From the Archives: Greta Garbo, Alluring but Aloof Film Star, Dies at 84
Greta Gustafsson, the tall, overweight duckling who became the enchantress swan that was Greta Garbo, died Sunday in a New York hospital.
Miss Garbo, whom critics and fans alike considered the most alluring, vibrant and yet aloof character ever to grace the motion picture screen, was 84.
“New York Hospital announces with great sadness the death of Miss Garbo,” hospital spokesman Andrew Banoff said Sunday. “She passed away today.”
He provided no other information about Garbo’s death.
In death, as in life, she was a paradox--a public figure who had lived clandestinely, avoiding publicity at any cost. Yet her near-hysterical desire for privacy had, by itself, made her one of the most publicized if least visible people in the world.
She probably made more money in fewer films than anyone else in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s history. The films were both silent and sound, and 23 of them ranged from adequate to superb in the eyes of critics; the 24th was a failure that sent her into retirement at 36, her classic features still unmarked by age.
More than 20 years after she fled Hollywood in 1942, directors and producers were sending her scripts, hoping to lure her from retirement one last time.
Most letters went unanswered; few calls were ever returned and, if the seekers had known Greta Lovisa Gustafsson as a child, they would never have bothered in the first place.
She was the youngest of two girls and a boy born to Karl and Anna Gustafsson. He was a sanitation worker for the city of Stockholm and the modest Gustafsson home reflected the family penury.
Karl Gustafsson died in 1920, when Greta was 14, and she went to work lathering customers’ faces in a neighborhood barbershop. She earned 7 crowns a week and gave 5 to her mother. Later she worked in a fruit store, and it was there she began to display the devotion to privacy that would mark the rest of her life.
She refused to tell her friends where she worked and in a letter to one acquaintance, written before her 15th birthday, she admitted to being “arrogant and impatient.”
What free time she had was spent hanging around local theaters or, as she told Photoplay magazine in 1928 in one of the few interviews she ever granted, “thinking.”
“I wanted to be alone, even as a child,” she said. “I used to go to a corner and think. . . . Thinking means so much, even to small children.”
As a child she also was somewhat frustrated by her appearance. She was 5 feet, 7 inches tall and an awkward 130 pounds by the time she was 12. Fully developed, her measurements were 34 1/4-28-37 1/4. It was not the stuff of which stars are made, but ambition kept her going when looks and talent could not.
While studying at the Academy of Royal Dramatic Theatre when she was 18, she met Mauritz Stiller, the man who became the single most important influence in her life.
Stiller, 40, was then the foremost director in the Swedish film industry. He had called at the Royal Theatre seeking faces for a film, “The Atonement of Gosta Berling.” Hers, he said, was a face he wanted. But only if the figure supporting it weighed 25 pounds less.
From the beginning Stiller was more than her director. Those on the set of “Gosta Berling” recalled Stiller and his protege arguing over scenes (although a relative amateur, she was a determined one) and then the director hugging her as if to melt away the unpleasantness they had created.
He told friends he wanted to mold her career before she developed acting styles that displeased him. Stiller got her out of her contract at Royal Dramatic and began to shape his starlet.
In the process, Greta Gustafsson became Greta Garbo.
Louis B. Mayer met her in a Berlin hotel in 1924 after he had gone to Europe seeking talent for his Louis B. Mayer Pictures (soon to merge with Metro Pictures and the Goldwyn production company).
He had gone to get Stiller. But by then, Stiller informed him, he and Garbo were a package. The package came to America. Stiller at $1,000 a week; Garbo at $400.
She was ordered to take riding lessons to lose weight. Her teeth were straightened and she was put through a myriad of cosmetology clinics.
MGM press agents were impressed by her size if not by her beauty and sent her down the road to USC, where she was photographed with football players and coaches.
Stiller’s lack of English and autocratic manner had not endeared him to the studio brass. His pleas for a screen test for Garbo and a film for both of them went unheeded.
It was not until he found Hendrik Sartov, D.W. Griffith’s cameraman for “Hearts of the World,” that things changed.
