Garbo, Greta (1905–1990)

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Garbo, Greta (1905–1990)

Film actress who, despite superstar status, left the film business after Two-Faced Woman (1941) and carefully guarded her privacy and the "Garbo mystique." Born Greta Louisa Gustafsson on September 18, 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden; died in New York on April 15, 1990, of kidney disease; youngest of the three children of Anna and Karl Gustafsson; never married; no children.

First appeared on film in advertisements for a Stockholm department store for which she worked as a teenager, followed by small parts in studio films while she attended a school of dramatic arts; came under the tutelage of Swedish director Mauritz Stiller, who trained her to act for the camera and gave her a major role in his drama, The Legend of Gosta Berling, which was distributed internationally (1924); was subsequently offered a contract by MGM in Hollywood, where she played the mysterious foreign woman in a series of silent films and became America's favorite screen femme fatale; survived the transition to "talkies" with Anna Christie (1930) for which she received the first of four Academy Award nominations.

Filmography in Sweden:

En Lyckoriddare (1921); Luffarpetter (1922); Gösta Berling Saga (1924); Die Freudlose Gasse (1925). In U.S.: The Torrent (1926); The Temptress (1926); Flesh and the Devil (1926); Love (1927); The Divine Woman (1928); The Mysterious Lady (1928); A Woman of Affairs (1928); Wild Orchids (1929); A Man's Man (1929); The Single Standard (1929); The Kiss (1929); Anna Christie (released in both a silent and a talking version, 1930); Romance (1930); Susan Lenox—Her Fall and Rise (1931); Mata Hari (1931); Inspiration (1931); As You Desire Me (1932); Grand Hotel (1932); Queen Christina (1933); The Painted Veil (1934); Anna Karenina (1935); Camille (1937); Conquest (1937); Ninotchka (1939); Two-Faced Woman (1941).

She was Hollywood's most reticent star. "In my country," Greta Garbo once said of her native Sweden, "the papers talk about the King and Queen… and otherwise about bad people. I do not want to have things printed about me [since] I am not one of any of these people." True to her wish, Garbo's public knew little about the private life of the luminous celebrity with the perfect features and the provocative foreign accent. She was Hollywood's first superstar, but was so shy that she bolted from a Hollywood dinner party when she discovered that her table companion was gossip queen Louella Parsons , and so insecure about her accented English that she asked a Photoplay reporter who landed one of the few interviews with her, "You laugh at me, maybe?" Journalists and photographers would pursue her relentlessly for the next six decades, even after Garbo voluntarily left the film business in the early 1940s, but she would not speak again to the press until very late in life,

and even then only to a fellow Swede. "I am just an old movie star," she said then.

The thin little girl who had earned a few pennies by applying shaving cream to the customers of a Stockholm barbershop had hardly seemed destined for international fame. Indeed, Greta Louisa Gustafsson's major concern growing up in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Stockholm's South Island during World War I was finding enough to eat. Born on September 18, 1905, Greta was the youngest of the three children of Karl and Anna Gustafsson . "My father had a sense of humor and always used to cheer people up," Garbo recalled. "His motto was: things will be better tomorrow." But Karl, a day laborer who barely earned enough to feed his family, died when Greta was just 14, putting an end to her six years of education at the Katerina Elementary School. It was the only schooling Garbo would receive, because all three Gustafsson children, along with their mother, were forced to find work to support themselves. While Anna cleaned houses, Greta and her sister and brother sold newspapers, among them the Salvation Army's journal Stridsropet ("Battle Cry"). It was at the Salvation Army's headquarters on South Island that Garbo first sang and danced to entertain those who were even less fortunate than she.

By the end of World War I, she was earning better money as a "lather girl" in a barber shop which counted among its customers the manager of Stockholm's Paul U. Bergstrom department store, the city's largest and most opulent. Garbo soon landed a job in the store that her mother considered a paradise, full of expensive merchandise and frequented by some of the best people in Stockholm society. When the store's publicity department decided in 1922 to produce a series of filmed advertisements to be shown in local movie theaters, Greta—tall and dark-haired, with her mother's long, luxurious eyelashes—was among the employees chosen to appear in them. In surviving publicity stills from these films, Garbo emerges as a generously proportioned, laughing young lady, not yet the thin, brooding femme fatale of later years. Greta would never confirm rumors that she took her first lover during this time, a wealthy Stockholm building contractor who was the father of one of her fellow employees; nor would she substantiate speculation that it was this doting gentleman who paid her tuition at the Academy of Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theater, where she began her studies at 17 years of age. Small parts in two comedy silents came along to supplement her studies, since film directors regularly visited the school for extras to appear in their pictures.

