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Greta Garbo (18 September 1905 – 15 April 1990) was a Swedish actress during Hollywoodmarker's silent film period and part of its Golden Age.

Regarded as one of the greatest and most inscrutable movie stars ever produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Hollywood studio system, Garbo received a 1954 Honorary Academy Award "for her unforgettable screen performances" and in 1999 was ranked as the fifth greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute.

Early life

Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholmmarker, Swedenmarker, the youngest of three children of Karl Alfred Gustafsson (1871–1920) and Anna Lovisa Johansson (1872–1944). Garbo's older brother and sister were Sven Alfred (1898–1967) and Alva Maria (1903–1926).

Becoming an actress

When Gustafsson was 14 years old, her father, to whom she was extremely close, died. She was forced to leave school and go to work. Her first job was as a soap-lather girl in a barbershop. She stated in the book Garbo On Garbo (p. 33) that her relationship with her mother was not strained.
She then became a clerk at the department store PUBmarker in Stockholm, where she would also model for newspaper advertisements. Her first motion picture aspirations came when she appeared in two short film advertisements (the first for the department store where she worked). They were eventually seen by comedy director Erik Arthur Petschler and he gave her a part in his upcoming film Peter the Tramp (1922).

From 1922 to 1924, Gustafsson studied at the prestigious Royal Dramatic Theatremarker in Stockholm. While there, she met director Mauritz Stiller. He trained her in cinema acting technique, gave her the stage name 'Greta Garbo', and cast her in a major role in the silent film Gösta Berlings Saga (The Story of Gösta Berling) in 1924, a dramatization of the famous novel by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf. She starred in Gösta Berling opposite Swedish film actor Lars Hanson, then appeared in the 1925 German film Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street or The Street of Sorrow) directed by G. W. Pabst and co-starring Asta Nielsen.
She and Stiller were brought to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by Louis B. Mayer when Gösta Berlings Saga caught his attention. On viewing the film during a visit to Berlinmarker, Mayer was impressed with Stiller's direction, but was much more taken with Garbo's acting and screen presence. According to Mayer's daughter, Irene Mayer Selznick, with whom he screened the film, it was the gentle feeling and expression that emanated from her eyes which so impressed her father.

Unfortunately, her relationship with Stiller came to an end as her fame grew and he struggled in the studio system. He was fired by MGM and returned to Sweden in 1927, where he died the following year. Garbo was also a close friend of Einar Hanson, a Swedish actor who worked with her and Pabst on The Joyless Street, and then came to Hollywood to work at MGM and Paramount Pictures. Einar Hanson was killed in an auto accident in 1927, after leaving a dinner with Garbo and Stiller. Garbo's sister Alva died of cancer in 1926 at the age of 23 after appearing in one feature film in Sweden, adding to the melancholy Garbo felt at being in Hollywood. MGM refused to allow Garbo to attend her sister's funeral in Sweden. She was only able to return there for a visit in 1928.

Life in Hollywood

Greta Garbo in 1932
The most well received of Garbo's silent movies were Flesh and the Devil (1927), Love (1927) and The Mysterious Lady (1928). She starred in the first two with the popular leading man John Gilbert. Her name was linked with his in a much publicized romance, and she was said to have left him standing at the altar in 1926, when she changed her mind about getting married.

Having achieved enormous success as a silent movie star, she was one of the few actors or actresses who made the transition to talkies, though the shift was delayed for as long as possible. Her film The Kiss (1929) was the last film MGM made without dialogue, using a soundtrack with music and sound effects instead.

Her voice was first heard on screen in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie (1930), which was publicized with the slogan "Garbo Talks". The movie was a huge success. In 1931 Garbo made a German version of the movie.

Garbo appeared as the World War I spy Mata Hari (1931). She was next part of an all-star cast in Grand Hotel (1932) in which she played a Russian ballerina.

She then had a contract dispute with MGM, and signed a new contract with the studio in July 1932, departing for Sweden later the same month. She exercised her new control by having her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), Laurence Olivier, replaced with Gilbert. In 1935, David O. Selznick wanted her cast as the dying heiress in Dark Victory, but she insisted on doing Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Bette Davis would eventually play the Judith Traherne role in Dark Victory and score her third Oscar nomination.

Her role as the doomed courtesan in Camille (1936), directed by George Cukor, would be regarded by Garbo as her finest acting performance. She then starred opposite Melvyn Douglas in the comedy Ninotchka (1939), directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Garbo was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for Anna Christie (1930), Romance (1930), Camille (1937) and Ninotchka (1939).

