Garbo was born Greta Gustaffson in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1905, to working class, impoverished people who could have been thought of at the time as peasants. She was loved by her parents and she loved them. Her father died when she was a teenager, most probably because they couldn’t afford him proper healthcare. She was a shy, day-dreaming young girl, who never attended high school. This was not unusual for girls who needed to work to support their families. Her uncle had said, “Greta was different from any other kids I knew!” Often she hid under a table and he asked her “what she was she thinking of darling?” His niece answered, “I am thinking what I want to do when I am grown!”
She, like many of her friends and peers, escaped the doldrums of their lives by going to the movies, which were quite primitive in that era. She was a student of the dramatic arts and came under the tutelage of the Finnish-Jewish film director Mauritz Stiller, who had immigrated to Sweden. He was an imposing personality, tall, ruggedly, handsome and he rose to prominence in the Swedish film industry at the time of Victor Sjosrtrum. They would be the dominating figures in that industry until Ingmar Bergman in the 1940s.
He saw something in her that even his cameraman who filmed her screen test did not see. Her hair was short, brown and to a degree unkempt, her clothes were plain, without any style and she was certainly not svelte. After her screen test, which she thought she failed, Stiller was incredibly impressed, and offered her a contract. He was a charismatic and dynamic director in the nascent Swedish film industry. He saw something in her that no one else seemed to see. Stiller would always look for new personalities to star in his films. He asked her to lose 20 pounds, taught her how to dress, to act, how to emote and generally how to handle herself.
After some local success in four Swedish films, Stiller contacted MGM and Louis B. Mayer, who was always looking for talent from Europe. It seems Mayer wanted Stiller to come to direct in Hollywood and his disciple and discovery, the newly named Great Garbo was almost a “throw in” regarding the “package” to go to America. So when the contract was signed in November of 1924 in Berlin, Louis B. Mayer told her that in America the public didn’t like fat women. When she heard the translation, she shrugged her shoulders. Interestingly, she wasn’t then very heavy at all.
Stiller and Garbo took the SS Dratningholm out of Goteborg, Sweden. It was the first time either of them had been on an ocean liner. Eventually they docked in NYC, checked into the Commodore Hotel for a two month summer stay in very hot weather. They were never used to the heat of an NY summer, and with limited language skills, life in NYC was not a happy time.
Eventually, after sitting around in NYC they finally headed to Los Angeles. After more than two months in Los Angeles, she was finally noticed by the young Hollywood “genius” Irving Thalberg, who had an excellent reputation regarding taste and talent. She was incredibly naïve, not educated, her movements were clumsy, her feet were considered big, but they really weren’t, and her teeth needed to be fixed. She giggled, laughed loudly and wore cheap clothes. That is what she had. In Garbo’s time, Los Angeles in the mid 1920’s, was smaller than Stockholm, not abounding with culture and was basically a “company” town. Finally, when her screen test was noticed, her hair was changed, a small blemish was removed from her forehead and her nearly perfect teeth were capped and made better.
In “Torrent,” her first film for MGM in 1926, the well-known writer Joseph Alsop, later wrote in 1935 about her hideous clothes, the insipid plot and her beautiful face. Not long after, she was cast in her second film, “The Temptress,” and she received raved reviews. By the next effort, “Flesh and the Devil” with her eventual lover, John Gilbert, her star never faded and audiences were mesmerized by her beauty. It seemed the plots didn’t matter.
Garbo was something new and unique for Tinseltown. She was taller than most women of her day and broad-shouldered. In that day, most women stars were petite, pensive and reserved. America’s sweetheart was the demure Mary Pickford. Garbo seemed to combine a sensual with a spiritual essence, and an androgynous aspect to her mannerisms. She was attractive to both men and women. There was a detachment about her, a wariness, almost a feeling of aloofness. All through her later career, just the movement of her face would evoke a kind attractiveness never found before or since. It created an instant magnetism. She almost got the lead in her first picture in America, “The Torrent” by accident. The Director, Monta Bell was captivated by her screen test and the lead who was chosen, Alma Rubens fell ill. Her co-star was Ricardo Cortez, another Hollywood answer to Ramon Navarro and Rudolph Valentino. This so-called labeled Latin Lover, was actually born in the Bronx, originally acted under the name of Jack Crane, but was born Jacob Krantz. Cortez/Krantz had attended Dewitt Clinton HS, had been a boxer and a runner on Wall Street. After his career fizzled before the 2nd World War, he went back to Wall Street as a successful broker.
With her first film, “The Torrent,” behind her, she was cast quickly cast in “The Tempest.” Her cameraman, William Daniels was the real star. He learned how to light up her face, so it would appear to glow. He had met her on the set of “The Torrent,” and treated her with great care. He created great high, lighting angles on her face so that her long eyelashes would be seen as shadows on her cheeks. This would become a hallmark of her allure.
