Chasing Solitude: Greta Garbo’s Quest For Peace
How one of film history’s greatest legends wanted nothing to do with fame
Despite her ailing body and her elderly age, Greta Gustafsson loved to walk. The location — upstate New York, admist the villages in the Swiss Alps or her place of birth of Sweden — never mattered; she found herself happiest during her daily walks. And, despite whatever the temperature might be, Gustafsson wore clothes to hide herself: dark sunglasses, large hats and loose (yet comfortable) clothing. She claimed this was partially because of her doctor’s orders of keeping out of the sun. Recently, she had had an operation on her nose to remove cancerous skin cells and she was to avoid getting her nose sunburnt. A hat usually did the trick.
Mainly, though, Gustafsson wanted to block out the world — the reason that hit at the truth more so than doctor’s orders. “For more than thirty years I’ve been walking in these mountains [the Alps] and I’ve enjoyed doing it,” she told a friend once, “I’ve had my own sandwiches with me, and I haven’t needed to bother anyone.” Finding complete solitude remained Gustafsson’s goal.
Despite her wishes, from time to time someone would approach her and conjure memories of her past. Once, on a walk, a German man approached Gustafsson and asked, “Aren’t you Greta Garbo?”
“Sometimes,” she answered, turned her back to the man and walked away.
Greta Garbo (her birth name is Greta Gustafsson) is considered one of the giants of film history. In the 1920s, she bursted onto the Hollywood scene after starring in films in her native Sweden. Her move to the United States ushered in a new realm of success. Greta became the biggest star in Hollywood and throughout the world. Her lines are often quoted, and her fashion sense, even today, is looked highly upon.
Despite the success, Greta is widely misunderstood by fans of her day and today — even by Greta herself. As a young girl, she dreamed of being an actress, though she never felt comfortable in front of a camera or a crowd. Her performances say otherwise. She is calm and in control of her on-screen performances.
In 1930 and in 1949, Greta Garbo changed film history, and, in doing so, she became a revered enigma.
At the turn of the 20th century, Karl Alfred Gustafsson and Anna Lovisa both moved to Stockholm seeking stable work and independence. They were laborers, working various jobs, when the two met, fell in love and married. Three kids followed: Sven, Alva and Greta. Born on September 18th, 1905, Greta Gustafsson entered the world nearby her family’s home in Södermalm, Stockholm, Sweden. The Gustafsson’s lived in a three-bedroom flat, which Greta found unpleasant. “Where we lived, all the houses and apartments looked alike, their ugliness matched by everything surrounding us,” she remembered. Life was tough and unpleasant, but manageable.
The family was not out on the streets, yet luxuries were rare. In trying times early on in her life, Greta turned to her family for comfort. “My mother was always in a good mood,” she recalled about her childhood, “My father had a sense of humor and always used to cheer people up. His motto was, ‘Things will be better tomorrow.’” Like many of us, our youth holds a special place in our memories. Greta was no different. Her family (and a sense of home — Sweden) would always be her place of comfort throughout her life.
Despite positive memories of her parents and siblings, as a kid, Greta liked to be alone. Though she went to school and bonded with classmates, Greta found the experience lackluster. She often day-dreamed and had imaginary conversations with photographs of various actors. As she grew up, Greta’s interests were usually anything but the curriculum of school. However, friends and classmates were always impressed with Greta’s capacity for knowledge. “Greta seemed never to do any homework but knew all the answers anyway,” Ebba Antonsson, a schoolmate, remembered.
One of Greta’s favorite childhood activities was directing her friends in small “performances” — usually when out and about after school. Though she was a quiet kid, Greta fell in love with acting. She loved to be around the local theater, whether walking by with her father on their walks or performing in amateur theater. “Night after night, I sat there dreaming. Dreaming when I would be inside — getting ready,” Greta said, when remembering her nightly visits to the local Mosebacke Theater in Sweden. Being around the world of acting, Greta believed she could practice the profession and excel. The youthful, innocent young girl was determined to see her dream a reality.
