Wenche Foss, one of Norway’s most popular actresses and widely referred to as the country’s last diva, died Monday at the Diakonhjemmet hospital in Oslo, age 93. She’d said herself in December that she was seriously ill, and didn’t think she’d live to see the New Year.
She did, just as she had cheated other serious illnesses so many other times in her long life. Decades ago, she contributed to removing local tabus against talking about cancer, after she was diagnosed with cancer herself. She also is credited with removing tabus around mental illness and not least Downs Syndrome, after she gave birth to a baby in 1954 who at the time would have been referred to as mongoloid. Foss was also a champion in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and for improving the rights of homosexuals. She had many friends in the theater world who were gay, and felt it only right that they be treated with dignity and respect by all, not just those in cultural circles.
Foss was as famous for her activism as she was for her work on the stage and her insistence at bringing glamour into the lives of post-war Norwegians. She was often called the Champagne pike, (the Champagne girl), posing with glasses of bubbly with her hair carefully coiffed, her face made up and wearing elegant clothes.
Foss debuted on the stage at the age of 17, in the play Taterblod, and went on to make her name as a comedienne. Her breakthrough came in 1939 when she landed the lead role in Den Glade Enke (The Merry Widow), and she became one of Norway’s biggest film stars as well.
Her career at the National Theater in Oslo spanned five decades, starting in 1952. She stayed active on the stage well into her 80s, and her 80th birthday itself was celebrated with a gala performance at National Theater on December 5, 1997, where she memorably performed gymnastics on the stage to prove how agile and strong she still was.
But it was her activism in social issues and her fight for justice at all levels of society that set Foss apart from her colleagues. She once refused to accept an award from the City of Oslo, to protest what she considered the “shameful” care offered to the capital’s elderly at the time. Her son, Fabian Stang, later went on to become mayor of Oslo and elder care has continued to be at the top of the political agenda.
She was also well-known for her positive thinking and her smile, and once said she woke up every morning wondering who she could cheer up during the course of the day.
“We have lost one of our foremost actresses, and Norway has lost one of its most profiled personalities,” said Hanne Tømta, chief of the National Theater. “Our thoughts go to her son Fabian and her family, who had to share her not only with us, her friends and colleagues at the National Theater, but also with the entire Norwegian population.”
The government decided Monday afternoon that Foss’ funeral would be paid for by the state, the ultimate honour awarded Norwegian citizens.