The Friendship of Ingrid Bergman and Ruth Roberts

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Ingrid Bergman with Ruth Roberts, to her left, and other crew on the set of Gaslight (1944)

During this COVID-19 crisis, I’m finding daily routine to be a key factor in maintaining some semblance of normalcy. For me, this means daily classic movies at set times of the day. Movies keep me calm, and bring comfort in a world that seems to be crumbling further every day. If you derive comfort from film the way I do, and you haven’t discovered the Criterion Collection yet, I’m finding it to be a godsend in this regard, a movie lover’s dream. Having finished the delightful Jean Arthur collection, I’m now working my way through the “Ingrid Bergman in Europe” collection, a diverse group of films from Ingrid Bergman’s pre-Hollywood days in Sweden, and her work in Europe following her troubles in Hollywood.

I have always found Ingrid Bergman a fascinating personality and from childhood, have been riveted by her comforting, Swedish-accented voice, distinctive beauty, magnificent acting and personal strength of character. Her onscreen portrayals reflect her offscreen strength, as she frequently played independent and strong women, including the likes of Joan of Arc and Golda Meir. The difficulties she faced in Hollywood (she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini and gave birth to their son, Roberto, out of wedlock in 1949) were excruciatingly painful. While she suffered immensely at having been rejected by Hollywood, she held her chin high and continued working–albeit in Europe for the next 7 years rather than in the United States where she had effectively been ostracized.

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Ingrid Bergman before coming to Hollywood.

Bergman was a gifted linguist and polyglot–brought up in Stockholm bilingual in Swedish and German, she loved language for its own sake and was able to adjust quickly to life and work in Europe. However, when she came to the United States to work on the English version of Intermezzo for David O. Selznick in 1939, it was a different story. Her knowledge of English was rudimentary at best, and Selznick was worried about how she would sound onscreen. On her first day at the studio, she was introduced to a woman named Ruth Roberts, who was to be her English language and dialogue coach.

Ruth Roberts was the sister of director George Seaton, and came from a Swedish immigrant family herself. Ruth spoke fluent Swedish due to her family background, and later served as Loretta Young’s Swedish dialect coach on The Farmer’s Daughter. But she made the decision not to divulge her bilingualism to Ingrid.

In order to familiarize Ingrid with English, of which she knew just a smattering (she speaks a few lines of simple, broken English in the Swedish film Dollar, which is interesting to hear), Selznick demanded that she spend day and night with Roberts. At first, Ingrid balked at this order–but ultimately accepted. After a few mere hours with Ruth Roberts, Ingrid realized that she had been wrong to resist. She had found a kindred spirit, a woman who would become her best friend and one of the great influences of her life.

The two did, indeed, spend all their time together, speaking nothing but English–and Ingrid found that despite her initial hesitancy at having her freedom curtailed, she adored Ruth and enjoyed spending time with her. In her autobiography, My Story, Ingrid recalled that one day when Ruth was coaching her on the set, there was a word whose pronunciation Ingrid was struggling with. “If only you could give me one Swedish word…” Ingrid said sadly, knowing she could get the pronunciation if she only knew how to form her mouth correctly. Ruth looked her right in the eye and gave her a Swedish word with the same sound.

“You speak Swedish?” Ingrid asked incredulously.

“I am Swedish.”

“Then why–”

“Because, Ingrid dear, if I’d told you earlier you’d be jabbering away in Swedish and my job is to get your English right.”

From the American version of Intermezzo, Ingrid Bergman’s first English language film.

The revelation of Ruth’s bilingualism deepened their friendship further, and their shared connection to Sweden helped Ingrid acclimate and learn quickly. It was thanks to her friendship with Ruth Roberts that her English improved so rapidly. Ruth remained Ingrid’s dialect coach throughout her career, even when Ingrid spoke perfect English and had established her “voice” in Hollywood. Ingrid’s autobiography is filled with correspondence with Ruth Roberts, in both English and Swedish, and stories of Ruth’s emotional support during Ingrid’s ostracization from Hollywood and her connection to Ingrid’s children. Their friendship was lifelong, and though Ruth was 16 years older, the two died only 3 months apart in 1982.

The gift that this friendship gave Ingrid is immeasurable. Though she did have a gift for languages, eventually learning 2 more in addition to English, her personal and professional connection to Ruth Roberts provided her with the foundation and confidence to not only work in a foreign language, but to win 3 Oscars in it. This was not lost on Ingrid, who treasured their friendship and remained grateful to Ruth for the rest of her life.

 

10 responses to “The Friendship of Ingrid Bergman and Ruth Roberts

  1. Fascinating story. thank you.

  2. I always love your writing. You take the time to give lots of details, and you’re never salacious. It’s so hard to understand now why Ingrid faced such harsh criticism over her decision to have a child with Rossellini. And i admire her for finding ways to continue to work under the circumstances. Have you seen the Crterion production of her life-her children were instrumental in the making of it and it’s so good. You can get it off i tunes.
    I hope you’re well, during the Covid crisis. Thanks for brightening my day 🙂

  3. Thank you so much, Carole, you made MY day! And yes, I love that documentary. I saw it in the theater (oh, to be in a movie theater again…) when it first came out and I wrote a blog post about it. Still thinking about that one.

  4. oh, that’s right-I think you may have introduced me to it lol. I miss theatres so much, too. Also grocery stores! xo

  5. Thank you for sharing the story of this friendship.
    It’s nice to learn the Bergman had such a loyal longterm friend as she faced the many stresses of her life.

  6. Thank you for sharing the story of this friendship.
    It’s nice to learn the Bergman had such a loyal longterm friend as she faced the many stresses of her life.

  7. Thanks for reading! Yes, it’s a great story that I’ve been meaning to write about for some time.

  8. I love Ingrid Bergman’s films. She was a talented and intelligent actress. Yes, the newspapers were sleazy it’s no business of any government official (especially!) to criticizing someone’s private life. Or the public for that matter. But she didn’t just have a child out of wedlock. She also abandoned the child she already had, and the husband she had that child with. No one could live up to her on-screen image and yes, others including Rossellini cheated on spouses, too. None of that makes it right. I’m all for re-examining history with a more nuanced and compassionate eye. But Ingrid Bergman’s “difficulties” had their beginnings in her own actions.

  9. Thanks for your comment. I think it’s very easy to judge public people when we don’t know the whole story. On the face of it, I can see how it might be tempting to blame Ingrid for what happened between her and her husband. But their marriage was never one of true love, it was one of convenience. She never abandoned her daughter, her husband kept Pia from her. It was her own private life, so she never talked much about the details because she felt it was no one’s business, but what happens then is that people create their own narratives. Thanks for inspiring me to write a blog post about this subject—I’m going to try to get to it soon!

  10. Wow now I know who was Ingrid Bergman’s Coach in English… thanks for the post…I love Ingrid Bergman’s acting and personality, very talented.

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