Monday, December 8, 2008

Rolf von Heidenstam


Age: 52

Residence: Stockholm, Sweden

Occupation: Executive, AGA Group

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks - starboard lounge


Rolf Magnus von Heidenstam, executive with the AGA Group, former submarine officer in the Swedish Navy and Chamberlain to the Duke of Södermanland (that being Prince Wilhelm, second son of King Gustav V), was born in Paris, France on June 28, 1884 to Sweden’s Consul General to Turkey, Oscar Gustaf von Heidenstam and his wife, the former Leila Boyd. As his mother had been born in Scotland, Rolf von Heidenstam learned English at a young age. He would later also learn French and German as well as a variety of Scandanavian languages in addition to his native Swedish. After graduating as an officer from the Swedish Naval Academy in 1905, von Heidenstam took part in the reorganization of the Swedish fleet. He also served as a control officer aboard the submarine HMS Hvalen, which was launched in February of 1909. Von Heidenstam maintained a lifelong love of the sea, remaining an avid sailor and later serving as president of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club.

HMS Hvalen and HMS Skäggald - 1915 HMS Hvalen alongside the submarine tender HMS Skäggald, circa 1915

On February 18, 1911, Rolf von Heidenstam married Karin von Schmalensée (born on October 13, 1887) with whom he had four children: Brita Leila, Rolf Rolfsson, Hans Rolfsson (born March 9, 1918) and Carl Peter Rolfsson (born October 20, 1920 and named for his great-grandfather.)

The AGA Group (Svenska Aktiebolaget Gasaccumulator, or Swedish Gas Accumulator, Ltd.) was an engineering firm specializing in advanced lighthouse systems and run by Nils Gustaf Dalén, a gifted inventor and engineer who had won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1912. That was the same year in which von Heidenstam, at the urging of former Swedish Prime Minister, Admiral Arvid Lindman, left the Navy in favor of a career with AGA. Lindman believed that von Heidenstam, who came from a long line of diplomats and was possessed of strong linguistic skills, would be just the person to help to make AGA into an international business.

Von Heidenstam helped to do just that, becoming the equivalent of AGA's "minister of foreign affairs," and proved to be invaluable in overseeing AGA's foreign dealings. He made occasional trips across the North Atlantic to visit AGA's American branch, the American Gas Accumulator Co. in Elizabeth, NJ, which installed lighthouse systems throughout the Great Lakes region.

Thus it was that Rolf von Heidenstam flew as a passenger on the last flight of the Hindenburg during the first week of May in 1937. As the ship came in to land at Lakehurst on the evening of May 6th, von Heidenstam was in the starboard passenger lounge, talking with his fellow Swede, journalist Birger Brinck. As they stood at an observation window near the wall between the lounge and the writing room, they watched as the landing ropes were dropped to the waiting ground crew, and Brinck went to his cabin to get his camera.

Rolf von Heidenstam's location in the starboard lounge at the time of the fire.

Von Heidenstam stayed at the window and saw that the ship was drifting to starboard and that the portside landing line was tightening. Suddenly, he heard a detonation that he later likened to "a shot from a gun on a battleship." Moments later, the ship took a steep tilt aft, and von Heidenstam lost his footing and began to slide along the floor toward the aft wall of the lounge. He caught hold of a railing and stopped his slide, and he held on as he felt the stern of the ship hit the ground and heard the crashing and bumping of the ship's framework as it telescoped in upon itself aft of the passenger decks.

Looking toward the aft wall of the lounge, von Heidenstam could see a knot of passengers against the wall crowding desperately for the nearest window. He realized that he needed to keep his wits about him, and to get out as quickly as he could. Von Heidenstam pulled himself up onto the window ledge and sat with his head back and his legs hanging outside. He saw girders beginning to collapse to the ground below him, and flames beginning to rise up, and knew it was time to jump. He fell to the ground, landing on his buttocks and wrenching his back. Seeing a clear path beyond a row of burning girders and wires, he tried to make his way through, getting stuck in the wreckage in the process. He finally took hold of the girders and lifted them up over him, burning his hands in the process, and managed to crawl backwards on his knees and his stomach until he was clear of the wreck.

