THE ONLY TRUE STORY OF GRETA GARBO’S PRIVATE LIFE by Sven-Hugo Borg
The Great Star’s One-time Interpreter and Private Secretary
I WAS Garbo’s interpreter from 1925 to 1929. It was I who taught her her first words of English, and I who guided her through those first hectic months, when, as a frightened, bewildered Swedish girl she lived in the strange and confusing world of Hollywood.
Not only did I act as her interpreter. For more than a year after her arrival in Hollywood she did not have a personal maid. It was I who drove her car, dressed her hair, got her out of difficulties and, in fact, performed every duty of a lady’s maid, except, of course, to dress her. Garbo’s demands upon me for personal service were so exacting that it was really embarrassing to me, especially when a motion-picture magazine carried the following paragraph:
“The first personal maid Garbo had in this country was a man, and I’m not kidding. Of course, the poor boy did not hire out as a personal maid. He was a Swedish lad named Sven (aren’t they all ?), and he was employed by the studio to be Garbo’s interpreter while she was making her first American picture, The Torrent.
“Interpreters are O.K., reasoned Garbo, but why let her countryman waste his time? So Sven was commissioned to carry Garbo’s shoes from her dressing-room to the set (she wore carpet slippers between scenes), and to lug her wraps and make-up box. There was poor Sven, trailing after her, complaining, ‘ I was hired to be an interpreter, not a lady’s maid,’ and Garbo, impervious as ever, saying, ‘ Sven, bring me my make-up mirror,’ etc.”
My position as Garbo’s interpreter came out of a clear sky. I had done some dramatic work on the Swedish stage. After several years vagabonding round the world, I decided to stay in Hollywood and try the films. I spoke English well, and had been given an exceptional education, and I felt that I might find a place, as had several of my countrymen, in American films.
Arriving in Hollywood, I found it necessary to find some sort of immediate employment to tide me over while breaking into pictures. I was a stranger, so I went to the Swedish Consul, gave him my qualifications and left my application for a position.
On the morning of November 3rd, 1925, I received a special delivery letter from the Consul, asking me to call at his office. When I did so, he told me that he had been fortunate enough to secure a fine position for me. Of course, I was delighted, but I did not know then what I was letting myself in for.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio had recently imported a new Swedish actress named Greta Garbo and with her, the great Swedish director, Mauritz Stiller. Since Garbo did not speak English, the studio desired to secure the services of an educated, cultured Swedish gentleman who would act not only as interpreter, but who also would possess the tact and gentleness to guide the girl through the pitfalls of Hollywood life and acquaint her with American customs. The salary was small, but it seemed like an opportunity to bring myself to the notice of studio officials, so I accepted.
I SHALL never forget my first meeting with Garbo. Strangely enough, Stiller, her discoverer, had not been assigned to direct her. Monta Bell, an American director who spoke no Swedish, was given the job.
A huge garden set had been built on the Metro lot, just to make a, test of Garbo. Carpenters, electricians, painters, etc., were still working on the set when I arrived. All was confusing. If I was awed by the magnificence of American movie-making, what of poor Garbo ? With features frozen with fear, she stood clinging to Stiller’s arm like a frightened child. As I came up, she was saying to Stiller, in Swedish:
“Oh, Mauritz, it is so terrible and confusing What am I to do ? What do all these people talk about ?”
I was introduced to both Stiller and Garbo and, with a smile, he said to her:
“Here is a man who has nothing to do except tell you what they talk about he is to be your interpreter.”
“Oh,” she cried like a child, “I am so glad !”
It was my duty to translate Mr. Bell’s orders to Garbo, and as the cameras began to click for the test, nearly all Metro, it seemed, was gathered to watch the first appearance of the new Star before the camera, I could hear whispers:
”Glorious ! Marvellous ! A real find !”
”She will be the big Star of the studio,” said Eddie Mannix, a studio executive, to me. “What do you bet?”
When the test was finished, Mr. Bell turned to Garbo and said kindly:
”That will be all, Miss Garbo.” Turning to Tony Gaudio, the cameraman, he added:
”Heavens, Tony, did you notice those eyelashes—nearly an inch long? - She’s gorgeous!” As the cameras ceased to turn, something seemed to leave Garbo, as, I found later, it always did. Drab and colourless when not before the camera, a strange light always seemed to come into her face and a strange power to sway others seemed to shine from her the moment she was being photographed. Perhaps some psychologist can explain this strange circumstance ; I cannot. It is so pronounced that even “grips.” (stagehands) notice it; to this day.
BEFORE we go further into my own experiences with Garbo, let us talk awhile about Garbo herself. Her humble early life in Stockholm, her first appearances before the camera, are too well-known to need repeating here. But there are a few misconceptions which should be set right, if we are to understand the real Garbo.
The saga of Greta Garbo would never have been written had it not been for that strange genius, Mauritz Stiller. It was Stiller, with his hypnotic power, his genius and his beautiful and artistic mind, who transformed the ordinary, obscure Swedish girl into the exotic star of to-day.
In Hollywood, as well as abroad, the combination Garbo-Stiller became known as “the living Trilby-Svengali,” which had in later years an absolute replica in the Dietrich-von Sternberg team.
Stiller was a strange man, an intelligent, cultured gentleman of exotic tastes and artistic passions. In his veins flowed a mixture of Nordic-Slav-Jewish-Magvar blood — a chemical mixture sufficient to create almost any sort of explosion. Von Sternberg is also a strange racial mixture. The two men were very much alike.
Stiller was ugly, almost hideous in physical appearances. His body was ungainly, his features heavy, lined, gnome-like. His feet were so enormous as to be almost deformed, and his hands, huge, prehensile paws, fitted for the plough. Yet beneath this repellent exterior was hidden a soul both beautiful and artistic.
The Swedish director searched for a beautiful puppet through whom to express his own artistic self, as did von Sternberg. It was common knowledge in Stockholm for years before he found Garbo. Even the story of that discovery, told in so very many versions, was in itself dramatic.
Following various brief experiences before the camera, Garbo went to work in a little tobacco shop in Stockholm where, unknown and obscure, she sold cigars and cigarettes.
Stiller was a familiar figure around Stockholm. On the streets, after dark, people would meet him, massive head sunk on his chest, walking along, always lost in thought. During these periods, he would pass old friends without even recognizing them.
The Veil of Mystery is Lifted from the Screen’s Most Famous Star!