Again, the public flocked to see her play the “vamp” in the more successful “Tempest!” At this time in her very, early career, she was already complaining about her treatment by MGM. To her friends in Sweden, she wrote that the film was rotten. But when it opened, in 1926, at the Capitol Theater in NYC, she was acclaimed by the reviewers who basically ignored the story. The famous playwright, critic and author, Robert Sherwood, who would be FDR’s last speech writer in 1945, wrote of her as the official “Dream Princess,” and spoke of the “efficacy of her allure.” In NYC, The NY Times, the Herald Tribune and the Mirror were ecstatic about her. Unfortunately, after “The Tempest” her mentor and most probably her first lover, Mauritz Stiller, who was replaced as the director on “The Tempest,” by Fred Niblo, was basically through in Hollywood. He left as a failure, returned to Sweden, became quite ill and died not long after in 1928. She worked insanely hard. She wrote to her great Swedish friend, Mimi Pollak that she was up at 6 am- was at the studio at 9 am and home by 6 or 7pm, exhausted and into bed. She was exhausted. She rarely went out, had no energy left to meet and converse with other film people and had no desire for small talk.
During the filming, she startled by the report of the death of her year older sister Alva from cancer. She had wanted to go home to see her when there were reports of her illness, but the studio would never let her have the time required. This, with her earlier disputes over her contract, added to her distaste with Hollywood and the studio system. That distaste would never abate. Later in 1948, Cecil Beaton would reports what she had written, “What a waste of my best years of my life- always alone it was so stupid not being able to partake more. Now I am just a gypsy, living a life apart.
Her 3rd film, “Flesh and the Devil,” made 11 months later, clicked, made money, and even though the plot was insipid and Garbo’s acting was a letdown, the public was fascinated by the love scenes and the whispered romance between Garbo and the 29 year old John Gilbert fed the audience’s appetite.
In “Flesh and the Devil,” she is again cast as the “vamp,” and all men as her prey. Eventually two of her lovers (noblemen) fight a duel over her, and as the unfaithful wife of an Austrian Count, she falls through the ice and drowns. In a review by the critic of New York Herald Tribune, the two lovers, John Gilbert and Garbo were ecstatically praised. “Never before has John Gilbert been so intense in his portrayal of a man in love, never before has a woman so alluring, with a seductive grace that is far more potent than mere beauty, appeared on the screen. Frankly, never in our screen career have we seen seduction so perfectly done!” Her star was soaring and all around her knew it.
Gilbert and Garbo were an item-talk of marriage that began in earnest regarding their closeness, but it never happened. In fact, she was not interested in marriage or Gilbert. Gilbert had become almost bellicose. He drank, he threatened her, called her incessantly, but the romance had cooled. He blamed her mentor, Mauritz Stiller, but it wasn’t really Stiller. Eventually, he calmed down, their “romance” became a matter of companionship, then friendship, and eventually she moved on. It didn’t happen overnight. They remained in each company, he designed his home to impress her with Swedish art, beautiful furniture and many hideaways for her. He wanted her to be his hostess for his many Sunday invitees. She wasn’t really impressed with his home, the décor, or his attempt to rely on her as his hostess. She certainly wasn’t interested in serving his company!
Many years later, when Gilbert was dead and his memory was fading, Garbo was asked about her romance with him. “There never was a romance,” she answered, “and now I wonder what I ever saw in him.” Was this just cruelty or her idea that whatever intimacy they had was a matter of convenience?
Eventually, Garbo would make demands on the studio of who could come on the set, intrude on her privacy, how she could be treated, the type of films she would accept, and who would direct her. This was unique in this male-dominated era. Along the way, she had lovers from probably Stiller to certainly John Gilbert and very possibly a number of women. It seems she knew little from love or romance, no less anything else. She considered sexual intimacy as a necessity, the urge and activity of the moment. She trusted no one, hated Hollywood and all who supported the studio system, especially the publicity machine. She was not well-read, but was curious. She was never surrounded by thoughtful, introspective people. The Hollywood literati had no influence on her at all. She had no connection with any part of that community. Her social habits were simple and it was dominated by her working on the scripts, getting to the studio on time and leaving every day at 5 pm.
“Flesh and the Devil,” made her an immediate star, hounded by everyone, including the paparazzi of her day, which were insatiable. No one had ever attracted this kind of attention. Every person she saw, with every relationship she had- the questions never ceased. The demands never relented. She refused to be photographed, she would sign nothing, because everything thing she touched, even a cigarette butt, was immediately re-sold on the open market. Once she signed a picture for the director George Cukor, who begged for one. Surreptitiously, a visiting reporter took a picture of it while Cukor had gone in another room and it wound up immediately in the press. The hunt for news about her life was insatiable.
