‘I can still hear Donald screaming, trapped in the cockpit’

Tonia Bern-Campbell was alone when the call came through telling her that her husband had died. She was also alone last year when a friend broke the news that Donald Campbell’s remains had finally been found 34 years after he was killed attempting to break his own world water speed record.

"The second call was when the pain came back," says his widow. "And it was when the nightmares came back, that same nightmare where I hear Donald screaming and he’s not able to get out of the cockpit.

"All the anger and aching came back and I was completely lost again."

Bern-Campbell was thousands of miles away, at her home in California, when her husband’s body was recovered last May from Coniston Water in the Lake District. She had never wanted him disturbed, considering the lake a fitting resting-place.

She hadn’t wanted his boat, Bluebird, to be raised either. But she was there, two months earlier, when the Union Flag on the back fin broke the surface of the water as the boat slowly emerged from the bottom.

There were assurances that there would be no further search for Campbell. Bern-Campbell feels betrayed.

"I just wanted Donald to remain a mystique, the dashing daredevil."

Donald Campbell’s public image was one of the great adventurer, a national hero, the daring playboy consumed by a self-imposed duty to uphold the family name. Campbell’s father, Sir Malcolm, the son of a Scottish diamond merchant, first broke the world land speed record in 1924, reaching 146mph in a car called Bluebird, named after a popular West End play of the time.

This obsession with speed - he also won the London-to-Edinburgh motorcycle race three times - was inherited by his son. By 1964 Donald Campbell was the fastest man on land at 403.1mph and held the water speed record of 276.33mph.

The moment of his death, aged 46, on 4 January 1967 was captured on camera and has been played over and over again, along with the recording of his last words at 8:58am: "I’m going, I’m on my back, I’m gone", as his boat flipped at 300mph.

His wife found out about Campbell’s death in a telephone call from a member of his crew.

"When he died, I had such pain," she says. "I was drinking a lot, not wanting to eat, not wanting to do anything. A friend, the singer Maurice Chevalier, said: ‘Donald was such a courageous man and you are not showing any courage at all’ and made me feel very ashamed.

"He told me write everything down, so I started writing and it helped enormously. I suddenly realised that I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I had more in those eight years with Donald than most women have in their lifetime."

They were indeed a memorable eight years, according to Bern-Campbell’s book about their marriage. They met at the Savoy Hotel in early December 1958, where Bern-Campbell, a singer known as the "Chic Belgique", was celebrating her gala debut in London.

Campbell, twice-divorced, had already won national recognition for his feats and a reputation for success with women. "I looked into these piercing blue eyes and that was it," says Bern-Campbell. Three hours later they were having dinner. Three hours after that, they became intimately acquainted, she confides. Three weeks later, they were married.

Now 66, Campbell’s widow says that she wrote her memoirs to finally "tell the truth" about Donald and end speculation about their relationship. While she says there were extra-marital affairs on both sides, it was far from the open marriage that has been portrayed.

"I adored him and he adored me, we were absolute soulmates, but we were human," she says.

"Donald certainly wasn’t a saint and neither was I. Three days after we met, Donald went away with an old girlfriend. I knew that if he did it then, he would always do it. But he was not a womaniser and I made a lot of mistakes as well, I was weak too.

"The first year our marriage was difficult, the last year was difficult but for six years of our marriage we were true to each other and neither were tempted."

Clearly, the fascination with their relationship remains. Bern-Campbell’s book tour in London last week was booked solid. She is late for our meeting in her London hotel, dashing in from the rain from another appointment, and has to do a telephone interview afterwards before flying off to Belfast the next day.

Arriving from America a few days earlier, her plane almost crash-landed after getting into trouble. "Nothing is ever straightforward with the Campbells," she says.

Life with Donald Campbell was far from straightforward. His public image belied the private man, a far more complex and dark character than portrayed by the media. For all his records, Campbell was often riddled with self-doubt and a fear that he could never live up to his father’s standards. He suffered from depression and anxiety and at times could be cruel and hard. A possessive man, he demanded his wife give up her career to support his endeavours.

Fiercely patriotic - he always considered himself a Scot - his achievements were never for personal glory, but for his country. "Donald was a very exciting man but he was also a difficult man," agrees Bern-Campbell.

