A press photographer was present as Hjördis breezed down the steps of her plane at La Guardia airport on 6th June, all ready for something wonderful to happen. First things first, sections of her immigration sheet were hurriedly crossed out and replaced: In the “Purpose in coming to the United States” section “studies” was replaced with “to reside”, and “length of stay” was altered from “80 days” to “permanently“. “Final destination” was altered from Strandvagen 5A, Stockholm (Carl-Gustaf Tersmeden’s home address), to the Stanhope Hotel in New York – which until that point had only been listed as “Destination for temporary stay”.
The Swedish press innocently reported that she had skipped over to America for two months to build a film career and visit an American cousin who wrote under the pseudonym “Cholly Knickerbocker”. Ha.
In her hurry back to the US, Hjördis opted for a 24 hour flight, rather than a week at sea. The recently founded Scandinavian Airline System was by now running a weekly service to La Guardia airport, New York, with refuelling stops at Glasgow Prestwick and Gander International, Newfoundland. The aircraft was a DC-4 [yes, I know, the story is heading off on a tangent, but I’ll get back on track soon, promise], specially kitted out for extra comfort by reducing the seating from the standard 44 to 28. Rather an exclusive journey.
[Also, if you’re nosey enough – I know I am – Hjördis arrived with two suitcases weighing a total of 35 kg, and $2,000 cash on her person. The money would be the equivalent of $23,000 in 2018. Anyway, back to the story…]
Let the plugging begin
“Carl Gustaf had seen to it that I would not need to worry about finances,” Hjördis wrote in 1960, “but I could not let him take care of me for the rest of my life. I had to try to get a job. I decided to try to become a model.”
With Hjördis safely returned to the US, Igor began plugging her model credentials in his 29th June 1947 Cholly column:
“Other model moguls laughed at first when Huntington Hartford launched himself in the model agency business. But now they’re slowly beginning to sit up and take notice… Besides, the Hartford Agency operates as movie scouts. They’ve facilities for screen tests et al.”
“Hunts is hunting for the town’s best models; he wants quality instead of quantity. Myra Keck seems to interest Hunts more than just professionally. Hartford is also trying to sign up Hjördis Genberg, top model of Sweden, who just arrived here and promises to be a sensation.”
According to Vanity Fair, Huntington Hartford, known as one of the world’s richest men, launched his agency “to be with girls.” Or at least with the ones that the Cassinis didn’t reach first. A press item in September mentioned that: “Huntington Hartford, the columnists’ delight, who has been romantically linked to more gals even than Howard Hughes, is supposed to have lost out to Oleg Cassini in the Myra Keck sweepstakes.” Hard luck Hunts.
Hjördis joined the Huntington Hartford model agency [no big hurry it seems], and was interviewed by a jelly-kneed journalist in early August, who kept forgetting his questions whenever she smiled at him:
“Chatted with Hjordis (there should be two dots over the ‘o’ but it simply can’t be done with this typewriter) Genberg, Sweden’s most beautiful model, who recently became connected with the Hartford agency right here in New York. Miss Genberg is tall, her height being five feet eight inches. She has red hair and a complexion – this typewriter again fails me. Her eyes are green and her smile I’ll say is enchanting because no more descriptive word comes to me.”
“Born in North Sweden 26 years ago [What? It’s 27 years ago. Good grief Hjordis, 27 isn’t old!], she went to school there, then to Stockholm where she studied fashion illustrating and design. Her studies led to modelling, both fashion and photographic which kept her busy for four years. She also had small roles in Swedish motion pictures.” A fairly decent summation.
“It is her intent to stay here. Miss Genberg is turning on another of those smiles. She plans to make her home in New York as it fascinates her, though she is unable to get any sleep. ‘There is too much to do,’ she explained.”
Once he stopped gibbering he reported that: “She has turned down three Hollywood offers, including a seven-year contract. Recently she was approached again by David O. Selznick eager to sign her.”
“By the time I was living in New York and divorced from Tersan,” Hjördis wrote, “David Selznick was interested in me and wanted me to go to theatre school. It went so far that he ‘enlightened me’ about Alf Kjellin, who had just filmed in America.” Swedish leading man Alf Kjellin was spotted by Selznick in the 1944 Ingmar Bergman movie ‘Torment’, and subsequently whisked over to America to appear opposite Selznick’s wife Jennifer Jones in ‘Madame Bovary’.
“You can’t quite appreciate everything America has to offer on your first or second trips,” Hjördis later said, “but the third time you know for sure.”
While working as a Hollywood extra back in 1935, David Niven was offered a seven-year contract by Sam Goldwyn, the details of which may well indicate what Hjördis was presented with. David recalled Goldwyn saying:
“I’ll pay you very little, and I won’t put you in a Goldwyn picture till you’ve learned your job. Go out and tell the studios you’re under contract to Goldwyn, do anything they offer you, get experience, work hard, and in a year or so, if you’re any good – I’ll give you a role.”
David snapped up his chance, but it didn’t appeal to Hjördis. Crucially she said that she wasn’t interested in going to Hollywood to work in bit parts or as an extra. Her 1947 interviewer stated: “She has a much better chance modelling she believes.”
Other snippets from the August 1947 article included: “She can cook (but hates it), sews and designs her own clothes, loves swimming and has taken up golf, but doesn’t ski.” Asked for her opinion on American men, she was slightly vague: “I haven’t any opinion [OK, very vague]. Since I came back to America the men I have met have almost all been European.”
Modelling work in New York initially came as a shock, compared to her experiences within the comfortable world of the Nordiska Kompaniet.
“It was really quite terrible. There were about twenty girls – all top models in New York – placed in a row and inspected like animals exhibited at market. I have rarely been involved in anything so unpleasant, and I left without even waiting for my turn. I simply don’t understand how such skilled and recognised professionals as those models could find themselves in such a situation!”
“Then I became acquainted with a very nice, polite lady who worked at Town & Country (a Hearst-owned magazine aimed at socialites and café society) and through her I worked with them as a photo model. That was something completely different. A well-paid job that I enjoyed!”
Out of order
As well as carving out a career, or careers, Hjördis had apparently been planning to marry Igor Cassini, a man whose current wife had the freedom to pursue a high-profile career parallel to his own.
Allas magazine was in no doubt: “She fell in love with Cholly Knickerbocker, and believed in their love and an upcoming wedding.” This all sounds incredibly naive.
“While in New York,” Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper wrote, “her constant companion was Cholly Knickerbocker.” Sadly not according to Hjördis, who looking back from 1953 claimed that Cassini was usually unavailable.
Certainly from August he had other things on his mind, but wrote in his autobiography that “everything went without a hitch” with Hjördis, and that there was only one moment in their relationship when she showed irritation – after he took her to a restaurant to meet Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan. When Igor shuffled off to the rest-room, good old Joe made a pass at Hjördis:
“I could not understand why (she was annoyed) until she explained that Joe suggested setting her up in a lovely little apartment if she ever had any trouble with me. He came on strong. Whether Joe did it to help me or screw me [my bet’s heavily on the latter], it did not improve our relationship.”
The major issue was that Igor was still married, to a “good Catholic girl”, which Joseph Kennedy was able to play upon. By July, rumours were reaching Sweden of Hjördis’ intention to marry Igor, and must also, surely, have reached Austine Cassini.
“Bootsie was my wife,” Igor said, “and for various reasons I was reluctant to break with her definitively. We had been very much in love before the war.” Bootsie however was not so reluctant, and set out to definitively break with Igor.
Next page: The sawmill worker’s daughter