What really elevated Garbo from just a mysterious beauty and charismatic movie personage to a respected actress was the making of the silent movie version of “Anna Karenina,” by Leo Tolstoy. During the filming she became sick with pernicious anemia, the effort was delayed for five weeks and eventually what had been filmed was scrapped, the cast and the director were fired. It was a $200,000 disaster. After her recovery, aided by a different diet, and the help of a Swedish doctor, the shooting began under the direction of Edmund Guilding, a Brit who seem to understand what was needed. The new title was, “Love,” and the studio hired John Gilbert to play the role of Count Vronsky. All the unpleasantness of the past: the contract disputes, the walkout of Garbo, her physical illness and the tempestuous problems and relationship with Gilbert were seemingly forgotten. Garbo excelled way beyond her beauty, charm and charisma with an excellent, understated performance.
Ironically, she wasn’t unavailable to people. She had friends and visited them often. She was constantly invited to small gatherings, but became wary of others who had been invited without her knowledge. Often she would beg out of an invitation at the last moment. She got along with people on the set, but didn’t like an “open set,” and therefore, few people had access to the filming of her scenes. Often people would view her through a hole in a separating, drawn curtain. Again, every day she was well-prepared, always on time and very business-like. Often there were many re-takes, because many of her directors wanted each scene perfect. These re-takes had virtually nothing to do with Garbo or how she reacted to direction. The cameramen knew how to photograph her, reflective of close-ups, whether she was sitting or standing or the trick of catching her facial movements.
Meanwhile the nascent American career of her mentor, Mauritz Stiller, took a turn for the worse. His health deteriorated. He had gone Paramount and they did not renew his contract. His final effort “The Street of Sin,” with the great German star Emil Jannings was not a success. He would leave for Sweden, he returned to the theater there, had some short term successes, but was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, the leading killer of the day, and eventually succumbed to the disease at age 45. Garbo would never see him again.
The picture, “Love,” was a great success, the famed writer Frances Marion had changed the ending of the Tolstoy classic, and the audience was happy that after Karenina’s death, Anna was re-united with her child and her great love, Count Vronsky. The profit to MGM was enormous, over $500,000 and it was 50% greater than the very successful “Flesh and the Devil!”
During this period the “Jazz Singer,” with the dynamic Al Jolson, became an incredible success, but, not all the studios were ready to drop their making of silent films. Even the “Boy Genius,” the real brains at MGM, Irving Thalberg, was not sure that it wasn’t a fad. As said, “Who wants to hear actors talk?” Both Thalberg and Mayer believed that the role of the silent films was not finished. They added sound backgrounds to their new productions, and assumed, incorrectly that the new wind blowing in with talking movies would abate. Also, let us not forget that many of their “stars” were foreigners, who’s English was certainly not perfect, including their now greatest star Greta Garbo. She still had many problems with English and often spoke in a combination of English, Swedish and German. She never really learned proper English grammar.
In “The Kiss,” her last talking film in late 1929, she was starred alongside Conrad Nagel and the young Lew Ayers. Ayers, who would become a major star in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” was placed in “The Kiss,” with Garbo. They had never been even introduced. Later he would say, “I would study her face as she sat there… and no one could tell whether she was plotting a murder, dreaming of her native Sweden, or figuring up her income tax!” He thought she was a wonderful artist, who he found very warm, polite, gracious, lonely and distant women. Though the film was mediocre, she was lionized again by Robert Sherwood. He would write that “we have compared her to Duse, Cavallieri, Mrs. Sidon, Helen of Troy and Venus, and then ground our teeth because we hadn’t made it (the comparison) strong enough! He went on to say that that she was “the best actress in the world.”
As she gravitated to “talking” movies, unlike many of the other great stars who failed, like the Gish sisters, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Mary Pickford, her popularity continued to grow, Even the great Chaplin fell from favor. Others like Valentino, Gilbert, Wallace Reed, and Jeanne Eagles, were dead before the “Jazz Singer” exploded on the public, marking the foreshadowing of the death of the silent film era. She would make five more silent films, ending with “The Kiss” in 1929.
Historically, when one reads the original reviews of her films, and even many of the later retrospectives on her, most reviews were negative. Innately the problem in the 1920’s and 1930’s was that the scripts were quite poor. Even decent material was constantly cut up, shortened and significant roles were cut or changed.
