Swedish icons 10: Monica Zetterlund

Born 1937 in the small town of Hagfors, Monica Zetterlund was Sweden’s most prominent jazz singer throughout time. She was also a celebrated cabaret artist and actor.

She started her career as a teenager singing in her father’s band, and gradually gained fame touring in Sweden, Europe and the USA. She sung mostly in Swedish, but did release a few albums in English. The most famous album was Waltz for Debby that she recorded with the legendary Bill Evans Trio. As a singer, she was frequently compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee, and she performed with Quincy Jones and Louis Armstrong, amongst others.

As an actor, she participated in many popular theatre and cabaret productions and acted in many successful films. Her most famous role was in The Emigrants where she played an award-winning role of Ulrika, the fiercely independent village whore. A biographic film of her life, called Monica Z, was released in 2013 and is, in fact, one of the best Swedish films I’ve ever seen.

Throughout her life, she was plagued with severe back pain and developed scoliosis. She walked with a cane and often sat down on stage, and towards the end of her life she was in a wheelchair. She died tragically in 2005 in a fire in her apartment in Stockholm, caused by her smoking in bed.

In Stockholm, there is a park near her home called Monica Zetterlund’s Park. Here there is a sound installation, where you can sit on a bench and listen to her sultry tones.

Below is a sample of her music:

Swedish icons 9: Zarah Leander

Zarah Leander was a legendary Swedish singer and actor born in 1907 in the town of Karlstad. She was enormously famous in her day, a huge star and a scandalous provocateur. With her robust, characteristic deep voice, Zarah Leander was one of highest selling international recording artists prior to 1945.

Although a famous and popular film and cabaret artist in Sweden, she made her fortune in wartime Germany. Between 1936 and 1943, she was contracted by the German Universum Film corporation and starred in ten highly successful films. For the Germans of that time, she was a mega star – a box office sensation. She has been strongly criticized for participating in Nazi propaganda, although she vehemently denied that she supported the party.

It seems like she walked a hazardous line between entertainment and politics; she didn’t socialize with German officers, nor take part in Nazi party functions. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called her an ‘enemy of the state’, and once upon meeting her said ‘Zarah? Isn’t that a Jewish name?’ Her iconic response was ‘What about Joseph?!’

In 1943, she retreated to Sweden and died in 1981 of a stroke. Throughout her time in Sweden, she was considered highly controversial, partly because of her association with Nazi Germany and partly because of accusations against her for being a Soviet Agent operating under the name ‘Stina-Rose’. Naturally, she went to her grave denying all allegations.

After her return to Sweden, she eventually made a come back. She released hit songs, and performed in successful films and cabarets and, once again, reclaimed her mantle of prima donna supreme.

Zarah Leander was a fascinating woman, a legendary artist and a true diva. She is buried just outside the town of Norrköping, opposite the Zarah Leander Museum.

The signature song she is most associated with in Sweden is called ‘Vill ni se en stjärna, se på mig’ – ’If you want to see a star, look at me’. Many impersonators and drag queens have mimicked her melodramatic performance in this song. You can listen to it below.

Swedish icons 8: Selma Lagerlöf

Selma Lagerlöf was a legendary Swedish author, born in 1858 in the county of Värmland. Today, 16th March, is the anniversary of her death in 1940.

Selma Lagerlöf is considered to be one of the most groundbreaking female writers in the Nordics. Three of her many novels are ‘The Wonderful Journey of Nils’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Gösta Björling’s Saga’. Her works have been translated into 50 languages.

In 1909, she was the first woman, and Swede, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Five years later, in 1914, she was invited to join the highly-respected Swedish Academy – the body that chooses the Nobel prize for Literature. In doing so, she became the first woman to sit at the table.

In 1991, she was the first woman to appear on a Swedish bank note. The 20 crown note, referred to as a ‘Selma’, was removed from circulation in 2016 and she was replaced with an image of another iconic writer Astrid Lindgren.

She was highly politicized, leading the fight for women’s suffrage in Sweden and an active critic of nazism and the persecution of the Jews. She never married, and had two long-standing partnerships with two women. Love between people of the same sex was illegal in her day, but their passion was undeniably clear in a series of letters that became public knowledge in the 1990’s.

Selma Lagerlöf was born into a privileged middle class in a large house called Mårbacka, which today is open for visitors. Around Sweden, there are several statues of her, as well as one in Minneapolis in the USA. When planet Venus was discovered, the larger craters were named after famous significant women. One of them is called Lagerlöf, reflecting the size of her legacy.

Selma Lagerlöf died aged 81. She is buried in the churchyard at Östra Ämtervik not far from her family home.

Swedish icons 6: Ingmar Bergman

One of the most influential film directors of all time, Ingmar Bergman was born in 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden. He directed over 60 films, such as the classics ‘The Seventh Seal’, ‘Persona’, ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’.

His films were often experimental and very dark, melancholy and miserable and many of them required patience to watch. He was nominated numerous times for an Oscar and won three times for Best Foreign Language film – ‘The Virgin Spring’, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ and ‘Fanny and Alexander’.

He developed a legendary company of actors whom he frequently worked with, including great names such as Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Harriet Andersson.

