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 Ms Bacall dismissed the idea of Hjördis having a movie career as preposterous (based on seeing one TV play in 1956), it’s not hard to see where Hjördis’ optimism came from – I mean, between 1945 and 1948 wonderful (movie-related) things happened to her with monotonous regularity. The only reason they never came to fruition was because, for one reason or another, she turned them down.
With Igor Cassini taking an interest, and doubtless showing off his media muscles, Hjördis’ US media profile began to grow. In parallel, after 5th March, society-page listings of her and Carl Gustaf’s joint Everglades activities ran dry.
On 1st March 1947, Igor, for the record, won the ‘Bath & Tennis’ tennis championship, defeating brother Oleg in the final before turning his attention back to Hjördis.
Igor’s 11th March 1947 gossip column, trailered as “Gay doings at Palm Beach reported by Cholly” gratuitously name-checked her, dropping what little subtlety had existed in his February report:
“Mrs Carl Tersmeden, vacationing here with her wealthy young Swedish husband, receiving the highest percentage of votes at the Bath & Tennis Club beach for the best figure. Yep, we always wanted to go to Sweden.” The nerve.
Igor also mentioned his former favourite Swede, Inga Lindgren, placing her at number 8 in his yearly Cholly Knickerbocker list of “10 best dressed women in America”. (Number 1 was the Duchess of Windsor, Mrs Simpson…)
Tennis with a gadfly
Thirty years later, Igor continued his tale of conquest to Marian Christy, who remained hilariously unimpressed as it 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.”
* In 1939 Igor Cassini was tarred and feathered by a group of yokels in Virginia, who took exception to a cheeky article that 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.
Igor and Oleg Cassini rounded off their tennis activities on 9th March.
“We were the winning doubles team at the Bath & Tennis Club Tournament,” Oleg recounted in his autobiography, “much to the dismay of the locals, who seemed to consider us undesirable aliens (their attitude towards Igor, who chronicled their most embarrassing moments – scathingly at times – was always cool); their rage made our victory that much sweeter.”
However, swings and roundabouts, twenty-four hours later Gene Tierney walked into a Los Angeles court to round off her marriage to Oleg. Everything was getting a little messy.
Gene Tierney first met Oleg Cassini at Hollywood’s Mocambo Club. Her initial impression (recalled for a 1979 TV interview) was: “Gee, that’s an ugly fellow.” That soon changed after exposure to the old Cassini charm: “It goes to show what charm does, because he became less and less ugly, and more and more handsome, as he talked and made me laugh… While I was married to him I was either laughing or crying most of the time.”
Gene mentioned Oleg’s roving eye during the divorce proceedings, and his temper – she claimed he once threw a hot spoon at her.* However, Gene had also fallen for a visitor to her film set: a naval officer called John F Kennedy.
“She was very honest about it,” Oleg said in 1999. “I said ‘Don’t waste your time with a Catholic who has ambitions in politics, because you’re a divorced woman, you’re never going to be accepted.’ She believed that he would marry her.”
Gene’s sister rounds off this particular tangent: “Gene was having lunch with Jack one day, and he said to her ‘You know I can’t marry you.’ That was the end of it.” According to Oleg, he and Gene were soon “dating” once again. “Hardly a month passed before she started calling .” Hjördis would soon know exactly how Gene felt.
* In response , Oleg later said: “I do not know when or where that happened, or how the spoon was heated. I told them that the spoon hadn’t been very hot.”
Escape to New York
“Tersan longed for his golf,” Hjördis wrote, “and at the end of the day I decided to go off without him and stay with a friend in New York. She invited me to come and stay in her parents’ apartment.” Hmm…
Igor Cassini pointedly reported that “Society is now up to its neck in golf”, then flew to New York in time to file his 19th March Cholly Knickerbocker: “Back from Palm Beach, with enough tan to prove we [royal “we”] were really there…”
Igor soon swung into action, showing off his (doubltless promised) muscle to promote Hjördis as a celebrity, model, and potential movie star.
“If you wanted admittance to celebrity, the gates of heaven were guarded by the doormen of the Colony, ’21’, Le Pavilion, El Morocco, and the Stork.” And Igor had the keys.
On 27th March he announced that Hollywood studios and New York photo agencies were going crazy for Swedish faces, followed with news that model mogul John Powers was chasing Hjördis’ signature after catching sight of her at the ’21’ Club.
“The other afternoon at lunch at ’21’, two Swedish women captured the place completely.”
To ram the news home, Cassini mentioned that Powers noticed Hjördis – “another terrific importation from Stockholm” – despite the presence of Ingrid Bergman, who captivatied other diners to the extent that they were too busy staring to be able to eat.
The article would have been read in 20 million homes across America.
Hjördis was next mentioned, along with Ingrid Bergman (again) and Greta Garbo no less, as one of the “different celebrities” to have dined with fellow Swede Gustav Nobel (of the Nobel Prize family) in New York. Heady stuff.