After her first talking picture in 1930, based on Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Anna Christie,” (Garbo talks!) success followed success. She seemed to even out act her co-star the great Marie Dressler. The critic’s raved about her performance-as one critic wrote, “The voice that shook the world!” He went on to write, “its Greta Garbo’s, of course, and for the life of me I can’t decide whether it is a baritone or a bass. She makes it heard for the first time on the screen and there isn’t another like it.” In reality, “Anna Christie,” by Eugene O’Neill was not one of his best works and the original story was completely distorted, as were the characters. Most reviewers swooned over Garbo’s style and sensuality. As for the picture, later perspectives were much worse. Many of the supporting players were weak and their parts were almost meaningless. Both co-stars, Marie Dressler and Charles Bickford, who were quite talented in their own right, were basically under-utilized.
After “Anna Christie,” other hits enthralled her legion of fans. In the same way, in “Anna Karenina,” the role of her “jilted” husband, Karenina, played by Basil Rathbone (later of Sherlock Holms fame) was panned. He was way too wooden. In “Camille” where she excelled, everything went wrong. The script was flat, the sets were grotesque, but the direction by George Cukor (a woman’s director) had a light-handed touch which gave her the latitudes she needed. Even the critics disliked Lionel Barrymore, who they thought was under-whelming. As for her lover, Robert Taylor, he was described as a wax dummy in a store window. The picture was only 74 minutes old, but it was another sensational box office hit. Later, it was reshot in German for overseas distribution with eight minutes added and it was even more successful. Ironically the author of the play, Eugene O’Neill never saw the movie.
Garbo was quickly teamed up with Clark Gable in October of 1931, in “Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise.” Again many of the critics panned it, the censors didn’t like it, but the audiences loved the electricity of the rugged, new type of American male in the body of Clark Gable and Garbo. In a sense it was a typical MGM tear jerker, regarding a young girl’s being forced into a marriage by her father that she neither wanted, nor would give in to. Meeting Clark Gable, they have an affair, she finds someone else, and eventually tracks Gable down and they begin a new life together.
As for “Grand Hotel,” it had a fantastic cast, which included John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt. The scenes with the Russian ballerina, played by the 26 year old Garbo and the 50 year old Barrymore, a German Baron, turned into jewel thief are priceless. Garbo is entranced by Barrymore. He gives her almost a desire to live and perform. Of course, unaware of his sudden death, she leaves the hotel with the hope that this new life with him with will be her renewal. By the way, rest of the cast were excellent. Originally, John Gilbert had been thought of in the role of the Baron. He had been in a number box office failures, turned to drink after his divorce from his quickie marriage to Ina Claire (who later would be Garbo’s love-interest rival in “Ninotchka.”) But, he was despised by Louis B. Mayor and his career was allowed to wither, as he self-destructed. The myth about his speaking voice being inadequate, was just a myth.
In 1932, her five year contract ended and she decided once again to visit her native Sweden. Despite threats by MGM, through Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg, she had never signed a contract extension. The media machine of Hollywood and its character assassins, Louella Parsons, Sidney Skolsky and others like Walter Winchell started their attacks on her. Why was she here? She should be deported because she has no job nor contract, therefore her visa should be revoked. She shouldn’t be allowed to take money out of the country and maybe these foreigners should all be deported who won’t become citizens.
Aside from this xenophobic clamor, the First National Bank of Beverly Hills collapsed and closed during the last crisis of the inept Hoover Administration. She had lost a considerable amount of money in the stock market crash of October 1929, but now most of her assets were in jeopardy, along with the bank accounts of many Hollywood luminaries. As she set sail on the SS Gripsholm, the question of her lifetime savings was in doubt. Eventually, she arrived in Goteborg, was treated like a conquering hero and started a long stay, despite the blustering of the MGM executives, who were starting to worry that they lost their greatest star and revenue producer. After a number of months, a new contract was offered, she was to do a film on the life of the controversial 17th Century Queen Christina of Sweden and her salary would rise to $400,000 per picture. She had to re-apply for a visa, undergo a physical, comply with other regulations under our strict immigration laws and in July of 1933 she headed back to San Francisco by a freighter, the SS Annie Johnson. It was a small ship, with few passengers, the crew treated her wonderfully on her five week trip across the Atlantic, which went through the Panama Canal and up to San Diego where she disembarked, as her luggage sailed on to San Francisco. As usual she wanted to avoid the “feeding” frenzy at the dock in San Frisco.
