Swedish-born American actress Inger Stevens (1934-70 drug overdose) was a beautiful blonde and blue-eyed woman who was also fragile, something which led to her early death as a result of unrequited love and abuse at the hands of men who didn’t really care.
She made a handful of movies and her performances weren’t noted for their depth, however, it was on the small screen that the actress really proved her mettle and if it weren’t for her adulterous affairs in Hollywood which seemed to punctuate her appearances with her leading men and the fact that she had no children of her own…. Maybe things could have been different.
Inger had an unhappy childhood in neutral Sweden during World War Two. She was born in 1934 the year the Nazis reached their peak in Sweden in local government elections. This probably determined the nation’s stance during the war. Inger was perhaps an unwanted child who was the result of an accident since her parents married six months before her birth. She had two younger siblings and had dreamed of acting ever since she saw her father perform on stage in amateur theatre. He transformed and transcended his true uncaring and cold self for the public so it would seem. Just like Inger seemed cold when she was really shy, according to own judgment in an interview.
Her mother abandoned the family when Inger was about six for another man. She was left with her emotionally distant father and when he fled to America upon the start of WW2, she and her sister were left to fend for themselves with only the family maid for protection. She was then forced to leave Sweden and catch a freighter to America to live with her father who did not meet Inger and her sister at the docks of New Orleans in 1944. They were taken to New York but this sense of abandonment was now possibly ingrained inside Inger who was named after the Norse princess of legend Ingebiorg. She would later shorten her first name and change her Swedish surname to Stevens to sound American for her career’s sake.
Inger proved to be an excellent student in New York and mastered English to assimilate quickly but she still felt a sense of not belonging and permanent rejection.
“I fit nowhere,” she recalled in one interview: “I was awkward, shy, clumsy, ugly with freckles and had no chance of winning a beauty contest.”
Suddenly her father moved his family to Kansas and with a cold and strict step-mother, Inger ran away from home aged 15. She went to Kansas City to work in a burlesque chorus but her father found her and took her back to school. It was then she took an interest in school plays and the glee club. When she graduated in 1952, she left home and didn’t look back…
In 1953, Inger was in New York pursuing an acting career where she did some modelling but found that profession ‘empty’. She did a few commercials and then was accepted into Lee Strasberg’s (1901-82 heart attack) Actors Studio where her fellow students were James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and Rod Steiger among the big star names.
Supplementing her income by appearing as a nightclub chorine in the Latin Quarter, Inger was soon making regular appearances on tv drama anthologies and sitcoms.
She made her first mistake with men when she married her persuasive agent Anthony Soglio (1924-2013) who was a father figure ten years older than Inger. He was also jealous and abusive and was already getting 5% of her salary. The marriage in July 1955 was over quickly and the couple separated in January 1956. It was final in August 1958 and Inger had to pay support for her former husband for years to come.
Inger said in an interview later on about the depressed state of her mind that it came from “many other sorrows, including the fact I came from a broken home, my marriage was a disaster and I am constantly feeling lonely.” There appeared to be no compensation or solace in terms of a spiritual life for Inger later on as she would only find emptiness in the form of faded vanity and sex without love.
Anyway, she tested for films such as The Last Wagon (1956) and The Tin Star (1957) but it was when producer Sol C. Siegel (1903-92) put her under contract at Paramount for $600 a week which was double the base salary, that her career started in earnest.
She appeared in the Bing Crosby (1903-77 heart attack) movie Man on Fire (1957) which had Crosby playing a dramatic role. Inger got acute appendicitis the second day of shooting which put her career and life in jeopardy. She had an affair with father figure Bing who was thirty years her senior while she was still officially married. When she found out that Bing had married Kathryn Grant (1933-) who was around her own age – it was something which broke Inger’s heart. Such is the price of adultery even if it was in name only. Did she really want to marry Crosby? Was it a dream to be a movie star married to a movie star?
Inger tested for Vertigo (1958) as a possible new Grace Kelly (1929-82 stroke and car accident) but instead made Cry Terror! (1958) with James Mason (1909-84 heart attack) and Rod Steiger (1925-2002 pneumonia and kidney failure). It was during the making of the movie that members of the cast and crew were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a generator in a railway tunnel in Hoboken, New Jersey. Steiger said that at the hospital it appeared that Inger had lost the will to live and couldn’t be revived properly… She spent two days in an oxygen tent.
