In February 1945, shortly after Carl Gustaf Tersmeden‘s engagement to Hjördis Genberg, he left his job at AB Aerotransport for his family’s company Graningeverken based in Västernorrland. The business being the production of wood pulp and paper. [“Timber money. In this case it really does grow on trees.” – Frasier] Carl Gustaf was trained up for travelling to South America on their behalf, and planned to work his way up to New York, where he and Hjördis hoped to become permanent residents.
On 22nd August 1945, one week before VJ Day, Carl Gustaf applied for a temporary visa to visit Brazil, and then set out for Rio. The November shooting schedule for Hjördis’ last Swedish movie appearance may account for her belated solo voyage to meet up with him.
Tersan the unshaven
Hjördis left Sweden for the first time on 7th December 1945, bound for Baltimore, on the passenger carrying merchant vessel SS Mangarella. The ship’s manifest listed her mother, living in Sörberge, Västernorrland, as her nearest of kin. (Sörberge is around 4km from Hjördis’ childhood home in Vivstavarv).
Three days later, David Niven began his first journey to the US since 1939.
The Mangarella manifest recorded that Hjördis travelled alone, was able to read and speak Swedish only, paid her own passage, was carrying $1,000 cash, and would be staying with her fiance Carl Gustaf Tersmeden at the Delmonico Hotel in New York, before heading south to Palm Beach, Florida.
“I was due to leave the ship in Baltimore,” Hjördis later wrote, “and my heart was thumping as we approached the quay . There were only twelve passengers, and everyone had been so warm and welcoming to the young Swedish girl who was about to get married in a foreign country. The passengers and the captain were worried that I wouldn’t be able to manage on my own. I calmed them down by saying that Tersan would be there to meet me. But he wasn’t.”
“The ship was there, and I was there, but there was no sign of Tersan. Now I got worried, and I really didn’t know what to do. The captain and the passengers suggested that I stay onboard, and disembark at New York. I had almost decided to do that when Tersan finally showed up… unshaven as always! But, oh was I happy to see him!”
“He told me we were going to spend Christmas with friends in Palm Beach. Naturally, I was crazily excited about everything because I had never been abroad before.”
The disappointing Christmas
Although they did not take up permanent residence in the US, Carl Gustaf and Hjördis still managed to fit a fair bit into what became a four month-long American honeymoon. This included Christmas in Florida, visits to Hollywood, Mexico, and (allegedly but I don’t believe it) Argentina, marriage, and a jaunt from Miami to Havana (at the time the nearest equivalent to Las Vegas), before heading back to Sweden at the end of March.
Hjördis was overwhelmed by her new environment, and had difficulty adjusting. One initial shock was the plentiful supply of food. Rationing had been in place in Sweden for over five years.
“The food was wonderful, but there was too much of everything. In the first week I couldn’t eat anything except for eggs. [Eggs were rationed in wartime Stockholm]. It felt really wrong seeing such enormous portions. Everything was too big and too much, and I was unaccustomed to that kind of life.”
The difference in climate was also a shock. “I spent the winter at Palm Beach,” Hjördis said in 1947. “Christmas Day came. Warm sunshine instead of snow. It was not like home. My heart grew so heavy. I cried all day. [Happy Christmas Hjördis!] I did not care for palm trees, flowers and hot sun on Christmas Day. I longed for the clean white snow, the brisk invigorating air, the sleigh bells, the church bells of Sweden. To comfort me, my husband [or fiance as he was at the time] bought me a little fir-tree, I don’t know where he got it but it did help some.”
“Basically I thought it was all a bit disappointing,” she remembered in 1960. “It was Christmas, but there was no Christmas atmosphere at all, not like I was accustomed to.”
Join the club
New Year’s Eve 1945/46 was also spent in Palm Beach, at the hugely exclusive Everglades Club, as guests of Russian nobleman Prince Zalstem-Zalessky, and his wife Evangeline – daughter of the founder of Johnson & Johnson. Coincidentally, another guest at their table, Col. Jacques Balsan, had lived for a time (c. 1922) at ‘Lo Scoglietto’ on Cap Ferrat – Hjördis’ future home with David Niven.
Within two weeks, Carl Gustaf was a member of the club and hosting lunches of his own on the Everglades golf terrace. No mean feat, as illustrated by a New York Times reporter who witnessed some tourists having “Private!” yelled at them by an attendant for stepping on the hallowed driveway:
“‘Maybe if you had $10 million you could get in,’ the attendant says, ‘or if you won the lottery.’ ‘But even then, maybe not?’ ‘Even then, PROBABLY not.'”
While based in Palm Beach, Hjördis and Carl stayed with a friend on Chilean Avenue, located within two streets [‘avenues’ please!] of The Everglades Club.
Wed in Azusa
“After the Christmas holidays,” Hjördis wrote, “we drove to California and married in Azusa. It was quite hot, and it was not as I’d imagined it would be when I was a little girl – when I dreamed of walking up to the altar in my home-town, with my doctor.” The wedding date was apparently 16th February 1946.
“But I was as happy as can be, young and in love. I wore a sleeveless pink cotton dress with a small flowery hat, and had a bouquet of cut carnations from Carl Gustaf.”
Azusa is a small city within Los Angeles County, and looks like a random choice for a wedding. However, as Hjördis and Carl travelled by car, they most probably used the famous east-west Route 66 highway, which passed through the heart of Azusa.
