Nine Famous Finnish Americans

Jessica Lange

The Finns are kind of an obscure people. And I know, because I'm one of them. (My father hails from Norway, but our family's roots are Finnish: Tapio, god of the forest in old Finnish folklore, remains a common first name in Finland.) There are a few internationally known citizens of Finland: composer Jean Sibelius, director Aki Kaurismäki, children's book author Tove Jansson, glass designer Tapio Wirkkala, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, architect Alvar Aalto, Hollywood director Renny Harlin, and gay erotic artist Tom of Finland. And I'm betting you've only heard of one or two of those names. But let's shift the focus on an even lesser-discussed but far better-known group of people: Finnish Americans.

  1. Marissa Mayer (1975-). The current CEO of Yahoo!, Ms. Mayer has been the subject of much fascination in the tech world ever since she was hired to lead the floundering Internet giant – not least because of her striking Scandinavian looks, courtesy of her Finnish mother. (I could find no information on whether Mayer's mother is an actual immigrant or merely a second- or third-generation Finnish American.)
  2. Eero Saarinen (1910-1961). This Finnish-born architect moved to the United States with his family when he was just 16. His father Eliel was also a prominent architect, but for Americans, Eero is the more significant name, as he designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Other works by the prolific though short-lived Saarinen include the TWA terminal at JFK International, Washington Dulles International, and the "Tulip chair", made famous in the original Star Trek series.
  3. Jean M. Auel (1936-). This writer, known for her "Earth's Children" novels – first and foremost Clan of the Cave Bear – is 100% Finnish on both her parents' sides, although Auel (née Untinen) was born in Chicago. Her novels, by the way, have sold something like 50 million copies worldwide.
  4. Matt Damon (1970-). Damon's mom's dad was the child of two Finnish immigrants; his mom's mom was a quarter Finnish herself. That makes the Oscar-winning Damon 5/16th Finnish, if you want to get technical.
  5. Jessica Lange (1949-). Lange trumps Damon by being fully one-half Finnish: her maternal grandfather was an immigrant and her maternal grandmother was the child of immigrants, making Lange's mother a full-blooded Finn.
  6. Christine Lahti (1950-). Lange's contemporary, actress Lahti (who also won an Oscar, but not for acting) is half-Finnish as well: her father's parents were both immigrants. (And Lahti, as any Finn can tell you, is also the name of the eighth largest city in Finland.)
  7. Jorma Kaukonen (1940-). If you're at all familiar with Finnish names, then this one must jump right off the page. Rock/blues guitarist Kaukonen was an early member of Jefferson Airplane and later co-founded the band Hot Tuna. A long and relatively successful solo career followed. His father's parents were immigrants, making Kaukonen a true half-Finn.
  8. Vampira (1922-2008). Born Maila Nurmi in Petsamo, Finland, the future model, 1950s horror TV host, Elvira progenitor, and costar of the notorious stinker Plan 9 from Outer Space came to the US when she was just two years old.
  9. William Fredrick "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846-1917). The great Wild West showman had a paternal grandfather from Liminka, Finland. "Cody" was actually a deviation of the family's original name Kotilainen, shortened to Koti after the grandfather came to America. Interestingly, Buffalo Bill was even named after said grandfather, whose name was Wiljami – "William" in Finnish.