After an absence of a year, Garbo would finally make “Queen Christina.” It opened on December 26, 1933 at the Astor Theater in NYC. The only leading man that was available and who didn’t turn the part down, was John Gilbert. Others were asked, like Leslie Howard and Ronald Colman, who were great stars and established stage actors, but who feared their part in the picture opposite Garbo. John Gilbert, who announced his retirement in 1933 and was working at the Fox Studios, was worn out and frankly finished as a big draw or even as a star. Garbo insisted that he be casted as her lover. Garbo was top billed, and though the film was a critical success it did not revive Gilbert’s flagging career. Interestingly, Garbo had screen tests with the young Laurence Olivier and found him unsuited for the role. Gilbert was given another opportunity by Columbia Pictures, for which would be his final chance in “The Captain Hates the Sea.” He gave a capable performance, but he was an alcoholic and he would only get worse. He suffered a heart attack in December of 1935 and a few months later in early 1936 he suffered a second and fatal attack. He was only 38. It was like the end of “King Kong,” when it was said, “that beauty killed the beast.” Gilbert had four unsuccessful marriages, each lasting less than three years, but none of these attractive women filled the place in his heart and psyche as Greta Garbo. Did she love him? It is hard to tell, but she liked him and didn’t wish to be controlled by him, or it seems, any other man.
Aside from the huge monetary success of “Queen Christina,” the fictional story of the Swedish Queen horrified Garbo. She thought that her country would be deeply offended when they saw the film. She said, “I often wake up and think with horror about the film coming to Sweden.” But, ironically it was a great success in her home country. The film goers there suspend reality like they did in the states.
Another factor appeared in Hollywood in 1934, with the rise of the power of the Production Code, chaired by an ultra-conservative, Joseph Breen. He became the arbiter of moral rectitude and along with the Catholic Church’s objection to the subject content in many films, he became the Lord High Censor. Aside from these factors, which cast a pall over any idea of realism, no less creativity, Garbo’s films in the South, the Bible Belt and in small Midwestern towns had been falling in revenue for years. They were too sophisticated and challenging to the narrow views of both the Baptists (Evangelicals of that day) and the male-dominated culture.
It would be another year, before her next film, “The Painted Veil,” would be released. There would be only four more films: the remake of Tolstoy’s “Anne Karenina,” with Fredric March, “Camille,” with Robert Taylor, “Conquest,” with Charles Boyer, “Ninotchka,” with Melvyn Douglas and the last film, “Two-Faced Woman,” again with Melvyn Douglas. According to the critics, she was luminous in “Anna Karenina” and “Camille” and the films were great successes. In “Conquest,” as Napoleon’s mistress Countess Marie Waleska, she seemed tired and the film never really resonated with her public. It incurred a great loss at the box office. The censors forced it to be cut to pieces.
With respect to both “The Painted Veil” and “Conquest”: the studio heads at MGM had to struggle with Breen who seemed to answer to no one else. Even if stories were classics that had been accepted by the public for generations, it was up to Joseph Breen what people could see. Any clue that Marie Waleska was actually Napoleon’s mistress and had his child seem to be too harsh for American sensitivities.
As for “Camille,” based on the character of the French courtesan, Marguerite Gaurtier from an 1848 novel, “La Dame aux Camelias,” by Alexander Dumas, it faced many challenges from the Breen office. Many great actresses, from Sarah Benrhardt to Eleanore Duse, Eva Le Gallienne, Alla Nazimova and then Garbo had played her since the novel was turned into a play in 1852. Her story had even been turned into the classic opera, “La Traviata,” by Giuseppe Verdi.
So, after many personal successes, despite inadequate scripts, poor casting and often wooden performances by her co-stars, her career, in her 2nd to last film, would actually reach its summit. With “Ninotchka.” The script was great, there were no shipwrecks, ambiguities, or any sustained passage of vulgarity. The film was funny and promoted with the phrase, “Garbo laughs!” The film was witty, polished and civilized. Ironically, in the film, none of the names were actually Russian. It was pure fantasy, but it clicked then and today. It was pure satire, making fun of everything from Stalin’s Russia to the expatriate communities in the Paris fantasy world. Eventually, her last film with MGM, was part of a two picture contract with Melvyn Douglas. The film, “Two Faced Woman,” was a failure. The studio attempted to make Garbo into an all- American girl and it went nowhere. Even she knew it was a disaster, as did the critics of that day and today! Part of the problem was again with Louis B. Mayer, an arch Republican, who disliked her co-star Melvyn Douglas, an outspoken Democrat, liberal and opponent of fascism. MGM never took on the Nazis or fascism like most of the other studios, aside from Warner Brothers. He actually tried to bribe him into silence by promising better parts for his wife, Helen Gahagan, (She was a bright gal from New York, who attended the Berkeley-Carroll School and Barnard College. She was an actress and opera singer, a political activist, was elected to Congress, served from 1944-51, and was defeated by Richard Nixon in 1950, for the Senate in California.)
