She was being hailed as everything from “a national icon” to simply “the whole country’s Wenche.” Legendary actress and activist Wenche Foss remained the toast of the town, even after her death was announced Monday afternoon.
Members of the public immediately started placing flowers and candles around the statue that was erected in her honor outside the National Theater four years ago. Staff at the venerable Theatercaféen across the street, where Foss was a regular guest for decades, placed white roses on her usual table, and lit a candle. The flag atop National Theater was lowered to half-mast.
Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg went on national TV Monday evening and hailed her “as one of our most cherished actresses for more than 60 years,” and also noted how “she spread joy throughout the entire population” long after she officially retired in 1987. Anniken Huitfeldt, Norway’s government minister for culture, said Foss’ death was met with “great sorrow.” Huitfeldt called her “a warm, committed person, a great actress and someone as rare as being both down-to-earth and a diva.”
Other prominent Norwegians, fellow actors, heads of humanitarian and health organizations also spoke highly of Foss in local newspapers and broadcasts on Tuesday. “We will remember her as an unafraid, open person, who shared herself and her ailments for the benefit of others,” said Kai Zahl, head of Dissimilis, an organization aimed at supporting the mentally and physically challenged including those with Down’s Syndrome. Foss had brought national attention to Down’s Syndrome back in the 1950s when her first son was born with it. He died as a small child.
Wenche (roughly pronounced “ven-ka”) Foss, who died at the age of 93, was always good at attracting attention, and using her celebrity in Norway to further a wide range of social causes. She’s credited with leading fights against injustice in society, for improving elder care and human rights and for removing stigmas surrounding cancer, mental and physical handicaps, and homosexuality. She spoke openly, for example, of her own fight against breast cancer in the 1970s and her masectomy, at a time when that was tabu in Norway. She was a hard-working mother who later acknowledged that she didn’t spend anywhere near as much time with her only surviving son Fabian Stang, now the mayor of Oslo, as did other mothers of her era. It emerged in recent biographies that she even missed Stang’s confirmation because of an acting job, but the two have been close in recent years.
“I have experienced so much, and know that Fabian is happy,” she told reporters in December, during her last public appearance, when she also announced she was sick. Her son’s happiness “is the only thing that’s really meant something recently, that he and his family are good friends. Then I think that I can just as well pass away.”
The state will pay the costs of her funeral, which Foss reportedly already had planned in some detail. She wants former Oslo Bishop Gunnar Stålsett, known for his liberal policies, to conduct the service, and she wants famed Norwegian violinist Arve Tellefsen to play. “I expect the family will follow her wishes, but nothing is firm right now,” a spokesman for Stang told newspaper Aftenposten.
Foss’ family issued a statement over news bureau NTB, noting that Foss’ last wishes were that mourners who wanted to honor her would send flowers to people who rarely receive them.
“A long life with the ability to bring joy to others has reached its end,” Stang wrote in the statement. “Thanks to all who were there for her.”