My Varied Careers in New York

By Solveig Sagedahl Johnson


My American odyssey began in 1955, when at the age of 18, I arrived in New York aboard HMS Brittanic. It was late August and as the ship anchored in the Narrows, I was absolutely amazed at the never ending stream of cars whizzing along the Belt Parkway—would they never end? To a wide-eyed girl from Flekkefjord, the city was an enchanting sight. I had never seen such tall buildings and the Statue of Liberty held such promise to a newcomer.

On the voyage over the Atlantic, I had teamed up with a lady who had worked as a cook in the USA. She would “show me the ropes” and we would get a “good yobb” together. It turned out to be the understatement of the year.

But first I was met at the pier by my host family. I spent a week adjusting to my new status as an immigrant. To perfect my English, I listened to the radio and television non-stop. It was the Fabulous ‘50s and the popular songs allowed me to learn slang words and phrases quickly.

I met my shipboard benefactor and off we went to an employment agency on Park Avenue in Manhattan. After a thorough screening, we were sent to a townhouse on East 86th Street. Lo and behold—it turned out to be the private residence of Mrs. Milton Berle!

Of course, I didn’t recognize the name of Milton Berle who was known as Mr. Television to millions of Americans. He appeared Sunday evenings as host of the Texaco Star Theater. Mrs. Berle was very kind and hired both of us on the spot. My duties were as governess to her 11 year old daughter, Vickie.

Apparently, she was a difficult child as several au pairs quit the position within a year. Using my “Norsk hode”, I realized she needed a big sister, not an employee, so I insisted on moving into her room.

We became fast friends attending theater matinees, movies, museums, as well as going shopping. I had never seen such fine stores as Bergdorf Goodman, Sachs Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. Such places did not exist in Sørlandet. It was an entirely different culture on a very fast track.

Eventually, after a divorce, Mrs. Berle married a new husband, Billy Rose. He was a famous song writer and producer of many successful Broadway shows.

The house filed up with show business personalities, such as, Jacqueline Suzanne, Irving Mansfield, Robert Q. Lewis and Sam Levinson. Mrs. Rose was very generous to me as I took very good care of her daughter, Vicky. She appreciated her freedom and the time to pursue her own theatrical career. I as a lucky recipient of many clothes and pieces of jewelry from her because of my close ties with her daughter. I even had a six week paid vacation as they traveled to Russia for their honeymoon.

After a year, I decided to return to Norway. I was homesick for my parents and newly engaged to a Norwegian-American. I wanted to discuss future plans with my mamma and pappa before getting married.

It was a sad departure for me and Vicky—lots of tears and hugs. I felt very sorry for her—all that wealth but not that much genuine family life. So it was back on the pier and off on the “Julebåt” MS Oslofjord hjem til Norge.

As I alighted in Kristiansand, the sounds of the joy of Christmas filled the air. Church bells rang out the familiar carols. Decorated Christmas trees were everywhere as people shouted, “God Jul”.

Back home in Flekkefjord, my girlfriends eagerly asked me questions about America, tried on my clothes, and listened to the latest records that I brought home. There was a lot of visiting in town, at church for the Julefest and preparing Julemat with Mamma for the holidays. I baked sandkaker, prepared open faced sandwiches, fiske boller, kjøtt kaker etc. It was great to be home.

After five months, however, the old travel urges returned. There was so much to see in America—so much to do—places to go, to experience. It was time to go back to the States.

On my return, I got a job in the South Brooklyn Savings Bank. Evidently, they liked Norwegian employees as six or eight girls worked there as tellers. We were a close knit bunch, occupying a full table in the cafeteria, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. They cautioned us not to “snakke Norsk” at table as to not offend other employees. I liked the job as it afforded more free time and the work was interesting due to the diverse ethnic origins of the customers.

At this time, the Norwegian community in Brooklyn was at its zenith. Eighth Avenue was known as Lapskaus Blvd. It was very common to meet Flekkefjordinger strolling along the street or in the delicious bakeries and delicatessens. I could purchase boller, marzipan cake, lympa and mandels stenger right here in Brooklyn.

Sunday afternoons were spent watching Gjøa playing soccer, walking on Shore Road, riding the Staten Island ferry and visiting Rockefeller Center.

I attended a Norwegian church, Bethelship on 56th Street with my “forlovet”. We worshipped with many people from Vest Agder, who knew my family back home. We participated, as a church, in the annual Sunday School parade down 4th Avenue. In those days some 250,000 march to proclaim their faith.

Church confirmations were big celebrations then. One usually attended two or three and got absolutely stuffed with “norsk mat.” The parties often spilled out onto the stoop—weather permitting. Huge pots of coffee bubbled merrily away and were promptly empties by the guests.

Most of my American family and friends were involved in the heavy construction trades. The church was the source of job contacts—foremen to see—tips on future projects etc, the “Norskies” took care of each other.

Eventually, I married my “Amerika vennen, became a US citizen and had three wonderful kids. One was born in the Norwegian Hospital.

Pappa would mail me ticket money every other year so he could see his grandchildren. I quickly learned how to travel with three kids plus baggage of my own. Those big, beautiful 727s were a lot faster the Oslofjord!

America had been extremely good to me—a forty-year solid marriage and four grandchildren. I have a business of my own—a Scandinavian Gourmet Catering firm. I return home once or twice annually to visit Pappa. He is 96 years old.

God bless America? Lenge leve Norge!