Greta Lovisa Gustafsson
18 September 1905
|Died||15 April 1990 (aged 84)|
New York City, U.S.
|Resting place||Skogskyrkogården Cemetery, Stockholm|
Greta Garbo[a] (born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson;[b] 18 September 1905 – 15 April 1990) was a Swedish-American actress. Regarded as one of the greatest screen actresses of all time, she was known for her melancholic, somber persona, her film portrayals of tragic characters, and her subtle and understated performances. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Garbo fifth on its list of the greatest female stars of classic Hollywood cinema.
Garbo launched her career with a secondary role in the 1924 Swedish film The Saga of Gösta Berling. Her performance caught the attention of Louis B. Mayer, chief executive of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), who brought her to Hollywood in 1925. She stirred interest with her first American silent film, Torrent (1926). Garbo's performance in Flesh and the Devil (1927), her third movie, made her an international star. In 1928, Garbo starred in A Woman of Affairs, which catapulted her at MGM to its highest box-office star, surpassing the long-reigning Lillian Gish. Other well-known Garbo films from the silent era are The Mysterious Lady (1928), The Single Standard (1929) and The Kiss (1929).
With Garbo's first sound film, Anna Christie (1930), MGM marketers enticed the public with the tagline "Garbo talks!" That same year she starred in Romance and for her performances in both films she received the first of three nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress. By 1932 her success allowed her to dictate the terms of her contracts and she became increasingly selective about her roles. She continued in films such as Mata Hari (1931), Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933) and Anna Karenina (1935).
Many critics and film historians consider her performance as the doomed courtesan Marguerite Gautier in Camille (1936) to be her finest and the role gained her a second Academy Award nomination. However, Garbo's career soon declined and she became one of many stars labelled box office poison in 1938. Her career revived with a turn to comedy in Ninotchka (1939), which earned her a third Academy Award nomination. But after the failure of Two-Faced Woman (1941), she retired from the screen at the age of 35 after acting in 28 films. In 1954, Garbo was awarded an Academy Honorary Award "for her luminous and unforgettable screen performances".
After retiring, Garbo declined all opportunities to return to the screen, shunned publicity, and led a private life. She became an art collector whose paintings included works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard and Kees van Dongen.
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born in Södermalm, Stockholm, Sweden at 7:30 pm. She was the third, and youngest, child of Anna Lovisa (née Johansson, 1872–1944), who worked at a jam factory, and Karl Alfred Gustafsson (1871–1920), a laborer. She had an older brother, Sven Alfred (1898–1967), and an older sister, Alva Maria (1903–1926). Garbo was nicknamed Kata, the way she mispronounced her name, for the first ten years of her life.
Her parents met in Stockholm, where her father had been visiting from Frinnaryd. He moved to Stockholm to become independent and worked as a street cleaner, grocer, factory worker and butcher's assistant. He married Anna, who moved from Högsby. The family was impoverished and lived in a three-bedroom cold-water flat at Blekingegatan No. 32. They raised their three children in a working-class district regarded as the city's slum. Garbo later recalled:
It was eternally grey—those long winter's nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room, my mother is repairing ragged old clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We were filled with anxiety, as if there were danger in the air. Such evenings are unforgettable for a sensitive girl, but also for a girl like me. Where we lived, all the houses and apartments looked alike, their ugliness matched by everything surrounding us.
Garbo was a shy daydreamer as a child. She disliked school and preferred to play alone. She was a natural leader who became interested in theatre at an early age. She directed her friends in make-believe games and performances, and dreamed of becoming an actress. Later, she would participate in amateur theatre with her friends and frequent the Mosebacke Theatre. At the age of 13, Garbo graduated from school, and, typical of a Swedish working-class girl at that time, she did not attend high school. She later acknowledged a resulting inferiority complex.
The Spanish flu spread throughout Stockholm in the winter of 1919 and her father, to whom she was very close, became ill and lost his job. Garbo cared for him, taking him to the hospital for weekly treatments. He died in 1920 when she was 14 years old.
Garbo first worked as a soap-lather girl in a barber shop before taking a job in the PUB department store where she ran errands and worked in the millinery department. After modeling hats for the store's catalogues, Garbo earned a more lucrative job as a fashion model at Nordiska Kompaniet. In 1920, a director of film commercials for the store cast Garbo in roles advertising women's clothing. Her first commercial premiered on 12 December 1920 In 1922, Garbo caught the attention of director Erik Arthur Petschler, who gave her a part in his short comedy, Peter the Tramp.
From 1922 to 1924, she studied at the Royal Dramatic Training Academy in Stockholm. She was recruited in 1924 by the Finnish director Mauritz Stiller to play a principal part in his film The Saga of Gösta Berling, a dramatization of the famous novel by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, which also featured the actor Lars Hanson. Stiller became her mentor, training her as a film actress and managing all aspects of her nascent career. She followed her role in Gösta Berling with a starring role in the German film Die freudlose Gasse (Joyless Street or The Street of Sorrow, 1925), directed by G. W. Pabst and co-starring Asta Nielsen.
