A rootless and insecure marriage, 1947

Hjördis Tersmeden, Palm Beach, Florida, 1947, being photographed by Dean Cornwell. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Hjördis Tersmeden, Palm Beach, Florida, 1947, being photographed by Dean Cornwell. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Two of Lauren Bacall’s comments about Hjördis Niven in Graham Lord’s “Niv” biography constantly nag: “I don’t think she knew what she wanted”, and “She certainly was not an actress, but I think she thought that maybe something wonderful would happen to her and she’d have a movie career. Well of course that was never going to happen.” For the latter comment, although the idea is dismissed as preposterous, it’s not hard to see where Hjördis’ optimism came from – I mean, between 1945-1948 wonderful (movie-related) things happened to her with monotonous regularity. The only reason they never happened was because for one reason or another she turned them down.

Kreml shampoo & John Powers model advert. 1947
Use Kreml shampoo and become a successful John Powers model, 1947. (Model : Ann Taylor)

In March 1947, Igor Cassini returned to New York and began to promote Hjördis as both a model and a potential movie star. He announced that Hollywood film studios and New York photo agencies were going crazy for Swedish faces, and followed up with news that model mogul John Powers was chasing Hjördis’ signature after catching sight of her in New York’s exclusive 21 Club. A mention which would have been read in 20 million homes across America.

To ram the news home, Cassini mentioned that Powers had noticed Hjördis despite the presence of Ingrid Bergman, who was captivating other diners to the extent that they were missing their mouths while attempting to eat their lunches.

In addition, the 2nd April 1947 edition of weekly US entertainment trade magazine ‘Variety’ mentioned that: “Swedish mannequins Hjördis Genberg and Kim Andersson are mulling offers from Hollywood”.

An important slice of his “Oh, did we talk” talk with Hjördis can be easily guessed. He held all the aces – he was the right person, with the right connections, at the right time. Describing Hjördis’ personality, the artist Andrew Vicari later said: “She had very little sentimentality.”

Photos of Hjördis’ old NK friend and colleague Kim Andersson (who had actually become Mrs Kim Söderlund the year before) were splashed in the American press during April, billing her as Sweden’s top model. Igor Cassini appears to have been pulling a lot of strings.

Still, it’s telling that Hjördis chose to mull rather than jump at her Hollywood offers. When it came to the crunch it seems that she was more interested in being a star rather than just a working actress. On the other hand maybe she really didn’t know what she wanted…

Mrs Cholly Knickerbocker

Throughout the rest of March, poor defeated Carl consoled himself alone at his clubs, throwing luncheons, and entering backgammon and golf tournaments, the latter while paired up with other members’ sympathetic wives. His brother Gerhard Tersmeden eventually arrived from Sweden as moral support.

Throughout this time, let us not forget, Igor was still officially with his wife. Hjördis returned to Palm Beach, and on 2nd April hosted a luncheon on the Everglades golf terrace with Carl Gustaf. The dynamic of their marriage, however, had changed. This was the exact day that ‘Variety’ magazine hit the shelves – revealing Hjördis’ Hollywood ambitions.

Rather than manning the Everglades tombola while waiting for Carl Gustaf to return, Hjördis was on the beach, being photographed as artist’s reference by the celebrated American illustrator Dean Cornwell.

“I confessed to still wanting a divorce,” Hjördis later said. “We went to Sweden to arrange it. ”

Unsurprisingly, the Palm Beach jungle telegraph swung into action. The following winter, one Palm Beach society reporter remarked: “When she left here in the spring there was talk she might become Mrs Cholly Knickerbocker.”

“Now I’ve come to something which is very hard for me to talk about,” Hjördis sort-of revealed in her 1960 memoirs. “It really hadn’t taken long for my husband and I to realise that our marriage was a mistake. I don’t know what the problem was – I mean we loved each other, that’s why we got married.”

“But it felt somehow as if that was not enough. Both of us were young and selfish, but surely you can change if you really want to try. However, from the beginning there was something rootless and insecure about our marriage. Tersan was anything but a family man and that was probably what I missed the most.”

Sixty days to permanently

RMS Queen Elizabeth leaving New York.
..Or maybe not. RMS Queen Elizabeth leaving New York. (http://www.ssmaritime.com)

Before pursuing a new life in the land of opportunity and annoying sunny Christmases, Hjördis returned to Europe and closed her previous chapter, the planned one-year American visit with Carl Gustaf having been understandably cut short.

On 23rd April 1947 she boarded The RMS Queen Elizabeth in New York, along with Carl Gustaf and his maternal uncle, Gerard Versteegh, for what must have been a rather awkward voyage.

Hjördis and Carl Gustaf disembarked in Southampton on 1st May, and stopped-over at Claridges Hotel in London, before journeying on to Sweden.

Back in Stockholm, they kept up appearances as the city’s most glamorous couple. As guests at a society wedding on 14th May, Hjördis, the famous model, had her outfit described in lavish detail by the attendant press, from her wide-brimmed hat garnished with roses downwards to her handbag shaped like a miniature hat-box. Carl Gustaf’s blue artillery lieutenant’s uniform also got an honourable mention. The bride… was there too.

The proud press reaction to seeing Hjördis on her homecoming was that she was “as beautiful as a movie star”. Which was part of her next plan. It was also mentioned that the couple were planning to emigrate to America. Half right.

Hjordis Tersmeden and her hat. New York, 1947
Hjordis Tersmeden and her hat. New York, 1947

“The man in America called every day and wanted me back,” Hjördis later recalled. “In the end he threatened to come to Sweden, but it was not very convenient, so I promised to return in a fortnight.”

Hjördis’ marriage with Carl Gustaf was dissolved on 21st May. Seemingly rather heartlessly, she partied the night before the annulment, and before her flight back to New York two weeks later danced the night away at a lively farewell party thrown across two floors of Stockholm’s Bellmansro restaurant.

Carl Gustaf Tersmeden was still listed as nearest relative on Hjördis’ US immigration sheet, his central Stockholm flat was still her home, and she mentioned that he bankrolled her stay in New York. All of which suggests that he had been kept sweet, and may have hoped that their separation was not final.

Perhaps to soften the blow of her intentions, Hjördis stated on her US immigration sheet that she would be staying at the exclusive Stanhope Hotel in New York for 60 days of “studies” before returning to Sweden in August. The answer to the “Going to join a relative or friend in the United States?” question was “no”.

“My mother had passed away, and now I found I no longer had anything that tied me to Sweden. I travelled alone back to New York to try and create a new life for myself.”

Next page: The Cassini connection

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