Stockholm to El Morocco, 1946-1947

Hjordis Tersmeden
Hjördis Genberg-Tersmeden, and the Everglades Club dining room, Palm Beach. Photo of Hjördis by Erik Holmen, Nordic Museum.
Hjordis and Carl Gustaf Tersmeden, 1946
Hjordis and Carl Gustaf Tersmeden, on ‘Symfoni’, 1946

“I enjoyed being back home,” Hjördis wrote. “It was a beautiful spring, followed by a fabulous summer which we spent almost exclusively on my husband’s yacht ‘Symfoni’. I know almost nothing better than sailing, and ‘Symfoni’ was a fantastic yacht, something that even the worst ‘land crabs’ would enjoy.”

Hjördis Tersmeden’s “life of considerable Stockholm luxury” (as described by David Niven’s biographer Sheridan Morley) was sadly blemished on 2nd November 1946 by the death of her mother Gerda Paulina Genberg.

However, by the end of the same month plans were under way for her and husband Carl Gustaf to return to America, this time for a longer twelve month stay based in New York and Palm Beach. Homesickness was avoided by opting for Christmas in Sweden, before they set sail on the Gripsholm from Gothenburg on 3rd January 1947.

El Morocco

After arriving in New York on 14th January, Hjördis and Carl Gustaf spent a few days at the exclusive Drake Hotel, located a short distance from the El Morocco nightclub, one of the prime society destinations to see, and be seen. And Hjördis certainly was seen, by a powerful society gossip columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain, the aristocratic White Russian émigré Igor Cassini:

“Hjördis, grey-eyed, auburn haired, and with a body to take your breath away. In fact, when I first saw her at El Morocco, I was still gasping as I made discreet inquiries, only to be told that she was on honeymoon with Carl Tersmeden, the young and handsome, rich Swede at their table. I was terribly struck with this creature, curves… very, very beautiful. They all told me ‘forget her Igor, she’s a bride.'”

Igor Cassini's byline, 1947

Originally Igor Alexandrovich Loiewski-Cassini, he had his name shortened in the newspaper office to Igor Cassini (and even then was referred to as “that guy who sounds like a sneeze”). In 1945 he inherited a massively popular syndicated society gossip column written under the totally ridiculous by-line “Cholly Knickerbocker”, where his mix of “acid and froth” had the power to make or break careers.

Igor Cassini with his wife, Austine. 1947
Igor Cassini with his wife, Austine ‘Bootsie’ McDonnell. 1947. TIME magazine described his rapid ascent to prominence as having “hit Manhattan like a ton of marshmallows.”

As author William Stadiem points out: “He wasn’t some ink-stained outsider looking in; he was a titled European count looking down, and America ate up every word.” He also had West Coast connections through his brother Oleg, who was a successful Hollywood costume designer married to the film star Gene Tierney.

At the time that Igor was on the prowl at El Morocco with his sights set on Hjördis, he had been married for over six years to landowner’s daughter Austine “Bootsie” McDonnell. By 1947 their relationship had entered what he described as its “weekend commuter stage”, with him based in New York and her in Washington, also working as a society gossip columnist.

“Left to my own devices during the week,” Igor admitted, “and invited everywhere because of my by-line, there was a sharp increase in my sex life. Such are the gains of power; glamour girls suddenly grew on trees. I entered my smorgasbord phase, first with model Inga Lindgren. Inga was a stunning Swede who had worked as a model and had been married to a German millionaire. For a while it looked serious, but not enough for me to break with Bootsie, who wisely kept a closed eye.”

“Gianna Agnelli, still in his roaring playboy stage, met Inga through me and invited her to Italy. She went, secure that I would follow. I never joined her in Europe, because by then I had fallen in love with another Swede.” Shallow or what.

Hjördis the golf widow

Carl Gustaf and Hjördis Tersmeden soon moved on from New York, travelling 1,000 miles down the east coast, and by 21st January were entertaining and being entertained in the opulent surroundings of the Palm Beach Everglades and Coral Beach clubs.

“We went back to Palm Beach,” Hjördis wrote. “There, Tersan devoted himself to golf so intensely that I hardly saw him. Day after day I sat alone and had nothing to do. I wanted to go back to New York, but instead we agreed to go to Key Largo. There we found our community again, and one day of sunshine followed another.” For a short time anyway.

