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Roger Smith

Actress and artist Ann-Margret is 60 today.
She is named 'Swedish-American of 2001'

It isn't quite easy to interview Ann-Margret, who by the 'Vasa Lodge of America' has been named this year's Swedish-American, and this very Saturday turns 60, even if she with the stubborness of an imbecill, jokes that she's "92, you know".

Because like many actors and entertainers with many years in the business, it's easier for her to play herself, than to be herself. The expected is her motto.

I'm listening through the tapes of the conversations we had a few weeks ago in Richmond, Virginia. She had just arrived, she's on tour through the U.S. with 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas'. She is Mona, the madam who runs the establishment in the musical's title.

We talk about this and that, also about the socks she, as a 5-year old wears in a picture from Valsjöbyn, in her biography, 'My Story'. But itakes half an hour before she surprises me.

Or maybe not. It's when we talk about George Burns, the comedian who discovered her, and put her in his Las Vegas show, in 1960. I wonder what his genius was, apart from being funny. "He was one of 13 children, and he was in vaudeville. Boy, was he a great actor. He really listened to what other people said. He taught me timing, it's all in the timing", says Ann-Margret. I point out that in her book, she tells an interesting story about what George Burns once said to her. Ann-Margret nods, and she knows what I'm about to say. I quote a passage from her book, wher Burns once said that he had seen something in her eyes on stage. "Never lose that feeling" he had said. A compliment as good as any for a young entertainer, who still wasn't 20, you might think.

Here in this hotel suite in Richmond, Ann-Margret is surprised that's what I thought about. "Oh", she says, while her little dog Missy wiggles her tail on the carpet. Her husband and manager, from 36 years, Roger Smith is in an adjoining room, fiddling about.

She is quiet for a while before she she tells what she thought I was going to mention from the book. She imitates Burns' cigar-hoarse voice perfectly, saying, "They don't wanna hear your voice, Annie, just see where it comes from". George Burns preferred his young disciple to wear a tight jumper, and not a loose-fit blouse.

That was what Ann-Margret thought I had thought the most interesting. And this quote of course, fits her 'animal' image much better, than something about a glimmer in her eyes.

Later she points out, that already back in New Trier high school, in Winnetka, Illinois in the fifties, she did a number called 'Heat Wave', and that one of her father's friends left the building, because it wasn't appropriate, he thought. And that 'Carnal Knowledge' from 1971 (she was Oscar-nominated for best supporting actress) was banned in Georgia. And that a member of the State Government in Connecticut the other week wanted to ban the posters for 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas'. "And I'm 92 already, and a grandmother, you know. It's strange", she says.

She doesn't look like 60. She might have had adjustments to her face, but you never know. In the posters in question, she seems naked under what looks like silk curtains. Without digging further into this, she insists it's embarrasing just because people can actually get the idea that she really is naked. She makes sure she was wearing something, a "skin-colored bathing suit", at the photo-session.

To the picture of Ann-Margret one has to add all these motorcycles. Harley Davidsons, of course. It's great to feel independant and feel the wind in your hair. "The speed, the danger", she says. Shortly before Christmas she borrowed a bike and crashed. Several injuries meant she had to start rehearsals for 'TBLIT' with a cast on one of her arms. Even to this day is under restrictions from the director, she can't do all the dance-steps and other escapades on stage.

Ann-Margret's worst accident, however, occurred in Septwmber 1972, when she fell from a platform right on to the stage floor, in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, face first. Several bones were crushed, but her skin was ok, and fantastic surgeons managed not to scar her beauty, by doing the operation through her mouth. Still, she refers to this accident when she doesn't want to be photographed from her right side. Overall, she she lives up to the definition of a star, and wants to run the sjhoot. For some reason, she hides behind a huge collar.

I don't ask her about her alcoholism, her pill-popping, both which she survived, or the failure of her and Roger having children (she is instead mother to Roger's 3 children from a previous marriage), or how far her romance with Elvis really went.Her biography gives the answers and non-answers to such questions. I do point out, that there is a touching connection between her relation with Presley and 'TBLIT'.

John F Kennedy is that connection.

When the president was murdered November 22, 1963, Elvis and Ann-Margret - this was before Roger Smith - saught each other's company and in tears followed the drama on television. It's in her book.

In the final scene of 'TBLIT', it's clear that Madam Mona and the sheriff, who according to circimstances, has to act against the business, themselves were involved romantically a long time ago, in the beginning of the sixties. Together they had listened to John F Kennedy's famous inauguration speach, when he swore the oath, "Don't ask what your country can do for you..."

At the mention of this, Ann-Margret gets lost in a thought. "The dialogue in this musical is really extraordinary", she then says. "It's comedy, and at the same time very dramatic...". Some 6 months before the murder, Ann-Margret had met John Kennedy, she had even performed for him on his birthday, not 'Happy Birthday' like Marilyn Monroe the year before. This is in her book:

"With my eyes firmly on the President, I performed a sensual interpretation of 'Baby, Won't You Please Come Home', which made him quite happy, judging by the smile on his face". "This is far from Valsjöbyn", the President is said to have said. "He was well briefed by Pierre Salinger, his relations man", Ann-Margret says, here in Richmond, Virginia.

Valsjöbyn is the village in Jämtland, Sweden, where Ann-Margret Smith Olsson was born, and which she left with her mother when she was 5. They teamed up with her father in the U.S., to wher he had emigrated 5 years earlier. When she now talks about her childhood home, she does it with an utterly charming ö (o with 2 dots), her Swedish vowels glitter her almost perfect Swedish talks about relatives and friends, about Eva, Johanna and her uncle Calle.

"Do you think this will go down well in Valsjöbyn?", I ask mentioning her favorite costume in 'TBLIT', red boots with hearts, black hat, and a red leather jacket and black gloves. "I don't know. Let's hope so", she says in Swedish, and sounds as she has just arrived in Ostersund with the bus from Valsjöbyn.

Backstage at the Landmark Theatre in Richmond can't be compared to other backstage places Ann-Margret has had access to during the big years in Las Vegas. Maybe not even to those she had while shooting her first film, being directed by Frank Capra, and co-starring with Bette Davis. Or when she worked with John Wayne. "Oh, boy, you disappeared in his arms, like a cookie".

But there on the floor are her shoes, and in the door at least a handful of fans are waiting, to get a glimpse and hug their idol. There are some very young men, who in Ann-Margret see a dream. She welcomes them with a seldom seen warmth before she climbs in a long limousine, for the six-block drive to her hotel with Missy in her arms.

Well, what does she consider her biggest parts during her long career, I wonder. She answers something about the long marriage to Roger, certainly a record considering Hollywood. She notes, that both her co-actors in 'Grumpy Old Men' and the follow-up, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, also both had long marriages to their respective wives.

But carreerwise, I insist.

"Oh, so many things", she says. "I can't really... The 2 Hollywood trips, maybe... Amazing, amazing". But she doesn't want to get deeper into why she feels so strongly about those 2 trips, as entertainer for American soldiers in Vietnam, in 1966 and 1968. Only that it touches her deeply when Vietnam veterans now seek her out to tell her that it meant so very much to them back then.

And what about those old socks 5-year old Ann-Margret was wearing in Valsjöbyn? They look itchy? In her suite in Richmond, she doesn't remember, but she calls up her mother, sick with cancer, in Hollywood to ask. "No", she then says, when she hangs up. "They were very soft".


By Kurt Mälarstedt


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