Sunday, 26 February 2012

People from the past: Countess Estelle Bernadotte af Wisborg (1904-1984)

The unexpected choice of the name Estelle for the newborn daughter of Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel of Sweden has naturally sparked a lot of interest in the Princess’s only relative of that name (except for a young granddaughter of Princess Désirée): the daughter of an American millionaire, who married into a non-royal junior branch of the House of Bernadotte.
Born on 26 September 1904 in Pleasantville, New York, Estelle Romaine Manville was the daughter of American industrialist Hiram Edward Manville, a self-made man who had made a fortune of an estimated 20 million dollars through asbestos, and his wife Estelle Romaine.
At the time of her marriage there were reports that the Manvilles belonged to so-called Four Hundred, i.e. the most prestigious upper-class families of New York and that they descended from Goeffrey de Magnaville, who was ennobled as Earl of Essex after accompanying Duke William of Normandy on his conquest of England in 1066. However, this was all based on a misunderstanding. In fact Estelle’s family had nothing to do with these people and were entirely self-made.
While in her early twenties Estelle Manville was frequently seen in American and European society. During a holiday on the French Riviera in the summer of 1928 she attended a dinner in honour of King Gustaf V of Sweden, where she was seated next to his nephew, Count Folke Bernadotte af Wisborg, a 33-year-old cavalry officer.
Folke Bernadotte was the youngest son of Prince Oscar Bernadotte and thus a grandson of King Oscar II of Sweden and of Norway. Prince Oscar had lost his royal statues when marrying a commoner in 1888 and Folke was therefore not himself a member of the royal family, yet he was to become one of the most famous of all the Bernadottes.
“At the first meeting with my future husband I was not really at all gripped by his personality”, Estelle recalled. “I wondered to myself whether he wasn’t actually quite an ordinary and somewhat self-preoccupied gentleman. One day, however, I found him laughing, in the special and completely irresistible way that was his own, and in that instant I understood for the first time something of his inner essence. Similarly his face exploded in a bright and lusty laugh and I suddenly realized that he had extraordinary blue eyes. [...] I thought for a moment I could see the spirit in his soul and in the same instant I realized that he was a good man”.
After an acquaintance of only two weeks, Folke Bernadotte proposed to Estelle Manville and was accepted. “You’ve got to be a fast worker to get the best girl in the United States”, said Folke Bernadotte to someone who remarked on the speed with which it had all happened.
Estelle’s parents hosted a grand wedding for 1,450 guests at their estate Hi-Esmaro in Pleasantville on 1 December 1928. The actual ceremony took place in the local Episcopal Church of St John in Pleasantville and the bride wore Queen Sophia’s bridal veil and the small so-called Bernadotte wedding crown.
The Princes Gustaf Adolf and Sigvard had come over from Sweden, the former to act as best man, and the princes and the bridal couple were entertained to lunch in the White House by President Calvin Coolidge. The American press spun the wedding as the first time a member of a European royal family married in the USA, but this was obviously nonsense as Folke Bernadotte was not a member of a royal family. Other epitaphs included “the greatest occurrence in American Society since the wedding of Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt with the Duke of Marlborough” and the whole affair was estimated to have cost some $ 1,750,000. According to Estelle herself, the price was “only” $ 250,000.
Estelle’s introduction to wider royal circles took place when she accompanied her husband to his cousin Princess Märtha’s wedding to Crown Prince Olav of Norway in Oslo in March 1929. The couple spent most of the first years of their marriage in the USA and France, but in 1931 they settled in Stockholm. At first they lived in his parents’ apartment at 89 Östermalm Street, but in 1931 Folke was given a fifteen-year lease of a 20-room villa at Djurgården, known as Dragongården (now part of the Chinese embassy complex).
In 1933 Folke Bernadotte retired from the army with the rank of major and became head of the household of Prince Gustaf Adolf, a good friend of his and father to the present King of Sweden. Estelle also became a close friend of Gustaf Adolf’s wife, Princess Sibylla, and helped introduce her to life in Sweden after her wedding in 1932. In 1946 Folke Bernadotte was among the sponsors at the christening of the future King Carl XVI Gustaf, whose third name is Folke.
Count Folke and Countess Estelle Bernadotte had four sons: Gustaf in 1930, Folke (“Ockie”) in 1931, Frederick in 1934 and Bertil in 1935. Frederick died at the age of seven months, while Gustaf died three days after his sixth birthday. The deaths of two of her sons were obviously harsh blows for Estelle Bernadotte, who spent some time in a rest home.
During World War II Folke Bernadotte served as Vice President of the Swedish Red Cross, whose President was his uncle Prince Carl. As Prince Carl was by then in his eighties and had been President for four decades, most of the daily work fell on Folke Bernadotte, who thus got the chance to play a role on the world stage as the war neared its end.
In the spring of 1945 he conducted secret negotiations with Heinrich Himmler about a possible German capitulation, which came to nothing. However, Folke Bernadotte managed to get permission to transport Norwegian and Danish prisoners from the concentration camps.