Among the visitors to the Academy was Mauritz Stiller, one of the best-known directors in Sweden's lively postwar film industry. Stiller, born to Jewish parents in Russian-dominated Finland, had fled to Sweden to escape conscription into the tsar's army. Finding work as an actor, Stiller began directing films in 1912 and, ten years later, had become known for the lyrical, expressionistic style that made Sweden's film industry as respected as Germany's. Stiller was casting a new film at the time of his visit to the Academy and his first sight of Greta Gustafsson. Not long after, Garbo was asked to audition for Stiller at Stockholm's Filmstaden ("Film City"), where she was asked to lie on a cot and pretend she was ill. "I was scared and laughed hysterically and kept moving my hands up and down over the sheet," Garbo recalled over 50 years later. "Stiller seemed displeased, and I was certain that I wouldn't have a chance after that." Nonetheless, he called her back, convinced her to abandon the stage training she was receiving at the Academy, and began schooling her in the basics of film acting. Stiller, Garbo later said, taught her the importance of subtlety before the camera, of using suggestion rather than the broad gestures and expressions demanded by the stage. It was important, Stiller said, that a film actor make the audience use its imagination.

As they worked together, student and teacher became an inseparable couple, growing close enough for Garbo to bestow the affectionate nickname "Moje" on Stiller. (His given Jewish name was Moshe.) Stiller, for his part, bestowed on Greta self-confidence and respect for the art of filmmaking. She was a good enough student that he cast her in what became one of the most famous films of the Swedish silent cinema, 1924's Gösta Berling Saga, a sweeping four-hour costume drama in which Garbo played an Italian noblewoman who redeems a fallen, alcoholic minister. "I wasn't a blonde, for one thing, which people abroad always expect Swedes to be," Greta offered as explanation for how she was given her first important film role. It was the first time a movie-house audience saw the name "Greta Garbo" on a screen, the name having been invented by Stiller for his new leading lady's debut. The picture was such a success in Sweden that it was subtitled in several languages, including English, and exported to Europe and the United States; and its popularity won Greta a supporting role in German director G.W. Pabst's Die Freudlose Gasse ("The Joyless Street"), playing a woman in desperate circumstances who considers turning to prostitution to support herself before being rescued by a handsome soldier. In an ironic twist of film history, Garbo's future Hollywood rival, Marlene Dietrich , worked in the film as an extra. Like Garbo, Dietrich would rise to screen fame under the wing of a famous director—in her case, Josef von Sternberg.

Among the many admirers of Gösta Berling Saga was Louis B. Mayer, who called Stiller to Berlin during a European tour to scout new talent for the studio which bore his name, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Mayer offered Stiller a directing contract which, according to Hollywood legend, Stiller refused to sign unless Mayer also signed Greta Garbo. "In America, men don't like fat women," Mayer allegedly complained, painting a picture of Garbo distinctly at odds with her later screen image. Nonetheless, Mayer accepted Stiller's terms. (An alternate version of Garbo's path to America came from a neighbor who lived in the same Stockholm apartment building as Greta, and who claimed years later to have heard her pleading with Stiller to take her with him to America.) Stiller and his young protégée arrived in Hollywood in September of 1925, joining a sizeable Scandinavian community already in place. Among their compatriots was Werner Ölund who, as Warner Oland, would become known to American audiences as the movies' first Charlie Chan, and Victor Seastrom, the only other Swede to equal Stiller's reputation as a director.

MGM was at first uncertain what to do with Garbo except to put her on a diet and give her lessons in English and American manners. But Stiller convinced the studio to cast Greta in the first film assigned to him, The Torrent, after the studio had passed over silent star Alma Rubens , the wife of the picture's leading man who almost quit the picture rather than act with an unknown. Further troubles ensued when Stiller's artistic temperament got him fired from the picture and replaced by a director close to Norma Shearer , reverently known at the time as the Queen of the Lot and the future wife of MGM's head of production, Irving Thalberg. But the Garbo mystique was already powerful enough to defy even Shearer's clout with the studio. With her first appearance in an American film, a Swede playing an exotic Spanish dancer who becomes the toast of the Paris Opera, the Garbo appeal became immediately apparent. More important, Greta met during production the photographer and lighting director William Daniels, who would be responsible for the exquisite softness of the Garbo screen image and with whom she would form a close working relationship.