Greta was destined for success, but she needed a spark. While she found personal solace at the theater, she really showed no indication that she was going to become an actress. She finished school and become unsure of what to do next. While figuring out her future, the family was rocked by news: her father contracted the Spanish flu. Greta stayed home and tried to help nurse him back to health in any way she could. Her efforts were not enough; Karl died in 1920. Greta was only 14 years old.
To earn extra money for her family, Greta began working at a barber shop. Soon, she found a better job at a PUB department store in Stockholm. Greta was an errand girl, but found better luck modeling hats (and ultimately fashion) for the store. She wrote that while she took the job for money, her ambition to act remained burning inside of her, “Can you imagine it, me a shopgirl! But don’t worry; I haven’t given up thought of the stage because of this. Not a bit; I’m just as keen as ever.”
While working at the department store, the spark Greta needed to become an actress was lit. The store began featuring her in filmed commercials. Greta found success modeling hats for the store’s catalog. The writer and director of the ads, Ragnar Ring, saw those hat ad in print and casted Greta (and other PUB workers) in bit parts for a filmed commercial. On December 12, 1920, Greta filmed her first ad: Från topp till tå or How Not to Dress
Two years after her father died, in 1922, Swedish director Erik Arthur Petschler casted Greta in his silent comedy Peter the Tramp. Petschler saw Greta in front of a shoe store and thought she would be perfect for his next film. Though the short was nothing spectacular — in fact local reviews were not kind — Garbo excelled. She stood out to filmgoers and reviewers as a potential star. After filming Peter the Tramp, Greta left PUB. She wanted to become a full time actress.
The world of film suited her. Though she fell in love with acting at the theater, performing on stage terrified her — mostly because she did not want to be in front of an audience. With films, there were fewer people to act in front of and multiple takes were possible — if she were to mess up a line or scene. But, to be considered as actress, Greta needed practice.
She applied for the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s Acting School in Stockholm. Her determination to act (and not work at the department store) propelled Greta past her fright in her audition. “I was never so close to passing out as I was when I stood there and looked at them. All I could think was that I didn’t want to go back to work at PUB. I simply had to succeed,” Greta recalled. She passed and was accepted. On September 18, 1922 — her birthday — Greta had her first lesson at the school. Though she preformed on stage because she had to for the classes, Greta never became comfortable acting on stage.
Fate continued to smile on Greta. In 1924, Swedish director Mauritz Stiller casted Garbo in The Saga of Gösta Berling. The film is Garo’s first leading part in a feature-length film; her window to become an actress bursted open. Berling drew eyes and attention from the Swedish public, none more interested in her than its director Mauritz Stiller. He became Garbo’s confidant in the up-and-coming film world. He instilled Garbo with confidence and opportunity to succeed — by having her sign a contract to star in more Swedish films. Having someone like Stiller around was vital for Garbo, who battled with herself and her acting abilities. (The two would be linked as lovers by their peers and history, but it is high-unlikely they were ever more than friends. However, their closeness was apparent. Greta is quoted with saying, “If I were ever to love anyone, it would be Mauritz Stiller.”)
Greta’s fortunes were looking up. In 1925, she worked with famed Austrian director G.W. Pabst on The Street of Sorrow. Garbo began getting parts more meaningful, helping her become more talented and more confident. But, she continued to struggle with herself. She enjoyed the work, but never seemed completely happy as an actress. It was, however, work and she knew her duty to complete the task at hand. Fate continued to smile — though the official reason this time is lost to history.
The same year as Sorrow, Louis B. Mayer, vice president and general manager of MGM — one of Hollywood’s biggest studios — and Greta Garbo’s worlds collided. Mayer wanted fresh talent for his studio and went to Europe to mine potential stars. In one account, he was interested in Mauritz Stiller. In another, he wanted Greta.
In the first version of the story, Stiller wanted Greta to be a part of any deal. Mayer said no, only recanting later when he watched The Saga of Gösta Berling. “I can make a star of her,” Mayer reportedly said. In the second version of the story, Mayer had already seen the film before heading to Europe, and he wanted Garbo. Mayer’s daughter remembers her father remarking after watching Berling before their trip, “The girl, look at the girl! I’ll take her without him I’ll take her with him. Number one is the girl.”