Garbo received praise from many fellow actors:

During Garbo's Hollywood career, she was frequently caricatured in the animated cartoons of the day. These include Warner Brothers' Porky's Road Race, Speaking of the Weather (both directed by Frank Tashlin) and Hollywood Steps Out (directed by Tex Avery). She is also caricatured in Disney's Mickey's Gala Premiere, among others.

Later career

Greta Garbo together with her mother Anna Gustafsson during a trip in USA 1939.
Ninotchka was a successful attempt at lightening Garbo's image and making her less exotic. The comedy, Garbo's first, was marketed with the tagline, "Garbo laughs!". The follow-up film, Two-Faced Woman (1941), attempted to capitalize by casting Garbo in a romantic comedy, where she played a double role that featured her dancing, and tried to make her into "an ordinary girl". The film, Garbo's last, was directed by George Cukor, and was a critical (though not a commercial) failure.

It is often reported that Garbo chose to retire from cinema after this film's failure, but already by 1935 she was becoming more choosy about her roles, and eventually years passed without her agreeing to do another film. By her own admission, Garbo felt that after World War II the world changed, perhaps forever.

In 1949, Garbo filmed several screen tests as she considered reentering the movie business to shoot La Duchesse de Langeais directed by Walter Wanger; otherwise she never stepped in front of a movie camera again. The plans for this film collapsed when financing failed to materialize, and these tests were lost for 40 years, before resurfacing in someone's garage. They were included in the 2005 TCM documentary Garbo, and show her still radiant at age 43. There were suggestions that she might appear as the "Duchess de Guermantes" in a film adaptation of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past: but this never came to fruition. She was offered many roles over the years, but always turned them down.

Her last interview was probably with the entertainment writer Paul Callan of the Londonmarker Daily Mail during the Cannes Film Festivalmarker. Meeting at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc, Callan began "I wonder..." before Garbo cut in with "Why wonder?" and stalked off, making it one of the shortest interviews ever published.

She gradually withdrew from the entertainment world and moved to a secluded life in New York Citymarker, refusing to make any public appearances. Until her death, Garbo sightings were considered sport for paparazzi photographers. In 1974, pornographic filmmaker Peter De Rome tracked Garbo across New York and shot unauthorized footage of her for inclusion in his X-rated feature Adam & Yves.

Despite these attempts to flee from fame, she was nevertheless voted Best Silent Actress of the Century (her compatriot Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Sound Actress) in 1950, and was once designated as the most beautiful woman who ever lived by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Private life

Filling out U.S. citizenship paperwork in 1950
Soon after her career took off, Garbo became known as a recluse; throughout her lifetime she conducted no interviews, signed no autographs, attended no social functions and answered no fan mail. Today she is often associated with her famous line from Grand Hotel: "I want to be alone", spoken in a heavy accent which substituted the w with a v sound. However, Garbo later commented, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be let alone.' There is all the difference." Garbo neither married nor had children; she lived alone.

Garbo suffered from periods of severe depression, and has been described in various private letters as being narcissistic, possessive and supposedly ashamed of her father, a latrine cleaner.

There was some speculation, that Garbo was bisexual, that she had intimate relationships with women as well as men, such as the actor John Gilbert. They starred together for the first time in the classic Flesh and the Devil in 1926. Their on-screen "erotic intensity" soon translated into an off-camera romance, and by the end of production Garbo had moved in with Gilbert. Gilbert allegedly proposed to her three times before she finally accepted. When a marriage was finally arranged in 1926, she failed to show up at the ceremony. After the affair ended, and Gilbert's career collapsed with sound films, Garbo showed great loyalty to him and insisted that he appear with her in 1933's Queen Christina, despite the objection of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer.

In 1931, Garbo befriended the writer and socialite Mercedes de Acosta, introduced to her by the author Salka Viertel. According to de Acosta, the pair ultimately began a sporadic and volatile romance, punctuated by long periods of Garbo ignoring her and disregarding her many love letters. After about a year, the relationship ended, but they maintained contact. Following de Acosta's claims about her many trysts with Garbo, in her controversial autobiography Here Lies the Heart in 1960, the pair were permanently estranged.

According to the memoir written by dancer, model and silent film actress Louise Brooks, she and Garbo had a brief liaison. Brooks described Garbo as masculine but a "charming and tender lover".

The 1995 biography Garbo relates Garbo's relationships—which were often just close friendships—with actor George Brent, conductor Leopold Stokowski, nutritionist Gayelord Hauser, and her manager George Schlee, husband of designer Valentina.

Secluded retirement

Gravestone of Greta Garbo
Garbo felt her movies had their proper place in history and would gain in value. On 9 February 1951, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1954 she was awarded a special Academy Award.

In 1953, she bought a seven-room apartment in New York Citymarker at 450 East 52nd Street, where she lived for the rest of her life.

