Zarah Leandermuseet, Reseberga 20, 610 29 Vikbolandet, Sweden
Häradshammars kyrkogård Norrkoping, Norrköpings kommun, Östergötlands län, Sweden
Zarah Leander (15 March 1907 – 23 June 1981) was a Swedish singer and actress whose greatest success was in Germany between 1936 and 1943, when she was contracted to work for the state-owned Universum Film AG (UFA). This caused her films and lyrics to be identified as Nazi propaganda, though she had taken no public political position, and she remained a controversial figure for the rest of her life. In the 1930s the best-known English actors of the time, John Gielgud, Max Adrian, Gyles Isham, Henry Kendall, Charles Laughton, Ernest Milton, Esme Percy, Eric Portman, Ernest Thesiger and Frank Vosper, were homosexual or bisexual. In Germany, actors like Wilhelm Bendow, Max Hansen, Anton Walbrook, Hubert von Meyerinck, and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski made no secret of their homosexuality. In France, Jean Marais was the biggest celebrity. Among women, Marlene Dietrich, Zarah Leander, and Greta Garbo were bisexual. Many homosexuals were also found in the fashion and art world, in particular, in England, the interior decorator John Beresford Fowler, the set designer Oliver Messel, the great dressmaker Norman Hartnell and the photographer Cecil Beaton.
Zarah Leander was born as Sara Stina Hedberg in Karlstad, studying piano and violin as a child, and sang on stage for the first time at the age of six. She initially had no intention of becoming a professional performer and led an ordinary life for several years. As a teenager she lived two years in Riga, Latvia (1922–1924), where she learned German, took up work as a secretary, married Nils Leander (1926), and had two children (1927 and 1929). However, in 1929 she was engaged, as an amateur, in a touring cabaret by the entertainer and producer Ernst Rolf and for the first time sang "Vill ni se en stjärna" ("Do You Want to See a Star?"), which soon would become her signature tune. In 1930, she participated in four cabarets in the capital, Stockholm, made her first records, including a cover of Marlene Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again", and played a part in a film. However, it was as "Hanna Glavari" in Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow that she had her definitive break-through (1931). By then she had divorced Nils Leander. In the following years, she expanded upon her career and made a living as an artist on stage and in film in Scandinavia. Her fame brought her proposals from the European continent and from Hollywood, where a number of Swedish actors and directors were working. In the beginning of the 1930s she performed with the Swedish revue artist, producer, and songwriter Karl Gerhard who was a prominent anti-Nazi. He wrote a song for Zarah Leander, "I skuggan av en stövel" ("In the shadow of a boot"), in 1934 which strongly condemned the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. Leander opted for an international career on the European continent. As a mother of two school-age children, she ruled out a move to America, fearing the consequences of bringing the children such a great distance and being unable to find employment. Despite the political situation, Austria and Germany were much closer to home, and Leander was already well-versed in German. A second breakthrough, by contemporary measures her international debut, was the world premiere (1936) of Axel an der Himmelstür (Axel at the Gate of Heaven) at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, directed by Max Hansen. It was a parody of Hollywood and not the least a parody of Marlene Dietrich. It was followed by the Austrian film Premiere, in which she played a successful cabaret star.
In 1936, she landed a contract with UFA in Berlin. She became renowned as a very tough negotiator, demanding both influence and a high salary, half of which was to be paid in Swedish kronor to a bank in Stockholm. Even though Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels dubbed her an "Enemy of Germany" for her aforementioned behavior, as a leading film star at UFA, she participated in ten films, most of them great successes. Leander neither socialized with leading party members nor took part in official Nazi Party functions. A likely apocryphal meeting with Goebbels supposedly resulted in this exchange: "Zarah... Isn't that a Jewish name?" "Oh, maybe", the actress said, "but what about Josef?" "Hmmm... yes, yes, a good answer", Goebbels reportedly replied. Involvement with the Nazi propaganda machine did not prevent her from recording in 1938 the Yiddish song "Bei Mir Bistu Shein". Many of her songs were composed by Michael Jary, with whom she had an affair, and Bruno Balz with music and lyrics, respectively. In her films, Leander repeatedly played independent, beautiful, passionate and self-confident women. Leander scored the two biggest hits of her recording career—in her signature deep voice, she sang her anthems of hope and survival: „Davon geht die Welt nicht unter” ("This is not the end of the world") and "Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen" ("I know that someday a miracle will happen"). These two songs in particular are often included in contemporary documentaries as obvious examples of effective Nazi propaganda. Although no exact record sales numbers exist, it is likely that she was among Europe's best-selling recording artists in the years prior to 1945. She pointed out in later years that what made her a fortune was not her salary from UFA, but the royalties from the records she released.
Her last film in Nazi Germany premiered on 3 March 1943. Her villa in Grunewald was hit in an air raid, and the increasingly desperate Nazis pressured her to apply for German citizenship. At this point she decided to retreat to Sweden, where she had bought a mansion at Lönö [sv], not far from Stockholm. She was still contractually obligated for another film to UFA, but held up the film representatives by rejecting script after script. Gradually she managed to land engagements on the Swedish stage. After the war she did eventually return to tour Germany and Austria, giving concerts, making new records and acting in musicals. Her comeback found an eager audience among pre-war generations who had never forgotten her. She appeared in a number of films and television shows, but she would never regain the popularity she had enjoyed before and into the first years of World War II. In 1981, after having retired from show business, she died in Stockholm of complications from a stroke.
Leander continued to be popular in Germany for many decades after World War II. She was interviewed several times on German television before her death. In 1983, New Wave singer Nina Hagen, who had idolized Leander as a child, released the single "Zarah", based on „Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen”. In 1987, two Swedish musicals were written about Zarah Leander. In 2003, a bronze statue was placed in Zarah Leander's home town Karlstad, by the Opera house of Värmland where she first began her career. After many years of discussions, the town government accepted this statue on behalf of the local Zarah Leander Society. A Zarah Leander museum is open near her mansion outside Norrköping. Every year a scholarship is given to a creative artist in her tradition. The performer Mattias Enn received the prize in 2010, the female impersonator Jörgen Mulligan in 2009, and Zarah's friend and creator of the museum Brigitte Pettersson in 2008.
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