Greta Garbo (1905-1990)

Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo
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Even before her death the legend of the enigmatic and charismatic Greta Garbo was forming and that legend has continued to grow to this day. Greta Garbo was a Swedish actress whose short but remarkably successful movie career, started in the silent film era and ended with Garbo as one of the most celebrated actresses in the history of Hollywood.

She had exquisite facial features with a beautiful bone structure and large, expressive eyes and she was voted in 'The Guinness Book of Records' as the most beautiful woman who ever lived.

After four unsuccessful Best Actress Oscar nominations during her active career, Greta Garbo received an Honorary Academy Award in 1955 "for her unforgettable screen performances" and was ranked at number five in the list of Greatest Screen Legends by the American Film Institute.


Greta Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on 18 September 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden. She had an older sister and brother, Alva and Sven. She attended the Katarina Grammar School but had to leave when she was 14, on the death of her father, in order to help the family finances. She had no thoughts at this time of a movie career and after working in a barbershop for a short time she was employed in the offices of a Stockholm department store.

Her first appearance on film was in a short advertisement for the store. The advert was seen by Swedish Director, Erik A. Petschler, who gave her a small part in his next movie 'Luffarpetter' ('Peter the Tramp') in 1922. This sparked in Greta an ambition to become an actress and in the same year she enrolled in the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm.

She was at the school for 2 years and during that time she met the foremost Swedish director, Mauritz Stiller, who became her lover and mentor. He gave her invaluable grounding in movie acting technique and also persuaded her to change her name to Greta Garbo. Through Stiller she had major roles in two silent movies, firstly in Sweden 'Gösta Berlings Saga' (The Story of Gösta Berling) in 1924, and then the following year in Germany 'Die Freudlose Gasse' (The Street of Sorrow). Both films were extremely successful and resulted in a meeting between Louis B Mayer of MGM and Stiller after which both Garbo and Stiller travelled to America and signed contracts with MGM.


It was still the Silent Era and Garbo's lack of English was not an obstacle. She was a sensation in her first US film 'Torrent' in 1926 and MGM realised they had a potential big star. Her next films confirmed her star potential: 'The Temptress' in 1926, 'The Flesh and the Devil' in 1927, and the same year 'Love', both these last two co-starring heartthrob John Gilbert. By this time Stiller's influence on her had come to an end when his contract was terminated by MGM as a result of his constant disagreements with the studio bosses. He returned to Sweden and in 1928 he died from pleurisy.

Garbo's rapid progress accelerated when she made her first Talkie, 'Anna Christie' in 1930. Following a huge advertising campaign with the slogan "Garbo Talks!", the public flocked to hear her voice for the first time, and despite her strong Swedish accent her accomplished acting performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She earned a second nomination later in the year for her performance in 'Romance'.

Now a top box-office star, Garbo appeared as the World War I spy in 'Mata Hari' in 1931 and then the following year played a Russian ballerina in a cast of all-stars in 'Grand Hotel' which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

After a two year dispute with MGM over the terms of her contract she gained almost complete control over her movies and her high status at the studio was assured with successes such as 'Queen Christina' in 1933 and 'Anna Karenina' in 1935, and in 1936 her portrayal of the doomed courtesan in Camille was described by one critic as the finest ever recorded.

The success of the comedy 'Ninotchka' in 1939, opposite Melvyn Douglas, which was publicised with the tagline 'Garbo Laughs', made her position in Hollywood seemingly impregnable. Her successful salary demands made her the highest paid actress in Hollywood but if any of her films were to fail she would begin to be a financial liability to MGM. That is exactly what happened with her next movie 'Two-Faced Woman' in 1941, which tried to capitalise on Garbo's new, lighter comedic image but which was not a success.

Career End

That movie marked the end of Garbo's movie career and at the age of thirty-six she went into retirement and never made another film. The reasons for such an early end to a fabulously successful career have been debated at length and boil down to her increasing disillusionment with fame and the trappings of fame and the way that the world had changed after the Second World War. From her earliest days as a public figure Garbo shunned the normal 'duties' of the film star - she never signed autographs, answered fan mail or granted interviews and never even attended the premieres of her own films.

She spent the rest of her life in helping to perpetuate the mystique she had already created. She left Hollywood and moved to New York where, although she was an extremely wealthy woman she lived frugally.


Garbo was relentless about preserving her privacy and indeed the elusiveness of reliable information about her private life fed rumour and gossip during her career, and has added to her allure and legend since.

She never married or had children and loved to be unconventional. Her sexual orientation was part of the mystery. She had many lovers, such as the actor, John Gilbert, with whom she first starred in 'Flesh and the Devil' in 1927 and with whom she lived for a time. She also had affairs with Leopold Stokowsky and director Rouben Mamoulien and there were rumours of lesbian affairs with the silent film star, Louise Brooks, and the writer, Mercedes de Acosta.

In her own words from 'Grand Hotel': "I want to be alone". She achieved her wish. She lived alone and spent the last years of her life in almost complete seclusion.

Greta Garbo died of natural causes on April 15th, 1990 in New York. She was 84. Her ashes were returned for burial near her family home in Sweden.

Greta Garbo Academy Awards

No Wins:
Honorary Award (1955)
For her unforgettable screen performances.

Four Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Romance (1930))
Best Actress ... Anna Christie (1930))
Best Actress ... Camille (1936)
Best Actress ... Ninotchka (1939)

Greta Garbo Filmography

Herr och fru Stockholm
Konsum Stockholm Promo
En lyckoriddare
A Scarlet Angel
Gösta Berlings saga
Joyless Street
The Temptress
Flesh and the Devil
Anna Karenina
The Divine Woman
The Mysterious Lady
A Woman of Affairs
Wild Orchids
A Man's Man
The Single Standard
The Kiss
Anna Christie
Anna Christie
The Rise of Helga
Mata Hari
Grand Hotel
As You Desire Me
The Painted Veil