Gray Reisfield, niece and heiress to Greta Garbo fortune, dies at 85

Gray Gustafson Reisfield, left, and Bishop Caroline Krook stand next to the tombstone of Hollywood legend Greta Garbo after a memorial service at the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.
Gray Gustafson Reisfield, left, and Bishop Caroline Krook stand next to the tombstone of Hollywood legend Greta Garbo after a memorial service at the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.
(Tobias Rostlund / Associated Press)
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Gray Gustafson Reisfield, the sole heiress to her aunt Greta Garbo’s estate and longtime companion to the late Swedish-born actress, has died, a family member said Monday.

Reisfield died Sunday at her home in Marin County after a bout with pneumonia, said her son Derek Reisfield. She was 85.

Gray Reisfield was separated by 27 years from Garbo. But the two independent women bonded and enjoyed the lighter side of life together, sitting by the swimming pool, traveling to Caribbean islands and teaching children to do cartwheels in the backyard.


“She viewed (Garbo) as truly remarkable woman,” Derek Reisfield said. “I think my mother really respected her because she had accomplished so much, and she had done it her way. She was very independent when women were not, and I think that was a real lesson for my mother.”

Reisfield, who was born in Stockholm in 1932, came to the U.S. with her parents and spent her childhood in Southern California. She moved to Santa Fe, N.M., in junior high school, where she enjoyed horseback riding and fishing.

She attended Bryn Mawr College, spent a year at Yale University, where she met her future husband, the late Dr. Donald Reisfield, and later transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated in 1957.

Derek Reisfield, 54, said he was about 12 when he realized his great-aunt was famous after seeing a magazine that showed his mother and Garbo vacationing together. Every spring, the two women would go to the Caribbean.

“They were very close,” he said.

On one trip to an exclusive Caneel Bay Resort, known for its unobtrusive luxury and gentle beaches, Garbo donned slacks as she readied to have dinner with a roomful of women who would be wearing party dresses.


Reisfield followed her lead.

When the two women walked into the room, heads turned and there was moment of silence, but soon everyone got back to having a good time.

“The next evening all the women were wearing slacks,” Derek Reisfield recalled with a laugh.

Garbo was known for her performances in such film classics as “Anna Christie,” ’’Grand Hotel,” ’’Queen Christina,” ’’Anna Karenina,” ’’Camille” and “Ninotchka.” Both on screen and off, she had a major influence on women’s fashions, hairstyles and makeup.

Garbo starred in 26 films in 17 years. In 1941, at age 36, she quit Hollywood, spending the rest of her life in shuttered and fenced residences in France, Switzerland and Manhattan, where she lived in an East Side high-rise. At the time of her death in 1990 she owned 18th-century antiques, fine rugs, damask curtains and many pieces of art, including a Renoir.

Known as “the Swedish sphinx” because of her deep fear of reporters and other strangers, she ironically became one of the most publicized women in the world while trying to guard her privacy.

Her biographer John Bainbridge wrote in “Garbo,” that except at the start of her career, she “granted no interviews, signed no autographs, attended no premieres, answered no fan mail.”


Garbo never married and had no children, but rather chose her niece as a frequent companion.

“My mother was very close to her and would go into New York once a week to see her,” said Derek Reisfield. “They were both very strong, very independent women, and I think they bonded over that.”

She is survived by three sons and a daughter, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Bender writes for the Associated Press.