The film was basically a silly comedy and there were some parts that Joseph Breen, the blue-nose, head of the Production Code objected to, but, it was cleared. That wasn’t the end of its problems. Then Archbishop Francis Spellman, head of the NY Catholic Diocese started a one-man crusade to bar the film. The Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the film and it was downhill from there onward. It was actually banned in some NE cities and eventually MGM pulled it from the theaters and re-shot some of the scenes. Eventually it was cleared by the Legion of Decency. Again, this was a foreshadowing of what was to become, regarding the mood of the country. In Hollywood’s eagerness to remove all the traces of European decadence, it became Garbo’s undoing.
Thus, the most outstanding of her films of the post silent era were, “Mata Hari,” “Camille,” “Anna Karenina,” “Grand Hotel,” “Conquest,” “Queen Christina,” “As You Desire Me,” and finally “Ninotchka.”Though no one really knew it at the time, even Garbo, her career was over in 1941. The pre-WWII Hollywood was changing and changing fast. Many stars were involved in war work. A number were drafted or volunteered to serve. Even the writers, the directors and the some of the big-time executives followed the call to duty. The theme of the movies changed to patriotism, the home front, and action.
Garbo felt there was no audience for her style of film or the roles she played. She was probably quite correct. She never was really part of the Hollywood scene, the gossip, the publicity, the lack of privacy or even the active foreign colony of stars. Basically, she despised the inner workings of Hollywood and never was really part of the machinery of the industry. Garbo even asked her salary to be cut in half regarding the war effort. There was even one report that LB Mayer gave her a check for either $80,000 or $200,000 (depending on the source) and she handed it back, saying she didn’t earn it. Basically, she was well-off enough to say goodbye.
It is said about her that she came along after the chaos of WWI and the she vanished from the silver screen forever in the early months of WWII. She came into a world that had been made for her, that was wanting of another hero or goddess to appear with all the tools at her command: power, majesty, and splendor. In the audience’s eyes all those things were beyond the range of human aspiration. She could enslave men with a smile or destroy with a glance. Women were not jealous of her, because she was much more beautiful than they would dare to be; men did not desire her, because she was clearly beyond the reach of human desire, even though on the screen she went through the motions of love-making.
On the screen, her early wannabe lovers from Gilbert, to Conrad Nagle, Lars Hanson, and John Mack Brown seemed ridiculous, as every man thought he could do better With this in mind, she became the star above all stars, a transcendental figure. As the war interrupted life all over the planet, it obviously changed hers. Her ability to travel back and forth to the continent ended. She eventually moved from her small, utilitarian home in Hollywood to New York. She was offered many roles during the war, but either she wasn’t interested or the financing collapsed. In a sense, she was neither eager for work, nor disappointed that the right property didn’t appear. She was not in need of money, and every door was opened to her. After the war, she was offered and rejected the role of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” It was filled, very successfully by Gloria Swanson, who in actuality, was a faded star of the silent film era. Her butler was played by another silent film standout, the actor Erich von Stroheim, who was a leading director in that earlier period. Of course, like all things in Hollywood, nothing is often what it seems. Von Stroheim was not a Junker, which was a member of the landed nobility in Germany (Prussia), signified by the “von.” He was born Erich Oswald Stroheim in Austria, the son of middle class observant Jews. The production of the 1950 hit, “Sunset Boulevard,” was ironically the “swan song” of both of those veterans of the silent era.
During the war, she like others helped with the war effort. It was rumored that she helped facilitate the rescue of the Danish Jews to Sweden. But, stateside, she was accused by some of not being patriotic enough. She was one of three major stars, including Chaplin and Cagney, who failed to show up at the Hollywood Canteen, where men and women in uniform were entertained by the people from the movie industry. As for Cagney, he was a very private person, not unlike Garbo, and his reasons for not showing up are not generally known. With Chaplin, I have no idea, but he became such a politically, controversial person that he may have felt that his notoriety would upstage the effort. Obviously, an appearance by Garbo would have had the same riotous effect. Some right-wing, nativists even called for her to be deported if she didn’t approve of our country.
In 1946, Billy Wilder said, I don’t think that she’ll make another picture!” He added, “She’s is frightened of pictures as she is of personal appearances and everything that brings her in contact with people.” Let us never forget that her experiences with the curious, the fanatics, and the public in general, was scary and threatening. Many times out in the public she had her clothes ripped at, buttons torn off as she was often threatened by the over-zealous. Her time with people was never pleasant, almost always exploited and often dangerous.
After the war, and when normal traveling became available, she sailed back to Sweden on the SS Gripsholm and was welcomed like a returning hero. The trip was a mixed blessing with the seeing old friends and her family, along with having to deal with a public that was as bad as the worst public spectacles in America. Everyone wanted a piece of her. Her safety and sanity was constantly compromised.