However the order of events went, an agreement between Garbo, Stiller and Mayer was agreed upon. Greta, with Stiller, made her way to the United States to star in Hollywood motion pictures. They sailed for the United States in July of 1925, only for MGM to ignore them for six months. Stiller and Garbo found their own way to Hollywood, where the studio continued to ignore Garbo. She wrote home, perhaps the first glimpse of the negativity toward Hollywood that would drive her away for good 20 years later. “I don’t feel at home here,” she wrote, “Oh, you lovely little Sweden, I promise that when I return to you, my sad face will smile as never before.”
Through Swedish connections, Garbo finally got a screen test in front of MGM boss Irving Thalberg. The boss was impressed and began “grooming” her for Hollywood. He arranged to “fix her teeth, make sure she lost weight and gave her English lessons,” according to author Frederick Sands. Thalberg pictured Garbo as a young, wise woman. Garbo hated the idea; she believed she was too young to be believable as a “worldly” woman. Her disconnect in Hollywood continued to grow. (Stiller would direct Greta in one Hollywood film: The Temptress. Fights between him and studio heads drove him away from the studios; his career never really took off. He died in 1927.)
Through the rest of the 1920s, Greta made silent films, most notably 1926’s Flesh and the Devil and 1928’s A Woman of Affairs. Both co-starred John Gilbert, a popular leading man of the day. Their on-screen chemistry was undeniable, and it soon transported off-screen. Tabloids picked up on the romance, which bothered Garbo — who always sought peace.
Despite the feelings toward one another, the relationship never went far. Gilbert wanted to marry; Greta did not. She told Gilbert he was in love with “Greta Garbo, the actress”, to which he replied, “You’re damn right.” Greta made it a personal choice never to marry. Perhaps, she was afraid and nervous about committing so much emotional energy to a single person for so long. In an interview when asked about Gilbert, Greta replied, “It is a friendship. I will never marry. But you may say that I think John is one of the finest men I have ever know, American or otherwise. He is a real gentleman.”
What made Greta a huge success on-screen were her subtle glances and expressions; her demeanor always seemed exactly perfect for the role. She always knew the emotional aspect of a particular and could channel that emotion magnificently. In essence, she was a natural.
With her growing success and bigger roles, Greta hoped to get more comfortable with pretending — just like she had loved to do as a kid. But, her nerves remained with her. She hated visitors on set, and would often ask non-essential crew members to turn away whenever it was her turn to deliver lines. Even though her face and actions were shown on the biggest of screens for millions to watch, Greta remained terrified of acting in front of large amounts of people.
The stardom she was beginning to notice was about to amplify.
Greta Makes History
Though it was not the first movie to use sound, 1927’s The Jazz Singer is often credited with killing silent film. Starring Al Jolson, who sings and is heard by the audience, was a run-away box office hit. The film’s success alerted film studios that sound could be hugely profitable and was, more than likely, the way of the future.
Soon, “talkies” became more and more common — eventually the standard practice. Sound gave careers to a fresh host of filmmaking talent; it also destroyed talent, too. Actors’ whose voice was funky or off saw their careers evaporate. Now, one had to look the part and sound the part.
Greta Garbo had little reason to believe her talents would translate to “talkies”. Despite her unquestionable beauty, trends and fashion opinions were always followed by critics. One awkward or off-beat look, and Greta might have lost favor with the public. Thanks to this pressure and the insistence (by the studio) to maintain a certain image, Greta always worried about her appearance. There was a more pressing issue: English was not her native language. Though she could speak it, her accent might drive away those enthralled by her silent acting abilities — enthralled because of her silence. (MGM shared these fears, keeping her out of the “talkies” for as long as they could).
In 1922, playwright Eugene O’Neil wrote Anna Christie — a play about a prostitute trying to turn her life around. A year after its opening on Broadway, a silent film was made which starred Blanche Sweet. The play would become more well known in 1930, when Greta Garbo made her sound debut. MGM was confident the film was the right role — her character in the film was Swedish — for Garbo to find success.
Capitalizing on Garbo immesnse popularity (and the popularity of “talkies”), MGM advertised Anna Christie with two words: “Garbo Talks!” The campaign worked. There was enough intrigue from the public and film critics alike to see how well Garbo acted in this new age of film. More so, they wanted to hear Greta speak. The slogan personified the actress, who was always a woman of few worlds.