Having escaped with burns to his face and hands in addition to his back injury, von Heidenstam was taken to nearby Paul Kimball Hospital for treatment. While there, as he sat in a hallway waiting to see a doctor, he encountered Einar Thulin, New York representative for Stockholm's newspaper Tidningen. Thulin had been at the field waiting to meet Brinck, and asked von Heidenstam if he'd seen him. Von Heidenstam replied that he'd seen Brinck shortly before the fire, but that Brinck had gone to his cabin. Sadly, Rolf von Heidenstam was likely one of the last people to see Birger Brinck alive.

Rolf von Heidenstam being taken to an ambulance outside of Paul Kimball Hospital for transfer to New York, May 7th, 1937

Rolf von Heidenstam in ambulance en route to New York Hospital, May 7th, 1937

Von Heidenstam was transferred to New York Hospital the following day, where he spend over a month recovering from his injuries, testifying to the Board of Inquiry from his hospital room on June 16th. His wife Karin sailed to the States onboard the steamship Deutschland to be with him, arriving in New York on June 10th, 1937. The two traveled back to Sweden together once von Heidenstam had recovered from his injuries.

Following von Heidenstam's return to Germany, he was made president of AGA after Gustaf Dalén's death in late 1937. During the turbulent years that followed, as Europe descended into war, von Heidenstam proved a steady hand on the tiller, opening up new markets in Central and South America to replace those being lost in Europe.

Two of his sons appear to have died in the Second World War. Carl Peter Rolfsson von Heidenstam, an officer aspirant in the Svenska Flygvapnet (Swedish Air Force) died on October 6, 1941, two weeks shy of his 21st birthday. Hans Rolfsson von Heidenstam, who was with the Flygvapnet Reserv, died on his 27th birthday, March 9, 1945. It is not known whether either was killed in action, though this is doubtful, given Sweden’s neutrality throughout the war (the Swedish Air Force only took part in the Finnish Winter War against the Soviet Union. From January through mid-March 1940, Swedish volunteer pilots flew four Hawker Hart reconnaissance bombers and 12 British Gloster Gladiator biplanes  – one third of Sweden’s fighter aircraft at the time.) It is more likely that Carl Peter Rolfsson and Hans Rolfsson von Heidenstam were killed in flight accidents or other non-combat incidents.

It was said that von Heidenstam was Sweden’s “viking to the entire world.” He had a bold, open spirit and contagious laughter that delighted those around him and put people at ease. This, combined with his underlying earnestness made him a perfect ambassador, whether in business, political or cultural circles. He remained president of AGA until 1950, after which he served the company for another seven years as chairman of the board. During this time he also chaired the General Export Association of Sweden, the Swedish Handelsbanken (1950-1958) and from 1951 through 1953 was also president of the International Chamber of Commerce. In addition to his business endeavors, he also took a great interest in international cultural exchange and served for many years as president of the Alliance Française.

Rolf von Heidenstam in the 1950s.

Rolf von Heidenstam passed away in Stockholm on August 6, 1958 at the age of 74. His wife Karin died in nearby Lidingö on January 22, 1986 at the age of 98.


The von Heidenstam family grave at Galärvarvskyrkogården in Stockholm

Further information on Rolf von Heidenstam can be found HERE. The site is run by von Heidenstam's grand-nephew, Mike Skagerlind, and contains some excellent genealogical information on von Heidenstam and various members of his family.

Another excellent overview of Rolf von Heidenstam’s life (in Swedish) can be found HERE.


Anonymous said...

Interesting - thanks. Rolf von Heidenstam was my great uncle and your post furnished me with some interesting new info. I have a site dedicated to my family's history and you can see the entry on Rolf here:

I linked to your post as a citation.


Patrick Russell said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks. I'm really glad you were able to find some new information on your great uncle Rolf here. I actually just found your site a week or two ago when I was doing some follow-up research, and found it to be very informative as well.

I've included a link to your site in the main body of my article on Rolf, to make it as easy as possible for readers to find.

I will e-mail you with copies of some of the source material I used in writing Rolf's bio.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

Excellent - thanks so much!