Occasionally, an image catches my eye on the Yahoo news carousel. On this day it was a mug shot of an aging man with a baldhead and a scruffy white beard. The linked article described how mobster-turned-informant-turned-fugitive “Whitey” Bulger had been captured after sixteen years on the lam.
Though Bulger’s story was interesting, it was a familiar name in the second paragraph that brought me to the edge of my seat: Anna Bjorn. She was someone I had met years earlier in a chance encounter—an encounter I wouldn’t soon forget.
I was still an undergrad when I boarded the flight to Luxembourg by way of Iceland, and the envy of every man in the fuselage when the tall slender blond with blue eyes and a platinum smile breezed down the aisle and settled into the seat next to me.
Between the nods, whispers, and subtle glances from other passengers, it seemed everyone knew her but me. Even the Icelandair flight crew took turns chatting her up.
Given the attention she garnered, I decided to keep to myself.
But, by strange coincidence, we both were reading the same esoteric book. She took notice and somewhere over Newfoundland reached into my self-imposed isolation, touched me on the arm, and struck up a conversation.
Could the stars be aligning?
Knowledgeable, intelligent and well read, she was an engaging conversationalist. Even so, I found it challenging to focus. It was her face. It was … well … perfect! Familiar too, though I couldn’t quit place it.
Eventually, I shared that I was on my way to school in Switzerland. She, more interestingly, was en route to Iceland to promote one film and appear in another.
Though I had heard of the movie she was promoting, I hadn’t yet seen it, which was understandable given the year’s bumper crop good movies (Gandhi, Diner, E.T., Blade Runner, Sophie’s Choice, et al).
As for the movie she was shooting, Anna described it as an “Icelandic rock musical” before adding, almost parenthetically, that her husband was producing it and was already on the set in Iceland.
I learned that Anna lived in L.A. No surprise there. But from the way she spoke, it was apparent that Iceland was home.
“You know, you should stop and spend some time there,” she said as we began our descent. “I think you’d like it.”
“Tell you what,” she added after a long pause. “I’ll put you up and show you around. And you can buy yourself a sweater with what it would cost for a hotel.”
Having overheard Anna’s invitation, the Swedish fellow with whom I shared my other armrest pressed his elbow into my ribcage. “Just say yes,” he whispered without moving his lips.
So, at Keflavik, Iceland, I jumped ship.
From the airport, our first stop was Anna’s grandparents’ apartment on the outskirts of Reykjavik.
They were a handsome couple: both lean with high cheekbones, fair hair, and the same blue eyes.
After introductions and coffee, Anna explained that she’d be leaving me in her grandparents’ care while she tended some business.
“You’ll have fun. I promise.” Again, the platinum smile.
My adoptive hosts spoke only Icelandic, which meant that we had no means of communicating, other than a few hand gestures and facial expressions. It also meant that I had no idea what they were saying when asked if I’d like to spend the afternoon at the spa.
The “spa,” I soon discovered, was an assortment of outdoor geothermally heated swimming pools—some cold, some warm, and some boiling cauldrons.
More significantly, I discovered that everyone in this co-ed family facility was naked.
Sure this Southern boy had skinny-dipped a time or two but this was altogether different: It was broad daylight and I was stone sober.
Maybe it was the fact that I had a tan line. Or maybe it was the way I sprinted between pools like a one-armed track star. Whatever it was, it set me apart and all but shouted, “I’m the only American here, feel free to drop by and have yourself a peak!” Which they did, in droves.
Look but don’t laugh.
After the spa, Anna retrieved me in time to catch the first Icelandic showing of her movie, The Sword and the Sorcerer—a fantasy adventure along the lines of Conan the Barbarian.
While the movie left no lasting impression, it was an honor to be there. After all, it’s not everyday a local Icelandic girl makes good in Hollywood.
With the movie behind us, we left Reykjavik and drove east through a slow drizzle to the small town of Arborg. There I finally met her husband, Jacob, along with his cast and crew.
Though my relationship with Anna had been perfectly innocent in body and spirit (the mind, I confess, took a few liberties), I was curious—even anxious—to see how Jacob would react when his wife appeared with a strange man in tow.
But if Jacob had any concerns, he never showed it. No awkward silence. No sideways stare. Not even a raised eyebrow. Nothing!
Could she have introduced me as a hairdresser or maybe a eunuch she’d picked up on the flight over?
The set for the night’s shoot was a high school gymnasium. Across one end, a stage was loaded with amps, mics, drums, guitars, and all the other accoutrements of an 80’s rock band. At the other, an area was roped off for cast members, crew, close friends, and eunuchs.
Within an hour of our arrival, the gym was packed with hundreds of extras—teenagers recruited with free food and beer.
“We have about four hours to shoot,” the director explained. “After that they’ll be drunk and ready to fight.”
The crew wasted no time getting to work. I watched the process in amazement without understanding a word said or sung.
Three hours into it, the director approached me with a request.
In the next scene his leading lady was to make her ex-boyfriend jealous and she’d do it by dancing seductively with another man. He wanted me to play the dancing seductee if you will.
On the heels of my spa experience, exposing my dancing deficiencies was a trifling request. I agreed and landed my first (and only to date) movie roll.
True to their Viking heritage and just as predicted, the first fight broke out shortly after 2 a.m. and the dance floor quickly deteriorated into a drunken brawl. Meanwhile, we called it a night and retreated to our secure area to drink, eat, and watch the melee.
As I chatted with the cinematographer, a Brit, he nodded toward Anna who was just out of earshot. “You know who she is don’t you?”
“She was Miss Iceland in the Miss Universe contest.”
“Is that so.”
“Sure. And a top model. You’ve probably seen her …”
Then it hit me. The image search that had been bouncing around my temporal lobe since we left New York finally found a match.
“Ahhh. Joe Namath! She’s the Noxzema girl. She wiped the shaving cream on Joe Namath’s face didn’t she?”
“Yes, that was a big one.”
Indeed it was. I took a sip of scotch and hummed the jingle to myself: Let Noxzema clean your face … so the razor won’t!
We left Arborg just as the arctic sun was peeking over the horizon. The shadows were long, the air was cool, and the sky was a brilliant blue.
It was a quiet ride to the airport.
Thirty years later in a different chance encounter, Anna would meet Catherine Greig. Apparently, each had taken an interest in feeding a stray cat that prowled their Santa Monica neighborhood.
Unbeknownst to Anna, however, Greig was a fugitive and the FBI was hell bent to find her. If they could nab Greig, they’d have a good chance of nabbing her long-time live-in boyfriend as well—a man facing 19 counts of murder among other things.
While visiting Reykjavik (of all places) Anna happened to see a public service add on CNN featuring pictures bearing a strong resemblance to her cat-loving neighbor. The ad requested viewers to notify authorities with any leads. Anna obliged.
Within hours, Greig was in custody and so was her boyfriend, James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr.
Oh and as for the movie, Með allt á hreinu, for what it’s worth it remains the most successful film in the history of Icelandic cinema.
by David B. Magee
© 2012 David B. Magee