Accounts differ on the circumstances of her first contract with Louis B. Mayer, at that time vice president and general manager of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Victor Seastrom, a respected Swedish director at MGM, was a friend of Stiller and encouraged Mayer to meet him on a trip to Berlin. There are two recent versions of what happened next. In one, Mayer, always looking for new talent, had done his research and was interested in Stiller. He made an offer, but Stiller demanded that Garbo be part of any contract, convinced that she would be an asset to his career. Mayer balked, but eventually agreed to a private viewing of Gösta Berling. He was immediately struck by Garbo's magnetism and became more interested in her than in Stiller. "It was her eyes," his daughter recalled him saying, "I can make a star out of her." In the second version, Mayer had already seen Gösta Berling before his Berlin trip, and Garbo, not Stiller, was his primary interest. On the way to the screening, Mayer said to his daughter: "This director is wonderful, but what we really ought to look at is the girl ... The girl, look at the girl!" After the screening, his daughter reported, he was unwavering: "I'll take her without him. I'll take her with him. Number one is the girl."
In 1925, Garbo, who was unable to speak English, was brought to Hollywood from Sweden at the request of Mayer. In July, Garbo and Stiller arrived in New York after a 10-day crossing on SS Drottningholm. where they remained for more than six months with no word from MGM. They decided to travel to Los Angeles on their own but another five weeks passed without contact from the studio. On the verge of returning to Sweden, Garbo wrote her boyfriend back home, "You're quite right when you think I don't feel at home here ... Oh, you lovely little Sweden, I promise that when I return to you, my sad face will smile as never before." A Swedish friend in Los Angeles helped by contacting MGM production boss Irving Thalberg, who agreed to give Garbo a screen test. According to author Frederick Sands, "the result of the test was electrifying. Thalberg was impressed and began grooming the young actress the following day, arranging to fix her teeth, making sure she lost weight and giving her English lessons."
During her rise to stardom, film historian Mark Vieira notes, "Thalberg decreed that henceforth, Garbo would play a young, but worldly wise, woman." However, according to Thalberg's actress wife, Norma Shearer, Garbo did not necessarily agree with his ideas:
Miss Garbo at first didn't like playing the exotic, the sophisticated, the woman of the world. She used to complain, "Mr. Thalberg, I am just a young gur-rl!" Irving tossed it off with a laugh. With those elegant pictures, he was creating the Garbo image.
Although she expected to work with Stiller on her first film, she was cast in Torrent (1926), an adaptation of a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, with director Monta Bell. She replaced Aileen Pringle, 10 years her senior, and played a peasant girl turned singer, opposite Ricardo Cortez. Torrent was a hit, and, despite its cool reception by the trade press, Garbo's performance was well received.
Garbo's success in her first American film led Thalberg to cast her in a similar role in The Temptress (1926), based on another Ibáñez novel. In this, her second film, she played opposite the popular star Antonio Moreno but was given top billing. Her mentor Stiller, who had persuaded her to take the part, was assigned to direct. For both Garbo (who did not want to play another vamp and did not like the script any more than she did the first one) and Stiller, The Temptress was a harrowing experience. Stiller, who spoke little English, had difficulty adapting to the studio system and did not get on with Moreno, was fired by Thalberg and replaced by Fred Niblo. Re-shooting The Temptress was expensive, and even though it became one of the top-grossing films of the 1926–1927 season, it was the only Garbo film of the period to lose money. However, Garbo received rave reviews, and MGM had a new star.
After her lightning ascent, Garbo made eight more silent films, and all were hits. She starred in three of them with the leading man John Gilbert. About their first movie, Flesh and the Devil (1926), silent film expert Kevin Brownlow states that "she gave a more erotic performance than Hollywood had ever seen." Their on-screen chemistry soon translated into an off-camera romance, and by the end of the production, they began living together. The film also marked a turning point in Garbo's career. Vieira wrote: "Audiences were mesmerized by her beauty and titillated by her love scenes with Gilbert. She was a sensation." Profits from her third movie with Gilbert, A Woman of Affairs (1928), catapulted her to top Metro star of the 1928–1929 box office season, usurping the long-reigned silent queen Lillian Gish. In 1929, reviewer Pierre de Rohan wrote in the New York Telegraph: "She has glamour and fascination for both sexes which have never been equaled on the screen."
The impact of Garbo's acting and screen presence quickly established her reputation as one of Hollywood's greatest actresses. Film historian and critic David Denby argues that Garbo introduced a subtlety of expression to the art of silent acting and that its effect on audiences cannot be exaggerated. She "lowers her head to look calculating or flutters her lips," he says. "Her face darkens with a slight tightening around the eyes and mouth; she registers a passing idea with a contraction of her brows or a drooping of her lids. Worlds turned on her movements."
