Star Spotlight: The Mysterious Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo Wants to Be Alone, Is Told She's Fat, Changes Film Acting, Refuses to Do Her Hair, Threatens to Go Home, and May Be a Secret Spy.

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I started this month celebrating Greta Garbo with an article on one of her early silent films, The Mysterious Lady (1928).  Now, it’s time for my Star Spotlight on the elusive Swedish star.

So here are a few things about Greta Garbo you didn’t know:

Greta Garbo

Early Life

The future Hollywood star was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 18, 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden.  The youngest of the three Gustafsson children, Greta and her family lived in poverty in Stockholm’s slums.  When Greta was fourteen, her father, always of poor health, passed away.  The tragic event marked the end of Greta’s formal education, something she remained self-conscious about all her life.

Greta Garbo
A very young Greta Gustafsson.

With the death of her father, Greta took a job as a tvalflicka, or lather girl, in a local barbershop, humble career beginnings for the woman who would soon be the world’s most renown movie star.

Young Greta was next a salesgirl at the Swedish Department store, PUB.  In addition to her sales responsibilities, Greta appeared in some promotional films for PUB products.  Already harboring hopes of an acting career, to Greta, these advertising shorts seemed a realization of her dreams.

Perhaps surprisingly, at this time in her life, the future screen goddess was considered an average looking girl, with a figure verging on the plump side.  Indeed, the Swedish actor featured alongside Greta in these PUB film shorts complained to the director that:  

Greta Garbo
During Garbo's early career, the future international star suffered cruel comments about her weight.

“You’re not intending to have that fat girl in the film?  She won’t fit on the screen!”

The jabs at Greta’s weight didn’t end there.  Swedish film director Mauritz Stiller, who soon became Greta’s mentor, told the young actress before offering her a role in an upcoming film that: 

“My dear Miss Gustafsson, you are a little too fat, I believe!…You’ll have to lose twenty pounds if you’re going to play the role I contemplate for you!”

How cruel. 

But considering that in just a few years Greta Garbo would be called the world’s most beautiful woman, and earn as much as $300,000 for a single film, Greta ultimately had the last laugh.

Greta Garbo
Greta in Stiller's production of The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924).

A Career-Changing Role

Despite the malicious comment, Greta did get the female lead in Stiller’s film, The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924). The role jumpstarted her career, and suddenly Greta garnered the attention of prestigious filmmakers and studios in Germany and America. 

One of those studios was MGM. 

With the promise of an international film career on the horizon, it was time for Greta Gustafsson to shorten her name.  She became “Greta Garbo,” a last name Greta most likely came up with herself.   “Garbo” does not mean anything in Swedish, but Greta like the sound of it.  And soon, the rest of the world would, too.

But first, more brutal comments about her weight.

When head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, flew out to Berlin to negotiate contracts with Garbo and Stiller, he shouted this endearment to Stiller just after Greta signed with the studio: 

 “Tell Miss Garbo that in America, people don’t like fat women!”

Greta Garbo
Garbo and Stiller arrive in New York City to very little fanfare, July 1925.

From Stockholm to Hollywood and Super Stardom

On their way to MGM and Hollywood, Greta and Stiller stopped in New York City.  No press or photographers were present for what was later recognized as Garbo’s historic arrival in America. 

Taking pity on the Swedish duo, the boy assigned by MGM to greet Stiller and Garbo hired a photographer on his own.  The photographer was such a last minute addition that he reportedly had only four plates in his camera.  So while Stiller directed her on how to stand, Greta unknowingly posed for countless photos that were never taken.

What a start to her career in America.

Greta Garbo
It took MGM some time to utilize Garbo's beauty and talent.

Greta Garbo Finds Success in Hollywood

It wasn’t until a breathtaking photo of Greta appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair that Mayer finally decided to utilize the Swedish beauty he had under contract.

Garbo’s first film, Torrent (1926), proved a huge success. It was clear the public wanted more of the fascinating, foreign, and beautiful Greta Garbo.

Greta Garbo was a new type of star.  She underplayed her roles, which made the exaggerated, over-acting of most of her contemporaries seem amateurish and dated.  Garbo’s acting was natural and real.  Audiences and critics alike took immediate notice.  