“She didn’t like herself for some reason… I don’t know what it was, she was certainly a nice person,” said Steiger about Inger, and added: “You would have to be an idiot not to know this lady was not too happy with the false poetry of living.” And: “There was always a bit of terror in the corner of her eye… It was like she was encased by a fear of something she couldn’t figure out.” Steiger’s blustery statement seemed to fit.
Then Inger made The Buccaneer (1958) which was a Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959 heart attacks) project which he had to abandon because of his ill-health and it was directed by actor Anthony Quinn (1915-2001 respiratory failure and lung cancer) and had quite a lavish budget. It was a critical misfire and Quinn wouldn’t direct again in Hollywood. Inger had a passionate affair with the married Quinn and her adultery started again with another father figure which was always going to end with her being abandoned.
“A girl has to be proud of her love… not ashamed,” says her character rather ironically in The Buccaneer. Meanwhile her sister says about her: “She knows everything about being a lady but nothing about being a woman.”
It was like Inger’s life was already being framed within the movie itself and there is a portrait of her in oils which the title character played by Yul Brynner (1920-85 lung cancer) comments: “Yes, it’s a very expensive frame.”
The trouble was The Buccaneer showed that Inger’s beauty was not classical – I think she photographed better than she looked on screen – like the big movie stars such as Grace Kelly and Kim Novak (1988-). It was also obvious her acting wasn’t up to par as well.
“I want every woman in the world to be jealous of me,” says her character in The Buccaneer and yet Inger’s soulful eyes seemed to reflect a frailty which didn’t need this yearning for acceptance and rejection in the same breath. It would be too much for her to take in reality. Poor Inger was like a porcelain doll lost in the proceedings of the massive missive to Old Hollywood that was The Buccaneer.
“When the cruise has finished,” Inger apparently lamented upon the end of her affair with Quinn and the experience of The Buccaneer: “You tell yourself you’ll never fall in love that way again, but it happens.” A destructive pattern had formed in the life of Inger Stevens.
It was then she was cast in the rather striking and modern Apocalyptic movie The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) which also starred black actor Harry Belafonte (1927-).
There is a scene in The World, the Flesh and the Devil where Belafonte cuts Inger’s hair short and it looks like he really is cutting her hair… but he leaves it butchered and unfinished. It was like Inger didn’t have the full cool and instead she was too cool. Or was it a hint that all she needed to make it in Hollywood was a good hairstylist – as one would be critical in creating her new cool in her final film Run, Simon Run while another hairstylist possibly contributed to her death. The truth about Inger is she was possibly rejected by society for her adultery and didn’t quite belong even when there were only three people left at the end of the world in The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Inger was stylish by today’s standards in terms of her relationships with African American men… but back then it was still taboo along with a woman picking up married men for torrid affairs.
Belafonte was recently married when he made this movie but this didn’t stop Inger from falling in love with one of her directors or stars yet again. After the affair with Belafonte ended, Inger made her first suicide attempt on New Year’s Day 1959 which showed her propensity for dates, something which would ring with her final suicide. It was only because her Broadway friend David Tebet (1913-2005 complications of stroke) was worried because she didn’t turn up for a dinner date that she was found and survived the attempt. Her promiscuity among those who had no long-term interest in her was taking a toll on a fragile soul.
Upon her recovery, she appeared in an episode of The Twilight Zone entitled The Hitch-hiker and it seemed to reflect the actress’s life as well as offer her a new start in the medium of television.
“Lady, you’re on the side of the angels,” says a good Samaritan to Inger’s character in The Hitch-Hiker episode, when she walks away from a car accident, which is possibly symbolic of her attempted suicide and survival. But there’s always a twist in this programme.
This episode demonstrates that Inger could really act as it shows off her natural freckles and she questions her own sanity as she says of the ghostly Hitch-hiker of the title: “He wanted me to die.” Or is it her own death wish? The hitch-hiker who is waiting to get picked up could be a symbol of adulterous men everywhere and a reason for her not to pick them up for security in the first place because they offer none – and if anything in Inger’s case they offered: death.
