back to Balboa, so we settled ourselves comfortably, glasses in hand. Silence is not an embarrassment between friends, and we sat back contentedly watching the horizon astern thicken to purple as it prepared to receive the great red ball of the sinking sun.
“That’s one hell of a profession you’ve gotten yourself into,” said the doctor later with a smile. “D’you think you’ll come out OK at the end of it?”
I asked him what he meant. “I have very little contact with people in the film business myself,” he said, “but d’you have any idea how many wind up in our hospital as alcoholics, addicts, suicides, attempted suicides, or with breakdowns?”
“Just what I see in the papers,” I replied.
“That’s only the tip of the iceberg,” said the doctor. “It’s frightening! A guy at the hospital has written a paper on stress, there’s a chapter on what it does to actors; I’ll send it along to you.”
I told him I hoped that I personally would survive; he laughed and said, “Yes, you probably will, because you’re perfectly happy sitting on your ass for ten hours holdin’ a rod and not catchin’ a fish.”
Some weeks passed before I got around to reading about the dire effects of stress in the motion-picture industry. High-powered executives, it appeared, were prone to everything from heart attacks, to hemorrhoids and premature ejaculation. Agents and publicists cornered the market in ulcers, while writers and actors frequently became alcoholics or drug addicts. An alarming number of actresses, the article stated, either killed themselves, attempted to do so, or suffered nervous breakdowns. I was still not reading seriously until the writer provided an up-to-date casualty list starting back in the silent days with Clara Bow, Barbara La Marr and Jeanne Eagels—it was a profoundly disturbing catalogue of collapse, which included the names of many people I knew or had known.
The main point the writer made was that the players most likely to suffer were not the talented “personalities” such as Garbo, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Dietrich, Mae West, or Claudette Colbert, because they would always be able to adjust to the fact that each day everyone becomes twenty-four hours older; the targets for attack were the young, of minimal talent, who had been plucked from obscurity, spoon-fed on publicity, taught how to walk, to talk, to dress; and then how to undress and expose themselves to the world as sex symbols or love goddesses.
The article printed a lurid picture of what could happen to the mind of a female in her late twenties or early thirties who was beginning to realize, after years of adulation and secure in the knowledge that half the male population of the world wanted to sleep with her, that in fact her famous face and curves were showing signs of losing the battle against gravity, and to be told by her studio that her public was tired of her.
That, the writer concluded, would be a traumatic enough experience for anyone, but to have to cope with it in the full glare of publicity in front of millions of people could prove too much. She would have to fall back on her “real” self; if she discovered that her “real” self was absent because it had never existed, then collapse in some form would follow as the night the day. The article on stress went the same way as other sad-ending scenarios because I mentally pushed it aside. Famines in India seemed far away, too.
Three years had passed since I had first met Missie. “He,” the boyfriend, had gone to jail for defrauding gullible ladies (including Missie). A third mate had given up the unequal struggle of being married to a sex symbol, and now she was married to a close friend of mine, a cameraman, one of the best in Hollywood, a master of diffused lighting, and in great demand by the female stars. Missie, by now twenty-eight years old Hollywood time (thirty-three Eastern Standard Time), was still a gay, sparkling creature, but according to local gossip, her thickening body was making her exceedingly jealous of her husband’s proximity to the most glamourous ladies in the world, and lately, whispers had been filtering back from the South Pacific, where he was photographing an extremely predatory lady. Rumour also had it that the film Missie was currently shooting was a skid picture designed to be the last one at the studio where she had worked for fifteen years but which was now preparing to dump her. She seemed in good spirits when she called to invite me to a small party at her house a few days hence. “Just friends,” she said, and she talked rapidly and at great length about its chances of success.
Missie was a meticulous and house-proud hostess, who took endless pains to ensure that her guests were happy and that everything—company, food, drink, and lighting—was as near as possible perfect. True, she was shooting a picture so as a mid-week party we did not expect a late or elaborate affair, but the twenty or thirty guests were a trifle surprised to find on arrival that Missie had ordered no food or made any apparent efforts to accommodate them. She was overly bright and gay and said she was delighted that we had all dropped by, but she still wore the sweater and slacks in which she had returned from work and had not removed her heavy studio makeup. It didn’t matter. People disappeared to their houses and came back with ham and eggs, cheese, bread, candles, and a couple of cases of wine; the girls invaded the kitchen and calmed down Mae, the longtime “help”; and with Missie behaving like the most animated of guests, we ended up having a very good time.
