Greta Garbo just wanted to be left alone

     Greta Lovisa Gustaffson was born on September 18, 1905 in Sweden. She was to become a member of Hollywood royalty, placing fifth in all time rankings for greatest actresses by survey, but her beginnings were humble and fraught with poverty and a longing to become a member of the theatre. For her visiting the Biograph (theatre) on evenings as famous players exited and young Greta dreamed of being on the famous actors and actresses elevated plane of existence–her dreams would one day be realized–but they would not always carry the joy and happiness that Greta hoped for.  The Guinness book of World Records would one day report that she was “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

     In Sweden, the days of silent movies were a grand era and Greta’s home nation was renowned for great screen work and direction. Men, like Mauritz Stiller, who would ultimately become Greta’s mentor and champion and short-time lover, would move to Hollywood, only to find a different kind of system that they may, or may not, be able to work in. The Hollywood ego was huge from the very beginning and careers could be made or broken if the movers and shakers of Hollywood didn’t like an actor or director.

     Greta’s story would be filled with drama, romance, sensuality, mystery and overwhelming popularity that would one day see her say, “I just want to be left alone.” Perhaps, it is with this phrase that we, the people of the world, have come to look at Garbo with severe disdain or pained passion. We may think, how could anyone retire at 36–in her prime–and never see the silver screen again?

     Greta remains somewhat of a mystery long after her death on April 15, 1990, when she suffered renal failure and finally exited life’s stage after recuperating from a bout with “the old man’s friend,” pneumonia. Most reports claim she died of natural causes, but others claim she had become dependent on alcohol during the 80s which attributed to her health problems. She also survived a battle with breast cancer–during the course of her hermitical last years.

Who was Greta?

Greta Garbo documentary Pt. I video at this link…it’s a nine-part documentary from Turner Classic Movie channel.

Early Career

     Greta, at fourteen years of age, began her working career as a lather girl in a barber shop when her father died of nephritis–she would also lose her beloved sister to lymphatic cancer by the time Greta was twenty-one. These early tragedies for the future star may explain a great deal of her personality in regards to men, women and her personal relationships. Her natural beauty and desire to become a model and actress soon found her working at a local department store selling fashion items to the women of Sweden.

     She was asked to participate in a short commercial reel in which a famed Swedish actor, Lars Hanson, made a cameo–Greta would one day work as his romantic interest in a future Swedish film. You can watch a glimpse of this reel in the video above. You may notice thick, unplucked eyebrows on the plump Greta Gustaffson–it has been reported that she lost 25 kilograms once she arrived in Hollywood.

     Greta’s first film came in 1922–it was called Peter The Tramp. Mauritz Stiller enters her life to bring her early success by the age of eighteen. Stiller also assists in creating the future icon of the feminine mystique’s stage name–Garbo –and by 1926, when Stiller was asked to move to Hollywood, by Louis B. Mayer of MGM, to attempt his hand at directing in the American cinema–Garbo was at his side. Mayer’s interest was more skewed to the talents of the young actress than Stiller’s direction.  Her first arrival to America at New York’s port came with little fanfare and only a lowly industry assistant arrived at the docks to greet Stiller and the future superstar.

     Her statement after a short time in Hollywood, “Here, it is boring, incredibly boring, so boring I can’t believe it’s true.” California had none of the seasons that Garbo so adored in her youth–in Hollywood, it was brown and green. After her first movies–and the films’ grand successes–Garbo would threaten to leave with the simple phrase, “I think I’ll go back to Sweden!” With this statement, studio heads would do everything in their power to fulfill Garbo’s every whim.

     In 1928, Mauritz Stiller returned to Sweden after being fired by the Hollywood machine. He died at the age of 45, shortly after arriving in his homeland. Garbo was devastated by his passing. She’d only known him a short time, but he may have well been the greatest influence the young actress would ever have in life, acting and love.

     “If you’re going to die on screen, you must be strong and in good health.” Garbo once stated–she likely gave credit to Stiller for this brief oxymoron. Four years after his passing she revealed much of the importance this Swedish director had played in her life. She said, “Stiller’s death was a great blow to me. For so long I had been his satellite. All Europe at that time regarded Stiller as the most significant figure in the film world. Directors hurried to the projecting rooms where his prints were shown. They took with them their secretaries and, in the dim silence, they dictated breathless comments on the wide sweep of his magnificent technique. Stiller had found me, an obscure artist in Sweden, and brought me to America. I worshiped him. There are some, of course, who say it was a love story. It was more. It was utter devotion which only the very young can know – the adoration of a student for her teacher, of a timid girl for a master mind. In his studio, Stiller taught me how to do everything: how to eat; how to turn my head; how to express love – and hate. Off the screen I studied his every whim, wish and demand. I lived my life according to the plans he laid down. He told what to say and what to do. When Stiller died I found myself like a ship without a rudder. I was bewildered – lost – and very lonely. I resolutely refused to talk to reporters because I didn’t know what to say. By degrees I dropped out of the social whirl of Hollywood. I retired into my shell. I built a wall of repression around my real self, and I lived – and still live – behind it.”