Sartov had been one of the first to extensively use a “soft-focus” effect.
His screen test was the first brick in the construction of what was to rise in Hollywood as The Immortal Garbo.
Stiller prevailed on Irving Thalberg, MGM’s boy-wonder producer, to view the test that Stiller had paid for.
Thalberg almost immediately cast Garbo in her first American film, that of a peasant girl in “The Torrent.”
What Thalberg may have sensed and Louis Mayer himself soon realized was that here was a unique face in the days of the Kewpie doll silent heroine.
After “The Torrent” premiered in February, 1926, Garbo found herself likened to Pola Negri and Norma Talmadge all rolled into one. Stiller, however, did not direct his protege’s first MGM film. Thalberg said the subject did not suit his talents.
He was assigned to Garbo’s next picture, “The Temptress,” but was taken off the picture because he reportedly asked Garbo’s co-star to put on a pair of larger shoes to make the Garbo feet appear smaller.
Without Stiller, Garbo found the picture a trying experience and complained loud and long about the plot and the direction. The public, however, loved it and Mayer wanted to extend her three-year contract.
Within a week MGM had sent her another script. This was “Flesh and the Devil,” based on Hermann Sudermann’s novel “The Undying Past.”
It co-starred John Gilbert, and the feeling he had sparked in her when she saw him on the screen in New York soon poured forth on the set.
Clarence Brown, who directed, said it was a case of “love at first sight.”
He wrote later, “Their lovemaking was so intense that they did not even hear my ‘cut’ but went on, to the cameraman’s amusement.”
Within weeks Gilbert had proposed, even buying a larger house and a yacht he dubbed “The Temptress.”
The relationship, played to the hilt by the Hollywood press corps, made “Flesh and the Devil” one of the top-grossing silent films of all time.
By now the once halting, backward immigrant was world famous (she had kissed Gilbert with her mouth open, an act of turpitude that may have scandalized but also sold tickets.)
Also now, for the first time, Garbo publicly told the world she wanted to be alone.
Her studio had arranged a luncheon with visiting Prince Wilhelm of Sweden, but Garbo turned it down, saying: “Thank you. I’m not hungry.”
She told Mayer she was tired of portraying vixens, tired of interviews.
Accompanying her professional frustrations--with films that she felt were beneath her--were personal frustrations. She did not want to marry Gilbert, and Stiller, the only other man in her life, had left MGM for Paramount and then decided to return to Sweden. Garbo threatened to join him, but the studio agreed to raise her salary to $2,000 a week if she would start work on “Love,” the silent adaptation of “Anna Karenina.”
She agreed, but with a final stipulation. She now would be billed simply as “Garbo.”
After only four films, there was a “Garboesque” mystique loose on the land. American women were peering at their husbands through nearly closed eyelids; fashion designers were turning out Garbo-like gowns and everyone was saying “I tink I go home,” a phrase their object of worship reportedly used once when she threatened to walk off a set.
The role model for all this was rehearsing for “The Divine Woman,” but not with Gilbert, because MGM executives had learned that Garbo was a singular box-office attraction and they no longer needed Gilbert and his high salary.
During the filming of “Wild Orchids,” Garbo got the telegram from Stockholm telling of Stiller’s death of an infection at age 45.
Even Mayer had to relent after seeing how the news affected her. After 3 1/2 years, Greta Garbo went home to Sweden.
She returned to the United States in 1929 and began work on “The Single Standard.” While she was abroad, Gilbert had married Broadway actress Ina Claire, finishing a romance that had become more meaningful to press agents than it had to Garbo.
Her next film, “The Kiss,” premiered in New York City in November, 1929, distinguished primarily by two things:
It had in its cast a very young actor named Lew Ayres, who soon went on to stardom in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and, more important, it was the silent film farewell for the reigning queen of Hollywood.
Now came both the greatest promise and the greatest potential risk of the fabled career.
“GARBO TALKS,” said the advance publicity campaign for “Anna Christie,” the film adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play about the perennial fleet follower.