And of course, she was breathtaking.  No one called Greta Garbo “fat” ever again.

Greta Garbo
Garbo and John Gilbert in A Woman of Affairs (1928).

Greta Garbo: Talking Picture Star

Greta Garbo was one of the few stars to smoothly transition from silent films to “talkies.”  And it was in talking pictures that Garbo reached the apex of her stardom. 

She worried about the transition, but as perhaps MGM’s brightest star, Greta had the clout to choose her first talking role.  She wisely selected the Swedish title character in Eugene O’Neil’s Anna Christie.

Greta Garbo
Garbo as the title character in her first talking picture, Anna Christie (1930).

Greta Garbo: A Success in Anna Christie (1930)

Anna Christie premiered in 1930, and was another huge success for Garbo.  So was the German language version of the film, which Greta wisely stipulated be filmed and released at the same time. Garbo reasoned that if audiences didn’t like her English, she’d have her fluency in German to fall back on.  It proved an unnecessary back-up plan, but as a result of her forward-thinking, Garbo ended up with two successful versions of the film , and had the chance to showcase her agility with languages. 

At this time, Garbo received the first of three academy award nominations, which gave her even greater control over her film selections.  Garbo’s popularity and success soared with such films as Mata Hari (1931) and Grand Hotel (1932), the highest grossing movies of their respective years. 

(Grand Hotel popularized the famously parodied Garbo line “I want to be alone!”)

Greta Garbo
With Robert Taylor in Camille (1936).

More Iconic Roles for Greta Garbo

1936 brought Garbo one of her most iconic roles, that of Marguerite Gathier in George Cukor’s tragic masterpiece, Camille.  The film garnered Greta her second Academy Award nomination.  Garbo’s final Oscar nomination came a few years later for her brilliant comedic performance in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939).  The film proved Greta Garbo was as adept at comedy as she was at drama.

Greta Garbo
With Melvin Douglas in the hilarious Ninotchka (1939). In the film, Garbo proved she was also a brilliant comedienne.

Goodbye to Hollywood

1941’s Two-Faced Woman spelled the end of Greta Garbo’s meteoric career. 

World War II led to the closure of foreign film distribution, markets that Greta’s popularity largely dependened on.  MGM believed that “Americanizing” Garbo would help increase her appeal to American audiences.

But they were wrong.

Greta Garbo
Garbo in one of her not-so-cute get-ups in Two Faced Woman (1941). Thanks Constance Bennett! Bennett was the title of the film personified.

Greta Garbo and the Two-Faced Woman

In Two-Faced Woman, MGM tried to make an American sweater girl out of the “Swedish Sphinx,” and it just didn’t work.  The catty Constance Bennett, playing the second female lead in the film, didn’t help the situation at all: Bennett acted like Garbo’s friend to her face, gained her trust, and convinced her to wear some truly heinous outfits in the film, against the advice of legendary costume designer, Adrian.

Two-Faced Woman, contrary to popular belief, was not a flop, and actually turned a profit for MGM.  But for all the wrong reasons: moviegoers flocked to see Garbo in a role that was totally unsuited for her.  

So at age 35, an embarrassed Greta Garbo left Hollywood and all of its games behind.  Garbo started the next chapter of her life, and never looked back.

Greta Garbo
Garbo, ready for the next phase of her life.

Greta Garbo: Not the Recluse of Legend

Though she did famously enjoy her solitude, Garbo was not really the recluse of legend.

In 1953, Greta bought the seven room Manhattan apartment that became home for the rest of her life.  She spent most of the 1950s, 60s, and part of the 70s jet-setting around the world with friends.  She collected art, and, despite her intense frugality, invested in pieces by such renown artists as Renoir. 

Garbo, out on one of her famous walks. This picture is probably from the 1970s.

The Last Years of Greta Garbo

Even as age slowed her down in the 1980s, Greta Garbo took her famous New York City walks daily, and increasingly socialized with her walking buddies and family.  Garbo never married or had children, but her older brother Sven’s daughter, Gray Reisfield, was a loyal and trusted companion.