Life and Art–Twins of a Superstar’s legacy

     Timing is everything. For Garbo, who couldn’t speak the English language upon her arrival in the mid 1920s–silent pictures were a boon. So was the medium of black and white film that exposed her beauty dramatically. The contrasting revelation of black and white upon Garbo’s face, along with specialized lenses, was serendipitously fortunate and created the world’s first great superstar actress.  She would have to travel across America, and the Atlantic Ocean, under pseudonyms to stop the constant hounding of photographers, the press and the public.  She was one of the first actresses to receive this sort of constant attention–even though the world, or term, of paparazzi had yet to be realized or coined.

     Her first films in America, Torrent (1926); Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Love (1927) brought her $400/week, $600/week and $5,000/week respectively. We can begin to see the effect Garbo was going to bring to the world–and her own pocketbook. In 1931, during the early stages of the Great Depression Garbo was asked to portray the tragic heroine in Anna Christie–her salary was a whopping quarter of a million dollars–imagine what that could buy during this dark era in American history. By 1936, Garbo commanded a half a million dollar fee for starring in her favourite film, Camille, directed by George Cukor. In 1941, at the making of her last film, Two-Faced Woman, her wage earnings dropped to $150,000. However, over the course of the next fifty years there would be million dollar offers to bring the acclaimed actress back to the screen–fortune never smiled on any of these projects.

     Garbo’s life saw the introduction of John Gilbert when she made Flesh and the Devil–Gilbert portraying the dashing hero.  The pairings love scenes steamed with sensuality and life soon imitated art.  Gilbert and Garbo began an on again, off again love affair that had Gilbert reportedly asking for Greta’s hand in marriage three times.  She finally accepted his proposal but never showed up for the ceremony.  The pair never married but a torrid affair lingered for years until Garbo went the way of Garbo–it may have foreshadowed the slow demise of Gilbert’s career.

     Gilbert’s transition to talkies was difficult.  It may have been a manipulated tactic caused by Louis B. Mayer upon an incident in which Garbo’s name was slurred and Gilbert accosted the movie mogul verbally and physically.  Gilbert’s voice was recorded in a manner that raised his natural baritone to a squeaky scale that made test audience’s laugh–Gilbert’s career suffered a slow, painful demise with several comeback attempts–he played opposite Garbo one last time in Queen Christina (1933).  In the film’s roll of credits–Garbo gets top billing, while Gilbert’s name appears after the title–a visual slap to the actor’s legacy.  Gilbert died in 1936, at the age of 38, due to complications from alcohol abuses–a heart attack ended what should have been a much more successful career.  Marlene Dietrich and Gilbert were set to appear in the film, Desire, at the time of his death.  Dietrich, a nemesis of Garbo, was involved with Gilbert before his premature demise.

Who was Garbo…really?

      She was born into a poor home in Stockholm, and by her own admission, a tomboy at heart.

     Rumours, innuendo and written biographies tell stories of bisexuality, lesbian affairs, depression, illness, alcoholism and strange disciplines and dietary habits being a part of Garbo’s life.

     The astonishing success of a poor, uneducated girl who grew up to be admired, hated, loved, adored and pursued by the lowliest public citizens of the planet and the elite rulers who controlled world events should be evidence enough to conclude, “GG (this was a nickname) was a smashing hit for all of humanity that lived with quiet dignity and aplomb.  She tried, under ludicrous circumstances, to excel at her craft–and in her life.”

     A wonderful biography written by Karen Swenson entitled Garbo: A Life Apart shortly after Garbo’s demise gives us an inside look at the character and charm of a woman who was pursued by the world upon her entrance into adulthood. 

     Garbo succeeded with her Bohemian, tomboy, yet sensual, charm in confusing and mystifying detractors and admirers alike, but when looking at the comprehensive sketch of Garbo’s wisdom provided by recorded quips, comments and events in her life–we see a well-developed, thoughtful and mature woman who wanted to live life to the fullest.  Sadly, Garbo admitted, life wasn’t easy and certain portions of life’s pie she was not able to enjoy a slice of.  Marriage, childbirth and perhaps, real sincerity, in all of her personal and professional relationships that may have been experienced with an average life.

     At one point in her world travels, Garbo sits with Winston Churchill, his wife, Clementine and Aristotle Onassis aboard the shipping tycoon’s yacht sipping at the cocktail hour.  It is unknown what the conversation may have been that fine day, but when one thinks of power, fame, civility, beauty and wealth all sitting at the same table, perhaps it isn’t difficult.  Perhaps, they all wanted a break from dutiful lives and told each other jokes of an innocent nature?

     During the course of Garbo’s retirement she often asked advice of business leaders and art aficionados.  Garbo was very frugal and remembered the poverty of her youth.  When she died attended to by her loving extended family Garbo’s estate was found to be worth over fifty million dollars.  The small apartment she lived and died in for the last decades of her life were decorated with impeccable art and decor that exhibited a life well lived.

     She once answered when asked about secrets, “Every one of us lives his life just once; if we are honest, to live once is enough.”

To do it well and be remembered for things one has done decades before is immortality–and that, too is enough.

Posted in 1. 1 Comment »

One Response to “Greta Garbo just wanted to be left alone”

  1. John Says:

    In her autobiography Miss Garbo wrote of
    going home, closing the door and
    begin to laugh. Laugh, because she
    could not believe reporters would ask her
    opinions on various subjects of which
    she knew nothing. But, since she was
    Greta Garbo, she must be able to say
    important words!

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