She then studied song in Riga in Latvia (where she learned that she was a contralto, that her voice had an unusually low range). She worked in an office in Stockholm and then wound up married and as the mother of two children living on her father-in-law's Leander's pastor's residence in Risinge near Finspång in Östergötland.
When she heard that Ernst Rolf was on his way to Norrköping and that the star of his show on tour, Margit Rosengren was not well, she took this opportunity to realize her dream to become a singer. After auditioning for Ernst Rolf he let her join his company and her debut was in Borås. Leander took over Rosengren's number about Greta Garbo "Vill ni se en stjärna?" (='Would you like to see a star?'). This was 1929. (Later, in the 1950's Zarah Leander would use this song as her own signature-song.) January first 1930, Leander gets her big break at Folkan Theatre in a Kar de Mumma-show in Stockholm. (This is a rough English translation of Wikipedia's Swedish-language article about Zarah Leander.)
I continue with my own translation of the Swedish article, which goes into greater detail: In 1931 she played Glada änkan (The Merry Widow) with Gösta Ekman in the Municple Concert Hall in Stockholm with arrangments by Jules Sylvain och Hanna Glawaris, the part transposed down to Zarah's contralto. It is unclear whether or not the composer, Franz Lehár, accepted these changes in his score, but he did not protest.
She soon became favourite star of Karl Gerhard and participated in his shows intil 1936. He wrote specifically for her such songs as 'Lysistrate', 'Jag vill ha en gondol' (='I want to have a gondolin') and 'I skuggan av en stövel' ('In the shadow of a boot') which was a sharp protest against the persecution of the Jews in Europe, a song that she chose never to sing again after 1936. She acted in three Swedish films and recorded many songs on records that sold very well. Her dark contralto voice and distinct articulation suited the technical limitations of the grammophone-recordings at that time.
In 1936 she played in an operetta by Ralph Benatzky and the year after she made her first film in Germany. She remained in Germany to become one of the most popular artists in Nazi Germany. She played in tem films for the Ufa and recorded many songs such as 'Ich steh' im Regen', 'Ich weiss es wird einmal ein Wunder gescheh'n', 'Nur nicht aus Liebe weinen' and 'Der Wind hat mir ein Lied erzählt'.In many of her melodramatic films she became something of a 'kitsch-diva', an image that stayed with her as performer even after the war. She was a box-office-success and public-idol in Germany. In 1940 she signed a two-year contract with UFA and received the highest payment for European film ever paid. She received an honourary grade of colonel of a regement in Germany (source: Trots Allt May 18th, 1940).
Zarah's time in Germany in the middle of the ongoing world war was very controversial, but she never did propaganda for the Nazi Regime, other than indirectly, by her presence there. She gave the German people the escape that they wishes for. This was in line with Joseph Goebbels plan for cultural politics: to distract people with light entertainment from the greater problems. There was a void to fill after Marlene Dietrich and other film acters left the country. Around 1937, both the Swedish actresses Ingrid Bergman and Signe Hasso each made a film for Ufa, when Sweden felt too provencial for them, but chose Hollywood instead.
For Zarah Leander, who spoke fluent German and had two children, Germany was the closest she could come to an international career. Her own explanation was that she was bored with all of the conventional and stereotype roles she was given in Sweden. In Germany, she was given music by the best popular composers there. She liked singing in the German lanuage with its diftongs and consonant sounds. Money was also important in her career choices. She drove a hard bargain with Goebbels. She refused to become a German citizen and demanded that half (53%) of her payment would be paid in Swedish currency to a Swedish bank.
The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported in 1999 about a find in an archive that seems to show that Zarah Leander did some kind of espionage-assignments for the Russians in Germany. She was supposed to have the cover-name 'Rose Marie'. This information comes from one of the leaders for the Soviet Secret Service, Pavel Sudoplatov just before he died. But this has yet to be proven.
And to return to Wikipedia's English-language article about Zarah Leander: As a result of her controversial choice to work for the state-owned UFA in Adolf Hitler's Germany, her films and song lyrics were viewed by some as propaganda for the Nazi cause, although she took no public political position. Leander was strongly criticized as a result, particularly in Sweden where she returned after her Berlin home was bombed during an air raid. Initially she was shunned by much of the artistic community and public in Sweden, and found herself unable to resume her career after the Second World War. It was several years before she could make a comeback in Sweden, and she would remain a figure of public controversy for the rest of her life.
Eventually she returned to performing throughout Europe, but was unable to equal the level of success she had previously achieved. She spent her later years in retirement in Stockholm, and died there at the age of 74. (Here is were Wikipedia's English Language Article ends.)
Picture-source: Wikipedia - Zarah Leander in 1949
My translation of the more detailed Swedish Wikipedia article continues here:
It wasn't until 1943 that Zarah Leander returned to Sweden and to the estate Lönö in Häradshammars parish in Vikbolandet, in Östergötland that she purchased in 1939. She was shunned by the Swedish theatrical community for several years. She made a sensational comeback in Malmö in 1949, in which she seems to be 'forgiven' and perfomed successfully in theatres and gave concerts in both Sweden, Germany and Austria. One of her hits was 'Wunderbar' från Cole Porters musical Kiss Me Kate 1948. A British musical historian Kurt Gänzl says that he has never heard a so tasteless recording of that song. Zarah liked it very much, and was after that often called 'Den wunderbara Zarah'.
The anti-Nazist Karl Gerhard chose to loyally defend her by pointing to the fact that other well-known names in Swedish industry, press and politics were far more deeply involved with the Third Reich, than Zarah. But his attempts to get her for his show for 1944 was not well received with critics such as Torgny Segerstedt and Carl-Adam Nycop, and Karl Gerhard did not dare to work with her until 1952. Then in a show at Cirkus in Stockholm, they played in "Det rara gamla paret från anno dazumal". In 1957, for her 50th birthday, Gösta Stevens wrote a memoir-song to her, without mentioning her career in Germany at all. But in the refrain she repeats again and again: 'Jag har blivit mycket, mycket bättre nu på gamla dar' (='I've improved with age.')
Gösta Rybrant has written more lyrics for Zarah Leander than anyone else. He gave her the more literary songs such as 'Abel', 'Det skönaste som livet gav', 'Sång om syrsor' and 'Gåtor'. In colabloration with the pianist Arne Hülphers, her third husband (from 1956), she developed a dramatic style that is almost as a characture, but with genuine temperment and respect for the text. The best example of her unique style in on a record from her fairwell-concert in the municipal concert hall in Stockholm in 1973.
The Swedish author, Bosse Schön published in 2008 the book Sanningen om Zarah Leander [approx. 'The Truth about Zarah Leander'] focuses on how Zarah was treated by the Swedes after the war. According to Schön, she was badly treated after the war [my English translation]:'In post-World War II-Sweden she was shunned and ignored by the Swedish Radio Company, that refused to air her music. But all documents from the Swedish Secret Police shows that every accusasion against her was false, and that she was subjected to ruthless slander. Two police investigations that remained secret until the present, cleared her from all suspicion. She was neither a Nazi or a spy.' [Read the original Swedish quote here.]
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Listen to Zarah Leander's voice here: