© THE NEW YORK TIMES, September 5, 1965 by
Saga of Greta Lovisa Gustafsson –
Saga of Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo’s face was a face that mesmerized a generation of moviegoers – and still startles passer-by on the streets of New York. Now the woman behind the face is 60, but the mystery of her talent and private life remains.
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson will be 60 this Sept. 18, but the chances are excellent that the lady in question, more familiarly known as Greta Garbo, will have no public statement to make on the occasion. Indeed, it would be purest chance if anyone not a member of her intimate circle happened to discover where she would be on that day. It is a testimony to her continuing fascination that so stringently uncommunicative a personage should still rank high on the list of the newsworthy and the celebrated of our time. She may have forgotten – or, at least, avoided – the world, but the world has by no means forgotten her; this in spite of the fact that it was nearly a quarter of a century ago that she last appeared in motion pictures.
Discussions still go on concerning her merits as an actress and her personality. The mystery surrounding her private life has by no means been thoroughly sifted, and that life is still as closely guarded a secret, by herself and by her friends, as it ever was. It is safe to say that no offer of money, or of a plum of a role, would tempt her out of her self-imposed retirement. And yet, hundreds of New Yorkers have been granted, from time to time, a glimpse of her still-haunting face, with its arches eyebrows, wide-apart blue eyes, delicately chiseled nose and exquisitely shaped lips. These glimpses have usually occurred in Manhattan’s East 50’s and 60’s (although she has been known to wander as far west as the Avenue of the Americas), where she strolls, shops or merely browses.
Last reports on her whereabouts were that she was “out of the country, probably in Europe” as one friend put it before clamming up entirely. As any reporter seeking facts about her knows, those privileged to be her intimates never divulge anything that might be construed as an invasion of her privacy. She becomes so alarmed and disturbed by the slightest breach of her inner security by her friends that they now flutter off like frightened pigeons at any suggestion they say something about her, no matter how complimentary. John Bainbridge once wrote an entire biography of Garbo without ever meeting his subject. Those friends of Garbo’s who read the book found it crammed with interesting facts, but one and all felt the elusive essence of the lady had not been captured. “Some day,” said one of those friends, who has known her for 25 years, “I will tell what I know, but the time is not yet.”
The owner of the sphinx-like “face of the century” was born in Stockholm, the daughter of a hard-drinking laborer, Alfred Gustafsson, and his common-law wife. And although Garbo has never tried to conceal her relatively lowly origins, she has not been loquacious about them either. “I was born,” she once said, in what grudgingly passed for one of her rare interviews. “I grew up like everybody else. I didn’t like to go to school.”
Remorseless researchers have learned, over the years, that as a teenager she worked in a Stockholm barber shop as a “lather girl,” that her fist appearance on a stage was in a Salvation Army revue for the benefit of the indigent and that her film debut was made at 16 in a couple of Swedish commercial shorts, after which she appeared in a feature-length comedy as a bathing girl. When she was 17, she was a student actress at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic School, and there Mauritz Stiller, one of Scandinavia’s most successful film directors, discovered her and cast her for the part of Countess Elizabeth Dohna in his film epic of Selma Lagerlof’s “The Saga of Gosta Berling.” Her incredible beauty emerged in that film (released in 1924) and by that time the plumpish Greta had a new last name. Stiller chose it: “Gabor, Gabro, Garbo – that’s it,” he said, and so it was.
Her personal relationship with Stiller (who was 40 at the time he met her) has caused speculations – as have all her associations with men in her life. Stiller’s inclinations may or may not have been homosexual, but they were not directed particularly toward women. According to John Bainbridge, the director had a mental image of “the perfect woman, who would not only be beautiful, but supersensual, spiritual and mystic,” and this woman he would make into a great world star. Garbo fitted the specifications, and thenceforth she was under his influence.
He took her to Constantinople to make a movie that did not get made, and then to Berlin, where G.W. Papst persuaded her to play a would-be prostitute in his “The Joyless Street” while Stiller handled the salary negotiations. By this time Hollywood, in the person of Louis B. Mayer, had called Stiller, who insisted that Garbo go along, at a salary $400 a week. M.G.M immediately started her through the starlet routine, including poses with Leo the Lion and running in a trumped-up track meet with students from U. S. C.
Garbo was then a rangy 5 feet 7, and weighed 127 pounds, statistics that were then not regarded as particularly sexy. Stiller failed in Hollywood, while Garbo blossomed. He was supposed to direct her in her first film, “The Torrent” (1926), but plans changed. He started as director of “The Temptress,” but was soon replaced because of his slow, arty, European methods of work.
Garbo, however, was immediately discovered by the reviewers. One said: “Greta has a delightfully youthful figure and a face that is strangely attractive, though not at all beautiful” (!). Mordaunt Hall of The Times thought she easily captured the acting honors in these melodramas and Richard Watts of The Herald Tribune agreed. “She seems an excellent and attractive actress,” Watts wrote, “with a surprising propensity for looking like Carol Dempster, Norma Talmadge, Zasu Pitts and Gloria Swanson in turn.”
Nearly 10 years later, when he saw her in “Anna Karenina” (for which she won the New York Film Critics acting award) Watts removed his qualifications. “I think,” he wrote, “that no actress has brought so much beauty and magnificence to any form of the theater within this generation.” He added that she was “the closest thing to a vision of ideal loveliness that is destined to be vouchsafed to us in this world.” And who would argue with hat assessment today?
Garbo came to be acknowledged as the world’s leading screen actress, as well as its most mysterious. She was also the leading Hollywood sex symbol of the nineteen-twenties, a reputation which came from the torrid silents she was starred in 1927 and 1928 – “Flesh and the Devil,” “Love” (a silent version of “Anna Karenina”), “The Divine Woman,” “The Mysterious Lady.” These films have at best an antique charm.
Moviegoers also avidly followed the studio-exploited romance between Garbo and John Gilbert, her leading man in “Flesh and the Devil,” in which she played a femme fatale who perishes beneath the ice while attempting to warn her lover of an impending duel. M.G.M put out accounts of Garbo-Gilbert passion that heated up the set and informed the public that Gilbert called Garbo “Flicka,” while she called him “Yackie.” The offstage romance nearly got as far as a justice of the peace, so the stories go. The impetuous Gilbert rushed off with the star in a car toward a state of wedded bliss, but on the way Garbo hid in a gas-station washroom, climbed out a window and escaped.
By 1928, Stiller had left Hollywood and returned to Stockholm, where he died of a respiratory disease at the age of 45. The loss to Garbo was said to be great. In times of stress, it was said, she made decisions in thought of what “he” might like her to do or not to do.
She had made six films and her reputation of incommunicativeness was well established. So was her financial position, helped along by a one-woman strike against M.G.M. When the studio met her demands, she quickly climbed to fee of a quarter of a million dollars a picture, a phenomenal fee for the time. Gilbert’s agent, Harry Edington who had been recommended by Yackie to Garbo, was helpful in creating the image. His theory, presented convincingly to M.G.M. was that the star’s natural inclinations toward silence should be respected and capitalized upon and that she should be fenced off from the public. Irving Thalberg, demigod of production at M.G.M. agreed, and Garbo was advised never to talk to fans, members of the public, or reporters. “I don’t like to talk to people,” she had already said, “because I can’t express myself satisfactorily. I don’t say the things I mean.”
Her insistence on privacy spread to her working hours. During her scenes, all visitors were barred from the set, and when close-ups were shot a black screen was placed around Garbo and the camera. Noel Coward, one of her friends thought this was little too much. “It’s a public profession we’re in after all.” he told her. “If I am by myself,” she answered, “my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise.”
Whatever it was she did in those private moments before the camera, it worked. “Came that superb moment,” wrote critic Arthur Knight, “common to all the Garbo films, when her reserve broke down, when all the arguments against love that her script writers could dream up were flung aside, and with a sound that was half sob, half ecstasy, she ran to the arms of her lover. At such moments, every man in the audience felt that he alone was holding this exquisite woman who, suddenly defenceless, revealed a depth of sexuality that would require a lifetime of delightful appeasement.”
Greta Garbo made 24 films in all for M.G.M., 10 of them silent, 14 with sound. Now and then one of the old ones is revived (many have appeared on television over the years) and she is still a lure at the box office. Undoubtedly some in these audiences come to laugh at the exaggerated, oldfashioned doings on the screen, but the laughter when Garbo is on very soon turns uncomfortable; her spell takes hold and quells the most irrepressible unbeliever.
I tested this recently at a revival of “Grand Hotel” (vintage 1932 Garbo) in Greenwich Village, in which she played opposite John Barrymore. She was a prima ballerina of fading glory in this film; Barrymore, a German baron in his uppers, now given to stealing gems. Came the close-ups between the two, and the audience of the filled theater was rapt. She did do things in her face, and when her eyes widened and glanced upward in a look of surrender to the lucky beneficiary, Barrymore, something happened. And it happens every time. The throb deepened in her voice, and the 1965 would-be scoffers sat still and respectful, the males hoping, perhaps, that some such mysteriously beautiful creature would appear suddenly in their own lives.
When faced with this kind of effect, the observer is never sure if she is an actress, or something beyond acting, a phenomenon of nature. Robert E. Sherwood observed in 1929, when she was still silent in her films. “She is one of the most amazing, puzzling, most provocative characters of this extraordinary age. She definitely doesn’t belong in the 20th century. She doesn’t even belong in this world.”
This other-woridly quality of hers is the theme of several striking observations made over the generations by Garbo admirers. Often quoted is Alistair Cooke, who termed her in “Garbo and the Night Watchman,” a collection of essays, “every man’s harmless fantasy mistress. By being worshiped by the entire world she gave you the feeling that if your imagination had to sin, it can at least congratulate itself on its impeccable taste.” Kenneth Tynan attempted to surpass Cooke in the Garbo quotation derby, coming up with: “What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober,” and his panegyric flight took off from there. But none of this answers the question of whether or not she was a truly great actress. On the more doubtful side of the balance is the fact that she never attempted to do any of the great roles, and her artistic reputation must rest upon such sentimental, if classic, flummery, as “Camille” (1937), upon “Anna Christie” (for the first time on the screen, “Garbo talks!”) and upon an excellent comedy, “Ninotschka,” in which “Garbo laughs!” Most of the time her material was, if not downright ridiculous, at least mediocre. Compared with Swanson, let us say, she was superb; certainly Barrymore did not out-act her in Grand Hotel.” One feels she would have easily out-acted and outstarred Elizabeth Taylor, but on the other hand imagine stacking her up against Ethel Barrymore in her prime. Miss Barrymore, I am sure, would have out – emoted and outthroated her. But it ought to be remembered, too, that in her 14 talking pictures she spoke a language that was not hers, and it was her magnetism coupled with the husky, accented syllables that entranced her audiences.
With the fascination came a legend, made up of a host of anecdotes, rumors, downright canards (even to it being whispered about that she was in reality not a woman at all, but a remarkable female impersonator), jokes true and false, and, most important of all, a genuine individuality. A New York newspaperman sent years ago to report her arrival at a train station, described her in the copy sent to his editor as “a thin woman, with great big eyes, a collar that was almost up to her ears, a coat that was almost down to her ankles, a hat that was almost down to her shoulders and a stride that was almost across the platform.” She abjured make-up in public, wore flatheeled shoes with an expensive mink or a high-fashion outfit and yet there emanated from her person “almost as much of a delicate perfume,” according to an authority, “as the champion in that department Lillian Gish.” During her love scenes that did not require a full view she often wore thick woollen carpet slippers. Her eating habits for many years included the consumption of large quantities of vegetables, and when Gayelord Hauser, the diet king, gained her close friendship, she took to imbibing the regular doses of carrot juice he recommended.
After John Gilbert, the names of many men were associated with her, among them director Clarence Brown, director Rouben Mamourian and, for a brief period, Noel Coward. At any rate, she was glimpsed dancing the rhumba with Coward in Stockholm. The report of this supposed dalliance reaches Coward’s agent in London, who immediately scotched the rumors with “Mr. Coward is interested only in his art.”
