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.
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 moviegoers thought she was American born: she had not even a trace of a Swedish accent.
Despite her intelligence and willpower, Inger felt frightened and lost. “I fit nowhere,” 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 Cry Terror! 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 “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 Zone episodes,“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.
The show was quite popular. Stevens won a Golden Globe Award, and the show garnered record ratings when Glen Morley and Katy Holstrum married at the beginning of the third season. Most viewers seemed to consider the story over after the honeymoon, for they tuned out and The Farmer’s Daughter was cancelled after its third season.
Inger was almost abnormally busy in the following years. She appeared as Walter Mathau’s wife (no affair there) in the 1967 comedy A Guide For the Married Man. Here Stevens had several semi-nude scenes, and an opportunity to demonstrate how physically fit her body was. (She was very conscious of her physical appearance, and serious about dieting, exercising, and always being in shape).
Then there was Hang ‘Em High with Clint Eastwood, 5 Card Stud with Dean Martin (affair) and Robert Mitchum, and Madigan with Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark. All three movies were done in 1968. The next two years were busy as well.
Stevens’ last movie was the made for TV Run Simon Run. Inger starred with Burt Reynolds, a Native American seeking revenge for his brother’s murder. Stevens played a social worker who eventually fell for Reynolds and helped him find the bad guys. Off screen she fell for Reynolds too.
In 1970 Inger Stevens had fifteen major movies to her credit, and just as many television and theatrical roles. She was delighted to be selected by Aaron Spelling to co-star in a new TV series, The Most Deadly Game, due to premiere in the fall. Stevens was cast as a criminologist solving unusual murders. The series was due to start filming in one short month. Inger seemed busy, happy, and successful.
At approximately 7:30 pm Wednesday evening, April 29, 1970, Burt Reynolds left Inger Stevens’ house after having an argument with her. At 11 pm Stevens called her personal assistant, Chris Bone, and said she had argued with Burt, and had drank two glasses of wine. Stevens told Chris she was going to take a sleeping pill and go to bed.
The next morning a friend came by Inger’s house and found her lying face down on the kitchen floor. She was dressed in a nightgown and a scruffy pair of slippers. The friend said Inger opened her eyes, tried to speak, and fell unconscious. There was a cut on her chin covered by a band-aid, and an abrasion on her arm. An ambulance took Stevens to Hollywood Receiving Hospital. She was dead on arrival at 10:30 am.
At 1:30 pm an autopsy was performed at the County Coroner’s office. Her blood alcohol content was 0.17. It was estimated there were 25-50 barbiturate pills in Steven’s stomach. The cause of death was labeled “acute barbiturate intoxication due to ingestion of overdose.”
Surprises continued when a man named Ike Jones stepped forward to claim the body, saying he was Inger Steven’s husband. Inger’s brother Carl and her father and step mother came into town. The group had a private memorial service on May 4. The next day Inger’s body was cremated and the ashes scattered into the Pacific Ocean.
Turns out Inger and Ike married in Tijuana, Mexico on November 18 1961. Jones was an athlete at UCLA and had a versatile career as a musician, actor, and movie producer. The two kept there marriage a secret for fear it would damage Steven’s career. Marriages between black men and white women were not popular in the 1960’s, as evidenced by actress Mai Britt’s career plunge when she married Sammy Davis Junior.
Jones’ claim to be Steven’s husband was challenged in court. Inger’s brother Carl supported Jones’ claims, and although there was considerable conflicting evidence on the matter, Jones was eventually awarded Inger Steven’s estate. He said that after all the bills got paid there was nothing left over – kind of like their marriage. It seems Ike’s relationship with Inger was like her relationships with other men: often strained, with long periods of separation. It does not seem that either husband or wife took their vows of fidelity seriously. At the time of her death the two were estranged.
For most, that is the end of the story. How could there be any other conclusion than that Inger Stevens finally completed a suicide attempt? She had already attempted suicide once. Her strained relationship with Burt Reynolds was perhaps the final straw, the final failed relationship she could stand.
But to some the answer is not that easy. Steven’s family and close friends are unanimous in their belief that Inger did not commit suicide. They point out that up until the morning of April 30 1970, Stevens gave every impression of being happy with her life. She was focusing on short term and long term plans for her career. She was getting roles she liked and was staying in the public eye. True, she was having relationship problems, but that was nothing new, and besides, she had sworn off suicide as a remedy.
Inger’s personal assistant, Chris Bone, does not believe Stevens killed herself either. She believes that if Inger was really going to kill herself she would have worn makeup and dressed properly. Stevens herself said she had learned enough from her first suicide attempt to never go down that road again.
William Patterson is a private investigator who wrote a book about Inger Stevens. He also doubts the official verdict. He examined the physical evidence in the room, noting a bottle of pills that did not belong to Stevens. The cut on the chin and abrasion on the arm indicate someone had been physically violent with Inger. She also had an IUD in place, which Patterson thought was significant. From the physical evidence in the room it seemed that Stevens had been in the middle of making her favorite sandwich when she died.
Patterson notes there were asthma pills containing Phenobarbital (a barbiturate) laying on the living room floor. They came from a small pill bottle labeled Tedral that did not contain doctor or pharmacy information. The bottle probably did not belong to Stevens, as she did not have asthma. There were also Seconal tablets scattered on the bedroom floor. Inger typically did not take sedatives to get to sleep. Patterson has a murder suspect who he does not name for legal reasons. His theory is that someone who knew Inger visited her but then forced her to swallow enough pills to kill herself. The motive is unclear, but it can be assumed to be personal.
This conclusion may be too lurid for some. The other theory, that maybe Inger took a few more pills than prescribed after she had the fight with Reynolds, and accidentally overdosed, doesn’t hold up. Twenty five to fifty pills is not just “a few more”. That quantity of pills is only ingested with suicidal intent. But to commit suicide at such an exciting part of her life, and when she was so involved and enthusiastic with her projects, well, that doesn’t make sense either.
What we do know is a young life ended too early. Inger had many friends, admirers, and fans who were left heartbroken. For all her successes in her chosen field, Inger was often heartbroken too. And she spoke frankly about life in Hollywood:”A career can’t put its arms around you. You end up like Grand Central Station with people just coming and going. And there you are, left alone.”
In a chapter dedicated to her in Kirk Crivello’s book Fallen Angels, Inger said:
“Once I felt that I was one person at home and the minute I stepped out the door I had to be somebody else. I had a terrific insecurity and extreme shyness that I covered up with coldness. Everybody thought I was a snob. I was really just plain scared.”
Hollywood columnist Ben Irwin’s eulogy: “[She was] essentially a hopeful and gay human being capable of imparting that to others . . . For that really was what Inger was about—honesty and love. And she spent her life working harder than most of us practicing the first and living the second.”
Jerry Lem, the primary contributor to her online memorial website, adds: “Inger remains a gifted actress, an unforgettably beautiful woman and a kind, caring human being who lives on in our memories. The years since her untimely death have done little to diminish the impression she left us—Her legacy has touched our lives.”
Inger Stensland, Requiescat in pacem.
Inger Stevens: Wounded Butterfly, by Gary Brumburgh,
http://www.ingerstevens.org/, a memorial website run by Jerry Lem, with much interesting information on the life of Inger Stevens. I am indebted to Jerry for critiquing my article and providing me with a wealth of detail surrounding Inger and her last days.
Kirk Crivello, Fallen Angels: The Lives And Untimely Deaths Of 14 Hollywood Beauties, Warner Paperbacks, 1988.
William Patterson, The Farmer’s Daughter Remembered: The Biography of Actress Inger Stevens (Foreword by William Windom), published 2000.