In 1960, Hjördis Niven penned a lengthy account of her pre-Niven days for a Swedish women’s magazine. Despite her huge success as a model in the 1940s, she didn’t exactly go on about it. No particular achievements were mentioned, or details and dates of events that she took part in. Instead, the description of finding her feet at Leja lead straight into stories of romance and heartache in Stockholm.
“I still had a lot to learn in Stockholm. Not just about clothes and make-up, but how to live without being looked after by my mother. I began to learn how to be a grown-up, and in Stockholm I fell in love – really in love – for the first time in my young life.”
“That was before Leja, during my time at business school, when I was working at a patisserie in order to pay for my studies. He was a pilot, and he used to come in and drink coffee. We started chatting, and I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. It wasn’t just his uniform… he was so much older than me, and seemed so urbane and manly.”
“One night after the patisserie closed, he followed me to the door. We chatted happily all the way home. That is, it was probably him who talked and me who listened – and every minute I thought he became more and more wonderful. After that, we began to meet up quite often, and I fell in love with him. My old dreams of marrying a doctor were forgotten, now I dreamed the more usual fantasy of a tall man in uniform.”
“After we’d known each other for about three months, he called and asked me to have dinner with him. I was more than happy to – I felt, in some way, that there was something special about this dinner. And there was, but not in the way I imagined.”
“We met at the agreed restaurant. He ordered a fine smörgåsbord – as usual I was hungry, and keen to eat. And then he began to talk. At first I didn’t understand what he was saying, but then the meaning of his words hit me with a horrible clarity…”
“The whole time we had known each other, he had been engaged. [Boo!] His fiancée had been sickly for a long time. He had just found out that she was suffering from an incurable blood disease. She did not know how ill she was, and that she only had a very short time left to live. And now there was only one thing he could do – marry her as soon as possible and try to give her as much life and happiness as he could in the few months she had left.”
Very sad, although it sounds incredibly similar to what happened to Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall.
In 1957, Rex Harrison was having an affair with the English actress Kay Kendall, when he was called for a meeting with her doctor. According to The Independent: “What followed was a bizarre romantic drama with a plot that owed more to three-handkerchief movies than to medical ethics. Kendall, said the doctor, had leukaemia. Did she, he asked, have a family? The stunned Harrison said she did not, or none she cared about – a remark for which Kendall’s loving sister, Kim, never forgave him. Then, said the doctor, he must marry her, care for her, and keep her illness a secret for the two years she had left.” [!]
Kay died in 1959. Hjördis may have borrowed elements of the story for her memoir (written the following year), or it could just be a tremendous coincidence. Hjördis was friendly with Kay Kendall during her last two years, and even described a day out with her for Woman magazine:
“Kay was a wonderful person. I remember when she and her husband accompanied David and me to Palm Springs. We went riding, and when we stopped for a picnic lunch I started to throw breadcrumbs for the birds. That was not good enough for Kay, one of the most kind-hearted people I have ever known. She made sandwiches for them, first spreading butter, then adding meat paste and other fillings, and then she tossed this rich fare for the birds.”
“I thought at first she was having a joke, but I was wrong. She genuinely believed that nothing was too good for the little creatures and that they would really know the difference.”
Anyway, I’ll leave the last words on the Harrison / Kendall saga to The Independent: “As sad as Kendall’s end was, it now also seems dated and distasteful, from a period that regarded women as weak and truth as vulgar.” That seems like a fair summation.
Stockholm sailor, doctor, sigh
“I do not know how I left him, I do not know how I got home,” Hjördis wrote about her first heartbreak. “I only know that I was crying through the streets of Stockholm, and felt as unfortunate as any person could be. Unfortunate for my sake, for his, and for hers.”
“The days passed, but my despair remained. I was sure that my life was over and there was nothing left for me. But I was young, very young, and eventually I found that I could be happy again, that I could laugh and have fun – almost like before.”
”I met other young men, went out with them, and the wounds healed. (The pilot) called me once and asked to meet, but I could not bring myself to do so. The whole episode had left too deep a scar.”
“I moved back home to my family, and when I later returned to Stockholm to go to art school, my main boyfriend was a naval officer cadet. He invited me to the cadet balls, and life became fun again. We didn’t have serious feelings for each other, it was just a youthful flirt, and after him I met many other upbeat ‘cavaliers’.”
“I even found the doctor I had dreamed of marrying when I was a little girl. I met him at a party. He was awfully nice and we got along very well, but not enough to make my old dreams a reality.”
Me Tersan, you Hjördis Genberg
During her time at the Leja store, Hjördis lodged with her boss Mrs Gun Stjernström, who recalled that: “We got on very well together, Hjördis and I, despite the huge age difference. Hjördis’ family were in the north, her father had died years before, and she could only meet up with her mother occasionally, so I was her mother, friend, and confidante.”
“Was it difficult to keep track of such a beautiful girl? Yes, of course. The phone rang frequently, and a variety of male voices asked for Miss Genberg. But Hjördis was discerning, she did not just go out with anyone.” According to Mrs Stjernström, what Hjördis enjoyed most of all were the officer cadet balls.
“In her twenties she was a real little cadet flame. She didn’t have much money at the time, but it was remarkable that a girl of modest means could dress so prettily. And she was very determined. I saw her when she was dressed and ready, but she almost never took me along for advice when she wanted to buy something. She instinctively knew what suited her.”
The Allas magazine feature mentioned that: “Stockholm’s rich young gentlemen began to take an interest in the beautiful mannequin at Leja. Hjördis Genberg popped up in elegant restaurants, always with some playboy in tow. She learned to act and move like a perfect lady.”
Hjördis’ next serious love, the ultimate rich young gentleman in Stockholm, and eventually her first husband, entered the scene around 1943. His name was Carl Gustaf Tersmeden, although Hjördis generally referred to him by his nickname, ‘Tersan’. Between 1939 and 1945 he developed a reputation as the embodiment of a class of young men who appeared untroubled by the war surrounding their country. Tersan paraded through Stockholm in his flash car, and partied on his equally flash yacht, which became known as ‘The Champagne Express’.
Hjördis first met him at a Stockholm nightspot called Riche.
“I was having dinner with a friend. Suddenly a young man who knew my escort came over to our table. We were introduced, and the young man was asked to joined us. That was Tersan.”
“We both very much liked what we saw. The poor boy who invited me out ended up having a rather gloomy evening. Tersan and I were completely absorbed with one another. But neither of us could have known what serious consequences this meeting would have.”
“I continued to go out with other young men for a long time after we first met, while Tersan had at least one major fling before we finally fell into each other’s arms. But, that evening a spark ignited between us, and it would take a long time, a very long time, before it went out.”
“A few days later Tersan called, but I could not meet him. That was repeated a few times with the same result. One day, while I was busy working at Leja, Tersan strolled in through the main entrance, straight from playing a round of golf, and was, as usual, not particularly well-dressed. Rarely have I met a man who was so disinterested in his appearance. In his arms he carried an enormous bouquet of flowers. A Leja saleswoman threw a superior glance at him and said: ‘All deliveries go to the kitchen entrance.'”
“‘OK,’ Tersan said. ‘Goodbye. But could you give these to Hjördis Genberg from me?'”
“She was quite deflated when she found out that the poor fellow she had so haughtily snubbed was one of Stockholm’s most eligible bachelors!” And probably one of the richest. Although he wasn’t a bachelor.
“The flowers had the desired effect. I went out with Tersan from that day on. There was no one who meant as much to me as Tersan.”
Next page: Stockholm’s star mannequin, 1943-1945