Ingmar Bergman lived a stormy life and was notoriously hard to work and live with. He was frequently accused of being overbearing and misogynistic. Married five times, and with many other romantic connections, he fathered nine children, one of whom is the prominent Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann.

Bergman died in 2007 aged 89 in his home on the small Baltic island of Fårö, where he is buried. On Fårö today, there is a cultural center called the Bergman Center that focuses on his life and artistic achievements. Every year, they host the five-day long Bergman Week filled with film, discussions, drama, music and lectures.

For more information see: http://www.bergmancenter.se

Swedish icons: Ingmar Bergman

One of the most influential film directors of all time, Ingmar Bergman was born in 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden. He directed over 60 films, such as the classics ‘The Seventh Seal’, ‘Persona’, ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’.

His films were often experimental and very dark, melancholy and miserable and many of them required patience to watch. He was nominated numerous times for an Oscar and won three times for Best Foreign Language film – ‘The Virgin Spring’, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ and ‘Fanny and Alexander’.

He developed a legendary company of actors whom he frequently worked with, including great names such as Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Harriet Andersson.

Ingmar Bergman lived a stormy life and was notoriously hard to work and live with. He was frequently accused of being overbearing and misogynistic. Married five times, and with many other romantic connections, he fathered nine children, one of whom is the prominent Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann.

Bergman died in 2007 aged 89 in his home on the small Baltic island of Fårö, where he is buried. On Fårö today, there is a cultural center called the Bergman Center that focuses on his life and artistic achievements. Every year, they host the five-day long Bergman Week filled with film, discussions, drama, music and lectures.

For more information see: http://www.bergmancenter.se

Swedish icons 4: Birgit Nilsson

The diva of all divas, Swedish opera singer Birgit Nilsson was born 1918 in the county of Skåne in southern Sweden. She had an impressive global operatic career spanning decades, and was most known for her performances of Wagner and Strauss.

She had a belter of a voice – the New York Times referred to it as ‘a voice of impeccable trueness and impregnable stamina’. She was like an Olympian athlete, and with her enormously powerful voice, she became the most famous Wagnerian soprano of her time. During her career she played most of the significant roles for a soprano, such as Aida, Tosca, Electra, Brunhilde, Turandot and Salome.

Birgit Nilsson received numerous prestigious awards, one of which was Court Singer to the Swedish Royal Court. Once, asked what was her favourite role, she answered: “Isolde made me famous. Turandot made me rich“.

Birgitta Nilsson was often called ‘La Nilsson’ and, although she wasn’t considered difficult, she was notorious for her assertiveness, directness and her wit. When asked what it was like to sing Isolde with an unattractive male colleague, she responded : “I just close my eyes and think of Plácido Domingo.” When answering a question about her rival Joan Sutherland and if her bouffant hair was real, she gave the iconic response: “I don’t know, I haven’t pulled it yet.’’

Birgit Nilsson died in county Skåne in 2005, at the grand age of 87. She had no children but left an huge musical legacy behind her.

Swedish icons 3: Greta Garbo

I can’t write a series about Swedish icons without mentioning Greta Garbo, perhaps the most famous Swedish film star of all time.

Born Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm in 1905, she first rose to international fame in the silent movies of the 1920’s. In 1930, she made a successful transition into talkies, in the film Anna Christie, which was marketed under the slogan ‘Garbo talks!’ Her first line was an iconic ‘Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy baby’, which was delivered with a deliberately heavy and husky Swedish accent.

She appeared in classic films such as ‘Queen Christina’, ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘Mata Hari’ and ‘Camille’. Noted for her flawless beauty, cool persona and melancholy, she retired from the screen aged 35. For the rest of her life, she lived as a recluse, which passingly echoed her most famous film line from Grand Hotel – ‘I want to be alone’.

Garbo died in 1990, and her ashes are interred in Stockholm. In the Stockholm neighbourhood of Södermalm, there is a square called Greta Garbo Square, not far from where she was born.

Swedish icons 2: Ingrid Bergman

Swedish actor Ingrid Bergman is considered one of Sweden’s best, and most famous, actors ever. Born in 1915 in Stockholm, she moved to USA in 1939 and took the world by storm. Her poise, her beauty and her talent were showcased in classic films such as Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Notorious and The Bells of St Mary’s.

The mother of actor Isabella Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman was highly decorated, winning three Oscars for best actress in Gaslight and Anastasia and for supporting actress in Murder on the Orient Express. She has been described by the American Film Institute as one of the world’s Top 50 most significant actors throughout history.

Ingrid Bergman died of breast cancer in 1982 in London and she is buried in Stockholm.

Swedish Icons 1: Anita Ekberg

Swede Anita Ekberg, from Malmö in Skåne, played an iconic leading role in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1961). She is notably remembered for the scene where she bathed in la Fontana di Trevi. Born in 1931, she won the Miss Sweden title at the age of 20, and then went to USA to compete in Miss Universe. Although she didn’t win, she worked as a model and a hostess and got small film roles.

She was famously opinionated and refused to change her surname saying that if she became famous everybody would learn her name, and if she didn’t it wouldn’t matter.

Ekberg appeared in many films, but interestingly never a Swedish one. She retired from acting in 2002 and died in 2015 at age 83 in Rome.