Audiences were unaware that the foreign temptress who smoldered her way through such subsequent films as Flesh and the Devil, The Temptress and A Woman of Affairs was a shy young shopgirl from Stockholm who spoke only halting English; nor did they know the apprehension under which Greta worked: Stiller's European temperament, which regarded film as an art form, continued to conflict with MGM's American pragmatism and preoccupation with the box office. As Garbo's fortunes rose, Stiller's fell precipitously. He was fired from The Temptress, was not offered another film in its place, and finally collapsed from nervous exhaustion in 1926. He returned to Sweden the following year, telling Garbo, "Don't argue, do as you're told," as he boarded the train for New York and a ship home. Guilt-ridden at the success that had come to her at Stiller's expense, Greta was even more distressed to learn of Stiller's death from pneumonia in 1928.

Garbo's own relations with the studio, meanwhile, were far from smooth. She wrote home that she had tried unsuccessfully to turn down the vamp roles MGM pressed on her; that the studio threatened to send her home if she refused to work; and that The Temptress, the second film from which Stiller had been fired, was hateful to her. "I have to apologize to everyone for it," she wrote to a friend back in Stockholm about her portrayal of a scheming seductress who drives her lovers to madness and suicide. "I've only got myself to blame. I was feeling low, tired, I couldn't sleep, everything was crazy. But the basic problem is that I am not really an actress." Audiences disagreed. The Temptress, the first film in which Greta was given star billing, was an enormous success at the box office and made Greta Garbo a household name.

By the time MGM cast her in 1927's Love, even Garbo had come to appreciate the power she now held. Love was the studio's lavish, if unfaithful, adaptation of Anna Karenina, performed in modern dress; but Greta refused to appear as Tolstoy's tragic heroine unless the studio agreed to her demands for a higher salary. It did, although Garbo in turn had to agree to shoot two endings to the film, since MGM was unsure how audiences would react to Anna's suicide in Tolstoy's novel and wanted a happy ending as insurance. The picture teamed Garbo for the second time with John Gilbert, with whom she had co-starred in Flesh and the Devil. Gilbert, who had been working in films as a handsome romantic lead for a dozen years when Greta came to Hollywood, was deeply in love with her and proposed marriage, the publicity value of which was not lost on MGM. While the studio's public-relations department worked overtime to promote the match, Garbo began to have her doubts and cut the affair short. Gilbert, studio insiders noted, was never the same afterward and his career began a sad, slow downward spiral.

By 1930, after five years in Hollywood, Greta had starred in 11 films for MGM, playing vamps, spies, amoral aristocrats, and even Sarah Bernhardt (in The Divine Woman, directed by Victor Seastrom); and while the films themselves were not always well received, America's fascination with her continued unabated. William Daniels, who now photographed all her pictures, developed the ideal lighting for her almost mathematically perfect features. For close-ups, a small key light was placed next to the camera and focused softly on her face, while black curtains behind the camera were lit to reflect a shimmering glow into her dark eyes. She completed as many as four films in a year and was allowed to return to Sweden only once, in 1928, for Christmas with her family and a sad visit to Stiller's grave. Friends could hardly ignore the toll Hollywood and stardom had taken. "Garbo was a normal, ambitious and cheerful girl when she left Sweden," one of them said, noting that now she seemed nervous and depressed. Yet another challenge lay in store for Greta on her return to California. It was the microphone.

I have made enough faces.

