Gaby Stenberg was a film, stage and television actor who was mainly active during two distinct periods, from the 1940s until the 1960s, and then from the 1980s until the 2000s.
Gaby Stenberg was born Ida Gabriella Stenberg in Tokyo, Japan in 1923. She was the daughter of Sven Stenberg, a director, and Inez Stenberg, née Trotzig. Her father was a businessman who worked for the Gadelius trading company. The Stenberg family moved back to Sweden following the major earthquake of 1923 which destroyed large tracts of Tokyo city, including the family home.
Gaby Stenberg was to all intents and purposes a versatile actor whose sphere of activity extended far beyond that of acting. Her career began early on when she was sent to Rick Andersson’s piano school where she took lessons with Adelaide von Skilondz. In an interview she did much later with Brita Hiort af Ornäs Gaby Stenberg claimed that von Skilondz had been the most important teacher she had ever had. Later Gaby Stenberg attended Willy Koblanck’s drama school, during the 1939 to 1942 period. Her first film role was, according to her, an advertising clip for Tuppens väv. She also had minor roles in a few feature films, starting with Bombi Bitt och jag in 1936. She gained a student contract with Svensk Filmindustri and made her breakthrough appearance in Löjtnantshjärtan in 1942. That same year she had major success on stage when she appeared in Boys in Blue at Oscarsteatern.
Initially Gaby Stenberg was often given the roles of well-behaved daughters, to the extent that Gunnar Tannefors, a film reviewer for Filmjournalen, questioned whether Svensk Filmindustri were actually properly and responsibly dealing with Gaby Stenberg’s talents given that she mainly played sweet, harmless, well-raised daughters whose activities in the main consisted of wandering around in a nightdress. In his opinion this was gross mismanagement of her talents which promised much more and Gunnar Tannefors believed this was reflected in the fact that Gaby Stenberg had begun to take lessons with Hilda Borgström, an actor who taught stage performance at the Dramaten theatre drama school.
Hugo Wortzelius wrote in his dictionary of actors, entitled Filmboken and published 1953–1957, that Gaby Stenberg often appeared charming and stylish in her frequently comedic film roles during the 1940s but also somewhat cool and impersonal. It was not until her understated yet strong and genuinely empathetic performance in the part of Esther, a single girl from Stockholm, in the 1953 film Ung man söker sällskap that she displayed a matured element to her acting skills.
In 1944 Gaby Stenberg arrived at the newly-constructed Malmö city theatre and performed in the premiere production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gaby Stenberg remained in Malmö, apart from making guest performances in Copenhagen at Det Kongelige Teater and at Dagmarteatret during the early 1950s. She also worked at Riksteatern. Her time at Malmö Stadsteater also involved appearing in Ingmar Bergman’s production of The Merry Widow in 1954. A small unusual detour in her professional life came in the early 1960s when she briefly appeared in an American TV-series called Adventures in Paradise.
Gaby Stenberg’s stage career came to an abrupt end in the early 1960s following her marriage to chief physician Fredrik Koch in 1962. She then retired from public life. Following her husband’s death in 1983 she picked up her acting career again and accepted an offer to appear in a stage production of La Cage aux Folles at Malmö Stadsteater in 1985. She also appeared in TV theatre productions, and she was particularly notable for her role in Hebriana. She became even more famous and popular for her long engagement in the series called Rederiet, which lasted from 1992–2002.
Alongside her acting activities Gaby Stenberg was also engaged in a range of other spheres. During the 1970s she gained her Bachelor of Arts in phonetics, linguistics, and psychology. For a time she worked as a speech therapist. She was also involved in musical instruction for children in collaboration with Ulf Björlin and together they released a book entitled Sommarsurr in 1980.
Gaby Stenberg was deeply interested in Japanese culture, carrying on an enthusiasm she had inherited from her maternal grandmother, Ida Trotzig, who had been an expert on Japan. This found concrete expression through the Zui-Ki-Tei teahouse which she and her sister Ume set up. It was opened in 1990 at Etnografiska museet as a replacement for an earlier version which had burned down. Gaby Stenberg discussed in an interview that she wanted to make a film about her maternal grandmother who had been the instigator of the original teahouse.
Gaby Stenberg’s reputation as an actor is largely dependent on whether she was being judged through male or female eyes. Stig Almqvist has emphasised the exotic in her being, “the Hiawatha of Swedish film” as he put it in an article, from her very first roles in which the camera happily focused on her features. Brita Hiort af Ornäs highlighted almost the very opposite in an interview where she stated that Gaby Stenberg’s oriental inscrutability had been lauded to excess. Instead, Hiort af Ornäs valued the actor’s comprehensively professional attitude.
Gaby Stenberg’s artistic creed was perhaps most apparent during an interview with Lasse Henricsson in Arbetet. “The thing about delivering words well and knowing how to speak in front of an audience is that it’s an art in its own right and Gaby Stenberg particularly wants to emphasise how important it is for women to master these talents which have for so long been the domain of statesmen”.
Gaby Stenberg died, aged 88, in Stockholm in 2011. She is buried beside her husband at the Norra kyrkogården (the Northern cemetery) in Lund.