“My parents had that rare ability to make our lives happy,” Hjördis Niven wrote in 1960. “They made time for us, played with us, and were interested in everything that we did.“
“There was often music at home. Pappa played violin, while Mamma played guitar and zither, and sang in the church choir. At home, everyone sang together. Weekends were always festive, and created unforgettable memories. Wherever I am, I always try to make a real Swedish Christmas for David and the boys, and they love it.”
“Mamma baked a lot at weekends. Which brings me to the biggest and most important event of my childhood.”
“It was Easter. As usual, my mother baked for days in advance, and after we went to bed on Saturday she worked in ‘the ghost room’ and loaded the Easter baking into the dark green tiled oven so that everything would be ready when we came home from church on Easter Sunday.”
“At three o’clock in the morning a fire started in the top floor. My older siblings got out of the house on their own, while Mamma helped me and my younger sisters. Pappa helped to extinguish the fire. I must have fainted due to the smoke, for the next thing I knew I woke up in our neighbours’ house – quite a while later.”
“The fire at Kråkslottet ended a chapter of my childhood. Afterwards, Pappa borrowed money and bought a plot with two houses on it. We lived in one and rented out the other to a library. Life went on, but it was never the same again.”
X and Y face cream
“I finished school and wanted to go to college. It had always been dream of mine to become a secretary and marry a doctor! I had to try and make my dreams come true, so I persuaded my parents to let me go to Stockholm and stay with a cousin. I stayed with her for free [this cousin seems like a soft touch], then I got a job at a pastry shop in Gärdet (a new residential suburb) and went to business school in the evenings.”
“I had a good time in Stockholm, but realised that being a secretary was not the job for me. I went home to Vivstavarv with four hundred kronor in my pocket that I had saved from my salary at the patisserie [Hjördis, you freeloader!]. It was the first real sum of money that I had ever owned.”
Hjördis was described as a shy teenager, [then again, most are], who like many other girls in the Sundsvall area [even ones with 400 kronor stashed away] found work as a waitress. Sundsvall had a thriving cafe district at the time, with over 50 counted in one stretch of the town. Journalist Gösta Swedenmark recorded that Hjördis ended up as a waitress at the most highly regarded, The Upper (Övre) Royal. In 1970, he wrote nostalgically about the 1930s Sundsvall cafe scene:
“The Royal was well-managed and there was always a warm and friendly atmosphere. It was one of the first cafes in town to have flowers on the tables, if even just a tulip to add a splash of colour. The waitresses were among the first to have jauntily cut uniforms in tasteful colours, breaking away from the usual boring black and white.”
Among the regulars at The Royal was Axel ‘Fix’ Lundberg, inventor of (among other things) a successful metal glue called Metallfix. Inspired by a trip to Algeria, Axel’s latest invention was a face cream in a tube called ‘X and Y’ (‘X och Y’ in Swedish), and by mid-1937 he was looking for a beautiful girl to assist with a promotional tour of Sweden. Aftonbladet later recounted that when Axel discussed his idea over coffee at The Royal, his companion pointed out 17-year-old Hjördis and suggested: “Ask that waitress.” “She’d be fine,” Axel responded. “Dare I ask her?”
At first Hjördis thought Axel was joking, but became interested when she saw that the offer was serious and presented an opportunity for her to see the country. All that was left was to ask for permission.
“The next day, the manufacturer went to the cafe,” Aftonbladet continued, “and young Hjördis announced that she was allowed to travel in the demonstration car.” Following extensive advertising, the demonstrations (described by Axel as: “A triumphant march through our country”) took place in July and August 1937, visiting cities including Göteborg and Malmö.
“She was a fine advertisement for the product,” Gösta Swedenmark wrote, “even though her rosy complexion was natural, and not the result of using ‘X och Y’.”
Aftonbladet wrote that the tour concluded with a demonstration at the NK department store in Stockholm, where Hjördis was offered a modelling position. This seems like a major simplification, slicing four years from her upcoming career struggles in order to present a rags-to-riches tale, the overnight transformation of a provincial waitress into a high profile model. Mind you, a later version of the story glued the ‘X och Y’ tour into Hjördis meeting David Niven, thereby skipping forward eleven years in the blink of an eye.
In her 1960 memoirs, Hjördis didn’t mention the ‘X och Y’ interlude at all. Maybe it didn’t fit in with the flow of her story, or perhaps it simply wasn’t something that she wished to talk about. ‘X och Y’ by the way, was not a success. (Axel offering customers their money back if they didn’t notice a difference after a week may have contributed).
Waitressing at the The Royal Cafe was also skipped (mind you, not all teenage jobs make it into autobiographies). Hjördis did however discuss her youthful ambitions, and the next one in her revised career plan involved running a hotel.
Back to the drawing board
“I thought that I wanted to get into the hotel-trade, almost like a hostess. As a profession it looked alright really… just having to deal with people and numbers. However, to get into a college course I needed an internship, so took a place as a housekeeper at the Solbacka Internat.” (Solbacka läroverk, a boarding school 50 km south-west of Stockholm).
“That was a horrible time! I was immensely displeased, and was only given dish-washing, food preparation, and serving duties. Everyone should know that I’m not particularly domestically landscaped. Working with the tomatoes was particularly bad, I had no idea there were so many tomatoes in the world. I can still see them in front of me – mountains of tomatoes, that seemed to go on forever. So, after one semester I quit and went home.”
“My father had been sick for a long time with stomach cancer, and a while after my return he passed away.” Hjördis’ father died on 14th August 1940 in Vivsta.
“Those were difficult days for my mother and my siblings. His illness had been very expensive, and after his death we had to sell everything to clear it all. It was as if nothing went right for him after the fire at Kråkslottet.”
“Now I really had to learn how to stand on my own two feet. Pappa had bought life insurance for all of his children. I sold mine, and with that plus the 400 kronor I had saved, went back to my cousin in Stockholm and enrolled in art college. At school I’d shown a talent for drawing, and now I dreamed of becoming an illustrator.” (In 1942 Hjördis claimed to be related to Swedish Impressionist painter Anton Genberg.)
“It was a lovely time and I learned a lot. However, it’s not cheap to go to art college and like many of my peers, I tried to earn extra money while studying. I approached the (magazine) publishing house Åhlén & Åkerlunds and was asked to provide sample illustrations for two short stories. Sadly my illustrations were rejected. My small pot of money ran out, and I could no longer afford to go to art college. Instead, I tried to get a job in NK’s advertising and design department.”
NK, short for Nordiska Kompaniet, was (and still is) a prominent Stockholm company that ran two large department stores in the city. (Three other stores had been opened abroad – in Moscow and St Petersburg, all were lost after the Russian Revolution in 1917.)
When Hjördis first met David Niven she filled him in on her artistic background: “I told him I’d been to art school in Sweden and had intended at first to be a magazine illustrator, but wasn’t good enough, so I turned to fashion designing.”
“But that didn’t work out either,” she admitted in 1960, “and I really didn’t know what to do with myself, until a friend suggested that I try to get into modelling. That was something I had never considered. I wouldn’t have questioned if it had been my second oldest sister Ann-Marie, who was so good-looking – but me?”
Next page: Hjördis Genberg, model student, 1941-1942