Thatcher’s last days at the Ritz marked by loneliness, confusion

Illness robbed former leader of legendary sharp wit, stamina

by Robin Millard

AFP-JIJI

Frail, her memory failing her, and with few visitors for company, Margaret Thatcher’s final months were a marked contrast to her zenith striding the global stage.

Unable to manage the stairs in her four-story townhouse, the 87-year-old was recuperating at the Ritz hotel in London following an operation in December to remove a growth in her bladder, when she suffered a final, fatal stroke Monday.

Her 59-year-old twin children, Mark and Carol, both live abroad, and visits from friends were restricted on account of her health.

Only a handful of close friends were allowed up to her suite to see the former prime minister in her last months.

They told of how the white-haired baroness’s instincts remained sharp, even though her legendary physical and mental stamina had long since faded.

Confidantes recount the sadness of seeing one of the world’s towering postwar figures knowingly struggle to formulate a point, hamstrung by memory loss — with only flashes of the old “Maggie” making it through.

The notoriously focused leader also found the confusion tiring.

Her failing mental capacities were documented in the 2011 film “The Iron Lady,” for which Meryl Streep won the best actress Oscar.

Suffering from ever-worsening dementia for more than a decade due to repeated minor strokes, the workaholic Thatcher retired from public speaking in 2002 on medical advice.

She had faced her illness with characteristic defiance. Robin Harris, her confidant and adviser of 30 years, said she saw visits to the doctor in the early 2000s as chances to prove she was indestructible.

Thatcher’s final book, “Statecraft,” her 2002 blueprint for setting the post-Cold War world to rights, had been a challenge to draft as she struggled to recall the thread of her arguments, he said.

The loneliness of losing her ever-loyal husband, Denis, the following year plunged her into deep sadness, and some say, sped the decline in her own health.

In recent years, she was unable to remember that he had died.

Carol Thatcher once recounted her mother’s heartache each time she learned the news of his death, over and over again.

“The final years of her life were particularly sad,” Harris wrote in his forthcoming biography, according to extracts in the Daily Mail newspaper.

Following another stroke in December 2009, “she could no longer string a sentence together. This only partly righted itself, and not for long. Often, it was difficult to know what she was talking about. By 2011, meetings with her had become heart-wrenching.”

“She would earnestly seek to make some point, but then trail off and look hard at you. Then she would try again, with the same intent, but to no more avail.”

Eventually she gave in to being a frustrated stateswoman and heartbroken widow and contented herself as a kindly old lady, befriending a cat she took in.

On resting up in the Ritz, The Times newspaper cited friends as saying that when not receiving visitors, she would read, watch television and rearrange her china cupboard. When she felt well enough, she would then write letters.

Conservative lawmaker Conor Burns, 40, was one of the very few who saw her regularly, visiting most Sunday evenings.

“She was still capable of delivering the odd devastating one-liner,” he told The Times.

“We would have a couple of what she called ‘proper ones’ — stiff gins. One of her favorite poems from childhood was ‘The Owl and the Pussycat.’ She would recite the words along with me.”

The Daily Mirror quoted him as saying he was often the only visitor for a given weekend, other than whichever of her two faithful carers was on duty.

“I had very special times with her and we had some wonderful chats,” he said. “Her memory was not great at all, but her instincts were in full working order and she was always, funnily, much more interested in the future than the past.”

He said of her mementos from her time in power, “You must sit here and think ‘not bad, not bad at all.’

“And she straightaway said, ‘As my father used to say, ‘It’s not what you’ve done that counts, it’s what you are going to do next.’

“She was intensely interested in what was going on in politics and in the world. And she retained that interest right to the end.”

Thatcher died at 11:28 a.m. Monday after suffering a stroke while reading in her suite.

“She had been having a series of little blips and this was just another one. She recognized the symptoms that she was having a little stroke and this is the one that killed her,” The Times quoted a friend as saying. “The doctor was called, but it was very quick.”

Her carers and staff from the Ritz are expected to attend her funeral next Wednesday.