In the frenetic days after the war, she became probably the first Jet-setter, before even jets. But by 1947, Hollywood’s “witching hour” had arrived with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Their noxious efforts started first with their interview with a group called the Motion Picture Alliance, composed of people like John Wayne, Adolph Menjou, Hedda Hopper, Gary Cooper, Ward Bond and Walt Disney. They became the Committee’s first “friendly witnesses.” Many of them did not like the preponderance of Jews in Hollywood, especially those in the Screen Writers Guild and others who were fierce anti-Communists. Menjou and Disney had strong reputations of being anti-Semitic. Many friends of Garbo’s were attacked, threatened and blacklisted. It seemed that anyone who was a Democrat according to Menjou and some of the others, were socialists or communists. Even Ronald Reagan, the President of the Screen Actors Guild, was rumored to be a secret FBI informer (R-10). It wasn’t an easy time for the pre-war liberals, the people that advocated a second-front or the foreign community of Hollywood, especially people like Garbo, who didn’t go along with the studio line. In truth, Garbo was hardly political, but when she heard FDR’s speech regarding Italy’s Declaration of War against France, “on this tenth of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor,” she openly cried. No one had ever witnessed this reaction by her before. In the years after the war, a few interesting projects came her way, but again they had no real appeal for her. There was talk of her playing Saint Joan, from George Bernard Shaw’s play. But many thought she was too old. These ideas just seemed to be gambits created from wishful thinking. She changed apartments in NYC a few times, had a well-publicized affair with the famous conductor Leopold Stokowski, driving his second wife to the divorce courts. There was a possible romance with the author, of “All Quiet of the Western Front,” Erich Maria Remarque. She was helped financially, spiritually and health wise by the famous German-born, nutritionist and self-help author, Gayelord Hauser. They were close and friendly until the end of his life. She was definitely linked to the Russian-born financier, theater producer and millionaire George Schlee and his wife the Russian fashion designer and icon, Valentina. It was assumed that this interesting arrangement was some sort of ménage a trois. Nothing could be further from the truth. He served as her companion, he traveled with her and became her very trusted advisor for 20 years. As for his wife Valentina, she strongly indicated, after her husband’s death in 1964, that she despised Garbo. They actually lived in the same building, on different floors and after her husband’s death she had everything destroyed in their apartment that was related to Garbo. She supposedly brought in a priest to exorcize her apartment. She arranged with the building to never be in the same elevator with Garbo.
In the immediate years after the war she kept busy. In 1948, “Ninotchka” was re-released over the objections of the Soviet Union and it was very popular, especially, in Europe. She went to the theater with Tennessee Williams to see “Streetcar Named Desire,” and he tried to interest her in a project that was on his mind. Leland Hayward took her to see, “Mr. Roberts,” and the British producer Alexander Korda tried to interest her in Jean Cocteau’s “The Eagle has Two Heads!” Nothing seem to move her in any direction.
The closest she came to returning to the film was a project suggested by the producer Walter Wanger. She seemed interested the “Duchesse de Langeais,” or with its Americanized name, “The Lover and Friend.” Screen tests were started, but the cameraman died of a heart attack. The famous James Wong Howe was brought in and she seemed quite content and serious about the project. Unfortunately, the complex financial arrangements never worked out. American banks would not arrange the funding until the Italian financiers made a commitment. They thought the same. Howard Hughes refused to put up the whole $500,000 and her potential co-star James Mason was unhappy with his guarantees. Even the distribution rights were never finalized. In other words, Garbo was paid for her two horrible weeks in Rome, fighting off the paparazzi and that was the last time anything developed. Basically, she didn’t want to go through the effort and bother.
As for her social life, Garbo also had a rumored affair and a long-time association with the famous photographer and set and costume designer Cecil Beaton, who was bi-sexual, known early on as an anti-Semite, and later became famous for his work on “Gigi” and “My Fair Lady.” I am sure that Garbo, who had many Jewish friends, from her mentor Mauritz Stiller, to her Swedish confidante, Mimi Pollak and Salta Viertal, an Austrian-American actress screen writer and political activist, knew nothing of Beaton’s past. He wanted to marry her, and she wanted no part of marriage. In a sense, she laughed at him, but their on and off again friendship lasted for many years. In the early biographies of Garbo, he is hardly mentioned. But, when his massive letters to her, along with her responses, were posthumously published by Hugo Vickers, who handled his literary estate, his long-term infatuation with her was revealed. Many have wondered, in the years after his biographical letters were published in his memoirs, whether what he said was true. Most of the people who knew him well could not believe that he could have had any intimacy with her, no less anyone else. In fact, the specter of it was laughable to many!