The operation, commonly known as “the White Buses” after the colouring of the Red Cross vehicles, rescued 21,700 prisoners from the concentration camps and made Folke Bernadotte a hero. His stature in Sweden was probably increased by the fact that many were not so proud of much of what neutral Sweden had done during the war and the few Swedish heroes were therefore celebrated even more.
In 1948 the UN sent Folke Bernadotte to Palestine to act as a mediator in the conflict caused by the establishment of the state of Israel. On 15 September 1948 he was assassinated in Jerusalem by the terrorist groups Irgun and Lehy, among whose leaders were the future Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.
Estelle was thus left a widow at the age of only 44, but remained dedicated to her husband’s causes for the rest of her life. She continued his Red Cross work, served as President of the Swedish Girl Guides and Scout Association from 1949 to 1957 and was also involved with UNICEF and the international conservation movement.
She also continued to appear on the royal scene. For instance she was usually present for the annual State Opening of Parliament in the Royal Palace’s Hall of State in January, wearing court dress and a magnificent parure of pink tourmalines (some say topazes, others white sapphires) which had apparently been worn by Queen Sophia for her Norwegian coronation in 1873. (The parure consisted of tiara, necklace and brooch and Estelle Bernadotte bought a ring, a bracelet and a pair of earrings to go with it. It was inherited by her eldest son, but has now been sold).
On 3 March 1973, 68-year-old Estelle Bernadotte married Carl-Eric Ekstrand, who had been Master of the Household to the late Princess Sibylla and also in charge of administering Estelle’s own fortune. The couple settled in Saint-Paul-de Vence near Nice.
At the age of 79, Estelle Ekstrand died in Uppsala on 28 May 1984 from a staphylococcal infection following hip surgery which developed into blood poisoning. Her ashes were interred at the Northern Cemetery in Solna outside Stockholm, where her name is again given as “Estelle Bernadotte af Wisborg” on her plaque at Prince Oscar Bernadotte’s Family Grave.
Her widower died in 1988, while her sons Folke and Bertil are still alive. While the former is rarely seen in royal circles, the latter remains a good friend of King Carl Gustaf, who even spent his wedding night at Bertil Bernadotte’s summer house at Ingarö in the Stockholm archipelago.
Count Bertil Bernadotte was also present in the Palace Church on Friday for the service of thanksgiving following the birth of the princess given the same name as his mother. No official explanation has been given for why the Crown Princess and her husband chose the name Estelle, which is not Swedish and which does not have any previous royal history. Indeed the choice of name ignores the history, tradition and continuity which the names of (future) monarchs are normally supposed to reflect.
The royal court has not confirmed that the Princess is actually named for Estelle Bernadotte; the information department has replied to press inquiries that they have no information about the reasons for the choice of the name Estelle. There are media reports that Crown Princess Victoria has always liked the name, while Elisabeth Tarras-Wahlberg, who was earlier the Crown Princess’s Court Marshal, has suggested that the Crown Princess’s interest in peace work may have influenced her choice of the name Estelle for the future Queen of Sweden. The Mistress of the Robes, Countess Alice Trolle-Wachtmeister, said to Aftonbladet yesterday that “the King was very close to Estelle’s husband Folke”, but this is obviously impossible, given that Folke Bernadotte died when King Carl Gustaf was two years old.
As Estelle Ekstrand lived in France for the last years of her life and Crown Princess Victoria was not yet seven years old when she died, the Crown Princess can hardly have known her distant relative very well. However, according to what Estelle Bernadotte’s son Folke told Aftonbladet yesterday, Crown Princess Victoria has met his mother, but in another interview, with Upsala Nya Tidning, he is less certain about it.


  1. Hi-Esmaro was not on Long Island. It was in Pleasantville, New York. (It would have been taken many hours to get from Westchester County to Long Island in the 1920s ... heck, it still takes hours, even with the addition of major highways.)

    67 acres and Hi-Esmaro's main buildings were sold to the General Precision company in 1945. I am at work on an article on Estelle Manville.

  2. Thanks for the correction. Prince Sigvard, who attended the wedding, states in his memoirs that Hi-Esmaro was on Long Island, but I now see (from Google maps) that this is obviously incorrect. (There is also another mistake concerning the wedding in his book).

    Interestingly, Sigvard Bernadotte stated that it took an hour to drive from the Manville estate to New York City, while a British biographer of Folke Bernadotte states that it took twenty minutes.

    I too am writing an article on Estelle Bernadotte - obviously the naming of the newborn princess provides an excellent "excuse" for writing about her namesake.

  3. In 1928, it would not have taken 20 minutes - and not even now. I grew up in northern New Jersey so not unfamiliar with the area. The Taconic state and the Bronx River Parkway began during this time period, but were not completed for several decades until the early 60s.


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