Garbo's beautiful, accomplished, and loyal niece, Gray. After her death in 2017, Gray's sons shared that despite her care and friendship with her famous aunt, Gray did not have a single picture of the two of them together: Gray knew Greta despised taking pictures, and respected her aunt enough to never ask for one.

It was in the company of Gray and her family that Greta Garbo passed on April 15, 1990.  A shrewd investor, property owner, and wise saver throughout her life, Garbo left her $32 million estate to Gray.  (About $62 million in today’s dollars.).

The impoverished girl from the slums of Stockholm died a multi-millionaire, with a name and film legacy known around the world.

A Few Fascinating Greta Garbo Facts

Garbo and Gilbert in Queen Christina (1933).

Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, and Queen Christina

For 1933’s Queen Christina, Garbo helped out old flame and co-star, John Gilbert, by giving him the male lead opposite her. 

Garbo reportedly left Gilbert at the alter back in the late 1920s.  Garbo’s jilting of John Gilbert indirectly led to the end of his career: a fight between Gilbert and L.B. Mayer at the wedding location ensued, with Gilbert reportedly defending Garbo against some unsavory comments made by Mayor.  Gilbert punched Mayer so hard he fell on his face.  Mayor reportedly told Gilbert his career was over

Legend has it that to get back at John Gilbert, Mayer changed Gilbert’s voice before his crucial first talking picture was released.  The feminine, high-pitched voice that resulted left audiences laughing.  By 1933, Gilbert was nearly broke, and Garbo gave him a fresh start with Queen Christina.  There’s no way anyone at the studio would have given John Gilbert the role without Garbo’s insistence. 

She may have decided against marrying John Gilbert, but clearly Greta Garbo was a loyal friend.

Greta Garbo: A Powerful Negotiator

Whenever Louis B. Mayer and the powers at MGM demanded something of Garbo that she didn’t like, Greta simply replied,

“I think I go home to Sweden now.” 

The fearful MGM executives would immediately cave, and Garbo always got her way.  MGM needed Garbo more than Garbo needed MGM. 

She knew it, and used it. 

Sometimes She Did Want to Be Alone

Once a star, Garbo insisted that her sets be closed.  No one was permitted to watch her during filming.  Black screens were put up to guard her from curious eyes. 

As Garbo insisted,

“During these scenes I allow only the cameraman and lighting man on the set…when people are watching, I’m just a woman making faces for the camera. It destroys the illusion. If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise.” 

Garbo and her do-it-yourself, no fuss, hairstyle.

No-Fuss Greta

Garbo was so no-fuss about her appearance, she never did a thing to her naturally straight hair. 

And then every woman alive wanted to copy her. 

At the time of Ninotchka’s release in 1939, this led to an official complaint to MGM by the Coiffure Guild. 

The guild complained that Garbo’s do-it-yourself hairdo was:

“depriving the hairdressing trade of a living…should such a style ever by popularized, this would have the effect of working vast injury to the hair-stylists of the United States.”  

Such was Garbo’s popularity that she could influence the living of a whole profession simply by the way she did—or didn’t do—her hair.

Greta Garbo the Spy?

Garbo was often criticized for not doing enough for the war effort.  She did participate in a few public events to raise money/war bonds, but each of these events was painful for the actress who notoriously hated publicity. 

Recent evidence suggests [aff. link] that Greta Garbo may have contributed to the war effort in a much more private way: as a spy for the Allies.

Garbo’s position as the elusive film star everyone wanted to hang out with, coupled with her neutral Swedish nationality and ability to keep a secret, made her the ideal spy. 

Subscribers to the “Garbo Spy Theory” say Greta was recruited by the Allies to observe and report back the names of those using the neutrality of Sweden during WWII to transport information or weaponry to the Nazis.  The information she reportedly provided to the Allies was extremely helpful in bringing down Nazi supporters. 

And in true Garbo fashion, she didn’t breath a word of her spy activities to anyone.

More Greta Garbo Next Week

And that wraps up my Star Spotlight on Greta Garbo.  Come back next week for all about Garbo’s iconic performance in Camille (1936).

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