During this period, Garbo began to require unusual conditions during the shooting of her scenes. She prohibited visitors—including the studio brass—from her sets and demanded that black flats or screens surround her to prevent extras and technicians from watching her. When asked about these eccentric requirements, she said: "If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise."
Despite her status as a star of silent films, the studio feared that her Swedish accent might impair her work in sound, and delayed the shift for as long as possible. MGM itself was the last Hollywood studio to convert to sound, and Garbo's last silent film, The Kiss (1929), was also the studio's. Despite the fears, Garbo became one of the biggest box-office draws of the next decade.
In late 1929, MGM cast Garbo in Anna Christie (1930), a film adaptation of the 1922 play by Eugene O'Neill, her first speaking role. The screenplay was adapted by Frances Marion, and the film was produced by Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern. Sixteen minutes into the film, she famously utters her first line, "Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby." The film premiered in New York City on 21 February 1930, publicized with the catchphrase "Garbo talks!", and was the highest-grossing film of the year. Her performance received positive reviews; Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times remarked that Garbo was "even more interesting through being heard than she was in her mute portrayals. She reveals no nervousness before the microphone and her careful interpretation of Anna can scarcely be disputed." Garbo received her first Academy Award for Best Actress nomination for her performance, although she lost to MGM colleague Norma Shearer. Her nomination that year included her performance in Romance (1930). After filming ended, Garbo—along with a different director and cast—filmed a German-language version of Anna Christie that was released in December 1930. The film's success certified Garbo's successful transition to talkies. In her follow-up film, Romance, she portrayed an Italian opera star, opposite Lewis Stone. She was paired opposite Robert Montgomery in Inspiration (1931), and her profile was used to boost the career of the relatively unknown Clark Gable in Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931). Although the films did not match Garbo's success with her sound debut, she was ranked as the most popular female star in the United States in 1930 and 1931.
Garbo followed with two of her best-remembered roles. She played the World War I German spy in the lavish production of Mata Hari (1931), opposite Ramón Novarro. When the film was released, it "caused panic, with police reserves required to keep the waiting mob in order." The following year, she played a Russian ballerina in Grand Hotel (1932), opposite an ensemble cast, including John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Wallace Beery, among others. The film won that year's Academy Award for Best Picture. Both films were MGM's highest-earning films of 1931 and 1932, respectively, and Garbo was dubbed "the greatest money-making machine ever put on screen". Garbo's close friend Mercedes de Acosta then penned a screenplay for her to portray Joan of Arc, but MGM rebuffed the idea, and the project was shelved. By this time she had a fanatical worldwide following and the phenomenon of "Garbomania" reached its peak. After appearing in As You Desire Me (1932), the first of three films in which Garbo starred opposite Melvyn Douglas, her MGM contract expired, and she returned to Sweden.
After nearly a year of negotiations, Garbo agreed to renew her contract with MGM on the condition that she would star in Queen Christina (1933), and her salary would be increased to $300,000 per film. The film's screenplay had been written by Salka Viertel; although reluctant to make the movie, MGM relented at Garbo's insistence. For her leading man, MGM suggested Charles Boyer or Laurence Olivier, but Garbo rejected both, preferring her former co-star and lover John Gilbert. The studio balked at the idea of casting Gilbert, fearing his declining career would hurt the film's box-office, but Garbo prevailed. Queen Christina was a lavish production, becoming one of the studio's biggest productions at the time. Publicized as "Garbo returns", the film premiered in December 1933 to positive reviews and box-office triumph and became the highest-grossing film of the year. The movie, however, met with controversy upon its release; censors objected to the scenes in which Garbo disguised herself as a man and kissed a female co-star.
Although her domestic popularity was undiminished in the early 1930s, high profits for Garbo's films after Queen Christina depended on the foreign market for their success. The type of historical and melodramatic films she began to make on the advice of Viertel were highly successful abroad, but considerably less so in the United States. In the midst of the Great Depression, American screen audiences seemed to favor "home-grown" screen couples, such as Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. David O. Selznick wanted to cast Garbo as the dying heiress in Dark Victory (eventually released in 1939 with other leads), but she chose Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1935), in which she played another of her renowned roles. Her performance won her the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. The film was successful in international markets, and had better domestic rentals than MGM anticipated. Still, its profit was significantly diminished because of Garbo's exorbitant salary.
