Angie Dickinson’s only daughter dealt with a severe mental illness, but it was a psychiatry’s comment about her mother’s fate that placed her in a downward spiral of fear she could never get out of.
In 1965, about seven years after multi-awarded musician Burt Bacharach and actress Paula Stewart divorced, he married “Police Woman” star Angie Dickinson. They stayed together for 15 years, but their relationship was filled with challenges.
Angie Dickinson in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning and Dickinson, Burt Bacharach, and Lea Nikki in the early-70s | Photo: Getty Images - YouTube.com/CBS Sunday Morning
WELCOMING A CHILD
The former couple started facing issues in the summer of 1966 when their daughter was born. Lea Nikki, commonly referred to as Nikki, arrived three months prematurely.
Given that she was only one pound, ten ounces at birth, almost nobody expected her to survive. Not even Dickinson, who stayed in the hospital for two weeks to heal from infection and chose not to see her in the incubator to avoid having that memory “and then have her go.”
Burt Bacharach and his wife Angie Dickinson in May 1974 | Photo: Getty Images
After those two weeks, Nikki was still alive, so Dickinson and Bacharach started visiting her every day. Nobody was allowed to touch her to protect her from diseases, though.
Dickinson once pointed out that back in the 60s, doctors ignored the importance of skin-to-skin contact after birth. She believes that if a baby never gets touched or hears a loving voice in their first months, they will never “feel real” or “connected to anything.”
Luckily, Nikki made it out of the hospital after three months. Although she was only five pounds, she seemed like a normal kid and did “wonderfully.” Before her first birthday, Dickinson and Bacharach started noticing some worrying signs.
Portrait of Angie Dickinson circa 1967 | Photo: Getty Images
UNDIAGNOSED MENTAL PROBLEMS
The actress explained that Nikki had strabismus (the condition that makes the eye turn inward), didn’t speak until she was three years old, and would stare at the trees or the sky in what Dickinson believed was a meditative state.
While Nikki clearly dealt with developmental issues, she was a natural in other physical activities, like gymnastics, horseback, ballet, scuba diving, and swimming. Dickinson added:
“When she was only four, she could play piano like a prodigy. She’d make up songs with fast rhythms and notes that all went together.”
Burt Bacharach and his wife Angie Dickinson watching Nikki play the piano in May 1974 | Photo: Getty Images
It is essential to point out that for the most part of Nikki’s childhood, Dickinson believed her daughter was “perfectly normal,” and the obsessive things she did or her inability to cope with situations were just “difficulties.” Nikki actually had Asperger’s syndrome, but nobody knew.
At the time (the early 70s), mental illnesses were not as broadly discussed as today, and although Asperger’s syndrome was first described in 1944, it only became widely recognized in the mid-1990s.
Hospitalization is not a prescribed treatment for Asperger’s syndrome, and it destroyed her.
Burt Bacharach and his wife Angie Dickinson playing with Nikki in May 1974 | Photo: Getty Images
Some doctors believed Nikki had autism, but her parents couldn’t believe it because she was pretty functional, and they had never met or heard about someone going through the same issues.
As per Bacharach and Dickinson’s relationship, it deteriorated over time due to infidelities on his part. Nikki’s illness didn’t make things easier. In 1976, after 11 years together, they parted ways.
Burt Bacharach, wife Angie Dickinson, and daughter Lea Nikki in their Hollywood home in June 1969 | Photo: Getty Images
When Nikki was 14 years old, Bacharach considered she needed some time away from her mother to get better. He convinced Dickinson, and in 1983, they sent their daughter to the Constance Bultman Wilson Center in Minnesota.
Before being institutionalized, Dickinson talked Nikki into the idea by telling her that all kids eventually had to go away to school. After a few weeks at Wilson Center, Nikki called her mom and said it was not a school but a hospital.
At the time, one of her psychiatrists told Dickinson to be prepared as patients frequently stayed anywhere between nine months to a year and a half before getting well. Nikki was there for ten years.
Angie Dickinson in Knightsbridge, London, on September 26, 1980 | Photo: Getty Images
Although Bacharach and Dickinson believed that Nikki’s time at the center was helping her, it was actually the worst decision they could have ever made. Hospitalization is not a prescribed treatment for Asperger’s syndrome, and it destroyed her.
Dickinson admitted her former husband had no “real connection” with their daughter as he believed she was just a difficult child and Dickinson was a terrible mother for indulging her.
They also forced her to drive, but she totaled a car and wrecked another.
Burt Bacharach and his wife Angie Dickinson in a London park in 1966 | Photo: Getty Images
Bacharach had no idea about Nikki’s mental problem, either. He eventually admitted to being “terribly sorry.” He would have done things differently had he known about her condition. He said:
“All I did was try to get her well, better, with good therapy. It was Asperger’s autism. Nobody was really spotting it at the time. If they were, they weren’t saying anything.”
Nikki had a hard time forgiving Bacharach. Although he tried to get back into her life, she resented him and never let him. Holding on to emotions and being unable to let go are aspects of the syndrome, too.
NIKKI AT WILSON CENTER
While Nikki made friends and landed some jobs during her time at Wilson Center, psychiatrists tried to turn her into a different person, and it was devastating for her.
When she was home, she would take long showers where she would obsessively scrub her body. At the center, she was allowed to take much shorter showers, so she stopped washing her hair.
Angie Dickinson and Burt Bacharach in Beverly Hills, California in April 1971 | Photo: Getty Images
After many years of trying to get her to wash her hair, she ended up cutting it for “convenience.” They also forced her to drive, but she totaled a car and wrecked another.
Nikki’s life started spiraling out of control after a psychiatrist told her that Dickinson would die someday, and she would then need to be responsible for herself.
Earl Holliman and actress Angie Dickinson on January 13, 1993 in Cerritos, California | Photo: Getty Images
NIKKI’S FINAL YEARS
After leaving the center, Nikki studied geology at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks. Due to her poor eyesight (a result of being born prematurely), she could only take one class a semester.
In 2000, Dickinson’s sister sent her an article about Asperger’s syndrome and pointed out it sounded just like Nikki. With that information, she took Nikki to UCLA, where she was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s.
Sadly, it didn’t help much as Nikki’s condition had already started to get significantly worse. Loud noises – like helicopters, lawnmowers, and motorcycles – were too much for her to bear, as it was the fear of Dickinson dying.
Angie Dickinson on April 14, 2019 in Hollywood, California | Photo: Getty Images
Eventually, Dickinson realized she needed to stop working to give Nikki real peace, so they started traveling the world together and collecting beautiful memories.
In January 2007, Nikki died by suicide at her Thousand Oaks apartment. She was only 40 years old. Dickinson, now 89, said the world was a place “too harsh” for her daughter. Rest in peace, Nikki.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, don't hesitate to get in touch with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "help" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741, or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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