Filming took place in the fall of 1929. Greta refused a speech coach. Her English was understandable, and she did not want another person coming in — on top of seeing her act — and telling her she was doing something wrong.
Sixteen minutes into Anna Christie, with the audience awaiting with bated breath, Greta’s character uttered her now famous line: “Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don’ be stingy, baby.” The performance, which seems as natural as her silent roles, took a moment or two to find its footing. Her first scene was re-shot multiple times because of Garbo’s insistence that either she was or her costume was off. Nonetheless, she found a comfortable spot in her mind to garner the confidence to act and speak. When Greta first watched the scene during filming, she expressed cheer about her voice: “My God! Is that my voice? Does that sound like me? honestly?”
Filmed in thirty days, Anna Christie propelled Garbo into a new realm of stardom. The film was a massive hit, breaking theater records for ticket sales, and it was the highest grossing film of the year. For her performance in the film, Greta was nominated for an Academy Award — though she lost to Norma Shearer for The Divorcee.
Anna Christie is incredibly important in film history. The film gave Greta new fame and ushered her into a world where films to fit her needs and style. She no longer had to seek out roles. In addition to giving Greta fame, Anna Christie proved, with the right role, silent stars stood a chance in the era of “talkies”.
Greta followed Anna Christie with an incredible run of films and performances: 1931’s Mata Hari, 1932’s Grand Hotel, 1933’s Queen Christina, 1936’s Camile and 1939’s Ninotchka. MGM realized to succeed was to follow Greta; her films routinely returned their investment. Amidst this new success, the studio began listening to her requests. When she asked for a specific co-star, the studio obliged. When she asked for a certain script be filmed, the studio obliged. Studio heads were in awe of her talent, but also appreciated the box office numbers they saw with a Greta Garbo film.
The 1930s saw Greta prosper. The films were successes financially, and they are brilliant showcases of her amazing talent as an actress. Greta remained quiet and out of the public’s watch. Her films became important, because they offered everyone a glance into who Greta really was as a person. With eyes heavily dissecting each frame of her films, plot points and performances became scrutinized. Without a doubt, her films pushed boundaries. In Queen Christina, Greta kissed a female co-star. Tabloids tried “reporting” on the hidden meaning behind the kiss, and the public ate up the rumors — which always made Greta uneasy.
For Greta, her personal life was mostly a burden. She hated big parties, premieres or events. She loved being with her family and with friends. Greta had no time for those who truly did not know her — or cared to know her. She routinely laughed at fan mail, confused on why someone would send letters to those they did not know.
When close friends, most notably John Gilbert, died, Greta took the loss hard. She had made friends in Hollywood, but nothing could replace home or her family. There were visits, of course, but that happiness was only temporary. When friends like Gilbert or Stiller died, the loss of people that made Hollywood a bit more comfortable, depressed Greta. In 1932’s Grand Hotel, her sadness comes through in its most obvious way: through her performance. Her famous line “I want to be alone” seems as if Greta Garbo is talking directly with the audience.
By the end of the 1930s, Greta was met with more disappointment: her film Conquest was not sucessful at the box office. More worry entered Greta’s mind. Perhaps, she thought, her career was ending.
Greta followed up her box-office disappointment Conquest with her first Hollywood comedy: 1939’s Ninotchka. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who Greta later admitted was her favorite director she had worked with, the comedy depicted Greta in a looser role. In Ninotchka, the moody and serious Greta is replaced by a more relaxed and easy-going performance. Today, the film arguably is her best known performance.
Many close to Greta say Ninotchka was the film where her happiness came out unlike anytime before. She enjoyed being on set and laughed more times than not. Greta had recently returned from a trip to Europe, where she saw her family. Seeing her family lifted her spirits and gave her the inner-strength needed to continue with acting in Hollywood.
Though, Greta — perhaps slyly — evaded on commenting on her performance in the film. It was a fresh side of her and something public would see for the first time. When filming ended, Lubitsch asked Greta what she thought of her performance. “She didn’t know if she was bad or good,” Lubitsch remembered.