Garbo selected George Cukor's romantic drama Camille (1936) as her next project. Thalberg cast her opposite Robert Taylor and former co-star, Lionel Barrymore. Cukor carefully crafted Garbo's portrayal of Marguerite Gautier, a lower-class woman, who becomes the world-renowned mistress Camille. Production was marred, however, by the sudden death of Thalberg, then only thirty-seven, which plunged the Hollywood studios into a "state of profound shock," writes David Bret.: 272 Garbo had grown close to Thalberg and his wife, Norma Shearer, and had often dropped by their house unannounced. Her grief for Thalberg, some believe, was more profound than for John Gilbert, who died earlier that same year.: 272 His death also added to the sombre mood required for the closing scenes of Camille. When the film premiered in New York on 12 December 1936, it became an international success, Garbo's first major success in three years. She won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress for her performance, and she was nominated once more for an Academy Award. Garbo regarded Camille as her favorite out of all of her films.
Garbo's follow-up project was Clarence Brown's lavish production of Conquest (1937), opposite Charles Boyer. The plot was the dramatized romance between Napoleon and Marie Walewska. It was MGM's biggest and most-publicized movie of its year, but upon its release, it became one of the studio's biggest failures of the decade at the box office. When her contract expired soon thereafter, she returned briefly to Sweden. On 3 May 1938, Garbo was among the many stars—including Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Luise Rainer, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, and Dolores del Río, among others—dubbed to be "Box Office Poison" in an article published by Harry Brandt on behalf of the Independent Theatre Owners of America.
After the box-office failure of Conquest, MGM decided a change of pace was needed to resurrect Garbo's career. For her next movie, the studio teamed her with producer-director Ernst Lubitsch to film Ninotchka (1939), her first comedy. The film was one of the first Hollywood movies which, under the cover of a satirical, light romance, depicted the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin as being rigid and gray when compared to Paris in its pre-war years. Ninotchka premiered in October 1939, publicized with the catchphrase "Garbo laughs!", commenting on the departure of Garbo's serious and melancholy image as she transferred to comedy. Favoured by critics and box-office success in the United States and abroad, it was banned in the Soviet Union.
With George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman (1941), MGM attempted to capitalize on Garbo's success in Ninotchka by re-teaming her with Melvyn Douglas in another romantic comedy which sought to transform her into a chic, modern woman. She played a "double" role that featured her dancing the rhumba, swimming, and skiing. The film was a critical failure, but, contrary to popular belief, it performed reasonably well at the box office. Garbo referred to the film as "my grave." Two-Faced Woman was her last film; she was thirty-six and had made 28 feature films in a span of 16 years.
Although Garbo was humiliated by the negative reviews of Two-Faced Woman, she did not intend to retire at first. But her films depended on the European market, and when it fell through because of the war, finding a vehicle was problematic for MGM. Garbo signed a one-picture deal in 1942 to make The Girl from Leningrad, but the project quickly dissolved. She still thought she would continue when the war was over, though she was ambivalent and indecisive about returning to the screen. Salka Viertel, Garbo's close friend and collaborator, said in 1945: "Greta is impatient to work. But on the other side, she's afraid of it." Garbo also worried about her age. "Time leaves traces on our small faces and bodies. It's not the same anymore, being able to pull it off." George Cukor, director of Two-Faced Woman, and often blamed for its failure, said: "People often glibly say that the failure of Two-Faced Woman finished Garbo's career. That's a grotesque over-simplification. It certainly threw her, but I think that what really happened was that she just gave up. She didn't want to go on."
Still, Garbo signed a contract in 1948 with producer Walter Wanger, who had produced Queen Christina, to shoot a picture based on Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais. Max Ophüls was slated to adapt and direct. She made several screen tests, learned the script, and arrived in Rome in the summer of 1949 to shoot the picture. However, the financing failed to materialize, and the project was abandoned. The screen tests—the last time Garbo stepped in front of a movie camera—were thought to have been lost for 41 years until they were re-discovered in 1990 by film historians Leonard Maltin and Jeanine Basinger. Parts of the footage were included in the 2005 TCM documentary Garbo.
In 1949, she was offered the role of fictional silent-film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, directed by Ninotchka co-writer Billy Wilder. However, after a meeting with film producer Charles Brackett, she insisted that she had no interest in the part whatsoever.
She was offered many roles both in the 1940s and throughout her retirement years but rejected all but a few of them. In the few instances when she did accept them, the slightest problem led her to drop out. Although she refused to talk to friends about her reasons for retiring throughout her life, four years before her death, she told Swedish biographer Sven Broman: "I was tired of Hollywood. I did not like my work. There were many days when I had to force myself to go to the studio ... I really wanted to live another life."
