Birth: 18 september, 1905
Death: 15 april, 1990
New York, United States
Greta Garbo was born as Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on 18 september 1905 in Stockholm, Sweden. Her parents, Karl and Anna, already had two children: Sven and Alva. The family was very poor and lived in a neighborhood that was seen as the city’s slum. Her father worked in various jobs to support the family, as a butcher’s assistant and a landscaper. Although Greta was a daydreamer and liked to be alone, she was also known to be a bit bossy. From a young age she was very interested in performing on stage. She even participated in amateur theatre with some friends.
At the age of thirteen she graduated from public school and began working, as was normal for a working class girl in Sweden at the time. Meanwhile Greta’s father lost his job when he became ill with the Spanish flu. Greta took care of him, but he died in 1920 when Greta was only 14.
Greta worked as a shampoo girl in a barbershop, but soon began looking for a better job. She started working for the PUB department store where she ran errands and unpacked hats. Soon she was modeling hats for the store’s catalog. This led to her being in commercials for women’s clothing. Greta appeared in many commercials and had a few jobs as extras in films, but she still worked at the department store to make a living. Then, in 1922, Greta was discovered by producer/director Erik A. Petschler, who gave her a role in his film Luffar-Petter (Peter the Tramp). Petschler advised her to study at The Royal Dramatic Theatre’s Acting School in Stockholm. 16 year old Greta auditioned and got in. Although she loved the school, she struggled to make a living and had to ask her family for financial support at times.Luckily, director Mauritz Stiller found himself so impressed by her that he decided to make her his protégée. She played the lead in his film Gosta Berling’s Saga (The Saga of Gosta Berling) in 1924.
It was Stiller who suggested that she change her last name and soon enough she legally became Greta Garbo.
She followed her performance in Gosta Berling’s Saga with a role in Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street). Around the same time the head of the MGM studio Louis B. Mayer met with Mauritz Stiller and there are two stories about what happened next. In one story Stiller tells Mayer he will not sign a contract without Greta, in the other story it is Mayer who sees Gosta Berling’s Saga and decides he actually wants to sign Greta more than Stiller because he can ‘make a star out of her’. In any case, they both signed with MGM and went to America in 1925.
Greta and Maurice arrived in New York, but the first couple of months, MGM showed no interest in the director and the actress. Greta even did some modelling to fill her time. She felt miserable and was convinced the studio did not like her after all. After three months the two relocated to Los Angeles. Finally the studio showed some interest and they gave Greta a new wardrobe and straightened her teeth.
Stiller and Greta had expected to work together on their first American film, instead Greta was cast as the lead in Torrent with director Monta Belle. Still, Stiller coached the nervous Greta on set. Although shooting was hard, the movie was a success and Greta’s performance was acclaimed by many.
To Stiller and Greta’s delight her second project, The Temptress, was to be directed by Stiller. But Stiller may have been a big time director in Sweden, he was not in America. His English was bad and he did not understand the American studio system. During filming Greta went through a personal drama when she received a telegram that her sister Alva had passed away of cancer at the age of twenty-two. MGM’s attitude towards these sort of personal dramas with their staff was simple: the show must go on! So Greta kept working and was not able to go back to Sweden for the funeral. Meanwhile MGM was so fed up with Stillers incompetence that they fired him. He was replaced with Fred Niblo and all the scenes had to be re-shot. Still, the film turned out to be one of the most successful films of 1926.
MGM immediately capitalized on their new star and put her in another film: Flesh and the Devil. By this time, Greta was tired and still mourning her sister. Besides, she was sick of being cast as ‘the bad woman’ and did not like the script. Reportedly she pleaded with Mayer to let her get out of filming and even stayed home during the first weeks of shooting. But eventually she gave up the fight and reported on set.
Her co-star was John Gilbert and the two fell in love instantly. Greta had never been a very social person, but when she and John started their relationship she saw a new side of Hollywood. The couple went to parties and out to dinner together. By all accounts it was a very passionate and loving relationship. But Greta refused to marry John, even though he asked her numerous times. Their chemistry translated to screen as well and Flesh and the Devil became a huge hit. MGM decided to pair them up again for her next film, appropriately entitled Love. Greta continued making movies back to back. In 1928-1929 six films with her in the lead were released, including her last film with John Gilbert: A Woman of Affairs. Their relationship came to an end around this time. John reportedly was so upset over her refusal of his proposals that he quickly married someone else: actress Ina Claire.