—Greta Garbo, on her retirement from films in 1941

Like every other film star in the late 1920s, Garbo faced an uncertain future with the advent of "talking pictures." The soundtrack proved the undoing of many film actors, among them John Gilbert, whose thin, reedy voice destroyed his silent image of the torrid romancer and provoked outright laughter from audiences who heard him speak from the screen. Greta had the further handicap of her imperfect English and thick Scandinavian accent, although her rather deep, husky voice was thought to be an advantage. MGM was understandably nervous about its investment when the great Garbo spoke her first words on camera in 1930's Anna Christie, directed by Clarence Brown. It was the now famous line, "Give me a whisky with ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby," uttered as Anna sidles up to the bar at a dockside dive in search of her father, a Swedish sailor. ("Can you imagine a more stupid line?" Garbo marveled many years later from the depths of her retirement.) The studio had prepared a silent version of the picture just in case, but to MGM's great relief, no one laughed at Greta's portrayal of Eugene O'Neill's waterfront heroine with the shady past. Audiences turned out by the thousands in response to the studio's promotional slogan of "Garbo Talks!" A German version of the picture was shot simultaneously, requiring Greta to speak the same lines in German to an entirely different cast working under a different director. Although Garbo disliked the film and her work in it, Anna Christie brought her the first of four Academy Award nominations, elevated her to superstardom, and gave her enough clout to make her the highest-paid woman in America by the mid-1930s.

The sound of her voice only increased America's fascination. Much was made of her open-mouthed kiss with Clark Gable in 1931's Susan Lenox, never before seen in the movies; of her rivalry with Marlene Dietrich as Hollywood's reigning Mysterious Foreigner; and the fact that Greta claimed to have started wearing trousers long before Dietrich made it fashionable. "For everyday wear and for the outdoors, trousers can be a healthy alternative," were the words that studio publicity put in Garbo's mouth. MGM, in fact, had found that Greta's reticence to speak in public or to the press made it much easier to control and mold her image. The public never knew of her quick temper on the set, of her disdain for the Hollywood glamour machine, or of her frequent amours with both men and women. (In another contest with Dietrich, it was said that screenwriter Mercedes de Acosta threw over Greta for Garbo's German rival.) In between pictures, Garbo followed a strict routine of rising early in the morning with yoga and breathing exercises, rushing to the beach for a swim before the usual droves of sun worshippers arrived, eating a lunch of salad and raw vegetables, and going to bed by seven in the evening. She rarely dined in public, especially after she was spotted at a Wilshire Boulevard restaurant one evening consuming quantities of spaghetti and meatballs with a soup spoon, followed by a large serving of strawberry ice cream. "Being a movie star… means being looked at from every possible direction," Garbo later said. "You are never left in peace. You're just fair game."

Only friends in Sweden knew of Garbo's growing disillusionment. "I am incredibly tired of being a 'star'," she wrote home, "tired of the films they offer me, just tired, in a word." Her interest rose, however, when MGM proposed that she play the most famous woman in Swedish history, Queen Christina , admired by generations of Swedes for her courage in negotiating a peace treaty with the rest of Europe concluding the Thirty Years' War and then giving up her throne for the Catholic religion and moving to Italy. Christina was equally famous for her fondness for men's clothes, another attraction to the part for Greta. Laurence Olivier was originally cast as the love interest invented by the

de Acosta, Mercedes (1893–1968)

American screenwriter. Born on March 1, 1893, in New York; died on May 9, 1968, in New York City; youngest of eight children of Ricardo de Acosta; married Abram Poole (a painter), on May 11, 1920 (divorced 1935); no children.

Described in her obituary as a poet, playwright and scenarist, Mercedes de Acosta is best remembered for her liaisons with beautiful and famous women. The most significant incident of her years as a screenwriter at MGM was her firing by Irving Thalberg for refusing to write a scene for the movie Rasputin and the Empress (1932), about a meeting between Princess Irina (1895–1970) and Rasputin that never occurred. Her sole publication, a memoir entitled Here Lies the Heart (1960), was dismissed at the time as untrue.

Mercedes de Acosta was born in New York City, the youngest of eight children. She always claimed Spanish (Castilian) heritage, though it was generally acknowledged that her family came from Cuba. A woman of many eccentricities, de Acosta adopted the habit of dressing in either black or white, or a combination of the two. Despite her dramatic persona and outward bravado, she was inwardly tormented. From early childhood, she suffered from deep depressions and as an adult was additionally plagued by insomnia and migraines. For a time, she owned a Colt revolver, taking comfort in the fact that if life became too unbearable she could "pop myself off this baffling planet." In later years, she sought relief from her suicidal depressions through Indian philosophy and spiritualism.