From the early days of her career, Garbo avoided industry social functions, preferring to spend her time alone or with friends. She never signed autographs or answered fan mail, and rarely gave interviews. Nor did she ever appear at Oscar ceremonies, even when she was nominated. Her aversion to publicity and the press was undeniably genuine, and exasperating to the studio at first. In an interview in 1928, she explained that her desire for privacy began when she was a child, stating, "As early as I can remember, I have wanted to be alone. I’ve always been moody. I detest crowds, I don't like many people." In 1937, in a letter to her friend, Austrian actress and writer Salka Viertel, she wrote: “I go nowhere, see no one… It is hard and sad to be alone, but sometimes it’s even more difficult to be with someone…” In another letter in 1970 she wrote: “I feel very tired and cannot seem to get myself together to plan where to go… I am sorry but something always seem to go a little wrong with me, and it is not in my head either…"
Because Garbo was suspicious and mistrustful of the media, and often at odds with MGM executives, she spurned Hollywood's publicity rules. She was routinely referred to by the press as the "Swedish Sphinx". Her reticence and fear of strangers perpetuated the mystery and mystique she projected both on screen and in real life. MGM eventually capitalized on it, for it bolstered the image of the silent and reclusive woman of mystery. In spite of her strenuous efforts to avoid publicity, Garbo paradoxically became one of the twentieth century's most publicized women. She is closely associated with a line from Grand Hotel, one which the American Film Institute in 2005 voted the 30th-most memorable movie quote of all time, "I want to be alone; I just want to be alone." The theme was a running gag in her movies that began during the silent period.[c] According to a 1955 piece in LIFE magazine, Garbo explained that she’d said: “I want to be let alone”, not “I want to be alone”.
Garbo has been credited with popularizing the "slouchy hat". After starring in Torrent (1926), she became known as “the Art Deco Diva”. Her look[when?] has been described as "trench coat, simple shoes, shirts, cigarette pants, slouchy hat and big sunglasses."
In retirement, Garbo generally led a private life of simplicity and leisure. She made no public appearances and assiduously avoided the publicity she loathed. Contrary to myth, from the beginning she had many friends and acquaintances with whom she socialized and later travelled.
She was often perplexed about what to do and how to spend her time ("drifting" was the word she frequently used), always struggling with her many eccentricities and her life-long melancholy and moodiness. As she approached her sixtieth birthday, she told a frequent walking companion, "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." She told another friend in 1971, "I suppose I suffer from very deep depression." One biographer claims that she could have been bipolar. "I am very happy one moment, the next there is nothing left for me", she said in 1933.
Beginning in the 1940s, she became an art collector. Although many paintings she bought were of negligible value, works by Renoir, Rouault, Kandinsky, Bonnard and Jawlensky made her art collection worth millions when she died in 1990.
On February 9, 1951, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States, and she bought a seven-room apartment at 450 East 52nd Street in Manhattan in 1953, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Garbo was a dinner guest at the White House on November 13, 1963, just nine days before the assassination of President Kennedy. She spent the night at the Washington, D. C. home of philanthropist Florence Mahoney. Garbo's niece reported that Garbo had always spoken of it as a "magical evening."
Italian film director Luchino Visconti allegedly attempted to bring Garbo back to the screen in 1969 with the small part of Maria Sophia, Queen of Naples in his adaptation of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. He exclaimed: "I am very pleased with the idea that this woman, with her severe and authoritarian presence, should figure in the decadent and rarefied climate of the world described by Proust." Claims that Garbo was interested in the part cannot be substantiated.
In 1971, Garbo vacationed in Southern France at the summer home of her close friend Baroness Cécile de Rothschild who introduced her to Samuel Adams Green, an art collector and curator in New York City. Green became an important friend and walking companion. He was in the habit of tape-recording all of his telephone calls, including many of his conversations with Garbo. He did so with her permission, but Garbo ended the friendship in 1981 after being falsely told that Green had played the tapes to friends. In his last will and testament, Green bequeathed all of the tapes in 2011 to the film archives at Wesleyan University. The tapes reveal Garbo's personality in later life, her sense of humor, and various eccentricities.
Although she was increasingly withdrawn in her final years, Garbo became close to her cook and housekeeper Claire Koger, who worked for her for 31 years. "We were very close—like sisters," Koger said.
Throughout her life, Garbo was known for taking long daily walks with companions or by herself. In retirement, she walked the streets of New York City, dressed casually and wearing large sunglasses. "Garbo-watching" became a sport for photographers, the media, admirers, and curious New Yorkers, but she maintained her elusive mystique to the end.
Garbo never married, had no children, and lived alone as an adult. Her most famous romance was with her frequent co-star John Gilbert, with whom she lived intermittently in 1926 and 1927. Soon after their romance began, Gilbert began helping her develop acting skills on the set and teaching her how to behave like a star, socialize at parties, and deal with studio bosses. They co-starred again in three more hits: Love (1927), A Woman of Affairs (1928), and Queen Christina (1933). Gilbert allegedly proposed to her numerous times, with Garbo agreeing, but backing out at the last minute. "I was in love with him," she said. "But I froze. I was afraid he would tell me what to do and boss me. I always wanted to be the boss." In later years, Garbo said of Gilbert, "I can't remember what I ever saw in him."