She still wears Campbell’s engagement and eternity rings - she lost the wedding ring - and treasures a Donald Duck earring he once gave her as a joke. The Bluebird-shaped gold ring she had made for her husband glints on her other hand.

One of her biggest regrets is never giving Campbell the son he desperately wanted to continue in his footsteps .

Bern-Campbell never wanted to have children. When she became pregnant early on in the marriage, she booked an abortion without telling Campbell - but changed her mind. She lost the baby and suffered three more miscarriages during their marriage.

"I don’t particularly like children but I so loved Donald that he brought out something in me. I wanted to give this man a child. I would have done anything to give him the son he wanted but it was not to be. I tried."

Campbell reassured her, saying it did not matter and she "was his only true mascot". His wife would later remember those words with a huge feeling of guilt. On the night before the fated record attempt, Bern-Campbell had been due to drive up to meet her husband, but he persuaded her to wait. She last spoke to him as he stood on the jetty preparing to climb into the boat’s cockpit. His last words to her were: "God bless you darling and take good care."

She says: "I still feel incredibly guilty about not being there. Donald called me his lucky mascot and I tortured myself for a long time with the thought that I might have been different if I’d been there. But Donald always said himself that when your number comes up, it happens and there’s nothing you can do it about.

"Afterwards, when he was dead, I hated the boat, Bluebird. I never hated the other women in Donald’s life but I hated that boat, I hated her because she didn’t protect him." Bern-Campbell says her husband’s other women never hurt her - she’s "not the jealous type".

In fact, she found it funny and after her husband died she named her dog Crumpet in memory of Donald’s habit of looking at other women and remarking, in his Scottish growl: "Wow, look at that lovely bit of crumpet".

What did hurt were the rumours after his death - that he committed suicide or faked his death after failing to clinch the record. "I hated that because there was no question that Donald would ever have committed suicide. He was not a coward. He was a very, very brave person. He would face the music, even if he failed."

She is not worried about any backlash from Campbell’s admirers who may not like her decision to reveal the real man behind the myth.

"I am trying to put Donald’s picture right, not to destroy it, that was not my aim," she says, clearly angry. "I have told the truth about Donald, I have made his image real and it’s a lot better than what’s been said about him in the past. They made him ugly and I don’t want that. I knew Donald inside-out.

"I knew him the best and he knew me inside-out. Donald used to say they always portrayed him as this hero but why didn’t they try to find out about him, the man? So no, I have no qualms about the book and I know that Donald would have applauded it, he would have loved it."

Campbell’s daughter Gina, 51, by his first wife Daphne, has not read the book yet. She and her stepmother have not always got on. They barely spoke for years and clashed over the raising of Bluebird - it was Gina who agreed to the salvage operation and insisted that her father be given a funeral and proper burial - but are now on good terms. "Parts of the book will be difficult for her, the sexual parts," admits Bern-Campbell. "It will not be easy for her to read that about her father, but the sexual side was a big part of our marriage.

"But we discussed the book fully beforehand and Gina was very supportive."

Bern-Campbell intends to meet up with Gina before flying home this weekend. She has no intention, however, of making the trip to Coniston Water, or Campbell’s grave in the village churchyard.

"The first time I ever went to Coniston, I knew it would hurt me. I looked at the lake and I hated it, I was scared and I was hateful. I just felt something bad was going to happen.

"When Donald was found, Gina said to me: ‘Tonia, there has to be a grave and a funeral, not for me, not for you, but for the people who admire him and who want to go somewhere to honour him’ and I understand that.

"But I will never go back there again. To me, it was never Donald they found, it wasn’t the man I knew."

After Campbell’s death his widow moved to Los Angeles and resumed her singing career. In 1989 she wed comic actor Bill Maynard, but they have since separated. Home is a chalet-style house on the edge of a lake high up in the valleys outside Los Angeles with her dog Juliet.

She is very happy, she says. There are boyfriends - five at the latest count - but no-one serious. She still sings and at every show, dedicates one song to Donald.

"I don’t cry about him, I sing for him. Donald was never mine, he didn’t belong to me. He was only really ours on holiday - as soon as he got home again, he was taken up by everybody else.

"To the public, he was the Speed King, but to me, he was just Donald."

My Speed King, Life With Donald Campbell, by Tonia Bern-Campbell, Sutton Publishing 17.99.