Ingeborg was a Norse princess with a star crossed love life. Her name was the inspiration for Mr. and Mrs. Stensland to call their first born daughter Inger. Inger Stensland grew up to be a beautiful star crossed actress better know as Inger Stevens, whose dramatic death at a young age remains controversial even today.
Inger was best known for her role as Katy Holstrum in the 1960’s television series The Farmer’s Daughter. It was a breakout role for Inger, leading to more high profile roles on screens large and small. Less well known was Inger’s string of impetuous love affairs with her leading men, which may have led to her sudden death on April 30, 1970.
To understand her death it is best to start with her life, which began on October 18, 1934. Growing up in Stockholm, Sweden, Inger became attracted to acting after watching her father, Per Gustaf, perform the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in a local amateur production.
Inger was the oldest and only daughter born to Per and his wife Lisbet. Inger had two younger brothers, Carl, and Peter, each born two years apart. Unfortunately for the children, both parents deserted them. When Inger was four her mother abandoned the family for another man, returning only to take Peter with her, which upset the two remaining children even more. Inger and Carl lost their father when he moved to the United States when the Second World War started in 1940.
Inger and Carl were left with the family maid. Eventually they were taken in by their aunt, Karin Stensland Junker, who was also an actress. By 1944 Per Stensland had an American bride and a job as a university teacher in New York City. He arranged for ten year old Inger and eight year old Carl to take a freighter from Sweden to America.
The children, who knew no English, got off the boat in New Orleans. Their father was not there to greet them. Instead, the Salvation Army performed an act of mercy by taking the two frightened children to New York to reunite with their dad and to meet their step-mother.
Inger and Carl were thrown into the New York public school system. Inger proved her competence and inner drive by learning English quickly, and so thoroughly that most movie goers thought she was American born: she had not even a trace of a Swedish accent.
Despite her intelligence and will power, Inger felt frightened and lost. "I fit no where," she recalled. "I was awkward, shy, clumsy, ugly with freckles and had no chance of winning a beauty contest." Just as Inger and Carl started feeling comfortable, Per got a better teaching position at Kansas State University. In 1948 the family moved to Manhattan, Kansas.
Feeling no love or support from her parents, fifteen year old Inger ran away from home. Hopping a bus to Kansas City, the girl who saw herself as ugly starred in burlesque shows for a tidy $60 a week. Per tracked his daughter down and dragged her back to Manhattan. Biding time for her next getaway, Inger participated in theater and glee club. She graduated high school in 1952, packed her bags and left town, eventually landing in New York City to pursue an acting career.
Contrary to her poor self-image, Inger was strikingly beautiful, with natural blonde hair, fine facial features, and a graceful, natural manner. She partnered with advertising agent Anthony Soglio, who Americanized Inger’s last name from Stensland to Stevens, and got her in some TV commercials for detergents and cigarettes. Another break was being accepted into Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio. Stevens joined a class that included Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Dean and Robert Redford.
Rolling the dice, Inger married her agent in 1955. Inger and Tony Soglio had a successful business relationship, but their marriage was a disaster from the start. Tony was very jealous and possessive, and Inger was independent. They split up in January 1956. It was the beginning of a pattern for Inger: falling for men who were emotionally unavailable or abusive to her. When the relationships ended Inger felt like the abandoned little girl she once was. Then she would fall in love again.
The next time was with a man old enough to be her father: Bing Crosby. Twenty two year old Inger won a supporting role in the 1957 MGM drama Man on Fire. Crosby, playing the male lead, was thirty years older than Stevens. The tabloids probably dramatized the situation by reporting that Stevens became suicidal when Crosby married another woman. Later Inger would become suicidal for real.
She got positive reviews for Man on Fire. Now under contract with Paramount, Stevens got another plum role in 1958’s CryTerror! Her performance as the wife of male lead James Mason won positive attention from critics. Oh, and she almost died. Stevens and several other cast members were overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning during filming. Inger was in an oxygen tent for two days before recovering. (It was her second brush with dramatic illness in a year. While filming Man on Fire Stevens was rushed to the hospital with acute appendicitis).
Then came a wannabe epic, The Buccaneer(also 1958). Inger co-starred with heavyweights Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston. Despite the stars, and the influence of Cecil B. DeMilles, the movie fell flat, ending the directing ambitions of actor Anthony Quinn. Quinn's other ambition, to bed Stevens, was more successful. After shooting was over Quinn returned to his wife, leaving Inger alone and depressed. Later she would remark, “When the cruise is finished the romance may linger, but the relationship seems to shift and change. You tell yourself you’ll never fall in love that way again, but it happens…”
It happened with another married man, Harry Belafonte, the male lead in MGM’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Inger was the female lead. Nature ran its course, the two had a passionate romance, the movie ended, and Belafonte returned to his marriage. On New Year’s Day, 1959, Inger overdosed on pills and would have died but for the intervention of a friend who worried when Inger missed a social engagement and couldn’t be reached by phone. Later Inger called her suicide attempt was “stupid” and said she would never do it again.
The 1960’s were Inger Steven’s most visible years as an actress and TV personality. She rebounded from unhappy affairs and a suicide attempt by refocusing on her craft and staying busy, always in the public eye either through movies, theatrical productions, commercials, or television series.
In 1961, however, Stevens had another brush with death. She was vacationing in Europe when a plane she was in bounced off the runway in Lisbon, starting a fire that spread to the passenger cabin. Stevens was one of the last passengers off the plane, which then exploded. In her short life Inger had her full share of near death experiences.
Speaking of death, Stevens starred in one of the most famous Twilight Zoneepisodes,“The Hitchhiker.” She played Nan Adams, a young woman trying to cheat death, as personified by the hitchhiker stalking her throughout the episode. It is a chilling story. Stevens portrays her character’s gradual awareness of her fate in a nuanced, gripping, and finally shattering performance.
In 1962 Stevens played opposite Peter Falk in a stand alone episode called "The Price of Tomatoes," which aired on The Dick Powell Show. Inger was a pregnant Romanian girl evading immigration police, and Falk was the truck driver who befriended her. The show was so well done Stevens and Falk were both nominated for Emmy awards.
The television show Stevens is most remembered for, however, was The Farmer’s Daughter, a network situation comedy that aired from 1963 to 1966. Stevens had to relearn her Swedish accent to play the role of Katy Holstrum, governess to Glen Morley, a widowed politician played by William Windom - one of the few leading men Stevens did not have an affair with. Windom later described Stevens as “a woman with many secrets.” Only after her death would the truth of that statement fully penetrate.