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Greta Garbo

Garbo in the 1920s
Garbo in the 1920s

Greta Garbo (September 18, 1905April 15, 1990) was a Swedish actress.

She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm, Sweden, the youngest of three children born to Karl Alfred Gustafsson (1871-1920) and Anna Lovisa Johnasson (1872-1944). Her older sister and brother were Alva and Sven.


Becoming an actress

When Greta was fourteen, her father died. Consequently, she was forced to leave school and go to work. Her first job was as a lather girl in a barbershop. She then became a clerk in a department store, where she would also model for newspaper ads. Her first motion picture aspirations came when she appeared in an advertising short for the department store where she worked. That led to another short movie, which was seen by comedy director Eric Petscher. He cast her in a small part for the movie Peter The Tramp (1920).

From 1922 to 1924, she studied at the prestigious Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. While she was there, she met the Swedish director Mauritz Stiller . He trained her in cinema acting technique and cast her in a major role in Gösta Berlings Saga (1924) (English: The Story of Gösta Berling). He also gave her the stage name Greta Garbo. She starred in two movies in Sweden and one in Germany.

When Stiller went to the United States in 1925 to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he insisted that Garbo be given a contract as well. But their relationship came to an end as her fame grew. He was fired by MGM and returned to Sweden in 1928, where he died soon after.

Life in Hollywood

The most important of Garbo's silent movies were The Torrent (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1927) and Love (1927). The latter two she starred in with the popular leading man John Gilbert. Her name was linked with his in a much publicized romance, and she was said to have left him standing at the altar when she changed her mind about getting married. The actress reportedly had several lesbian lovers, including the actress Louise Brooks and the writer/socialite Mercedes de Acosta. She also had an on-and-off affair with the primarily homosexual British photographer Cecil Beaton, to whom she was briefly engaged.

Having achieved enormous success as a silent movie star, she was one of the few who made the transition to talkies. Her low, husky voice with Swedish accent was heard on screen for the first time in Anna Christie (1930), which was publicized with the slogan "Garbo Talks." The movie was a huge success, but Garbo personally hated her performance.

Unfortunately, her one-time fiancé, John Gilbert, whose popularity was waning, did not fare as well after the advent of sound and his career faltered.

When she was filming, if something happened that she was not pleased with she would say, "I think I'll go back to Sweden!" This would frighten the movie studio heads, who gave in to her every wish. She was known for always having a closed set to all visitors. No one could watch as her scenes were shot. Garbo appeared very seductive as the World War I spy in the title role of Mata Hari (1932). The censors complained about her revealing outfit shown on the movie poster. She was next part of an all star cast in Grand Hotel (1932).

She then had a contract dispute with MGM and did not appear on the screen for almost two years. They finally settled and she signed a new contract, which granted her almost total control over her movies. She exercised that control by getting her leading man, Laurence Olivier, replaced on Queen Christina (1934) with former co-star John Gilbert. David O. Selznick wanted her cast as the dying heiress in Dark Victory in 1935, but she insisted on being cast in another screen version of Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina. She had made a silent version, Love, with John Gilbert in (1927).

Her performance as the doomed courtesan in Camille (1937) was called the finest ever recorded on film. She then starred opposite Melvyn Douglas in the comedy Ninotchka (1939) by director Ernst Lubitsch, which was publicized with the slogan "Garbo Laughs."

Garbo was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Anna Christie (1930), Romance (1930), Camille (1937) and Ninotchka (1939).

Greta Garbo was considered one of the most glamorous movie stars of the 1920s and 1930s. She was also famous for shunning publicity, which became part of the Garbo mystique. Her famous byline was, "I want to be alone," spoken with a heavy accent which made the word 'want' sound like 'vont'. Except at the very beginning of her career, she granted no interviews, signed no autographs, attended no premieres and answered no fan mail.

Ninotchka was a successful attempt at lightening Garbo's image and making her less exotic, complete with the insertion of a scene in which her character breaks into joyful laughter which subsequently provided the film with its famous tagline, "Garbo laughs!" A follow-up film, Two-Faced Woman , attempted to capitalize upon this by casting Garbo in a romantic comedy that featured her dancing, but this film was a critical and box-office failure as it was felt that the elements that had made Garbo unique were all but eliminated.

It is often reported that Garbo chose to retire from cinema after this film's failure, but in fact she simply became more choosy about her roles, and eventually years had passed without her agreeing to do another film. In 1949, Garbo filmed a screen test as she considered reentering the movie business, but otherwise never stepped in front of a movie camera again. There were suggestions that she might appear as the Duchess de Guermantes in a film adaptation of "Remembrance of Things Past," but this never came to fruition. She withdrew from the entertainment world completely and moved to a secluded life in New York City, refusing to make any public appearances. Up until her death, Garbo sightings were considered sport for paparazzi photographers.

Secluded retirement

By her own admission, Garbo felt that after World War II the world changed, perhaps forever. Her movies, she felt, had their proper place in history and would gain in value. On February 9, 1951, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. She was awarded a special Academy Award for unforgettable performances in 1954. In the mid-1950s, she bought a seven room apartment in New York at 450 East 52nd Street, where she lived for the rest of her life.

She would at times jet-set with some of the world's best known personalities, such as Aristotle Onassis and others, but chose to live a private life. She spent time gardening flowers and vegetables and was known for taking walks through New York streets dressed casually and wearing large sunglasses, always avoiding prying eyes, the paparazzi and media attention.

Garbo lived the last years of her life in absolute seclusion. She had invested wisely, was known for extreme frugality, and was a very wealthy woman. It is rumored that she wrote an autobiography just before her death but this book has yet to be published if it exists.

She died at age 84 as a result of renal failure in New York and was cremated. Her ashes are buried at the Skogskyrkogården Cemetery in Stockholm.

Greta Garbo has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6901 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.


  • Mr. and Mrs. Stockholm (1920) (short subject)
  • How Not to Dress (1921) (short subject)
  • A Happy Knight (1921)
  • Peter the Tramp (1922)
  • The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924)
  • The Joyless Street (1925)
  • 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) (cameo)
  • The Single Standard (1929)
  • The Kiss (1929)
  • Anna Christie (1930)
  • Romance (1930)
  • Inspiration (1931)
  • Love Business (1931) (appears in gag photo)
  • Anna Christie (1931) (German version)
  • Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931)
  • Mata Hari (1931)
  • Grand Hotel (1932)
  • As You Desire Me (1932)
  • Queen Christina (1933)
  • The Painted Veil (1934)
  • Anna Karenina (1935)
  • Camille (1936)
  • Conquest (1937)
  • Ninotchka (1939)
  • Two-Faced Woman (1941)

External links

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