But her most newsworthy relationship, after Gilbert, was with conductor Leopold Stokowski who, not long before World War II, wooed and, to some imponderable extent, won Garbo. The conductor rented a villa in Ravello, in the south of Italy and here, for a monthlong sojourn, came the star. The Italian press might have been in advance training for Taylor and Burton, so close a watch did they keep on the couple trying desperately to be alone. (Garbo, by the way, never said, “I want to be alone.” She said “I want to be let alone.”) Gayelord Hauser followed Stokowski as Garbo’s companion, and he, in turn, was followed by George Schlee, the husband of dress designer Valentina (he died last year).
Greta Garbo’s last film, made in 1941, was a comedy called “Two Faced Woman,” a remake of an early Constance Talmadge vehicle. Riddled with Production Code censorship, it flopped totally – not even the Eurpean market, where she had always been more popular than here, could take up the slack after the war. When M.G.M. asked the actress to accept a drastic cut from her usual fee of $250,000, she haughtily refused and what was presumably meant not to be a permanent retirement turned out to be just that. She was only 36 when she left the screen.
Attempts to lure her back have invariably proved fruitless, although she did agree, in 1947, to star in a film version of the life of George Sand, a project which came to naught. In 1949, Walter Wanger signed her for a picture based on Balzac’s “La Duchesse de Langeais,” but when his expensive “Joan of Arc,” with another Swede, Ingrid Bergman, was a box-office disaster, the necessary financing was not forthcoming.
Her retirement found her based mainly in New York, although she wandered often to far-off places. Sensible about managing her financial affairs, reputedly with the help of George Schlee, she had her $3 million or so of earnings carefully invested – mostly in Sweden, as a result of which she escaped the damaging effects of the 1929 crash. Trust funds matured for her in 1952 to the extend of paying her an annual income of $100,000. She was glimpsed on yachts; unkind telephotos were taken of her on remote private beaches: she was seen on the Italian Riviera and in the south of France. One of her frequent entertainers was the Countess Bernadotte.
In New York she was a frequent visitor to the Museum of Modern Art, with its film collection that includes several choice Garbo items. Richard Griffith, present curator of the musem’s film library, was a young assistant there when he first encountered Garbo in 1941.He was assigned to Saturday duty, and one day his telephone rang. Garbo was on the line and she wondered if he would arrange an immediate private showing of “Gosta Berling.” An hour later she appeared with Gaylord Hauser and Erich Maria Remaque and interpreted the film for the two of them, since it was a Swedish print with only the sketchiest of titles in English. “At one point she lost the thread of the story completely.” Griffith said, “and when this became apparent to the others she set her head back and howled delightful Ninotchka laughter.”
After the showing, Hauser and Remarque urged her to view the exhibition of Mexican Indian art that happened to be on the main floor of the museum at the time. She demurred, on the grounds that she would be recognized. Griffith solemnly averred that no Museum of Modern Art visitor would be the kind to gawk or ask for autographs. She gave in. No sooner had she started through the chain of rooms which held the exhibition than the crowd surged toward her, and Griffith found himself at the tail end of a fast-moving procession led by Garbo.
No exit of escape appeared. The high point of the exhibition was in the last room, where a dimly lit replica of an Indian cave had been installed. When Griffith caught up, he found Garbo crouched in this cave, wild-eyed, surrounded by equally wild-eyed art-lovers. “She was in a staring state of shock,” he said, “and, I guess, so was I.” He, Hauser and Remarque managed to rescue her and took her upstairs to the penthouse.
“I want you to know,” she told the chagrined Griffith, “none of this is your fault. You couldn’t have known.”
But she never attended any of the Museum exhibitions again, although she came frequently to see her films. “She seemed to regard ‘Camille’ and ‘Ninotchka’ with mingled feelings of love and hate,” Griffith says. “She would never watch ‘Flesh and the Devil,’ and looked at ‘Anna Christie’ mainly to gauge her progress in English since. The picture that amused her most was ‘Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise,’ in which Clark Gable played a chap called Rodney. She would laugh at the film’s absurdities, and she loved to mimic herself saying. ‘Rrrodney, when will this painful love of ours ever die?’”