In 1937, Garbo met orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, with whom she had a highly publicized relationship while the pair traveled throughout Europe the following year; whether the relationship was platonic or romantic is uncertain. In his diary, Erich Maria Remarque discusses a liaison with Garbo in 1941, and in his memoir, Cecil Beaton described an affair with her in 1947 and 1948. In 1941, she met the Russian-born millionaire, George Schlee, who was introduced to her by his wife, fashion designer Valentina. Nicholas Turner, Garbo's close friend for 33 years, said that, after she bought an apartment in the same building, "Garbo moved in and took Schlee from Valentina right away." Schlee would divide his time between the two, becoming Garbo's close companion and advisor until his death in 1964.
Recent biographers and others have speculated that because it can be assumed she had intimate relationships with women as well as men, Garbo was bisexual, even "predominantly lesbian." In 1927, Garbo was introduced to stage and screen actress Lilyan Tashman, and they may have had an affair, according to some writers. Silent film star Louise Brooks stated that she and Garbo had a brief liaison the following year.
In 1931, Garbo befriended the writer and acknowledged lesbian Mercedes de Acosta, whom she met through Salka Viertel, and, according to Garbo's and de Acosta's biographers, began a sporadic and volatile romance. The two remained friends—with ups and downs—for almost 30 years, during which time Garbo wrote de Acosta 181 letters, cards, and telegrams, now at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. Garbo's family, which controls her estate, has made only 87 of these items publicly available.
In 2005, Mimi Pollak's estate released 60 letters Garbo had written to her in their long correspondence. Several letters suggest she may have had romantic feelings for Pollak for many years. After learning of Pollak's pregnancy in 1930, for example, Garbo wrote: "We cannot help our nature, as God has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together." In 1975, she wrote a poem about not being able to touch the hand of her friend with whom she might have been walking through life.
Garbo was successfully treated for breast cancer in 1984. Towards the end of her life, only Garbo's closest friends knew she was receiving six-hour dialysis treatments three times a week at The Rogosin Institute in New York Hospital. A photograph appeared in the media in early 1990, showing Koger assisting Garbo, who was walking with a cane, into the hospital.
Garbo died on 15 April 1990, aged 84, in the hospital, as a result of pneumonia and renal failure. Daum later claimed that towards the end, she also suffered from gastrointestinal and periodontal ailments.
Garbo was cremated in Manhattan, and her ashes were interred nine years later in 1999 at Skogskyrkogården Cemetery just south of her native Stockholm.
Garbo made numerous investments, primarily in stocks and bonds, and left her entire estate of $32 million (equivalent to $66,000,000 in 2021) to her niece.
Garbo was an international star during the late silent era and the "Golden Age" of Hollywood who became a screen icon. For most of her career, she was the highest-paid actor or actress at MGM, making her for many years its "premier prestige star." After her death, the Los Angeles Times published an obituary calling her "the most alluring, vibrant and yet aloof character to grace the motion-picture screen." The April 1990 Washington Post obituary said that "at the peak of her popularity, she was a virtual cult figure."
Garbo possessed a subtlety and naturalism in her acting that set her apart from other actors and actresses of the period. About her work in silents, film critic Ty Burr said: "This was a new kind of actor—not the stage actor who had to play to the far seats, but someone who could just look and with her eyes literally go from rage to sorrow in just a close-up."
Film historian Jeffrey Vance said that Garbo communicated her characters' innermost feelings through her movement, gestures, and, most importantly, her eyes. With the slightest movement of them, he argues, she subtly conveyed complex attitudes and feelings toward other characters and the truth of the situation. "She doesn't act," said Camille co-star Rex O'Malley, "she lives her roles." Director Clarence Brown, who made seven of Garbo's pictures, told an interviewer, "Garbo has something behind the eyes that you couldn't see until you photographed it in close-up. You could see thought. If she had to look at one person with jealousy, and another with love, she didn't have to change her expression. You could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other. And nobody else has been able to do that on screen." Director George Sidney adds: "You could call it underplaying, but in underplaying, she overplayed everyone else."
Many critics have said that few of Garbo's 24 Hollywood films are artistically exceptional, and that many are simply bad. It has been said, however, that her commanding and magnetic performances usually overcome the weaknesses of plot and dialogue. As one biographer put it, "All moviegoers demanded of a Garbo production was Greta Garbo."
Film historian Ephraim Katz: "Of all the stars who have ever fired the imaginations of audiences, none has quite projected a magnetism and a mystique equal to Garbo. ‘The Divine,’ the ‘dream princess of eternity,’ the ‘Sarah Bernhardt of films,’ are only a few of the superlatives writers used in describing her over the years ... She played heroines that were at once sensual and pure, superficial and profound, suffering and hopeful, world-weary and life-inspiring."
American film actress Bette Davis: "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."