As I drove home, I thought back over the evening and decided that Missie must have been high on something. I was perhaps a little surprised, because she habitually drank very little and I had never seen any signs of her taking drugs, but I dismissed it from my mind and went to sleep.
At six o’clock in the morning Mae called me on the telephone.
“Mista David, you git over here real quick! . . . Somethin’ terrible’s happenin’ to Missie”
“What?” I asked sleepily.
“She’s possessed—that’s what! . . . you git over here real quick now!”
Within twenty minutes I drove up to the little white garden gate and jumped out of the car. Mae was waiting for me. She was shaking. She clutched my arm and repeated over and over, “She’s possessed! She’s possessed! She’s throwed me out! . . . I’m quittin’ . . . I’m quittin’!”
I tried to reassure her, but nothing would persuade her to come back into the house with me, so I took her key and watched her head quickly down to the treelined street in the direction of Sunset Boulevard—she never looked back.
It was still dark, and no lights showed in the small house as I quietly let myself in the back door. I didn’t know what to expect, so I stood inside the kitchen and called out softly a few times, “Missie, it’s David!” There was no answer, then the sound of footsteps above. I pushed the swing door into the hall. Suddenly all the lights went on, and there stood Missie at the top of the stairs. Her hair was hanging down in straggly clumps; the mascara and make up made a ghastly streaked mask down to her chin; one false eyelash was missing; her eyes were staring and wild. She was naked and looked quite, quite mad.
I had never seen real hysteria before and didn’t know how to cope with it. I tried walking up the stairs toward her, but she backed away screaming, “Go away! Go away! I hate you! . . . Don’t touch me!”
When I tried to reason with her, she sat on the landing, alternately sobbing like a child and snarling down at me through the bannisters like a caged animal.
I knew I must get her a doctor, but the very mention of the word brought on the most terrifying reaction. I knew also that she must be overdue at the studio make up department, and any minute the assistant director would be calling up to find out if she had overslept; above all, I knew that if Missie had cracked up, no word of it must leak out to the press or she’d be finished in Hollywood.
In desperation I tried an offhand approach.
“Look darling,” I said, “you can sit up there on the floor as long as you like, but I’m bored, and I want to watch television.”
At that hour of the morning in the early days of TV, there were no programs on the air, but I had a feeling that I must coax her downstairs and try to keep her busy. I switched on the set, which cracked and hummed and displayed nothing but horizontal lines, and settled myself on the sofa to watch them. After a few minutes the stairs behind me creaked, but I did not look around. I could sense that Missie was standing watching me. Then she came shyly into the room, like a child, and curled up on the sofa next to me to watch the blank screen with a funny private smile. We sat there together for a long while. Occasionally she would let out a peal of laughter and point at the set; sometimes she would shrink back in horror; once she screamed with fear and moved up close beside me.
Goose bumps rose on my back.
I put my arm around her naked body to protect her from whatever it was she saw in her poor faraway mind—she was icy cold.
The phone rang in the kitchen. I glanced at my watch. It was only eight o’clock, but I already felt that I had been in that house for a lifetime.
Having succeeded, so far, in calming her by playing a game of lies, I continued by saying “Oh that’s for me . . . I”ll be back in a second.”
It was indeed Mac, the assistant director. He was in a highly choleric condition.
“Where the hell is Missie?” he demanded. “She’s over two hours late!”
By a great stroke of good luck I had worked with Mac and knew him for one of that priceless breed of true professionals who can guide unsure directors, make life pleasant for actors, and save money for producers. Once he had identified himself, I whispered down the phone.
“Missie is sick, Mac, and it’s real trouble, so for her sake don’t say a word to anyone except the producer . . . Who is he?”
Mac mentioned a fairly obscure name and added, “and he’s a jerk.”
