“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 Swedish Daily News reported (what looks like) the same incident, dating it to Sunday 7th June 1936 in the Vivsta-Näs (Vivsta Isthmus) municipality of Timrå. The major difference from Hjördis’ account was that she remembered the fire taking place in the early hours of Easter Sunday. She may have mixed it up with the early hours of Swedish Flag Day (“Svenska flaggans dag”) on 6th June.
Under the headline: “Four properties in Vivsta-Näs in flames. Eight families homeless,” the Swedish Daily News described the fire as having broken out at 3am in a painter’s workshop. Despite frantic attempts to control the blaze, a strong wind carried the flames to three neighbouring properties, burning each one to the ground. The last one looks very much like the Genbergs’ residence:
“This one, on two floors, belonged to the Vivstavarv company and contained, among other things, housing apartments and a downstairs cafe premises. A large number of neighbouring buildings were threatened, but as more and more people arrived they managed to organise the extinguishing work . The Vivstavarv company’s fire-hoses also arrived at the scene.”
“The fire at Kråkslottet ended a chapter of my childhood,” Hjördis wrote. “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.”
Allas poor Hjördis
“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 to make my dreams come true.”
“I persuaded my parents to let me go to Stockholm and stay with a cousin. I stayed with her for free, then got a job at a pastry shop in Gärdet (a new residential suburb) and went to business school in the evenings.”
It’s around this point in the timeline that women’s story magazine Allas picked up the adventures of young Hjördis for a classic rags to riches tale, or as they put it ‘en helt enkelt fantastisk och mycket modern Askunge-saga’ (‘a simply amazing and very modern Cinderella story’), stitched together in 1952 from different sources and embroidered to maximise the fairy-tale factor.
“Little did 16-year-old Hjördis know what life had in store for her as she sat on the train to Stockholm…” etc. You get the picture.
“She packed her suitcase, brown with two locks, that she had bought extra cheaply as there were scratches on it. She had saved up her pocket-money, putting aside penny by penny, and krona by krona. She owned two dresses, a hand-me-down confirmation dress and a floral summer dress, a skirt, jumper and two blouses.” [A description of her suitcase contents…? Well, yes.]
“Hjördis placed her Sundsvall-to-Stockholm railway ticket in a small black lacquer handbag that she had received from her aunt as confirmation gift. Her aunt lived in Stockholm, where Hornsgatan crosses Söder. Not exactly what you would call a nice neighborhood. It was to her that Hjördis was travelling.”
Well, it might not have been a nice neighbourhood at the time of publication, but the area has since gone right upmarket.
You may be relieved to hear that the Cinderella story isn’t all descriptions of handbags. It manages (eventually) to get gritty, discussing events that Hjördis skimmed over in her own recollections. More importantly, it adds new perspective to the various quirks and sensitivities that surfaced during her years as Mrs David Niven. But not quite yet.
Hjördis gets scouted, part 1
“A few months later, in a small café. From six in the morning Hjördis has to carry heavy trays between customers and the kitchen. A friendly voice is heard, someone calls to her. A gentleman sits at one of the small tables. He doesn’t look like the other customers.”
The gentleman was Swedish photographer, writer and documentary film-maker Gösta Gerring. (Most notable for his documentaries shot in the wilds of South and Central America). After ordering a cup of coffee, he made Hjördis blush by asking if he could film her while she worked.
“Me? That’s not something you’d want to film.”
“Let me be the judge of that, little miss.” [Said the patronising photographer, writer and documentary film-maker Gösta Gerring.]
Gerring immediately saw Hjördis’ potential, and apparently shot some film footage of her, but because of his current work schedule was unable to devote time to his discovery. Instead, he took note of her name. When he returned some months later Hjördis had not just left the patisserie, she had also left Stockholm.
“I have no idea where she might have gone,” the proprietor told Gerring. “But I think she has a place at some kind of school out in the country.”
Gösta Gerring left Sweden for two years, between mid-1937 and mid-1939. He encountered Hjördis again some years later, in a fashionable Stockholm restaurant called Cecil (yes, Cecil). He didn’t recognise her until she told him her name: “Can I get you a cup of coffee this time too?… My name is Hjördis Genberg … you filmed me, remember?”
Gösta Gerring died in Guatemala City in 1946, aged only 33, by which time he was describing his occupation as “explorer”. For anyone interested, here’s a link to a short documentary that Gerring shot in Colombia: ‘En Svensk kaffeodling i Colombia‘. No Hjördis in it, of course.
Out of the frying pan… into another frying pan
“I had a good time in Stockholm, but realised that being a secretary was not the job for me,” Hjördis remembered. “I went home to Vivstavarv with four hundred kronor in my pocket that I saved from my salary at the patisserie [Hjördis, you freeloader!]. It was the first real sum of money that I had ever owned.”
Next up in her list of youthful ambitions was… running a hotel.
“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 I took a place as a housekeeper at the Solbacka Internat.” (Solbacka läroverk, a boys’ boarding school 50 km south-west of Stockholm).
According to Allas, Hjördis’ main task was still waitressing, although “by then she was seventeen and had become more interested in her appearance. She also understood the schoolboys’ admiring glances… she was beautiful.”
Her appearance however, did not make the internship enjoyable, even in hindsight:
“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.”
The Allas Cinderella story relates that a Solbacka pupil called Sture encouraged Hjördis to go to Stockholm and become a fashion model. He even organised a collection to buy her a train ticket and a new dress. Lovely story, but Hjördis’ more prosaic version of events (and her known chronology) just point to her moving on to another waitressing job, this time in Sundsvall.
Filmjournalen were quick to downgrade: “Perhaps some of the boys noticed that it was actually a really pretty girl who was serving them, but she still didn’t look up to much in everyone’s eyes. She was poorly dressed, had no idea about make-up and didn’t know how to handle her hair. ” So there.
Hjördis gets scouted, part 2
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] was able to find work as a waitress. Sundsvall had a thriving cafe district, 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 the summer of 1937 he was looking for a beautiful girl to assist with a promotional tour of Sweden. In 1948 Hudiksvalls Tidningnar 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 to see the country. All that was left was to ask for parental permission.
“The next day, the manufacturer went to the cafe,” Hudiksvalls Tidningnar 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.
Roll up, roll up!
“A young lady who has been bothered by bad skin for many years tried to improve her complexion with ‘X och Y’,” adverts in Stockholm proclaimed. “After only 9 days her skin was fresh and clear. She was so happy with the results that she paid us a visit. That visit led us to offer her the opportunity to demonstrate ‘X och Y’. Now you can get acquainted with her at our demonstration at Meeths [department store].”
Gösta Swedenmark put the facts straight: “She was a fine advertisement for the product, even though her rosy complexion was natural, and not the result of using ‘X och Y’.”
He finished by saying that the tour concluded with a demonstration at the Meeths department store in Stockholm.
Aftonbladet named the rival NK store as the final destination, adding that Hjördis was offered and accepted a modelling contract. That seems like a major simplification, slicing four years from her upcoming career struggles in order to present yet another rags-to-riches tale, the overnight transformation of a provincial waitress into a high-profile model.
Mind you, a later version of the story took the liberty of gluing the ‘X och Y’ tour into Hjördis meeting David Niven, thereby skipping forward eleven years in the blink of an eye. Impressive, but wrong.
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. By November 1937 he was advertising for a helper willing to wash half of her face with ‘X och Y’ for nine days.
Back to the drawing board
“My father had been sick for a long time with stomach cancer, and a while after my return (from Stockholm and Solbacka) 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 with two large department stores in the city. (Three other stores were opened abroad in the early 20th century, rather unfortunately 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