Though not her last film, Ninotchka (as seen today) is the perfect book-end to Greta’s career. Though her serious, moody roles are unmistakably her own, she lights up the screen in Ninotchka unlike anyone had seen her before.
When released in October of 1939, MGM advertised the film with “Garbo laughs!”
Greta Makes History… Again
In 1941, Greta made Two-Faced Woman. Directed by George Cukor — known for working with the “who’s who” of leading women — the film was a moderate success at the box office, but critics hated it. So did Garbo, who referred to the film as “my grave”.
Though she never initially intended to do so, Greta Garbo had her sights on history, again.
Greta Garbo was a success in Hollywood, but her films in the international market were beloved. With World War II well into its second year by 1941, the European film market’s demand for Hollywood films plummeted, which hurt MGM’s returns. Soon, work for Greta — even as big of a star as she was — became harder to maintain. More importantly, her family in Sweden became a priority.
Greta, immensely worried all the time about herself and her family, did everything she could to calm herself. She wrote letters, called on friends for comforting thoughts and sought solace by being alone whenever she could.
In 1945, with the war all but over, a friend of Greta remarked that she was “impatient to work” but also “afraid of it”. With Hollywood films looking to rebound after the war, Greta started worrying about her look and her age. “Time leaves traces on our small faces and bodies. It’s not the same anymore, being able to pull [acting] off," she said.
In 1949, Greta intended to work. She screen-tested for an adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais. The film was never made. The financing never materialized, and the project faded into oblivion. The screen-tests for the would-be film was the last time Greta Garbo stood in front of a movie camera.
In 16 years, she made 28 films — stemming from the Swedish silents to the Hollywood “talkies”. Greta Garbo fully retired from acting; she was 44 years old.
Throughout her retirement, she remained private. She yearned for a simple life, which certainly could not be found as a movie star. Incredibly reclusive, Greta remained friends with various people she had met during her Hollywood career. She found solace and peace with their company; she often walked and talked with friends as a way of entertaining herself. But, a melancholy attitude toward the world followed her everywhere. “I suppose I suffer from very deep depression,” she remarked in 1971.
No longer worried about working or the strains of being watched by millions, Greta was relaxed, at peace and comfortable — but alone.
The ability to pull away from Hollywood, and not let its demons take over her, is a sign of Garbo’s strength and reserve. In Hollywood, she had the ability to seem as if she was out-of-place, yet quietly calculating her next move. Like her school friends said of their classmate back in Sweden, Greta was the smartest person in the room — though she would never admit to that. Enough was enough; Greta knew if she continued that her mental health would have been negatively twisted. She smartly found a better life.
From 1949 until to her death on April 15th, 1990, Greta Garbo lived her life on her terms. No managers. No studios. No bosses. (In my opinion, her actions are noble and incredibly brave. Yet, when I think of Greta Garbo — and all her fantastic performances — I see someone who is terribly lonely. In the roughly 40 years of her retirement, I find reassurance that she found some of the peace and enjoyment out of life she unquestionably deserved.)
Why did Garbo leave acting? The answer is not cut and dry. Worries about herself, her family and her loathing of the business side of things all contributed to her giving up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In the end, however, she fell out of love with a career she grew up admiring — pushed away by her own pressures and the pressures of others. Greta figured she done all she could with acting, and, if she had continued, she would be just repeating herself. By the late 1940s, she was unhappy, so she acted on her feelings and vowed to change her lifestyle.
Again, Greta Garbo showed the world that personal health is far more important than having a career that could be mentally damaging. She changed film history in 1949 because a film career into the 50s and 60s makes Hollywood and the film world look very different. But Greta Garbo is also an empowering figure, no doubt a role model for those looking at someone who puts herself and well-being first. That is always harder said than done. Greta is proof it can be done.
It is best, however, for Greta to answer the question. In 1986, she was with Sven Broman, a Swedish friend who would write about his experiences as Greta Garbo’s friend. One day, Broman straight up asked Greta why she left acting, “I was tired of Hollywood,” Greta replied, “I did not like my work. There were many days when I had to force myself to to go to the studio. I really wanted to live another life.”