From 1920 to 1935, de Acosta was married to painter Abram Poole, for whom she professed genuine affection, though it did not prevent her from pursuing fascinating women. "To the outward form of sex which the body has assumed, I have remained indifferent," she wrote. "I do not understand the difference between a man and a woman, and believing only in the eternal value of love, I cannot understand these so-called 'normal' people who believe that a man should love only a woman, and a woman love only a man."

She gravitated to and had intimate relations with artistic women with complex personalities, among them Eleonora Duse, Isadora Duncan, Marie Doro, Alla Nazimova, Eva Le Gallienne, Ona Munson, Marlene Dietrich, and, of course, Greta Garbo, who was perhaps the great love of her life. Her numerous conquests fascinated a number of notables, including Alice B. Toklas, who wrote: "A friend said to me one day—you can't dispose of Mercedes lightly–she has had two of the most important women in the U.S.—Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich."

De Acosta met Garbo in early 1931, shortly after arriving in Hollywood to work on a screenplay for Pola Negri . Both had been invited to tea at the home of screenwriter Salka Viertel . "As we shook hands and she smiled at me I felt I had known her all my life," wrote de Acosta, "in fact, in many previous incarnations." Mutually attracted, the two spent six idyllic weeks together in the summer of 1931, after which de Acosta moved next door to Garbo in Brentwood. De Acosta's passion for the enigmatic star endured for the rest of her life, although the relationship was by no means exclusive.

Following the publication of her tell-all autobiography in 1960, Mercedes never saw Garbo again. Indeed, she spent the later years of her life ill and alone. In 1961, de Acosta underwent brain surgery and, in 1963, a painful leg operation. Having earned little from her book, she was also in desperate financial straits and was forced to sell her jewelry to pay her hospital bills. Still, she declined an offer of $10,000 for her Garbo letters. They were ultimately sealed at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia to be opened ten years after Garbo's death. De Acosta also donated Dietrich's letters to the museum with the same stipulation. During this difficult period, she was supported by her old friend, sculptor Malvina Hoffman , and a new friend, Andy Warhol, with whom she regularly shared Thanksgiving. When Cecil Beaton became aware of de Acosta's deteriorating health, he entreated Garbo to at least send her a postcard, but Garbo refused. De Acosta died on May 9, 1968, an event recorded in Beaton's diary. "Now, without a kind word from the woman she loved more than any of the many women in her life, Mercedes has gone to a lonely grave. I am relieved that her long drawn out unhappiness has at last come to an end."


Vickers, Hugo. Loving Garbo. NY: Random House, 1994.

suggested reading:

Acosta, Mercedes de. Here Lies the Heart. NY: Reynal, 1960.

Buckle, Richard, ed. Self-Portrait with Friends: The Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton 1922–1974. NY: Times Books, 1979.

scriptwriters as Anna's reason for abdicating, but Garbo refused to do the picture unless the part was given to John Gilbert, desperately in need of a big-budget, heavily promoted film after his struggles with the transition to sound. (It proved to be his last film. MGM refused to renew his contract and Gilbert died of a heart attack three years later.) Although Queen Christina is Garbo's most famous film, and its final shot of Christina's departure on a ship for Italy with the wind streaming through her hair one of the cinema's most famous images, Greta hated the finished product. "I am so off balance that I can't tell you anything," she wrote to Sweden in distress halfway through production. "I am so ashamed of Christina, I often wake up and think with horror about the film coming to Sweden. It's really bad in every respect, but the worst thing is they'll think I don't know any better." Director Rouben Mamoulian had his doubts, too, when Garbo informed him on the first day of shooting that she never rehearsed a scene before the cameras rolled. His efforts to change her mind were fruitless and the first scene was shot cold. "Garbo was right," Mamoulian later said in admiration. "She was an intuitive actress. You didn't have to tell Garbo to look like this or that, for this reason or that. No, you just had to tell her which emotion you wanted to have produced for the scene in question. She really could act." Her opinion of Queen Christina was moderated somewhat when Winston Churchill once told her in the midst of World War II that he liked to screen the film in his private London shelter while the bombs were falling. "Well, perhaps I did help make Queen Christina known throughout the world," Garbo admitted 50 years after the film's release.

