The girl later labelled as Sweden’s first supermodel, and as one of the world’s most beautiful women, was born Hjördis Paulina Genberg on 10th November 1919, the fourth of six children (five girls and one boy) to Gerda Paulina (née Hägglund) and Johan Georg Genberg.
“Pappa came from a Walloon family (Belgian émigrés), and my mother was Swedish, though I always thought she had some gypsy in her.”
Hjördis’ birthplace was the tiny village of Åsarne in Jämtland county, a region of trees and lakes in the northern half of Sweden. Her often repeated birthplace of Kiruna (Sweden’s northernmost city, more than 500 miles further north), is an arctic exaggeration, perhaps related to David Niven’s erroneous birthplace of Kirriemuir, Scotland.
“On a cold, dark November day just before I was born, my mother heard Hjördis Schymberg sing in concert. She was so taken by her song, she decided that if her baby was a girl, she would be named Hjördis.”
Lovely story. Mind you, the (pre-fame) Swedish singer Hjördis Schymberg was only ten years old at the time. That said, she was apparently already performing with her older sisters in the Sundsvall area, and that is where Hjördis’ mother originated.
Life for the growing family was rarely settled, probably due to Johan having to move wherever there was work. They had only set up home in Åsarne in 1917, and in October 1920 were on the move again, eastwards to another forested outpost, Röksta, in the Nordingrå parish.
To feed his family, Johan Genberg maintained a small croft next to the sawmill where he worked. Hjördis gave little away about her earliest days, although in 1950 she looked back at the level of poverty: “I’ve come a long way from my poor childhood home, with its six hungry brothers and sisters.”
Hjördis attended school in nearby Salsåker, where her teacher, Mrs Sigrid Berglund, remembered her as a cheerful little kid who arrived on winter mornings dwarfed by a pair of over-sized, hand-me-down skis. At lessons she was described as diligent and attentive, with a particular interest in reading: “Hjördis was a sweet girl, and so good at school. She was always stubborn. I didn’t think she looked better than the other kids, just rosy-cheeked and happy.”
Happy or not, the walk home could be frightening for Hjördis and her over-imaginative siblings.
“We had to pass an old smithy,” Hjördis remembered. “We were firmly convinced that the devil lived in this smithy and we only dared to walk past it in broad daylight. After dark, nothing on earth would have made us do it. Still, whenever we walked past we always put a hand over the eye that was closest to the smithy and sang loud hymns as we hurried past!”
A digression for anyone who has visited this site before..
At this point, I should point out that there is an extensive memoir worked into the site, written by Hjördis herself in 1960. I did worry that her childhood memories would feel like padding in a story where she’s mostly placed in the company of stars and celebrities. However, they explain a lot about her actions in adult life… it doesn’t look like she was ever cut out to be the pliable stay-at-home mother that David Niven hoped for.
Although her memories are mostly unflinching, Hjördis doesn’t discuss everything. Rather than sugar-coating particular subjects, she simply doesn’t mention them – which is revealing in its own way. In her pre-Niven years for instance, she talks about her father, but never once mentions that he worked in a sawmill… maybe her time with Igor Cassini in 1947 was still a source of embarrassment. Oh, and she also doesn’t mention Igor Cassini!
The haunted house
The Genberg family moved southwards in August 1931, to Vivstavarv on the Östrand (East beach) – sawmill territory a few miles from Västernorrland’s main town, Sundsvall. The major employer in the area was the forestry and sawmill company Wifstavarfs AB. The family’s move may have been economic, as their quality of life seems to have improved.
“I remember our house particularly vividly,” Hjördis wrote. “It had a very special atmosphere, and I think it characterised my childhood.”
“It was situated on a hill overlooking the bay, and was referred to locally as ‘Kråkslottet’[The Rookery]. It was old, built of wood, and had a tower. The building was split into three separate dwellings. We lived in the middle one, which had a balcony. The French balcony had a wonderful view of the bay, and on dark winter evenings you could see all the sawmills around the bay glittering like jewels”.
“Kråkslottet was known to be haunted, and I firmly believe that it was, even though I never experienced any direct evidence. There was one room that especially scared us children, and fired our imaginations. It had a dark green wallpaper with a gold pattern, and a large, dark green tiled stove.”
“None of us children dared go there alone after dark, and I was the most afraid. Of course, my older siblings knew this, and took advantage! I can still visualise all the children sitting in a row on the boot rack outside ‘the ghost room’. The older siblings told hair-raising ghost stories, and my brother stuck his hand behind the coats and gave me a sudden nip on my neck. I was beside myself with fear and ran screaming into the bedroom that I shared with my two younger sisters!”
“Now that I think back to my childhood, I can see how our fantasy world was dominated by thoughts of ghosts. I reckon it was due to the long winter evenings in the north and the imagination of children in that creaky old Kråkslottet. Fear of the dark, and of ghosts has been there my whole life, and I am absolutely convinced that there are things we can not explain.”
Fate strikes again
“I wasn’t only afraid as a child, I was also unusually small, skinny, and strikingly ugly, with lank flaxen hair. The only things I had going for me were a pair of huge grey eyes. For some unknown reason my siblings called me ‘Fate’. I don’t know why, it could have been because of my peculiar appearance!”
“My siblings, on the other hand, were remarkably beautiful, especially my brother, and the sister who was closest to me in age (Ann-Marie). She had long, thick, dark brown hair, that I was always violently jealous of, and was never as painfully thin as me. They used to say I was so thin, that if they threw a loaf of bread at me it would get sliced!”
“All of this sounds like I had an unhappy childhood, but that was not the case at all. We actually had an unusually bright and happy childhood. We had fun together and our parents did everything they could to make life as good as possible. In the winter we went skiing, and in the summers we swam. I, myself, have never been especially fond of winter sports – David and the boys can testify – but I love to swim.”
Pour a bucket of water on her
“My first memory concerning clothing comes packaged with my first memory of illness. When I was six years old I got appendicitis and had to have an operation. When I recovered, I got my first ‘own’ dress. That is, the first dress that was not inherited from my older sisters. I’ll never forget it. It was red with white dots and had a lovely skirt.”
“I also remember my first silk tights. I got them long before I was old enough to own such grown-up clothing. It was because my older sisters got a pair each for their graduation. I was so beside myself at the thought that they got those coveted items, not me, that I lay on the floor and screamed until I was given them. I’m afraid that was an approach I used to use, both when I wanted something and when I became angry.”
“I was awfully moody as a child – I still am, but now I try to control it – ask my husband if you do not believe me! I used to have terrible tantrums, and finally Mamma went to the doctor to ask advice. He laconically advised her to ‘pour a bucket of water over the kid’, but my mother didn’t have the heart, because I was so small and thin.”
“My physique was helpful in other ways. Us children had to help at home from when we were small. The girls had particular dish-washing days, but I often managed to escape as I was considered so delicate. This naturally annoyed my sisters. When I think back now, I realise I must have been a rather troublesome young lady.” (Hjördis, I believe you.)
“Even as a little school kid I had boyfriends, and I spent a lot of time thinking about boys. I particularly enjoyed taking away my older sisters’ boyfriends. They may have been considerably prettier than me, but I was smarter.”
Next page: Life was never the same again, 1930-1940