She, for sure, didn’t write him off, and they often met, but his nemesis was George Schlee, who was always around her as a buffer, an adviser, and her guardian. All the men in her life, from Stiller to Gilbert, Beaton, Hauser, Schlee and others were smitten by her. Even though her co-stars were intimidated by her, startled by her demand for privacy and her formality, they respected her professionalism and her kindness. In fact, few, if any, had anything, but the highest praise. She had a unique and unequalled allure, even among the most beautiful women in the artistic world that was unique. The question was, who could not be charmed by this remarkable creature?
As for the women in her life, there were many. She was said to have liaisons with the actress Louise Brooks, Lilyan Tashman and even Marie Dressler. She had a great friend in Mimi Pollack, from her days in Sweden, and it was said, a long, on and off, friendship and possibly an affair with the poet, writer and social butterfly, Mercedes de Acosta, who was introduced to Garbo by her very close friend Salka Viertel in 1931. She had 181 letters from Garbo, but only a portion of them were permitted to be revealed by the Garbo estate, and none, it was said, reflected any romantic content.
De Acosta was also in a long-term arrangement with the dancer Isadora Duncan, along with later arrangements with Alla Nazimova, Eve la Gallienne and Marlene Dietrich. Garbo’s friendship, after the publishing of de Acosta’s book, “Here Lies the Heart,” soured dramatically. But, Cecil Beaton believed that de Acosta was a true friend and devoted to her. Again, Mercedes de Acosta was a strange, demanding and insatiable character. She was certainly smitten by Garbo, her stories of meeting her, or being in the same city with her have been questioned for accuracy. In fact, either these assertions were a matter of confusion or fabrication. She may have been the ultimate groupie or camp follower. Reflective of many accounts, Garbo was often dodging her when she was with others. Garbo’s celebrity was unprecedented for her time or almost any time after. What was real celebrity before the movies? Who knew what anyone looked like? Even some of the stars of the Silent Era were never insanely recognizable. Most of the luminaries of that era were in their own world, their own social colonies and believed in their own press clippings. Many of the foreign stars were divided into three groups. The British, who were mostly well-trained, stage actors, very confident in themselves and obviously well-versed in their own language. In a sense they were almost like distant cousins to most Americans. The second group were refugees, often intellectuals and artists who could never return home to the discrimination, the politics or war. Their earlier lives were gone, often forever. The last group were people like Great Garbo. They were neither refugees, nor were they fluent in the language. They were “discoveries” who were hired until they were no longer useful. They had no special skills, especially those from the Silent Era. The ones who remained rarely became stars, but wound up being bit players, character actors, or just pieces to be moved around. Many foreign stars, as soon as their contracts expired and were not renewed, moved back to their native countries before and after the WWII.
In reality, Garbo was easily bored, never really well read, and was hardly, if at all, interested in Hollywood after she left, or the movies in general. In fact, she knew virtually nothing about Hollywood’s post-war directors. She liked to take long walks, with friends like Cecile de Rothschild, was never inhibited about her body, often swam in the nude, and loved taking long walks on the beach. She did like California, but craved the isolation and anonymity she could only experience in New York. In a sense, she could get lost in the crowd. Rarely did anyone in NYC bother her on the street. She shopped like any normal person, she had her friends and intimates. She liked to collect antiques, and eventually displayed them in her apartment.
She traveled constantly from NYC, to London, Venice and Cannes. Yes, she was around people who were her idolaters. In a sense, she was a combination of Queen Christina, the dancer in Grand Hotel and the tragic Anna Karenina. With the advice and counsel of Gayelord Hauser, she invested in real estate in California and divested herself of property in Sweden. This proved quite fruitful and her economic independence was made quite secure.
In her later years, she outlived all her intimates, remained alone and continued to pick and choose who she wished to see. She was successfully treated for breast cancer and was receiving dialysis in the last years of her life. She had always been affected by gastro-intestinal illnesses, which many speculated had come from dieting. In the 20th Century, no one achieved her fame, notoriety and interest for a longer period of time. From her first film in 1926 until her dying day, people, all over the world were interested in her, what she did and where she went. In the age before film, no one was really recognizable. Almost anyone monarch could almost walk the streets in anonymity. As the movies brought remarkable notoriety and identification to all who were featured, Garbo’s face and fame transcended everyone. Even the greatest stars came and went. In our time, Marilyn Monroe’s fame lasted about 10 years. Who really cared about Liz Taylor and Richard Burton for more than a few years? Certainly Fred Astaire was famous for decades, but who cared where he went, who he ate dinner with or who he slept with? Hardly anyone! Garbo’s film career was relatively short, 28 films, squeezed into 19 years. Most of the films were hardly great, and for sure, without her they would be long forgotten.
Her estate was well handled by George Schlee and others. After her death, she left about $32 million in market securities and art to her niece.