Lately, Garbo’s life has been but a pale reflection of what it was during her period of screen glory.
She seldom bothers to use one of her cover-up names, such as Harriet Brown, to preserve her anonymity. The luxury building in which she owns an apartment on East 52d Street, near the East River, has a somewhat faded air, and when last checked the doorman there needed a shave. She stops at the nearby neighbourhood drugstore often to buy things like creams and have her prescriptions filled. Weekends are often spent at the Greenwich, Conn., estate of Eustace Seligman, a partner in the law firm of Sulllivan and Cromwell. Seligman is a social registerite known for his fondness for celebrities. Garbo likes to swim in his pool, or to sit at pool-side reading, or to sit at pool-side reading, or to take walks through his private woods.
Her perambulations in town include dropping by at the Parke-Bernet galleries. “Sales of modern paintings are most likely to bring her out,” a gallery staff member said. Garbo has a good collection of paintings mostly modern, and she also has a taste for Aubusson and Savonnerie carpets.
Since Schlee’s death she has not revisited one of their favourite haunts, Maud Chrez Elle, a French restaurant on West 53d Street. A special cheese used to be stocked for her there: fromage de chèvre, a mild, creamy goat cheese. She liked it for desert, with black French coffee. She was never seen to drink at the restaurant, although in Barbados a few years ago, when she vacationed with Goddard Lieberson and other friends, she showed a certain fondness for rum concoctions.
An easy, inconsequential, almost a dull life, all this might seem on the surface, but the Garbo image, even today, gives off its intriguing enigmatic reflection. One of her close friends, Jane (Mrs. John) Gunther, said about her appeal as a friend: “She has a poetic magic, so difficult to describe, and all one knows is that one wants this in one’s life.” Upon which, Mrs. Gunther lapsed into typical incommunicativeness.
It has always been something of an intellectual game to attempt to read the enigma of the screen’s most beautiful face, and it still is. If there is a secret in it, perhaps it is that almost anything one wants can be read into the expression of that face. The essential difference of cinema from theater is that it provides a kind of waking dream for the audience; the imagination is free to roam, and, in Garbo’s case, the audience has habitually supplied in its own imaginings what her enigmatic expressions have left unspoken. In that sense, Garbo was the perfect cinema star. And even though she is at the age of 60, very few of us really want to think of her as just another ordinary human being.
Additional Press Articles about Greta Garbo:
- Interviews/Videos with Scott Reisfield and Robert Dance February 6, 2006
- Greta Garbo's Great Nephew Derek Reisfields Talkes about Garbo December 2005
- Gray Horan Talks about Greta Garbo 2005
- Letters Push Garbo Slightly Into View April 18, 2000
- Garbo's Pedestrian Side: Everything Not on Film March 14, 1995
- Garbo's Glamour Enlivens Auction November 16, 1990
- »The Greta Garbo Collection« November 9, 1990
- The Name. The Face. The Auction. The Video November 8, 1990
- Greta Garbo's Collection and a van Gogh Are to Be Sold July 19, 1990
- Garbo: Illusion Was All April 22, 1990
- Greta Garbo, 84, Screen Icon Who Fled Her Stardom, Dies April 16, 1990
- The Elusive Garbo Turns 80 September 19, 1985
- Garbo Book Is Called A Hoax April 21, 1978
- Saga of Greta Lovisa Gustafsson September 1965
- Back from Europe: Greta Garbo Refuses to Discuss Own Life October 8, 1938
- Garbo And Stokowski Deny They Will Wed March 18, 1938
- Stokowski in Capri with Greta Garbo March 2, 1938
- Greta Garbo Back: Consents to 10-Minute Interview May 4, 1936
- True Story of Garbos Life by her Interpreter Sven-Hugo Borg 1933
- Detectives Shield Actress in Royal Suite of the Gripsholm July 31, 1932
- First and Only Bona Fide Life Story of Greta Garbo April 1928
- Greta Garbo's Intelligent Acting December 4, 1927