Azusa could be mistakenly read as AZ USA (as in ‘Arizona, USA’). Either way, I haven’t been able to find a record of the marriage in either California or Arizona. However, I think it’s safe to assume that Hjördis knew where she got married.
In 1948 David Niven surprised a journalist with a story about Hjördis’ trip to California, which included a first visit to Hollywood: “My wife and her husband took one of those bus tours through the film colony. Then they met some people and went to a party at the Gary Cooper’s. [As you do]. I was invited to go to the same party, but couldn’t go because I went on a fishing trip to Oregon.”
“After the wedding we drove across the continent,” Hjördis wrote. “It took six days. Everything was new. And overwhelming.”
The newly-weds returned to Florida for a further adventure, flying from Key West to Havana, Cuba on 8th March. And finally, after what Hjördis described as “a wonderful month in New York… we looked forward to spring back in Sweden.” They departed the US on 30th March 1946, aboard the Swedish liner Gripsholm.
The December 1945 – March 1946 American visit was just one of three which Hjördis undertook within the next 18 months. She most probably did not wish to share details of the next two with either David Niven or his curious public.
“I was glad when the spring of 1946 came, and we went back to Sweden. I didn’t care if I never saw America again,” Hjördis said in a 1947 interview, conducted in America. “Subsequently, my husband and I were divorced. And here I am, back in America.” Pardon? Contradictory or what.
In every previous (and always brief) catch-up of Hjördis’ pre-Niven life, 1947 pretty much ends up on the cutting room floor. Instead, her pre-1946 Swedish modelling career is grafted onto her first encounter with David Niven. Only her divorce from Carl Gustaf warrants a passing mention. So, what happened? Quite a lot.
The Palm Beach lobby magnet
“Tersan is spoiled, and always has been,” Hjördis let rip in 1953. “He may fall in love with a woman, but he never sees that he must do something to nurture that love, or that it is fragile. I didn’t know a word of English when I went to America, and Tersan always left me alone. But people thought I was sweet. I started going out on my own, and I made new friends.”
“It was quite remarkable to see how people flocked to her,” a Swedish woman who befriended Hjördis in Palm Beach recalled. “I remember talking to some other Swedes in the middle of a large hotel lobby. It was very comical: as if Hjördis was a magnet to gentlemen, strangers we didn’t even know. In the end there was a small crowd around us! But Hjördis was utterly unmoved, as if she didn’t notice anything – or at least she pretended not to. I believe that the mannequin profession accustomed her to people looking at her as soon as she made an entrance anywhere.” Hjördis certainly noticed in later years when all eyes fell first on David Niven.
Hjördis’ new friend also described her as not just being beautiful on the outside: “She is kind to everyone, men and women, old and young.”
Pelle Lundgren’s daughter Ritva has kindly shared her memories of the time with us: “As a young person in Stockholm, Hjördis was rather shy. My parents belonged to the jet-set in Stockholm in the late 1940s, as did Hjördis. My father Pelle Lundgren, together with his brother-in-law Kurt Jacobsson, were the founders of the maison de haute couture NK Franska, where Hjordis was the star model.”
“She was married to Carl-Gustaf Tersmeden and lived in a large apartment on Strandvägen near the Royal Dramatic Theater. I was 10 years old at that time and remember her as a very kind person.”
The new Ingrid Bergman
Although not directly involved in the Second World War, most Swedes were more or less confined to Sweden between 1939 and 1945. Carl Gustaf and Hjördis’ tour of the Americas, which still sounds exotic, was followed back home with considerable interest. Indeed, she was listed as one of Sweden’s most famous women in 1946, along with magazine editor Kerstin Wijkmark, who caused controversy by marrying King Gustav VI’s youngest son Carl Johan in New York. [Three days after Hjördis and Carl’s wedding].
Hjördis also aroused considerable interest in America. I don’t want to just bang on about her beauty and its importance to her, but it has to be said that it was a huge part of her life, and opened doors wherever she went.
Far from being swallowed up in the vastness of the USA, she was quickly noticed and written about by society writers who saw Ingrid Bergman movie star potential in her, and was then chased by Hollywood talent scouts waving contracts. All on one holiday. She enjoyed the attention, but dutifully brushed the contracts aside: “No thank you. I just want to go home with my husband.”
Back in Sweden, Hjördis was now an ex-model and media darling, required to settle into her new role as a rich man’s glamorous wife.
“After Hjördis’ Genberg married the well-known businessman Lieutenant Carl Gustaf Tersmeden, she stopped modelling and instead increasingly appeared in the social life of Stockholm.” Husmodern, 1948
Unsurprisingly, the opportunities dangled before her in the US beckoned, even as she slipped into Stockholm society, dressed in her wonderful new American clothes (fulsomely admired in a country still suffering post-war shortages of high quality materials), and encircled by fascinated party goers as she described her adventures in the Americas.
Hjördis was just home long enough to see her friend, the actress Viveca Lindfors, fly from Sweden to New York’s La Guardia airport in April, having just been signed up by Warner Brothers.
Carl Gustaf’s unattentive behaviour, combined with his insistence that Hjördis should give up her career aspirations, was making their fledgling marriage look very unsafe.
Next page: From Stockholm to El Morocc0, 1947