She would at times jet-set with some of the world's best known personalities such as Aristotle Onassis and Cecil Beaton, but chose to live a private life. She was known for taking long walks through the New York streets dressed casually and wearing large sunglasses, always avoiding prying eyes, the paparazzi, and media attention. Garbo did, however, receive one last flurry of publicity when nude photos, taken with a long-range lens, were published in People in 1976. Trim and relaxed, she was enjoying a swim.

Garbo lived the last years of her life in absolute seclusion. Having invested very wisely, particularly in commercial property along Rodeo Drivemarker in Beverly Hills, she was known for extreme frugality, and was very wealthy.

She died in New York Hospital on 15 April 1990, aged 84, as a result of pneumonia and renal failure. She had previously been successfully treated for breast cancer.

She was cremated, and after a long legal battle her ashes were finally interred at the Skogskyrkogården Cemeterymarker in her native Stockholm. She left her entire estate, estimated at $20,000,000 USD to her niece, Gray Reisfield of New Jersey.

For her contributions to cinema, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker at 6901 Hollywood Boulevardmarker. In addition, in September 2005, the United States Postal Service and Swedish Posten jointly issued two commemorative stamps bearing her likeness.


Year Film Role Notes
1920 Mr and Mrs Stockholm Go Shopping Elder sister former title: How Not To Dress
The Gay Cavalier Extra uncredited
1921 Our Daily Bread Companion
The Scarlet Angel Extra uncredited
1922 Peter the Tramp Greta
1924 The Story of Gösta Berling Elizabeth Dohna directed by Mauritz Stiller
1925 Die freudlose Gasse Greta Rumfort The Joyless Street
1926 The Torrent Leonora Moreno aka La Brunna First American movie
The Temptress Elena
Flesh and the Devil Felicitas directed by Clarence Brown
1927 Love Anna Karenina directed by Edmund Goulding
1928 The Divine Woman Marianna Only a 9 minute reel exists. Source: The Mysterious Lady DVD
The Mysterious Lady Tania Fedorova
A Woman of Affairs Diana Merrick Furness
1929 Wild Orchids Lillie Sterling
The Single Standard Arden Stuart Hewlett
The Kiss Irene Guarry
1930 Anna Christie Anna Christie Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actress
Garbo's first talkie
Romance Madame Rita Cavallini Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actress
1931 Anna Christie Anna Christie MGM's German version of Anna Christie, released early 1931
Inspiration Yvonne Valbret
Susan Lenox Susan Lenox
Mata Hari Mata Hari
1932 Grand Hotel Grusinskaya
As You Desire Me Zara aka Marie
1933 Queen Christina Queen Christina
1934 The Painted Veil Katrin Koerber Fane
1935 Anna Karenina Anna Karenina New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
1936 Camille Marguerite Gautier Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actress
1937 Conquest Countess Marie Walewska
1939 Ninotchka Nina Ivanovna 'Ninotchka' Yakushova Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actress
1941 Two-Faced Woman Karin Borg Blake


  1. "Garbo Facts."
  2. Paris, Barry. Garbo. pp 124–125
  3. Alberge, Dalya. "Why Garbo just wanted to be alone." The Times. August 20, 2005.
  4. "Garbo: A TCM Original Documentary." Turner Classic Movies.
  5. "Greta Garbo Profile." Turner Classic Movies.
  6. Christakos, John. "Adam & Yves." Chicago Free Press. February 13, 2008.
  7. Petrucelli, Alan W. "Garbo's lonely legacy: Seeking the actress's final resting place." Post Gazette. September 9, 2007.
  8. Reynolds, Elisabeth. "Greta Garbo Returns." The Epoch Times. November 2, 2005.
  9. Callahan, Dan. "DVD Review: Garbo – The Signature Collection." Slant Magazine. September 7, 2005.
  10. Greta Garbo
  11. Top 10 Most Reclusive Celebrities
  12. Smith, Alex Duval. "Lonely Garbo's love secret is exposed." The Observer. September 11, 2005.
  13. "Flesh and the Devil."
  14. "John Gilbert."
  15. Greta Garbo.
  16. Brooks, Louise, Roland Jaccard, and Gideon Y. Schein. Louise Brooks: Portrait of an Anti-star. Phébus, 1977. ISBN 285940502X,.
  17. Weiss, Andrea. Vampires & Violets: Lesbians in the Cinema. J. Cape, 1992. ISBN 0224035754.
  18. Wayne, Jane Ellen. The Golden Girls of MGM. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0786713038. p.89.
  19. McLellan, Diana. The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. Macmillan, 2001. ISBN 0312283202 p. 81.

Further reading

External links

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