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A century after her birth, Greta Garbo's allure lives on

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NEW YORK - The studio's promotional line for her first talking role in "Anna Christie" was "Garbo talks!" For her first comedy, "Ninotchka," it was "Garbo laughs!"

But with Greta Garbo, talking and laughing were almost beside the point. Garbo looks. That's all it took.

The famously laconic Swedish screen siren, who was born 100 years ago in Stockholm, held the movie-going public in thrall with her famous gaze, which could shift from drop-dead to come-hither with nary a twitch of her impeccably tweezed eyebrows.

For the centennial of her birth, two recently published books and a newly released multi-disc DVD edition of her greatest performances are giving movie-lovers a chance to rediscover that transfixing look, as well as the beauty, glamour and mystique that made Garbo the highest-paid film star of her time.

Beyond her performances in such 1930s classics as "Mata Hari," "Camille," and "Queen Christina," Garbo added to her allure by refusing to be simply another gear in the Hollywood publicity machine. "I vant to be alone," her character, a disillusioned ballerina, said in "Grand Hotel," but the line came to stand for her own quest for privacy, spurning interviews and photo-ops until her death in 1990.

That jealous protectiveness only heightened the desire of her fans for a peek inside her personal life.

"Garbo is the extreme definition of stardom in the cinema," film critic and historian David Thomson has written. "Her essence is a matter of myth and the conjunction of natural performance with legendary and supernatural personality."

Kenneth Tynan, the legendarily spiky critic, was more pungent: "What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober."

Born Greta Gustafsson, the future star grew up in an impoverished working-class family in Stockholm. Her father died when she was 14, and soon after she was working in a barbershop, lathering men's faces. But a fascination with the theater led her to study acting at the Royal Dramatic Theater, and then in 1923 she came to the attention of Swedish film director Mauritz Stiller, who cast her - a virtual unknown - for a lead role in "The Story of Gosta Berling."

While the film was in production, she changed her name to Garbo. How she chose the name has never been made clear. But it was a shrewd move that set her apart from other Scandinavian starlets.

"Being named Greta Gustafsson in Sweden is a little like being named Mary Smith," said film historian Robert Dance, co-author of "Greta: Portraits from her Private Collection" (Rizzoli, $50), one of the books published to commemorate Garbo's centennial. The other is "Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy" (Abrams, $50), by Mark A. Vieira, who chronicles her career by drawing on letters and MGM production files, as well as production stills and portrait photos.

"Gosta Berling" was a European hit in 1924, and among those who saw the film was Louis B. Mayer, the head of the newly formed MGM Studios, who was scouting Europe for new talent that he could sign cheaply.

"Miss Garbo overcame him in the first reel," Irene Mayer Selznick, Mayer's daughter, later recalled. "It was her eyes."

Garbo arrived in Hollywood in 1925. She was 19, and, with her wild hair and a few extra pounds, she was not yet leading-lady material.

That changed, however, with "Flesh and the Devil," her 1927 breakout hit in which she played opposite John Gilbert, MGM's leading star in the silent era. Their off-screen romance ignited steamy on-screen kisses that electrified audiences.

"Flesh and the Devil" is one of three silent films on "Garbo: The Signature Collection" (Warner Home Video, $100), a 10-disc set that also includes such Garbo landmarks as "Ninotchka," "Queen Christina" and "Camille" and a new Garbo film biography by Kevin Brownlow.

Garbo's involvement with Gilbert led her to discover that he was making $10,000 a week, while she was drawing only $400 a week. Stung by the salary disparity and tired of playing vamps, she went on strike.

MGM hinted darkly that Garbo's visa might not be renewed if she refused to work, but the 21-year-old actress did not back down.

"She said, `Fine, I'll go back to Europe,'" said Gray Reisfield, Garbo's niece. "And she would have. She got a much higher salary and her choice of leading men. I don't know of many people at that age who would stand up to Louis B. Mayer."

Her new contract was for $5,000 a week. Throughout her career, she was a tough negotiator. By the mid-1930s, she was reportedly making $450,000 a year, billed as the highest pay in America. "Garbo's salary" became one of the "tops" in Cole Porter's list song, "You're the Top."

Her ability to look after herself carried over into all aspects of her life. She ended her romance with Gilbert and, although her name was linked to other men, including conductor Leopold Stokowski, she never married. As for her friendships with lesbians, such as socialite Mercedes de Acosta, Dance said there is no firm evidence those relationships ever became romantic.

"She defined an independent woman, with a naturalism in her hair, makeup and clothing that is largely unchanged today," Dance said. "She did things that Katharine Hepburn got credit for - wearing pants, never getting married - but she did it a decade earlier."

After she made the transition to talkies in 1930 with "Anna Christie," Garbo's star burned even brighter in a series of dramatic roles that found her on the wrong end of a tragic romance - "Queen Christina," "Anna Karenina" and, most famously, as the tuberculosis-stricken heroine in "Camille."

"Garbo had something behind the eyes that you couldn't see until you photographed it in close-up," director Clarence Brown, who made six of Garbo's pictures, once said. "You could see thought. If she had to look at one person with jealousy, and another with love, she didn't have to change her expression. You could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other."

Although nominated four times for an Academy Award, she never won an Oscar. Instead, she received a lifetime-achievement award from the academy in the 1950s. She didn't show up to accept it.

Under the terms of all her contracts, Garbo received an original print of every publicity photo that was taken of her. The quality of those photos - taken by such famous Hollywood portrait specialists as George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, and Ruth Harriet Louise - was rarely, if ever, matched.

"Those images entered the image bank of the 20th century," said Dance. "It's not about what she's wearing or what the props are or what the room looks like. It's Garbo's face. They're really psychological."

Reisfield and her family discovered the trove of photos after Garbo's death. Many were still in their original studio envelopes, according to Dance, who was contacted by the family because of an earlier book of his on Ruth Harriet Louise, the first photographer to hone Garbo's image as a glamorous but remote figure.

Garbo's photo collection, the basis of the book that Dance co-wrote with Scott Reisfield, Garbo's grand-nephew, is on display through Nov. 12 at New York's Scandinavia House ( The exhibit also includes mementos of her life before and after the movies, including an elaborately carved piece of scrimshaw that President Kennedy gave her when she came to the White House in 1963, shortly before he was assassinated.

By then, Garbo's last movie, "Two-Faced Woman," was 22 years behind her. Released in 1941, it was a flop, but Garbo, then 36, did not intend for it to be her last picture. She still had one movie left on her MGM contract, but with America's entrance into World War II, the studio felt audiences would be less receptive to Garbo's accented English, and Europe, which had always been a lucrative market for her pictures, was inaccessible.

Attempts to make another movie after the war went nowhere. Garbo, who by then was living in an apartment in New York near the East River, settled into a prolonged retirement. She read, traveled extensively, saw friends and, almost every day, went for long, vigorous walks through the city. Yet her desire for privacy was undiminished, even leading her to run into Central Park when Swedish actress Liv Ullmann spotted her on the street and tried to talk to her, according to Dance.

"I think everybody likes privacy to some extent," said Reisfield, 73, who lives in her aunt's apartment. "Maybe some people more than others. And I think Swedes tend to be a little more private. Maybe it's those long, dark nights."

During her long retirement, Garbo sometimes gave signs that she missed acting, Reisfield said. But she never lost confidence that her place in the movies was secure.

Periodically, a young actress would be touted as "the new Garbo." Reisfield once asked her what she thought about that.

"There'll never be another Garbo," she replied. "I'm different inside."


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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