The 2nd April 1947 edition of weekly US entertainment trade magazine Variety went a step further: “Swedish mannequins Hjördis Genberg and Kim Andersson are mulling offers from Hollywood”.
I’m not sure how much of an exagerration the Variety item was. Photos of Hjördis’ old NK Franska friend and colleague Kim Andersson (who had become Mrs Kim Söderlund in 1946) were splashed in the American press during April, billing her as Sweden’s top model. However, she only set foot on American soil for the first time in February 1968, not to act, but to introduce Swedish ready-to-wear fashions.
However, an important slice of Igor’s “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.”
Allas magazine added that Igor’s Hollywood connections gave him the ability to make Hjördis’ movie dreams come true, by introducing her into “film circles”. It depended on how focussed her movie dreams actually were.
It’s telling that Hjördis chose to mull rather than jump at Hollywood offers. When it came to the crunch it seems that she was in no particular hurry, and more interested in being a star rather than just a working actress.
Mrs Cholly Knickerbocker
Throughout March 1947, poor defeated Carl Tersmeden 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 arrived from Sweden as moral support.
Hjördis returned to Palm Beach after her stay in New York, 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.
Rather than manning the Everglades tombola while waiting for Carl Gustaf to return from golf, Hjördis was on the beach, being photographed by the likes of celebrated American illustrator Dean Cornwell, who was staying in Palm Beach for an ‘Artists & Writers’ conference.
Hjördis continued her rocky second honeymoon: “But – aha!” Igor Cassini revealed triumphantly, “a day later I got a call that she was leaving her husband and coming back to me.”
“Just as Bootsie and I made peace,” Igor finished with a flourish, “Hjördis separated from Carl and all the money that went with him.”
“A day later” looks like a dramatic exaggeration, as Igor’s stories could stretch and compress time in a way that even David Niven would have applauded. However, for his 3rd April ‘Cholly Knickerbocker observes’ column, Cholly had suddenly scuttled back to observe Palm Beach.
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, or, for that matter, how much Igor possessed…
Journalist and novelist Martha Gellhorn was certainly not enamoured of him. She described him as: “A little man… who earns his living writing poisonous and painful things about fashionable or famous people. He is a little man with a mouth which I like to think looks like a hog’s ass in fly-time though I never saw that phenomenon but only imagined it. He has a great deal of matted waving hair and a little short doughy body and perfectly flat black little eyes, calculating and about as warm as ball bearings.” (From the excellent ‘A week in New York April 1946‘ blog).
In February 1947, Cornelius Vanderbilt IV reacted to Cholly Knockerbocker gossip that he was to divorce by sending Igor a dead skunk. Igor replied through his column: “Corny, how could you give up your mascot?”
A serious leak in the good ship Cassini
Throughout this time Igor was still with his wife. Although he claimed that peace existed between them, journalist Frances Cranmer Greenman saw an approaching storm in Palm Beach. On 13th April she posted a maritime-flavoured ‘Florida Letter’ to her northern newspaper:
“When you read Cholly Knickerbocker’s column headed ‘New York’, it ain’t necessarily so. Cholly (Igor Cassini) is probably here at the Coral Beach Club having lunch with the artist Franz Bueb [who painted murals at the Everglades golf terrace] or some fair damsel… Igor, who spends his life recounting marital wrecks on life’s stormy sea, is getting a serious leak in the good ship ‘Cassini’ which he and his wife ‘Boots’ are sailing.”
“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.”
“I confessed to still wanting a divorce. We went to Sweden to arrange it. ”
Unsurprisingly, the Palm Beach jungle telegraph swung into action. The following year one Palm Beach society reporter recalled Hjördis’ 1947 adventures: “When she left here in the spring there was talk she might become Mrs Cholly Knickerbocker.”
Indeed, the attention that Hjördis received during her visits to Palm Beach was such that as late as 1950 she was still remembered in a local newspaper as “the glamorous Mrs Carl Tersmeden of several seasons back.”
Sixty days to permanently
Before returning to pursue a new life in the land of opportunity and annoying sunny Christmases, Hjördis sailed back 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 Gérard Versteegh, his maternal uncle and the current CEO of Graningeverken. It must have been a rather awkward voyage.
Hjördis and Carl Gustaf disembarked in Southampton on 1st May, and stopped-over at Claridge’s Hotel in London, before journeying on to Sweden.
Claridge’s was a haven for exiled European royalty. Later the same year, just before the wedding of the then Princess Elizabeth, a harassed diplomat telephoned and asked to speak to the King. “Certainly sir,” was the response, “but which one?”
Back in Stockholm, the Tersmedens 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 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.
“The man in America called every day and wanted me back,” Hjördis claimed. “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 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 just 80 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