Sweden and Three Chief Justices
By Clare Cushman

On December 13 Sweden celebrates Saint Lucia’s Day, the festival of light.  Saint Lucia’s Day commemorates Lucia of Syracuse, an early-4th-century virgin martyr,  who according to legend brought food and aid to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs , wearing a candle-lit wreath on her head to light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible. Her feast day, which coincided with the shortest day of the year prior to calendar reforms, is widely commemorated throughout Scandinavia. Swedes celebrate with musical concerts, glogg (Swedish mulled wine) and lussekatter (saffron buns.)

Earl Warren’s mother, Chrystal Hernlund, immigrated from Halsingland in central Sweden to California and married Norwegian-born Methias Warren, who became a master car repairman for the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1880s. While serving as the district attorney for Alameda County in the 1930s, Warren met and married Nina Palmquist, who was born in Visby, Sweden, and had immigrated to Oakland with her family when she was a baby.  The couple raised six children and Nina Warren hired a “very good Swedish cook” named Louise Broberg to help with meals.[1] Mrs. Warren reserved her culinary efforts for baking—specializing in angel food and devil food cakes—which she gave to her church, to charity events or to friends for their birthdays. Some of Nina’s favorite Swedish recipes were typed up on her husband’s official Chief Justice of the United States stationery —perhaps to share with his brethren and their wives—Brylé Pudding,  a sweet baked custard, and Swedish Leg of Lamb are attached.

Chief Justice Warren Burger was of Swiss/German descent but married a Swedish-American schoolteacher named Elvera “Vera” Stromberg in 1933.  They both grew up in St Paul, Minnesota. Her parents, Carl Johan and Amanda Spitz Stromberg, spoke Swedish at home, but it is not known when they or their parents arrived from Sweden. Burger may have spoken some Swedish as well, according to a note by his childhood friend (and future associate justice) Harry A. Blackmun. While Burger attended a conference in Geneva in June 1954, Blackmun wrote: “I hope you and Vera will both have a whale of a time there. I trust your Swedish is rounding into shape too.” [2] (He may have meant the Swiss-German language of Burger’s forebears, but this is unlikely as Blackmun had Swiss-German grandparents as well and would not have confused the two languages.) Vera transmitted her Swedish culture to her husband through food, often preparing him Swedish meatballs with gravy. Her recipe for Cold Salmon (Swedish) is included here, and points out that Swedes do not traditionally cook with garlic as it does not grow well in the Swedish climate.

            After Burger retired in 1986, William H. Rehnquist, who had been serving as associate justice since 1972, became the third chief justice in a row with a connection to Sweden when he was elevated to the center chair. His paternal grandfather, Olaf Rehnquist, came from Varmland, the west-central province that runs along the border with Norway; his paternal grandmother was born Adolfina Ternbourg in the southeast province of Ostergotland. A tailor’s apprentice and a school teacher, they immigrated separately to Chicago in 1880, and ended up in Milwaukee, where their grandson, the future justice would be born in 1924. Rehnquist married Natalie “Nan” Cornell, a Californian he met at Stanford University, in 1953 and she honored his Swedish roots by attending services at the Lutheran Church with him.  (She served as director of volunteer services at the National Lutheran Home for the Aged from 1972 to 1980 in Rockville, Maryland and president of the Home Auxiliary from 1985 to 1987.)  Nan also baked Yulekaga, (Jule Kaga) a Swedish bread with dried fruit and cardamom, and served it to the Rehnquist family—they had three children–on Christmas day. In 1993   Chief Justice Rehnquist was named Swedish-American by the Order of Vasa. Founded by Swedish King Gustav III in 1772 as an order of knights. It annually honors citizens in Sweden and elsewhere for contributions to art, trade, industry agriculture, education or public service.

[1] According to her son, James Warren. https://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/roho/ucb/text/warren_earl_governors_family__w.pdf

[2] Harry A. Blackmun Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, HAB to WEB (May 21, 1984) Box 12 folder 10.

For more stories about the Court and its Justices check out Courtwatchers, also by Clare Cushman.