Ria Wägner was a pioneer of Swedish television. Her TV programme for housewives called Hemma made her the first well-loved Swedish TV celebrity.
Ria Wägner was born in 1914. She was the only child of Harald Wägner and Ellen Rydelius, both of whom were authors and journalists. Ria Wägner’s father died when she was ten years old. Her parents had already separated before this and she was brought up by her mother, who belonged to the first generation of female journalists in Sweden. Her mother was also active as a translator and an author of a series of pocket travelogues. Ria Wägner often accompanied her mother on her travels across Europe. They spent two years in Rome, where Ria Wägner was educated at a convent school run by English nuns. After returning to Sweden Ria Wägner completed her education at the Whitlock co-educational school in Stockholm, where she gained her school-leaving certificate in 1933.
The family home at Fleminggatan became a gathering place for Ellen Rydelius’ circle of female journalist friends who called themselves “Ligan” (the league). Sometimes Ria Wägner’s paternal aunt Elin Wägner also attended these gatherings. This aunt not only became a permanent fixture in Ria Wägner’s life but also a significant role model during her teenage years. Growing up amongst independent career women informed Ria Wägner’s view of gender equality. “I grew up in an Amazonian environment which made me an early feminist even though I did not know what that meant”, Ria Wägner wrote in her memoir Rena Rama Ria, 1991.
After completing her school education Ria Wägner began to study languages in Lund. She also acted in student theatre productions and socialised in radical student circles as a member of the Swedish Clarté league and the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. She initially interspersed her studies with jobs as a tour guide across Europe, but the spread of fascism and Nazism in Italy and Germany was gradually causing borders to close, and eventually the tours stopped.
Once she had gained her Master’s in Slavic and Romance languages, Ria Wägner started her career as a journalist in 1939, initially working as a general reporter for Nya Dagligt Allehanda, an evening paper. In 1941 she transferred to Vecko-journalen, where she worked as a reporter, text editor, editor and editor-in-chief, a post from which she resigned after a year.
From 1939 to 1946 Ria Wägner was married to fellow journalist Staffan Rosén and they had two sons together. During some periods she alternated working as a professional reporter with being a housewife. The love of her life and her companion for life was the author Gustav Sandgren. She met him when they were both married to other people. They ended their previous relationships and lived together from 1945 until Gustav Sandgren died in 1983. Their daughter, Veronica Wägner, was born in 1947, and she too became an author.
During the 1950s Ria Wägner and her mother published several travel and cookbooks: Möte med Stockholm, 1950, 8 Spanska städer, 1952, and Smakbitar från 8 länder, 1953. Ria Wägner also translated books from the series entitled Tidens franska klassiker as well as from the detective series Jaguar.
In 1956 Ria Wägner entered the TV sphere and thus initiated the career that made her known to the wider public. At this point she was already an established journalist and author, while in Sweden TV was still in the experimental stage. Despite doubts of the TV executives about having a middle-aged mother of several children as a host, Ria Wägner was given an hour-long live afternoon programme to present.
From 1956 to 1977 (with a break between 1966 and 1970) Ria Wägner presented and produced Hemma, a programme aimed at “those housewives who are sometimes overlooked, offering some practical material, some nutritious information, something for the soul, and a splash of glamour”, as Ria Wägner herself put it. The contributions to what became a prototype of today’s daily entertainment programmes could include a mix of zither concerts, housekeeping tips, hat fashion, Etruscan art, closet cleaning, poetry reading, and cookery displays. Each programme ended with Ria Wägner waving bye-bye to the audience with her hand facing backwards, a style of waving that she had picked up in Italy. This became her trademark, and it was both copied and parodied. Hemma became a popular and well-loved programme, which was very successful. The critics, however, felt that the programme was bland and they referred to Ria Wägner as “square, naive and wholesome”. The programme was suspended for a while during the late 1960s as it was considered too apolitical, but Hemma was reinstated in 1970 by SVT's producing unit in Gothenburg, which aired it until Ria Wägner retired in 1979.
Further to her work as a producer and presenter Ria Wägner served as editor-in-chief for the journal Idun from 1962 to 1963, where Elin Wägner had previously worked 1907-1917, as had Ellen Rydelius 1921-1923.
In the 1960s Ria Wägner wrote travel guidebooks for Bonnier publishing house, namely Portugal, 1963, Rom, 1965, and Italien söder om Rom, 1965. She also wrote the cookbooks Glad och hungrig, eller jag tar vad jag har, 1967, and Gott och skönt med spaghetti och makaroner, 1968. She wrote further travel books in collaboration with Gustav Sandgren, including Första gången i Rom, 1973, and Första gången i Paris, 1977. She released her memoir Rena Rama Ria: intryck och hågkomster in 1991. In 1996 Dubbel matglädje, which she co-wrote with her daughter Veronica Wägner, was released.
Ria Wägner’s last appearance on TV dates from 1998 when she appeared in Mark Levengood’s TV series Kväll i Kungariket. Ria Wägner died in Lidingö in 1999, aged 85.
She received posthumous recognition from the TV world in 2014 when the prize for TV production “in recognition of world leading contributions within innovation and creativity” was renamed the Ria prize “in celebration of the legendary female TV celebrity and producer, Ria Wägner”.