“Tell him to come over right away,” I said. “Not to come up to the house, just blow the horn in the street, and I’ll come out to him.”
I fetched Missie’s husband’s overcoat from the hall closet and joined her once more before the television set. She snuggled under the coat and clasped my hand. “Isn’t she lovely?” she said, pointing at the empty screen. Around nine o’clock I heard the front doorbell ring. Missie was transformed.
“Don’t let them in!” she pleaded. “They’ll take me away!” I promised that I wouldn’t let anyone in if she would be a good little girl and go up to her room and shut the door. I watched her still gorgeous back view ascend the stairs.
On the doorstep I found a highly strung, fat, youngish man dressed in white slacks and open neck shirt. His black hair was slicked down, and his eyes were obscured by dark glasses.
“What gives, for chrissakes?” he asked, and before I had time to phrase an answer, he added belligerently, “and how did you get into the act?”
I brought Missies’ producer up to date and told him that in my opinion she would be unable to report for work for some time.
“Are you screwing her?” he asked. “What the hell do you know about it? . . . you’re not her goddamn physician . . . where is she? I want to talk with her.”
He was prevented from doing this and finally left, having jabbed a finger in my chest and promised to sue me, to call the police, to get me barred from all studios and to “take care of Missie for fucking up my picture.”
When he had gone, I found Missie crying among the shoes at the bottom of her wardrobe.
After another hour of empty television I claimed an urge for a cup of coffee and left Missie reacting to the horizontal flashes while I headed for the kitchen and another whispered phone call, this time to the new head of her studio—a quiet, dignified man I had met only once.
He was light years ahead of his image-conscious producer. “The only thing that matters is that girl’s health,” he said at once. “We’ll keep the picture going and wait for her as long as we can; if necessary, we’ll recast and reshoot Missie’s part, but what about her?”
I underlined the urgent need for a doctor, and he instantly agreed to alert my old friend from Santa Monica, whose office, far from Beverly Hills, was unlikely to be infiltrated by gossip columnists’ spies, eager for the hot news of an impending abortion, a drying out, or a breakdown. He also promised to locate Missie’s husband and get him an immediate message, telling him, from me, in the most urgent but least frightening terms, what had happened to his wife and to urge him to return posthaste. We both agreed it would take him at least three days to make the trip.
Probably from her hours of naked exposure in a drafty house, Missie was coughing intermittently, so I told her that my doctor would be passing by to give me “an injection” and that I’d ask him to check her over at the same time and perhaps recommend something for her cold. To my surprise she agreed without much ado, but when I suggested that she clean up her face for the impending visit, it provoked another screaming spate of abuse: If I didn’t think she was beautiful the way she was, why didn’t I get the hell out? . . . Who invited me anyway? Et cetera. After she calmed down, we returned to the television set, and Missie ate some cottage cheese.
The doctor arrived punctually, and I went down to the gate to brief him. He followed me into the house, and when Missie saw him administrating my bogus jab, she held my hand during the proceedings. When he turned his attention to her, she babbled incoherently but allowed him to listen to her heart and lungs. He produced a bottle of pills and said to me, “She should take two of these every two hours . . . she has the beginnings of a nasty infection there . . . I’ll drop by again around six.”
Missie had been unnaturally clam during his visit but the storm broke when he asked if she had a girlfriend who could come and sit with her “because you might feel drowsy and you don’t want to take a fall.”
She suddenly turned on the poor man and started belaboring him and pushing him toward the front door. She yelled and screamed and poured out torrents of abuse on him and on all her girlfriends, naming them one by one, reviling them and accusing them of plotting against her.
When she collapsed with the inevitable tear storm, she sobbed, “David’s the only one I trust . . . and he’s looking after me.”
At the doctor’s car he said, “There’s no question . . . the girl’s in big trouble and must go in for psychiatric treatment at once.”
The responsibility was being lifted from my shoulders. I was relieved and said so, but he shook his head. “You told me it would be three days before the husband gets here, and by California law the next of kin is the only one who can sign her in . . . Even I can’t do it. Till he gets here, she must not be left alone whatever happens. And lock up all the kitchen hardware because she might do anything.”
