They lived in exile in, of all places, Bethesda, Md. The location was convenient to Washington and to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, the show “Atlantic Crossing” makes abundantly clear, was smitten with the crown princess. She was 39 when she arrived.
At first, the Norwegian government leased the house at Pooks Hill. It purchased it outright in 1941 for $252,000. The house was built by Merle Thorpe, the founder and publisher of Nation’s Business magazine. In 1927, he bought 103 acres on Rockville Pike — or “the” Rockville Pike, as news stories referred to it then — and named it after a 1906 collection of stories, “Puck of Pook’s Hill,” by Rudyard Kipling, a Thorpe favorite.
Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Martha may have been friendly with FDR, but Thorpe was frosty toward the president. In a 1938 speech to business leaders, he claimed the United States had adopted fascist and communist programs and accused Americans of being either “hypocrites or just plain ignorant” for accepting New Deal policies.
The Pooks Hill that viewers see in “Atlantic Crossing” is certainly impressive: cream-colored stone, a domed copper roof flanked by reclining figures. But the neoclassical building looks nothing like the actual house at Pooks Hill, which was Tudor in design. (“Atlantic Crossing’s” Pooks Hill segments were shot at the 1911 Chateau Kotera in the Czech Republic.)
Of course, the text that’s shown at the beginning of each episode of “Atlantic Crossing” is “Inspired by true events,” not “This is a documentary, folks.” And while the Pooks Hill on screen is nothing like the real one, it is true that Crown Princess Martha was an object of fascination during her time in the United States. While her husband and his father, King Haakon VII, stayed in London to support the Allied fight against the Nazis, she was stateside, reminding Americans of the war that was raging across the ocean.
Accompanying her were her children, Princess Ragnhild, 10; Princess Astrid, 8; and 3-year-old Prince Harald, the heir to the Norwegian throne. Contemporary newspaper reports praised the princess for her poise, fashion sense and Oxford-accented English, while also remarking upon her down-to-earth qualities. She was, wrote a Washington Post columnist in 1944, “just like anybody else.”
Martha and the children attended Christ Lutheran Church in Bethesda, where services were led by the Rev. Raymond A. Vogeley.
Early episodes of “Atlantic Crossing” feature the crown princess, played by Swedish actress Sofia Helin, wielding a camera. Martha was, in fact, a devoted shutterbug. An Associated Press story from August 1941 includes a scene from a downtown D.C. camera shop, where a salesgirl dutifully writes out a receipt for film with the customer’s information: “The Crown Princess Märtha of Norway, Pooks Hill, Bethesda, Md.”
As might be expected, “Atlantic Crossing” was incredibly popular in Norway, where a million people — nearly 20 percent of the population — tuned in for the series premiere.
“It is wonderful to see such an important time period in our history on American television screens every week,” Anniken Krutnes, Norway’s ambassador to the United States, wrote in an email to Answer Man. “I notice a lot of engagement both locally and from people around the country! For me, it enforces what we know to be true, that our two countries were always close and that the experiences during World War II brought us even closer.”
When the war ended, the royal quartet moved back to Norway. Prince Harald became Crown Prince Harald on the death of his grandfather in 1957 and king of Norway on the death of his father in 1991.
Norway sold Pooks Hill in 1946. For a while, the house was leased to a boys school. In 1947, the county gave approval to rezone the area for what would be the county’s tallest apartment building: nine stories. The Pooks Hill Apartments were built in 1949. There were plans to turn the Tudor mansion into a clubhouse, but that never happened. It was eventually demolished. A Marriott hotel now stands where the Norwegian royals spent the war.
Martha died of cancer in 1954 at the age of 53. In 2005, King Harald and his sisters returned to Washington for the dedication of a statue of their mother outside the Norwegian ambassador’s residence at Observatory Circle. It was the first time since the war that all three had been in Washington together.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.