Sound pictures had already doomed the careers of Pola Negri, Norma Talmadge, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Gilbert.
In her first scene she enters a saloon and growls, “Give me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, babeee.”
The world fell in love with her almost masculine voice, as it had with her mute sensuality.
In quick succession came “Romance” with Lewis Stone, “Inspiration” with Robert Montgomery and “Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise,” in which her co-star was a “tough-guy” actor named Clark Gable, a departure from the pretty faces that had heretofore appeared opposite her own.
After she portrayed “Mata Hari” in 1931 she became part of a studio campaign to lure moviegoers back to the theater, for the Great Depression had left America worried more about food than about frivolity.
The chosen vehicle was “Grand Hotel,” and its all-star cast included Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry, John and Lionel Barrymore and MGM’s biggest attraction, Garbo.
Garbo left for Sweden in 1932 in what was reportedly a contract dispute, but returned to make “Queen Christina,” a film treatment of the Swedish monarch written by her old friend Salka Viertel and with a cast that originally included a British actor named Laurence Olivier.
But the Olivier charm did not mesh with the Garbo obstinacy, and she sent him packing (a move that kept Olivier out of Hollywood for six years, until he returned for “Wuthering Heights.”)
Out of retirement came John Gilbert in a Garbo decision that was said to involve more sentimentality than sense. It was Garbo resurrecting a fallen star from the firmament. Gilbert lived only a few more years after its October, 1933, release.
In 1936-37, director George Cukor was placed in charge of what many feel was Garbo’s finest portrayal, the courtesan “Camille.” Its cast included Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore and it was edited by Margaret Booth, who as late as the 1980s was still considered among the most proficient film editors in Hollywood.
While filming “Camille,” Garbo chanced on the set of “A Hundred Men and a Girl” to meet Deanna Durbin, whose singing voice she was said to admire. There she met conductor Leopold Stokowski, white-haired, 23 years older and married.
He shortly filed a petition for divorce and the gossip columns became filled with Garbo and “Stoky” items.
After Garbo’s next film, “Conquest,” the $3-million epic released in Europe as “Marie Walewska” and based on a Napoleonic love affair, the two went overseas, but Stokowski returned alone, announcing soon thereafter that he would wed Gloria Vanderbilt.
Garbo resumed her career in 1939, but with a twist. Nine years earlier it had been “GARBO TALKS.” Now it was “GARBO LAUGHS.”
“Ninotchka” was an Ernst Lubitsch parody of communist spies for which 10 writers were alternately employed. Garbo laughed, and so did audiences everywhere—at her naivete as she was wooed by Melvyn Douglas and at the portrayals of her three co-conspirators, “Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski.”
The triumph, however, was to lead to defeat.
MGM now had a comedienne and a tragedienne in one package. But the studio opted to wrap its multifaceted star in cheap paper for her next—and last—film.
“Two-Faced Woman” had only a $300,000 budget, for the onset of World War II presented film executives with a vastly diminished overseas market.
Directed by Cukor, it told of a wife who pretends to be her own twin sister and seduces her husband in an effort to halt his infidelities.
It was a farce not even Garbo could pull off and it opened in December, 1941, to unfavorable notices and protestations from churches and women’s groups that the film had defiled the institution of matrimony.
Unlike “Ninotchka,” it lacked glamour, and it drove Garbo from Hollywood forever.
She was a multimillionaire, a woman who had appeared on the screen as a bejeweled queen yet who confined her own expenditures to expensive antiques and valuable property in New York and Los Angeles. She had always lived and dressed simply, and her wealth permitted her to eschew the film offers that followed her into retirement.
The woman who in retirement refused all public appearances, even those for charity, did however give large sums to favored charitable institutions.
She moved between New York and Europe as agilely as she had in her 24 films and as secretively as Mata Hari herself.
In 1984, in a classic case of life imitating art, she was the unseen subject of “Garbo Talks,” a film about a son who tries to produce the reclusive Swede for his hospitalized, star-stricken mother.
So even if she, as she often told us, wanted to be left alone, she never has been.
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