“What you need is a good night’s sleep. Not a boyfriend,” imparts one potential lover who she picks up in her car before he leaves her high and dry.
“Don’t go,” cries Inger, who in this Twilight Zone episode has no mother or father for emotional support, just like Inger in real life.
The end of the episode has the line from the hitch-hiker, who suddenly appears in the car in the rear-view mirror on the back seat: “I believe you’re going my way.” And he is death and Bing Crosby rolled into one – Bing Crosby was famous for his Oscar winning role in Going My Way (1944) – and it was Bing who initiated Inger into star-f#*king and her final date with death upon further rejection after rejection. Inger has no emotion and feeling in this episode, she is a cold shell until the horror of meeting this stranger and learning what he wants… “She didn’t make it. There was a detour through The Twilight Zone” the end narration hints. It was perhaps meant to be an intellectual wake-up call for Inger and for a time it worked. But there was no doubt that when she met Bing, she also met death or the beginning of her fascination with it. Two of Bing Crosby’s son’s committed suicide as a result of his bullying. He was not the caring Catholic priest he portrayed in Going My Way or the other fantasy known as The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945).
Rod Serling (1924-75 heart attacks and surgery) who wrote the teleplay for The Hitch-hiker obviously tweaked Lucille Fletcher’s (1912-2000 stroke) original radio play which had appeared on The Orson Welles Show in 1941.
Meanwhile in June 1961 the actress had another near-death experience when a plane she was aboard crash landed in Lisbon and she escaped the plane shortly before it burst into flames.
“I know there’s some reason why I survived,” she said about the crash. “I hope to leave something behind me, some contribution. You know, I’m rather fortunate to be here at all.”
But her acting continued to improve on television with an appearance with semi-Method actor Peter Falk in an episode of The Dick Powell Show. It was called The Price of Tomatoes and screened in January 1962. Inger plays a heavily pregnant woman who has crossed the Mexican border so she can give birth to her child in the United States. The episode hints at legitimacy being in terms of being a citizen of the United States rather than the legitimacy of a marriage. It was perhaps a new notion in the pursuit of freedom. It is also hinted at the end of the episode that when her son is born this woman may use the name of Falk’s Greek truck driver who picks her up and helps her to a hospital on the birth certificate as the father of the newborn baby boy…
Falk won an Emmy while Inger got a nomination for their acting in The Price of Tomatoes and Falk said years later: “She was funny, she was beautiful and she was a hell of an actress.” He said there was no indication back then of her mental woes and her previous suicide attempt.
And the episode proved that Inger could do characterisation with a foreign accent as she was playing a Romanian girl. The Price of Tomatoes is probably the peak of Inger’s early dramatic tv career and the episode delves into her character living in a country occupied by Nazis and a woman’s eventual liberation through giving birth in America. If there was a chance of Inger being able to cleanse herself of the Nazis in her past it was then and there in The Price of Tomatoes. Perhaps it was a hint she should have a child of her own. If it was possible…
She had, in the meantime, perhaps due to her fascination with Belafonte married an abusive African-American man named Ike Jones (1929-2014 stroke and heart failure), who was the first black graduate of the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television. They had married in Tijuana and Jones suggested the marriage be kept a secret from the public due to the taboo of miscegenation – almost half the American states still outlawed interracial marriage. Black singer and actor Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-90 throat cancer) married Swedish actress May Britt (1933-) in 1960 and was snubbed by JFK who refused to let him perform at his inauguration. Inger seemed to think it was a good idea at the time but the fact they couldn’t be seen together in public perhaps added to the strain of the marriage which was apparently ‘fraught with tension’. There were no children and the couple were estranged by the time Inger was dead.
Meanwhile the marriage appeared to end Inger’s adulterous promiscuity as well as the fact she made no more major feature films with leading men to fall in love with. Inger instead made appearances on Broadway, game shows and chat shows and then came the starring role in the gentle comedy sitcom The Farmer’s Daughter (1963-66). It was another project to take her mind off destructive relationships and settle down – a kind of 101 in living respectably. And for her part as a role model for The Great Society.
Inger wins an award and for a time finds respectability before her depression returns in PART TWO