Mexican film actress Dolores del Río: "The most extraordinary woman (in art) that I have encountered in my life. It was as if she had diamonds in her bones and in her interior light struggled to come out through the pores of her skin."
American film director George Cukor: "She had a talent that few actresses or actors possess. In close-ups, she gave the impression, the illusion of great movement. She would move her head just a little bit, and the whole screen would come alive, like a strong breeze that made itself felt."
American film actor Gregory Peck: "If you ask me my favorite actress of all time, I will tell you that it is Greta Garbo. She shared her emotions with the camera and the audience. They were very truthful emotions. To my mind, she was an early practitioner of the Method. She felt everything she did and had the intelligence to go with it. . . . And that is the key for the audience. If they believe it, then they’ve spent a couple of good hours at the cinema."
Garbo is the subject of several documentaries, including four made in the United States between 1990 and 2005 and one made for the BBC in 1969:
Garbo has been memorialized in art and literature both during and after her life. Garbo was one of the subjects of French composer Charles Koechlin's "Seven Stars Symphony" (1933), which consisted of seven movements, each dedicated to a Hollywood star.
Author Ernest Hemingway provided an imaginary portrayal of Garbo in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940): "Maybe it is like the dreams you have when someone you have seen in the cinema comes to your bed at night and is so kind and lovely ... He could remember Garbo still ... Maybe it was like those dreams the night before the attack on Pozoblanco, and [Garbo] was wearing a soft silky wool sweater when he put his arms around her, and when she leaned forward, and her hair swept forward and over his face, and she said why had he never told her that he loved her when she had loved him all this time? ... and it was as true as though it had happened ..."
She was portrayed by Betty Comden in the film Garbo Talks (1984). The film concerns a dying Garbo fan (Anne Bancroft) whose last wish is to meet her idol. Her son (played by Ron Silver) sets about trying to get Garbo to visit his mother at the hospital.
A statue of Greta Garbo titled "Statue of Integrity" by Jón Leifsson sits isolated deep in the forest in Härjedalen.
Garbo is mentioned in the song "Break My Soul" by Beyoncé and "Vogue" by Madonna, along with a number of other famous singers and actresses. Garbo is also mentioned in the 1977 song "Right Before Your Eyes" by Ian Thomas that was also recorded by pop group America in 1982.
Greta Garbo is also mentioned in The Kinks 1972 song "Celluloid Heros" and the 1981 Kim Carnes song "Bette Davis Eyes".
Garbo was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Actress. In 1930, a performer could receive a single nomination for their work in more than one film. Garbo received her nomination for her work in both Anna Christie and for Romance. She lost out to Irving Thalberg's wife, Norma Shearer, who won for The Divorcee. In 1937, Garbo was nominated for Camille, but Luise Rainer won for The Good Earth. Finally, in 1939, Garbo was nominated for Ninotchka, but again came away empty-handed. Gone With the Wind swept the major awards, including Best Actress, which went to Vivien Leigh. In 1954, however, she was awarded an Academy Honorary Award "for her luminous and unforgettable screen performances". Predictably, Garbo did not show up at the ceremony, and the statuette was mailed to her home address.
Garbo twice received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress: for Anna Karenina in 1935, and for Camille in 1936. She won the National Board of Review Best Acting Award for Camille in 1936; for Ninotchka in 1939; and for Two-Faced Woman in 1941. The Swedish royal medal Litteris et Artibus, which is awarded to people who have made important contributions to culture (especially music, dramatic art, or literature) was presented to Garbo in January 1937. In a 1950 Daily Variety opinion poll, Garbo was voted "Best Actress of the Half Century", In 1957, she was awarded The George Eastman Award, given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.
In November 1983, she was made a Commander of the Swedish Order of the Polar Star by order of King Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. In 1985, she was awarded the Illis quorum by the government of Sweden. In 1985, a star was nicknamed after her. For her contributions to cinema, in 1960, she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6901 Hollywood Boulevard.
Garbo appears on a number of postage stamps, and in September 2005, the United States Postal Service and Swedish Posten jointly issued two commemorative stamps bearing her image. On 6 April 2011, Sveriges Riksbank announced that Garbo's portrait was to be featured on the 100-krona banknote, beginning in 2014–2015.