As early as 1934, after completing Queen Christina, Garbo was thinking of quitting the film business for good. "But," she wrote, "I am not satisfied with what I've got in the way of money, so I'll have to keep working for a while longer." Despite her high salary, bad financial advice and the onset of the Depression had much reduced her resources, and MGM was frank in its displeasure with her performance in The Painted Veil, a box-office flop adapted from the W. Somerset Maugham novel. Her fortunes improved with 1936's Anna Karenina, a more faithful telling of the Tolstoy tale than Love of the previous decade; and with two films released in 1937, Camille (based on the story of Alphonsine Plessis ) and Conquest. The former was directed by George Cukor, who shot three separate death scenes for Dumas' tubercular heroine with varying degrees of dialogue for Greta as she expired on screen. In the released version, Garbo says hardly anything on her deathbed. "It didn't really feel very natural talking that much when you've just about given up the ghost," she said. The choice was an effective one, for audiences were so moved by the film that one critic thought "people were going home as though they had been to Mass. [Garbo's] very face is a work of drama. It can reflect feelings and sensations to such an intense degree that you are unable to analyze them. You are just carried away."

Greta's work in both Anna Karenina and in Camille brought her an award from the New York Film Critics as Best Actress as well as Oscar nominations, although neither produced the Academy Award that many felt was due her. (She was finally given a special Oscar in 1954 for her "unforgettable screen performances.") Conquest, in which she played opposite Charles Boyer as Napoleon's Polish mistress Marie Walewska , was notable chiefly for the stunning wardrobe designed for her by Gilbert Adrian, who added high necks to his creations after Greta objected to revealing too much of her bosom to the camera. Completing work on Conquest, Greta ventured into the public eye by accompanying famed symphonic conductor Leopold Stokowski on a European tour which included a long overdue visit to Sweden. Stokowski gallantly refused to discuss his relationship with the world's most famous movie star, and although Greta allowed herself to be photographed in his company, she granted no interviews. The press now routinely referred to her as "the Swedish Sphinx."

Toward the end of that year, Garbo began work on what she later said was the favorite of all her films, 1939's Ninotchka. In her first romantic comedy, she played an unimaginative and pragmatic Communist bureaucrat who comes to Paris and falls in love with a wealthy and happy capitalist playboy. Scripted by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch, and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the picture was a sophisticated, wry examination of conflicting ideas in which love finally carries the day. Lubitsch was one of the few directors besides Mauritz Stiller of whom Garbo would speak respectfully. Lubitsch was especially understanding, she said, with her difficulty with a bit of dialogue in one scene in which she was required to say "Then I will kick you up the arse." Objecting to such "rude words," as Garbo thought them, she ran from the set in tears when the writers refused to cut the expression. Lubitsch, she said, comforted her "like a loving father" and saw to it that the dialogue was adjusted to suit her. In the film's best-known scene, the famously morose Garbo laughs boisterously after her playboy pursuer, having failed to move her with a series of jokes, loses his temper and falls off his chair. "Garbo Laughs!" trumpeted MGM's one-sheets for the

film, correctly assuming such a rare sight would be box-office gold. In Ninotchka, Garbo gave a warm and accessible performance.

By the time Ninotchka opened in November of 1939, war had broken out in Europe, and Garbo was cut off from her beloved Sweden. "I do so long to go home," she wrote in a letter, "but the ocean is so unsafe now. If peace comes, what I most want is to go home and not make another film." Neither wish was to be granted as the war intensified and America finally entered the conflict two years later. Wartime tensions in Hollywood focused on a handful of European actors who, it was rumored, were either secret agents for Hitler or spying for the Allies. Garbo, it was said, had been assigned by American intelligence to spy on Swedish industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren, a suspected supplier to the Axis powers. Greta strenuously denied any such activity. "I would have died of shame if I had anything to do with spying," she said years after the war. In any event, there was another picture assignment, 1941's Two-Faced Woman, her second romantic comedy which again paired her with her co-star from Ninotchka, Melvyn Douglas. Garbo played a double role, as twin sisters, with Douglas bamboozled by both women in a running gag of mistaken identities. The film's frivolity and high-society antics did not sit well with a country just entering the war, and the Catholic Church complained that the picture's suggestion of a ménage à trois, however lighthearted, was immoral and urged the faithful to stay away. Artistically, Greta seemed ill-suited to the picture's madcap humor and seemed to be struggling to make each sister a separate, believable character. Reviews were the worst of her career. Some weeks after the film's release, Greta Garbo announced that Two-Faced Woman would be her last film. Typically, the news was communicated via a studio press release and Garbo herself never offered a public explanation for her decision, although the devastating reviews of her latest work must have played a role. Years later, she said she had agreed to do Two-Faced Woman only because her contract with MGM required it. Otherwise, she would have left the business much earlier. "I was tired of Hollywood," she said. "There were many days when I had to force myself to go to the studio. I really wanted to live another life."

