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

Hjördis Tersmeden, 1946
Hjördis Tersmeden relaxing at home, 1946

After arriving in New York on 14th January, Hjördis and Carl Gustaf Tersmeden 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.'”

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's byline, 1947

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.”

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.”

Igor’s main west coast connection came through his brother Oleg, who was a successful Hollywood costume designer married to the film star Gene Tierney.

Igor’s widely syndicated ‘Worst dressed men’ list in January 1947 included a description of conductor Leon Stokowski’s attire: “pink shirt, yellow tie embellished with hand-painted nudes, red socks, moccasins and a plaid jacket.” The other nominees were a selection of senators, ambassadors, mayors, very very rich people (Howard Hughes) and Bing Crosby. No one was immune.

A backlash from male readers resulted in a staggeringly bold ‘Worst dressed women’ follow-up in February: headed by Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands, and the late President’s widow Eleanor Roosevelt (!) And Igor got away with it: “I instinctively enjoyed the shooting down of sacred cows.”

The Champagne Room at El Morocco
Igor Cassini’s favourite New York hang-out, the Champagne Room at El Morocco. (Unknown revelers, but Igor was probably nearby. Well, maybe….)

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.”

Inga Lindgren in 1947
Inga Lindgren in 1947

Inga divorced her husband Alfred E.Goldschmidt in Reno, Nevada (more about there later) on 2nd July 1946 because: “Our marriage was a terrible mistake from the beginning.” They had originally fled France together in 1940.

Igor signalled his interest in Inga by gushing in the “Cholly Knickerbocker” column on 22nd September 1946: “The most beautiful sight around Manhattan in months, Inga Lindgren, Swedish beauty recently divorced from a millionaire refugee.”

“For a while it looked serious,” Igor wrote in his autobiography, ” but not enough for me to break with Bootsie, who wisely kept a closed eye.”

“Gianna Agnelli [the multi-millionaire head of Fiat], 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.

As an aside: Agnelli’s 1948 conquest was Pamela Churchill, the former wife of Winston’s son Randolph. “I’m a great friend of your ex-daughter-in-law Pamela,” an acquaintance is said to have told Winston Churchill. “I understand she’s going around with a fellow who owns a garage in Turin.”

Hjördis the golf widow

Everglades Club golf clubhouse.
The Everglades Club Golf Club House. “Golf is a favourite form of recreation for winter visitors to the Palm Beaches. This popular game can be enjoyed here all winter.”

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.”

Rather than golf, Igor Cassini had tennis on his mind, and accompanied by his wife and brother flew down to Palm Beach in early February for the annual ‘Bath & Tennis Club’ 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.”

On 12th February, Igor filed one of his first Palm Beach dabbles of the year, describing events at an Everglades Club party hosted by Prince Artchil Gourielli, an emigre Georgian nobleman with a “cloudy” title borrowed from his maternal grandmother. (Cloudy enough for titled Count Igor to just refer to him as Artchil Gourielli). The evening provided Igor with plenty of opportunity to get facetious about the venue and the mainly Russian guests:

“The Everglades Club, where the atmosphere is drenchingly opulent, and the members unflinchingly applaud any songs containing the words ‘grouse for breakfast’ and ‘chinchilla coat’. Artchill, gray and glittering like an ersatz diamond [ouch!], injected, as usual, the proper proportion of mad Caucasian abandon, laughter, tears and broken glasses.”

However, the undoubted highlight for Igor was running into one of the non-Russian guests, Hjördis Tersmeden. He grasped the opportunity to ask her both about herself and her marriage, and then cheekily (especially knowing his intentions) dropped her into the middle of his column, among all the princes and princesses:

“Mrs Tersmeden (she has the unpronounceable name of Hjondis [yes, Hjondis…] is vivid, many-ringed and rather beautiful and used to be a model in Stockholm.) When Mr Tersmeden came over here last year on business she followed him to Tucson, Arizona, pounced on him from behind a cactus and married him, not too much against his will, I gathered.”  Cheeky sod.

Tennis with a gadfly

Palm Beach Bath and Tennis club
The Palm Beach Bath & Tennis club. Note the tennis courts to the left, where Igor Cassini courted Hjordis. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

Carl Gustaf Tersmeden’s Miami golf and club mania reached its peak in the following days. On 12th, Hjördis had to kill time at the Everglades tombola, on the 13th the pair hosted dinner for twelve guests in ‘The Gray Room’, and on Friday 14th they hosted luncheon on the golf terrace. Following Carl’s Saturday to Monday “Mixed Foursomes” golf tournament (from 15th-17th) where he was paired with a Mrs James E. Martin of Toledo, Ohio, there was a sudden two-week lull.

As previously mentioned, Hjördis airbrushed Igor out of her memoirs written for a Swedish magazine. However, she did talk about him to a Swedish journalist in 1953, although without referring to him by name.

“There was a man who started courting me feverishly,” she revealed. “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 for him was over.”

“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.

Apart from putting distance between Igor and Hjördis, Carl’s agreement to move 150 miles further south to The Keys may also 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.

Barbara Hoge with Ivan Peter Obolensky, 1949
Barbara Hoge with future husband Ivan Peter Obolensky.

Things were not looking too good for Carl Gustaf, but his luck really took a nose-dive during a return to Palm Beach on 25th February, thanks to the seating arrangement at a party thrown by young New York socialite Barbara Hoge (who married another of Igor’s White Russians, Prince Ivan Peter Obolensky, in 1950). 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. We talked. Oh, did we talk…”

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

“Tersmeden came over from Key West for her, (and) 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.”

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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