Briefly fast forwarding the story… One of the biggest myths about Hjördis is that she was a failed actress, leading to decades of alcohol-fuelled jealousy aimed at David Niven, a husband did nothing but protect her from her lack of ability.
“She was fantastically beautiful but utterly devoid of talent, so never became the actress she wanted to be.” That was how journalist Ann Leslie understood the situation, after years of interviews with David.
It’s probably more accurate to say that no-one knew how much latent talent Hjördis possessed, and that she was never allowed to find out, despite being teased with movie offers throughout the 1940s and 50s.
The myth was set in stone by David’s biographer Graham Lord, who theorised that David forbade Hjördis from accepting movie offers out of the goodness of his heart: “Maybe he already knew that she was a terrible actress and was trying to save her from embarrassment and failure.” Wrong. David had never seen Hjördis act.
In Graham Lord’s defence, he was probably unaware that before their wedding in 1948, David forbade Hjördis from having any sort of career, ever. Or, that she had already fallen into exactly the same trap three years earlier.
A dedicated wife
Film work first opened up for Hjördis in 1943, very slightly, when she made two uncredited appearances in Swedish movies. In February she enhanced two brief night-club scenes in ‘Fångad av en röst’ (‘Captured by a Voice’), and in June / July a woman playing roulette in ‘Sjätte skottet’ (‘The Sixth Shot’). Although set in Monte Carlo, the scene had by necessity to be filmed in Stockholm.
Hjördis’ blink -and-you’ll-miss-them background scenes in ‘Fångad av en röst’, both set in the Carlton Hotel, Stockholm. She’s chatting bottom left in the first clip, and dances past the principal actors in the second clip. Maybe she was more visible on the cinema screen than this 4×3 television cut.
Hjördis’ brief scene in ‘Sjätte Skottet’. In later years she would become familiar with the interior of the real casino at Monte Carlo. The young woman that the camera pans across just before Hjördis looks very much like her friend and fellow NK model Kim Andersson .
As you can see, Hjördis was a decorative extra rather than a budding actress. The 1943 movies probably came through an arrangement with Leja to provide beautiful extras.
Larger roles did not follow. It was around this time that Hjördis moved from Leja to NK Franska, with her modelling career hitting new heights. By the start of 1945 she was at the top of her profession, engaged to one of Sweden’s most wealthy men, and half of a celebrity couple gushed over in the press.
“Miss Hjördis Genberg, one of Stockholm’s most famous fashion models,” one newspaper enthused in January 1945, “has become engaged to Lieutenant Carl Gustaf Tersmeden. Lieutenant Tersmeden is a well-known sailor and owner of the large yacht Symfoni.”
‘Symfoni’ by the way, had been built for the Crown Prince of Sweden in 1937, illustrating the depth of Carl’s pockets.
“With me, when things are going well, they go very well,” Hjördis later wrote, “and when they’re bad, it’s one disaster after another. Now I found myself in a peak period of my life, but I was still completely stunned when Mrs Pauline Brunius, then head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, called me and asked for a meeting.”
“When I went to her, she asked if I had ever thought of becoming an actress. She and some of the other members of the board had noticed me, and found my type and appearance unusually suitable for the profession.”
“In a few months the entrance examinations for the student school would be taking place and they thought they would give me a chance. Of course, I was overwhelmed by this, and said that I would like nothing better, however I lacked the financial means to afford such training – if I were to pass the entrance examination.” (Odd thing for the fiancee of one of Sweden’s richest men to say, so you’d think…)
“Then she told me that they had already discussed the matter and that, first of all, one of the members of the board was willing to help me financially during my study time, and secondly they were willing to make an exception in my case. I would be given small roles as soon as I was ready. She even had a manuscript for me, and had seen a teacher who would help me study for the role. As I said, I was completely overwhelmed. I did not know how to answer but asked for a short reflection time. One thing I knew, at least, this was the biggest compliment I’d ever had in my life!”
Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman had previously been helped in their acting careers by scholarships from the Royal Dramatic Theatre.
“This was a really big decision for me. There was only one thing I could do, and that was to discuss the matter with Tersan.”
“He understood my views, understood how excited and grateful I was over the offer, and understood that in every person, even a young girl who is a leading model and engaged to an appropriate young man [Captain Modest], whom she also loves, there is a desire to do something with her life. I mean something big and demanding, something that of course can fail, but that can also lead to success and a career. All of this he understood.”
“But there was also something he wanted me to understand. That we loved each other, and were engaged to be married. He did not want a wife who spent most of her life on her career, he wanted a wife dedicated to him.” [Oh-oh. BIG mistake there CG…]
Leaving the country
In 1955, Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons reported that Hjördis had studied dramatics but never put her training to use. This suggests that Hjördis may have taken her first steps towards an acting career before Carl Gustaf brought it to a halt.
As for her never putting her training to use – maybe not fully, but in 1945 two more Swedish movie bit-parts arrived, by coincidence or not. On 8th May, the day the The Second World War ended in Europe, filming commenced on ’13 Stolar’ (’13 Chairs’) in which Hjördis appeared, suitably, as a model.
The movie seems to only have survived in truncated form and isn’t available on DVD. The story involves the frantic search for money hidden in the upholstery of one of thirteen chairs. One of the chairs is at a fashion house, which I guess is where Hjördis, NK, and NK’s dresses come in.
The other models in the promotional photo from ’13 Stolar’ are real-life NK model Margareta Berglund (in the white dress), and actress Margareta ‘Marjo’ Bergman (in the patterned dress), who had a brief movie career in the mid 1940s.
Hjördis also modelled clothes for a short film shot in August 1945 and premiered in October, called ‘Tidningar! Tidningar!'(‘Newspapers! Newspapers!’) made to celebrate 300 years of the Swedish press.
A final (uncredited) movie appearance followed in September, with Hjördis playing a guards officer’s wife in ‘Brita i grosshandlarhuset’ (‘Brita in the Merchant’s House’ or ‘The Maid’).
As an aside, the story would have had resonance with Hjördis, and revealed a social strata in Swedish that almost certainly fed future insecurities when she moved into US and British society. In short, Brita is the daughter of a poor crofter who moves to Stockholm and gets a job as a maid for a rich merchant living on the exclusive Strandvägen street. She falls for the son of the house, but can they bridge the social divide?… Etcetera.
Filming on ‘Brita i grosshandlarhuset’ was completed on 28th November, but Hjördis was not in Sweden for the premiere in February 1946. In the first week of November she applied for a visa to travel to the US, and booked to sail in December.
“And so it was. I refrained from a – possible – career as an actress and we started making plans for the future. It was decided that Carl Gustaf would travel to South America and that I would come over later and meet him in the US. He left, and two months later, for the first time in my life I left the country of my birth.” Ahead of departure she also left her hugely successful modelling career.
Next page: Mrs Hjördis Tersmeden