There were the inevitable stories that the great Garbo would return to the screen once the sting of Two-Faced Woman had worn off; and Greta herself wrote in a letter from New York in 1945 that she was considering several offers. But a year later, she was telling friends back in Sweden that "I will never work again at my former job. I'm still living quietly and away from it all, so I've nothing exciting to tell you about. I have made no plans, neither for films nor for anything else. I am just flowing with the current." She would, in fact, spend the rest of her life "living quietly and away from it all." She resolutely refused to step in front of a camera again, dodged as best she could the prying lenses of tabloid photographers, and settled into the life of a celebrity jet-setter. She divided her time between her apartment on New York's East 52nd Street and the Hotel Pardenn in Klosters, Switzerland, which, she said, felt "like a piece of Sweden to me." There were frequent visits to Monaco for some genteel casino-hopping and a stop at the royal palace, and quiet days at sun-drenched Greek villas. She hobnobbed with a coterie of fellow international celebrities as concerned with their privacy as she was with hers. Among them were the Kennedys, Aristotle Onassis, the Aga Khan, and the indefatigable Churchill, who ventured the opinion that a comeback late in life should not be discounted. "Look at me," he said. "I didn't become Prime Minister until I was over fifty years old, and I had to fight a World War." But Garbo was unwilling to even consider the possibility. "I have mostly wanted to be alone so that I can have peace and quiet," she said.

For over 30 years, Garbo's steadfast refusal of all requests for interviews perpetuated the mystery she gathered around her like a protective cloak. The world that had once adored her now saw her only in blurry photographs shot from a distance as she scurried across a busy New York street or boarded airplanes and ships for Europe or the Riviera. It wasn't until the late 1980s that she finally agreed to a series of interviews with Swedish journalist Sven Broman, held erratically over a period of two years in New York and Switzerland. Even though Garbo's health had by then become problematical, especially a kidney disorder that required occasional periods of dialysis, Broman was as awestruck as someone seeing her 50 years earlier. "The first thing that struck me was the beauty of her voice," he wrote. "It was so well preserved, so sonorous." And despite the advancing years, Broman said, the combination of shyness and self-confidence that had so marked her public career remained intact. "She was unpredictable," Broman delightedly noted. By the time Broman met her, Greta had stopped smoking, claimed that she limited herself to one cocktail a day, and confessed that her waning appetite restricted her to a diet consisting mostly of raw vegetables. Early in 1990, just as Broman's book was about to appear in bookstores in Europe, Greta returned to New York from Switzerland and was hospitalized with what would prove to be her final illness. On April 15, she died of kidney disease at New York Hospital. She was 84 at her passing and left an estate said to total some $200 million. Director Clarence Brown, who had guided her through her first talking picture, Anna Christie, noted that "Without having made a film since 1940, she is still the greatest."

The Greta Garbo that emerges from Broman's notes is hardly the mysterious vamp or the poignant lover of her screen years, nor the shallow, self-centered recluse of some biographers, but a practical-minded elderly woman with more than a few stories to tell about the old days. She is alternately wistful when speaking of her childhood in Sweden and her lifelong desire for privacy, disdainful about Hollywood's star system, and coy about the volumes of rumor and speculation that had grown around her over the years. "I always wanted to do my best," she told Broman. "I got nothing for free. I had to work hard. But I also got pursued and persecuted. That was no kind of life. It was not worth the price. I dreamed of being able to lead my own life." When she finally turned her back on Hollywood, Greta Garbo's fantasy came true.


Broman, Sven. Garbo on Garbo. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1990.

Paris, Barry. Garbo. NY: Knopf, 1995.

Swenson, Karen. Greta Garbo: A Life Apart. NY: Scribners, 1997.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York