For instance, she banned everyone from set from time to time, even the director, saying that ‘If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise’. Since she was a huge moneymaker for them, the studio gave in to her demands. In 1930 Greta starred in her first ‘talkie’ which was promoted with the slogan ‘Garbo Talks!’. The film was Anna Christie and unlike many of her peers, Greta made a smooth transition from silent to talking pictures. She even received her first Academy Award nomination for it.
Although her next two films Romance and Inspiration were not as successful as its predecessors, Garbo fever had taken over the world. Department stores reported a large increase in sales of false eyelashes, berets and cloche hats as women wanted to emulate her style. After filming Susan Lennox (her Rise and Fall) with the young Clark Gable, who she did not get along with, she made two of her most remembered films: Mata Hari and Grand Hotel. The latter featured her most famous line: ‘I want to be left alone’, something the reclusive Greta would always be associated with. She still refused to attend film premieres or take promotional pictures. But that only helped her image as a mysterious enigma.
After a short return to Sweden, she signed a new contract with MGM in 1933 which gave her more control over her career. Her first film was Queen Christina and she insisted on her old lover John Gilbert, who had fallen on hard times, as her co-star. But for John it was too late; he would die of a heart attack, due to his excessive drinking, the following year. As for Greta’s love life during this time in her life: not much is known, though there have always been rumors of affairs with women. These rumors have seemingly become a part of the Garbo legend, even though they have never been proven nor confirmed.
In 1935 Greta played in two of her most acclaimed films: Anna Karenina and Camille. Even so, her following film Conquest did so poorly that the studio lost 1.4 million dollars. Greta was dubbed ‘box office poison’ and she went back to her beloved Sweden and traveled through Europe. Her next film Ninotchka, her first comedy, was a huge hit when it was released in 1939. MGM tried to capitalize on the success by putting her in another comedy: The Two Faced Woman. But the film was a major flop and Greta referred to it as ‘my grave’. It marked her unofficial retirement.
According to reports, Greta felt that the world had changed since World War II and that her films had a proper place in history and would gain in value. Other reports suggest that she simply never found a suitable project and that she was indecisive and slightly afraid to return to acting. However Garbo said in her last interview, a few years before her death that she ‘was tired of Hollywood. I did not like my work. There were many days when I had to force myself to go to the studio…. I really wanted to live another life’. Still, there were a couple of projects that she signed on to in the following years. In 1948 she signed a contract to star in La Duchesse de Langeais, she made several screen tests for it, but the financing failed to materialize. In the following years there were a couple of times that she almost signed on to do a project, only to drop out at the slightest problem.
By the 1950’s Greta left her Hollywood life behind for good. Despite frequent trips to Sweden, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States and bought an apartment in New York where she would spend the rest of her life. She started an extensive art collection, which was worth millions when she died. Even though she shunned publicity, did not answer fan mail and was extremely private, she was not as much of a recluse as has been reported. She traveled a lot and had a lot of friends. Among them were high society figures such as Aristotle Onassis and Cecil Beaton. She also loved to take long walks and frequently visited her brother and his family, who lived in America as well.
She reportedly had an affair with millionaire George Schlee and even though this was never proven, the two were definitely close until his death in 1964, despite him being married. Still, she was prone to mood swings and often expressed feeling depressed.
In the 1970’s Greta started to travel less, although she still went on her beloved walks. She lived with her cook and housekeeper Clare Koger, who later said they were like sisters. Greta went by various names, to avoid any attention. Still, Greta could not avoid people who liked to go ‘Garbo-watching’ and she even had a stalker for twenty years.
During the 1980’s her health declined and she started spending more time with her family. In 1984 she was successfully treated for breast cancer. Towards the end of her life she had dialysis treatment three times a week and on 15 April 1990, aged 84, Greta Garbo passed away as a result of pneumonia and renal failure. Her entire estate, estimated at about 32 million dollars, was left to her niece Gray Reisfield. Her ashes were interred in her native Stockholm in 1999.
See her life in pictures in the Greta Garbo Gallery.