Born in Stockholm on September 19, 1905, Greta Lovisa Gustafson was lured to Hollywood by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer who was impressed with her work in the Swedish film Gosta Berlings Saga (1924), which was directed by her mentor, the flamboyantly gay Mauritz Stiller, who came up with the name “Greta Garbo“.
Garbo knew how to make an exit. After just 20 years in films and a life as one of the world’s biggest movie stars of all time, she walked away from acting and public life when she was only 36 years old.
She lived in New York City in virtual seclusion for the next 50 years, refusing all interviews and photographs, emerging from her apartment only when protected from public view by big hats and big sunglasses. I spent many hours walking in Manhattan, from The Cloisters to The Battery, with time spent on her block on East 52nd Street, but I never had the thrill of a Garbo sighting, even after spotting several smart looking older women wearing large hats and sunglasses, following them, and being disappointed when I finally was able to grab a quick glance.
Garbo made 14 silent films. She had a face that was perfect for the expressions of the style of acting of those early black and white films. In fact, she never made a color film. Yet, she made the transition to talkies, a move that ruined many a screen career, with no problem at all. Garbo’s beautiful husky, accented voice was a prefect compliment to her unworldly beauty and she gave more complex, nuanced performances in her talking films.
Garbo’s first sound film was Anna Christie (1930), based on the 1922 Eugene O’Neill play. MGM’s market campaign came up with the catchphrase ‘”Garbo Talks!” At the 16 minute mark, she famously utters her first spoken line in a movie:
“Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side and don’t be stingy, baby.”
She convincingly played a world weary, washed-up ballerina in Grand Hotel (1932) at just 26 years old. She gave what I think is her very best performance; charming, funny, electric and full of self-parody, in Ernst Lubitsch‘s clever, bubbly Ninotchka released in what is probably the greatest single year in film history: 1939. The MGM publicity department marketed the film with: “Garbo Laughs!“
Garbo was nominated for an Academy Award three times, but she never won. She received an honorary Oscar in 1954 for her “….luminous and unforgettable screen performances”. She, of course, did not show up to accept the statue.
Garbo required very specific conditions for working on the set. She prohibited any visitors, including the studio brass, and she demanded that black flats surround her between takes to prevent extras and crew from looking at her. When asked about these eccentricities, Garbo said:
“If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise.”
During her film career, Garbo avoided parties and premieres, preferring to spend her time alone or with a select group of close friends. She never signed autographs or answered fan mail and only rarely gave an interview (she only granted 12 in her lifetime). Her aversion to a public life was undeniably genuine. Garbo claimed:
“As early as I can remember, I have wanted to be alone. I detest crowds, don’t like many people.”
Her standoffish behavior exasperated Irving Thalberg, MGM’s young head of production , but he eventually capitalized on it and the studio played up her image of the reluctant and reclusive woman of mystery.
Garbo had a love affair with her frequent costar John Gilbert, an actor who matched her beauty, but she left him standing alone at the altar on their wedding day. Garbo had affairs with women also, including well-known liaisons with actor Louise Brooks, writer Mercedes de Acosta (their affair was on again-off again for three decades), and with the only movie star who was her equal, Marlene Dietrich. She was very close friends with two especially notable gay men, designer/photographer Cecil Beaton and director George Cukor.
After Garbo’s passing, Swedish actor, Mimi Pollak, her close friend from her early school days, released the letters Garbo had written her. In one, Garbo wrote:
“We cannot help our nature, as God has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together.”
In retirement, Garbo claimed that she spent her time “drifting”, her word. She lived with a lifelong melancholia. On her 60th birthday, she told her few friends:
“In a few days, it will be the anniversary of the sorrow that never leaves me, that will never leave me for the rest of my life.”
Tellingly, in Love (1927), her character’s title card reads: “I like to be alone”.
In The Single Standard (1929), she says: “I am walking alone because I want to be alone…” and her character sails away on a boat named the “All Alone”.
In Susan Lenox (1931), Garbo says: “This time I rise and fall… alone.”
In Inspiration (1931), she tells her lover: “I just want to be alone for a little while.”
For Mata Hari (1931), Garbo’s dialogue includes: “I never look ahead. By next spring I shall probably be quite alone.”
The theme becomes a joke in Ninotchka where screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder have the officials from Soviet Russia ask her: “Do you want to be alone, comrade?” She answers bluntly: “No!”
She played a Russian spy in Ninotchka and double-agent Mata Hari (a Dutch dancer who was executed for being a spy during World War I). In real life, collected information about Nazi sympathizers in Sweden for the British Secret Intelligence Service. She also allegedly conveyed messages between British agents and King Gustaf V of Sweden. Garbo told friends that she wanted to meet Adolf Hitler, who had sent her a fan letter, so she could kill him with a gun hidden in her purse.
Garbo’s final credits rolled in 1990, leaving after a series of illnesses, but finally taken by that damn cancer. She was cremated and her ashes are alone somewhere in her native Stockholm. Smart about money, Garbo died rich, with an estate worth more than $50 million, most of it in important works of art. She left no heir.
Garbo pointed out that her character in Grand Hotel never uttered the famous: “I want to be alone”, but rather: “I want to be let alone”, a big difference, I think, and seemingly true of her life.
Bette Davis on Garbo:
“Her instinct, her mastery over the machine, was pure witchcraft. I cannot analyze this woman’s acting. I only know that no one else so effectively worked in front of a camera.”
“The story of my life is about back entrances, side doors, secret elevators and other ways of getting in and out of places so that people won’t bother me.”