There is something surreal about the news that the great actress and humanitarian Wenche Foss passed away shortly after noon today, aged 93. Besides being this country’s greatest celebrity she was one of those national icons who seemed almost immortal.
Born on 5 December 1917, Eva Wenche Steenfeldt Foss made her stage debut already in 1935 and was for decades employed by the National Theatre, whose greatest diva she was. She has been praised by colleagues today for her artistic genius and she continued to take on roles in plays and films long after she had officially retired in 1988.
But what made her more than a brilliant actress and eventually the grand old lady of Norwegian theatre was the way she used her fame to promote not herself, as so many of the meaningless celebrities of today do, but to speak out in favour of those less fortunate than herself. Thus she used her authority to become the sort of moral consciousness that every society needs. It was probably this more than anything else that made her so universally beloved by her compatriots.
Decades ago, when no-one talked publicly about such things, she spoke openly about cancer, which she was herself afflicted with, and Down’s syndrome, which one of her sons suffered from, and contributed greatly to society becoming more open about such illnesses. In later years she has also been praised for the openness with which she spoke about her own death.
She never lost her great interest in current affairs and was never afraid to speak her mind about injustices done towards the less fortunate members of our society, who had a special place in her big heart. When treated unfairly they could always count on Wenche Foss to get furious and advocate their case in the media, which often led to injustice being corrected.
It will be a hard act for anyone to try and fill her shoes as the moral consciousness of the nation – and as the last great diva.
Following a brief marriage to Alf Scott-Hansen, which ended in divorce, she married the wealthy businessman Thomas Stang, whose mother Emma Stang had been Mistress of the Robes to Queen Maud and who descended from Prime Minister Frederik Stang and from King Frederik V. They had two sons, of whom “Tommeliten” suffered from Down’s syndrome and died at the age of four while his mother was away at a film set, a regret which she said was on her mind every single day for the remainder of her life. Her surviving son, Fabian Stang, is the Mayor of Oslo. She is also survived by a daughter-in-law and two grandsons.
On more than one occasion Wenche Foss suffered from serious illnesses which might well have claimed her life. The fact that she always rallied contributed to her seeming almost immortal. Her last wish was that those who might wish to honour her memory would do so by giving flowers to someone who does normally receive flowers. But her death had hardly been announced and the flag lowered to half staff at the National Theatre before people began placing flowers at the feet of the statue of her which was erected outside the theatre on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday in 2007.
King Olav, of whom Wenche Foss was very fond, honoured her by making her a Commander with Star of the Order of St Olav, the second highest grade of that order, while King Frederik IX made her a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog and President François Mitterrand awarded her the Legion of Honour. She also received most prizes and awards one can be given.
The government today decided to grant her the rare honour of a state funeral. Along with her openness about death she has also on several occasions spoken about her wishes for her own funeral, which will take place in the Cathedral of Oslo – she was therefore quite nervous when the Cathedral was closed for several years of renovations when she was in her late eighties, but promised to live until the works were finished, which she did.
Arve Tellefsen will play the violin, while the only eulogy will be delivered by her son, who occasionally wondered if he would himself be around when the day came. There will be a lot of flowers and music, but no cell phones, and the service will end with an old recording of Wenche Foss herself singing to make certain that she gets the last word. Many years ago she stopped the former Bishop of Oslo, Gunnar Stålsett, who unlike the current bishop is liberal and well-liked, in the street and asked him if he would be willing to officiate at her funeral. “Anytime, Wenche!” he replied.