He paused and said kindly, “It’s going to be tough on you, but you’re the friend of the family, and it looks as though you’re stuck . . . How’s the sex thing between you?”
“There isn’t any,” I said. “There’s never been.”
He opened the door of his convertible. “She’s going to offer it to you,” he said. “That’s part of the pattern. If you accept, you’ll make matters worse, and if you refuse, she’ll still make matters worse because she’ll feel rejected by the only person she trusts . . . I don’t envy you the next three days.”
“What the hell do I do?” I asked. “I’ve only been here four hours, and I’m already exhausted . . . I have my own life to lead, too.”
“Give her those pills,” he said, “and keep in touch with me. Remember, when they’re like this, they’re very, very cunning. Good luck.”
He drove away.
Back in the house the nightmare took its course. First the phone rang, and a voice said, “Hold the line for Miss Louella Parsons, please.”
It hadn’t taken long; probably a secretary in the fat producer’s office had heard him pressing the panic button. Louella’s well known drawl came over the phone. She demanded to speak to Missie.
“She’s sick,” I said, putting what I hoped was a Filipino houseman’s voice. “She’s sleeping . . . she no come to phone . . . you leave message.”
“Tell her to call Louella Parsons as soon as she wakes.”
“Yes, ma’am” I said.
“Who was that?” asked Missie when I went back to the television room.
“Oh, just Louella,” I said off-handedly.
Missie was instantly transformed. “Why don’t you want me to speak to Louella?” she yelled. “She probably wants to do a Sunday story on me . . . You know I love Louella.” She ran into the kitchen and started looking up the columnist’s number. I grabbed the phone from Missie’s hands, and a battle royal took place for it’s possession. She went for my eyes and testicles with fingers like hooked claws, so during the sobbing period that followed the encounter I took the doctor’s advice and locked up all the sharp kitchen implements I could find.
The dreadful day dragged on. During the afternoon I finally persuaded her to take two of the doctor’s pills, which she had hitherto regarded with the deepest suspicion, but first she wanted to take a walk around the small swimming pool. Stark naked as usual, she paraded around the garden, and I prayed that prying journalist eyes could not see through the hedge. When the moment to take the pills came, she grabbed the bottle out of my hand and ran off like a naughty child, hid it behind her back, and demanded a kiss in exchange for it. This payment having been extracted, she deliberately emptied the contents of the bottle into the deep end of the pool.
The doctor paid his second visit, and Missie refused to let him inside the house, saying he was one of “them.” I managed to have a few words with him in the garden.
“I’ll get you some more pills,” he said, and showed me where he would leave them by the gate. “They’re strong sedatives; it’ll make your life much easier if she’ll take them . . . is she eating anything?”
“Only cottage cheese, “ I told him.
“Try pounding them up and mixing them in there,” he suggested. “Is she drinking?”
“She asks for a glass of wine now and then . . . is that bad?”
“Any stimulant is bad of course, but don’t refuse it—water it down.”
He gave news from the head of Missie’s studio. “I’m in contact with him; he sounds like a good guy. He said to tell you that the husband is on his way. He’s due in eight o’clock Sunday morning.”
My heart sank—it was only Thursday evening.
“He said to tell you that he’s put out a press release that she’s in bed with a virus infection under doctor’s care . . . good luck, Doctor!” He added with a smile, “Try to get a couple of those pills into her stomach and take the phone off the hook.”
Missie made the offer the doctor had predicted during our first night together.
“I’ve something for you,” she said seductively, and ran upstairs, giggling.
Half an hour later she called down. Her face was cleaned at last, her make up redone, her hair brushed and falling into a golden cloud over her shoulders, and she was wearing a short black see-through nightie. She looked lovely.
“Come and get it,” she whispered from the top of the stairs, turning her back in a parody of sexiness and lifting the hem of the nightie. It was not an easy evening for me, to put it mildly, and it ended in a glass- and bottle-throwing scene with Missie ordering me out of the house, an instruction I longed to, but dared not, obey.
