Birgitta Stenberg was an author. Her autobiographically-inspired portrayals of 1950s bohemian life in Paris and Stockholm made her an icon beloved by members of the LGBTI communities.
Birgitta Stenberg was born in Stockholm in 1932. Her childhood was, however, spent in Visby on Gotland where her father worked as a pharmacist. Following his retirement the whole family moved to a large house called Torsätra in Tullinge near Stockholm. Birgitta Stenberg attended Enskilda Gymnasiet (high school) although she left school before sitting the final exams. One of her classmates was Henrik Falkenberg, the owner of the Värmlands Säby estate, and he remained a lifelong loyal friend of hers.
Birgitta Stenberg was a member of Metamorfosgruppen, a group founded in 1951 by young literary types. The group met in a cellar-bar called Tunneln on Vasagatan in Stockholm. They modelled themselves on the existential Parisian club called Le Tabou. At Tunneln Birgitta Stenberg met one of her idols, Paul Andersson, as well as Lasse Söderberg, and many others. Birgitta Stenberg was also an actor: in 1954 she performed at Studio A, the English-language theatre in Stockholm, and she later appeared in Noel Coward’s Min fru går igen. The reviews were scathing.
During the 1950s and 1960s Birgitta Stenberg travelled to Paris, southern France, Rome, Mallorca, Sicily, and Positano. She always kept a diary as she always intended to become a writer. Her first literary work, entitled Caroll, was rejected by Albert Bonniers Förlag (publishing house) in 1952. At that time the lesbian-themed manuscript was not considered worthy of publishing. It belongs to a genre of Pulp Fiction-style novels portraying lesbian love that were published after the end of the Second World War.
Birgitta Stenberg’s literary debut came in 1956 when she released her contemporary existential novel entitled Mikael och Poeten. The poet refers to Paul Andersson and Mikael refers to Per Michaëlsson, a former antiquarian bookstore owner in Gamla stan. This novel was well-received.
Birgitta Stenberg joined Svenska kommittén för kulturens frihet (the Swedish committee for cultural freedom), founded in 1952 and funded by the American secret intelligence service, the CIA. She became the group’s secretary and the editor of its organ, Kulturkontakt. From the autumn of 1956 she began to work as a film critic for Dalarnas Tidning. She also gave lectures at Syndikalistiska ungdomsförbundet (Syndicalist youth association) in 1958. When she was 22 years old she converted to the Catholic faith. She also donated money to the Carmelite nuns in Glumslöv for a number of years.
Birgitta Stenberg’s second novel, entitled Vit av natten, published in 1958, was warmly received. However, she achieved her public breakthrough with her 1961 book Chans, following which she became the mass media’s ‘raggare queen’ (raggare is a mainly Scandinavian subculture involving a love of gas-guzzling American cars). Chans tells the story of Mari, a reform school girl, and an upper-class boy called Stefan. The book is a masterly linguistic representation of the class divide. In 1962 the story was adapted for the silver screen under Gunnar Hellström’s direction. Birgitta Stenberg’s next novel, Våldgästen, published in 1963, was described by reviewers as portraying a world in which – according to Karl Vennberg – dissolute lifestyles and criminality are second nature.
In 1967 Birgitta Stenberg wrote a manuscript for a TV-film on the topic of incest, called Katarina. Johan Bergenstråle directed it. Sexuality provided a recurring theme in Birgitta Stenberg’s writings. Another media storm erupted in 1969 on the release of her book Rapport, which is a warts-and-all account of the slavery experienced by drug addicts. Birgitta Stenberg once again highlights drug addiction in her 1964 work De frånvända. Her 1973 short-story collection, Skurkar, focuses on members of the ex-con community and her earlier Våldgästen had already portrayed small-time thieves in Årsta. Birgitta Stenberg also wrote Raskenstam, a manuscript for a film about the eponymous conman, directed by Gunnar Hellström. The manuscript was quickly converted into a book with the same title, published in 1983.
In 1965 Birgitta Stenberg moved to Åstol where she settled. With the help of Augustin and Brita Mannerheim she got clean of her drug addiction and they then convinced her to acquire a house on the island. Birgitta Stenberg had many and long-lasting relationships with people of both sexes. Her longest and most stable relationship was her marriage to Håkan Lagergren, which lasted from 1974–1991. Together they ran a professional fishery in Åstol. They also had bee-hives in Smedsbolet in Tiveden. Birgitta Stenberg’s 1992 poetry collection, entitled Mannen i havet, conveys her grief on the loss of her husband. Birgitta Stenberg was also politically active and for a while served as the Vänsterpartiet kommunisterna (left-wing party communists) representative in the Tjörn municipal council. Birgitta Stenberg was also an accomplished visual artist.
Other significant people in Birgitta Stenberg’s life included Ana L. Valdés, Isabella Belletti, Janne Lilljedahl, Kurt Salomonsson, and Vilgot Sjöman. A very extensive collection of correspondence survives between Birgitta Stenberg and Märta Tikkanen.
Once Birgitta Stenberg had achieved a certain distance from her 1950s youth she wrote an autobiographical account called Kärlek i Europa, published in 1981. This novel serves as an exposé of LGBTI literature and an insider’s portrayal of literary and bohemian life in contemporary Stockholm, Paris, and Capri. Along with the novels Apelsinmannen, from 1986 – which was adapted as a TV-play called Spanska Trappan in 1996 – and the earlier Rapport, it forms a classic representation of the life of a writer conversant in her own time. Birgitta Stenberg’s major significance to the LGBTI community became evident when she was asked to open the 2013 Stockholm Pride celebration.
Birgitta Stenberg also wrote children’s books. The first of these was Klara färdiga, from 1976, and it was adapted as a TV-series just two years later. She devised the Billy books in collaboration with the illustrator Mati Lepp. Birgitta Stenberg would often visit libraries throughout Sweden to meet her readership and her books were frequently borrowed from public libraries.
Birgitta Stenberg’s life has been covered in a 2012 documentary film by Lisa Belfrage and Marianne Gustavsson, called Alla vilda, in which the writer travels around visiting former lovers of both sexes and friends. Alla vilda was also the title of the belated release in 2004 of her manuscript that had initially been rejected by Albert Bonniers Förlag.
Birgitta Stenberg died in Smedsbolet, Tiveden in 2014. She was 82 years old. She is buried at The Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.