Carl Gustaf Tersmeden was still throwing lunches on the Palm Beach Everglades golf terrace as late as 14th February, and took part in a “fours” golf tournament on Sunday 16th, paired with a Mrs James E. Martin of Toledo, Ohio. His decision to move 150 miles further south to The Keys may have been part-influenced by a freak cold spell that had just hit Florida, during which The Everglades golf widows had to sit around wearing fur coats, with more fur coats draped over their laps. The local authorities desperately asked people not to blow the local electricity supply by plugging in their domestic heaters.

Tennis with a gadfly

Rather than golf, Igor Cassini had tennis on his mind, and made his way down to Palm Beach by 21st February for the annual ‘Bath & Tennis’ club’s tennis championship (where he was reigning champion), and to dabble in the affairs of society: “One could always find enough material to file a column from there, and it gave me a chance to play a lot of tennis.”

Not good for Carl Gustaf, whose luck really started to nose-dive with the seating arrangement at a party thrown by Barbara Hoge, a relative of Mrs Cassini’s boss, during a return to Palm Beach on 25th February. A local newspaper listed the guests – including “Mr & Mrs Carl Tersmeden” beside “Mr & Mrs Igor Cassini”.

“I was sat beside her at a Palm Beach dinner party,” Igor Cassini enthused to journalist Marian Christy while promoting his 1977 autobiography. “I was totally mesmerized. I danced with her most of the evening, and during a slow dance asked her to meet me for lunch the next day.”

As previously mentioned, Hjördis didn’t mention Igor in her memoirs written for a Swedish magazine in 1960. However, she did talk about him in 1953 (from her chosen perspective), although without referring to him by name.

“There was a man who started courting me feverishly,” she said, partially wrecking the neat little time-line I’d managed to assemble before finding the interview. (Thank you Hjördis). “I was still in love with Tersan, so I didn’t want anything to do with the fellow, but I thought that maybe I could make Tersan jealous. So, I told him about the other man. Tersan didn’t care. ‘That’s all right,’ he said. I was disappointed, so I asked him for a divorce. I said I would marry the other man. The wonder happened, Tersan became a different character, he didn’t leave my side for a second. But, somehow my great love in him was over.”

Marian Christy was hilariously unimpressed by Igor’s tale of conquest: “Gadfly Cassini, a man who was ‘tarred’* in certain divorce cases, gleefully continues his little love story”:

Hjördis Tersmeden with Igor Cassini
Hjördis court-side with Igor Cassini, 1947. Photo from “I’d Do It All Over Again – the life and times of Igor Cassini”.

“We talked. Oh, did we talk. When Tersmeden later came over from Key West for her, he met my brother Oleg instead. Poor Tersmeden. He was crying on Oleg’s shoulder. Oleg looked him straight in the eye: ‘don’t worry, my friend, they’re only out playing tennis.'”

“Carl even went so far as to track down Bootsie by phone in order to locate us! [Really? Imagine that..] Bootsie was loyal and put him at his ease, though she told me in no uncertain terms that I should not play games.”

Hjördis continued her second honeymoon: “But – aha!” Igor Cassini told his unimpressed interviewer, “a day later I got a call that she was leaving her husband and coming back to me.” (“A day later” may be something of a dramatic exaggeration… Igor’s stories compress the passage of time in a way that even David Niven would have applauded.)

“Just as Bootsie and I made peace,” he continued, “Hjördis separated from Carl and all the money that went with him.”

Escape to New York

On 1st March 1947, Igor, for the record, won the strangely titled ‘Bath & Tennis’ tennis championship, defeating brother Oleg in the final. He then entered a second Palm Beach tournament on 9th March, after which it seems he returned to New York.

Society-page listings of Hjördis and Carl Gustaf’s joint Everglades activities run dry after 5th March, so the timescale of Igor’s courtship was still relatively quick.

“Tersan longed for his golf, and at the end of the day I decided to go off without him and stay with a friend in New York,” Hjördis  mentioned in 1960. “She invited me to come and stay in her parents’ apartment.” Hmm…

Igor’s story demonstrating his prowess with the ladies was preceded by a small caveat: “I am hooked on beauty. But the woman must have potential beyond her looks.” It remained to be seen how much potential  Hjördis possessed.

Next page: A rootless and insecure marriage, 1947

* Igor Cassini was tarred and feathered by a group of yokels in Virginia in 1939, who took exception to a cheeky article which he’d written about their mother getting invited to a royal garden party in Washington. No divorce involved, but hey, it’s what made Igor famous.

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