|1920||Mr. and Mrs. Stockholm Go Shopping||Elder sister||An advertisement. Garbo's segment is often known as How Not to Dress.|
|1921||A Fortune Hunter||Extra||Uncredited; lost film|
|1921||Our Daily Bread||Companion||An advertisement|
|1922||Peter the Tramp||Greta||Garbo's first part in a commercial film|
|1924||The Saga of Gosta Berling||Elizabeth Dohna||Garbo's first leading part in a feature-length film|
|1925||The Joyless Street||Greta Rumfort||German film directed by G.W.Pabst|
|1926||Torrent||Leonora Moreno aka La Brunna||Garbo's first American film. All of Garbo's subsequent movies were made in Hollywood and produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.|
|1926||Flesh and the Devil||Felicitas||The first of seven Garbo films directed by Clarence Brown, and first of four movies with co-star John Gilbert|
|1927||Love||Anna Karenina||Adapted from the novel Anna Karenina by Tolstoy|
|1928||The Divine Woman||Marianne||The film is lost; only a 9-minute reel exists.|
|1928||The Mysterious Lady||Tania Fedorova|
|1928||A Woman of Affairs||Diana Merrick Furness||The first of seven Garbo films with actor Lewis Stone, who, with the exception of Wild Orchids, played secondary roles.|
|1929||Wild Orchids||Lillie Sterling|
|1929||A Man's Man||Herself||Garbo and John Gilbert make cameo appearances; this film is lost.|
|1929||The Single Standard||Arden Stuart Hewlett|
|1929||The Kiss||Irene Guarry||Garbo's, and MGM's, last silent picture|
|1930||Anna Christie||Anna Christie||Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actress|
|1930||Romance||Madame Rita Cavallini||Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actress|
|1930||Anna Christie||Anna Christie||MGM's German version of Anna Christie was also released in 1930|
|1931||Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)||Susan Lenox|
|1931||Mata Hari||Mata Hari||After the multi-star Grand Hotel, Garbo's highest-grossing film|
|1932||Grand Hotel||Grusinskaya||Academy Award for Best Picture|
|1932||As You Desire Me||Zara aka Marie||The first of three Garbo films with co-star Melvyn Douglas|
|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||New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress|
National Board of Review Best Acting Award
Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actress
|1937||Conquest||Countess Marie Walewska|
|1939||Ninotchka||Nina Ivanovna "Ninotchka" Yakushova||National Board of Review Best Acting Award|
Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated – New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
|1941||Two-Faced Woman||Karin Borg Blake / Katherine Borg||National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Best Acting Award|
In June 1919, she left school, and never returned.
Greta Garbo, making her American debut as a screen star, has everything with looks, acting ability, and personality. When one is a Scandinavian and can put over a Latin characterization with sufficient power to make it most convincing, need there be any more said regarding her ability? She makes The Torrent worthwhile.
In this current effort Greta Garbo, a Swedish actress, who is fairly well known in Germany, makes her screen bow to American audiences. As a result of her ability, her undeniable prepossessing appearance and her expensive taste in fur coats, she steals most of the thunder in this vehicle
I want to go on record as saying that Greta Garbo in The Temptress knocked me for a loop. I had seen Miss Garbo once before, in The Torrent. I had been mildly impressed by her visual effectiveness. In The Temptress, however, this effectiveness proves positively devastating. She may not be the best actress on the screen. I am powerless to formulate an opinion on her dramatic technique. But there is no room for argument as to the efficacy of her allure ... [She] qualifies herewith as the official Dream Princess of the Silent Drama Department of Life.
Harriette Underhill in the New York Herald Tribune: 'This is the first time we have seen Miss Garbo and she is a delight to the eyes! We may also add that she is a magnetic woman and a finished actress. In fact, she leaves nothing to be desired. Such a profile, such grace, such poise, and most of all, such eyelashes. They swish the air at least a half-inch beyond her languid orbs. Miss Garbo is not a conventional beauty, yet she makes all other beauties seem a little obvious.'
'Greta Garbo vitalizes the name part of this picture. She is the Temptress. Her tall, swaying figure moves Cleopatra-ishly from delirious Paris to the virile Argentine. Her alluring mouth and volcanic, slumbrous eyes enfire men to such passion that friendships collapse.' Dorothy Herzog, New York Mirror (1926):
The list of famous women who have had breast cancer ...
The Unesco World Heritage-listed graveyard Skogskyrkogården ... is also known as the final resting place of Hollywood actress Greta Garbo
For the first and only time in Academy history, multiple nominations were permitted for individual categories (notice that George Arliss defeated himself in the Best Actor category). [With a change of rules, this would be the last year in which performers could be nominated for roles in more than one film.]
In Council of State King Gustaf of Sweden decorated Cinemactress Greta Garbo with the nation's gold medal litteris et artibus, highest Swedish award for artistic achievement.
Greta Garbo was made a Commander of the Swedish Order of the North Star yesterday by order of King Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. The private ceremony in the New York home of Mrs. Jane Gunther was also attended by Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Gruson. The honor, extended only to foreigners, was presented to Miss Garbo by Count Wilhelm Wachtmeister, the Swedish Ambassador to the United States, in recognition of the actress's distinguished service to Sweden. Miss Garbo, born in Stockholm, is now an American citizen.
... the U.S. Postal Service and Sweden Post jointly issued two commemorative postage stamps bearing her likeness. Both stamps, issued near what would have been her 100th birthday, are engravings based on a 1932 photograph ...