The pills did not seem to have much effect on Missie. Around midnight she ate some cottage cheese which contained a couple and drank some wine into which I had stirred a third, but they slowed her down for only an hour or two; then she was as bright and demanding and as terrifyingly unpredictable as before. I dared not go to sleep for five minutes, and as the long days and interminable nights melded into each other, a dreadful thought began to assail me—that it was not Missie whose mind had become deranged . . . it was mine. I became a hollow-eyed zombie, sleepless and utterly exhausted, but Missie never showed any signs of tiredness and harried me endlessly to play hide and seek with her, to flatter her, to comfort her, to fight with her, or to go to bed with her.
I found I had come to hate her.
Twice a day the doctor met me in the garden to give me news of the husband’s progress and to inject me with floods of B12 to keep me going. By Saturday evening I could go no further.
I can’t make it through tonight,” I told him. “The plane’s on time . . . he arrives tomorrow morning. For God’s sake give her a jab and put her out so that I can sleep . . . I can’t go on.”
He looked at me carefully for a long time. “It’s completely illegal,” he said, “But OK, I’ll do it.”
He outlined the plan. I was to leave the front door open and at 9 o’clock exactly he would slip in with a trained nurse, who, he said, would act as a witness, help with the injection, and also stay the night to take care of Missie when she came around. The two of them would hide in the downstairs bathroom; then, on some pretext, I would coax her into the hall, grab her, throw her on the ground, and hold her down while the deed was done.
“It’s going to be very rough,” he said, “and God knows I hate to do it—but it’s the only way.”
Missie seemed to sense that something was going to happen. For the first time her eyes lost their wild look; she seemed calm, almost normal and very vulnerable. She followed me wherever I went. Also, for the first time, she talked about her husband. She had not mentioned him once during the whole time I had been with her. “I hope he comes to see me,” she said sadly.
It was eerie.
A few minutes before nine I told her I was hungry and asked her to come help me fix a sandwich. She left her favorite place in front of the television set and put her hand trustingly and childlike in mine. As we passed through the hall into the kitchen, I caught a glimpse through the curtains of the doctor’s darkened car at the gate.
We puttered about in the kitchen, and I received another reminder of the premonition that had awakened within my charge. Suddenly Missie said, “You won’t let them take me away, will you?”
For a moment I thought she too might have seen the car.
“Who?” I asked.
“Oh!” she said mysteriously. “They will be coming for me one day . . . They want to take me away, but you won’t let them, will you?”
“Of course not” I said, loathing every second of the dreadful charade that was unfolding. Slowly I ate my sandwich.
When I judged that sufficient time had elapsed for my conspirators to be in position and ready, I took Missie’s trusting hand in mine and led her into the hall; a chink of light showed from beneath the bathroom door. Clumsily I swung the poor naked girl around, hooked one leg behind her knees, and flung her to the ground.
After a first startled gasp she fought with incredible ferocity and strength. She didn’t scream; she was spitting like a panther, biting, clawing, and kicking. I finally managed to spread-eagle her on the floor and pin her arms by kneeling on the elbow joints. I yelled for the doctor.
When she saw two strange forms approaching, one in white uniform and the other bearing a hypodermic syringe, Missie screamed at last, long, piercing notes of pure animal terror.
“They’ve come! They’ve come!”
The nurse held Missie’s feet, and between us we controlled her convulsive struggles while the doctor did his work.
It was soon over, and as she began to calm down I avoided her eyes, filled as they were with such blazing hatred at my base betrayal.
Later, when we carried her to bed, her face was as innocent and as peaceful as a baby’s.
The nurse cleaned up my many bites and scratches, and the doctor gave me something that would enable me to go to sleep at last. None of us spoke.
At six o’clock the next day, refreshed, but with a leaden conscience and a three-day growth of beard, I drove, on my way to the airport, through the peaceful emptiness of the early-morning streets.
A few kids were already abroad, experimenting with brightly colored bikes, and some early risers in curlers and bedroom slippers were retrieving carelessly delivered Sunday papers from beneath bushes in their front gardens.
I felt as though I had returned from far, far away.
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eyes of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
King John (Salisbury)
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