THE ONLY TRUE STORY OF GRETA GARBO’S PRIVATE LIFE by Sven-Hugo Borg
GARBO’S FAMOUS STRIKE
A HUGE and elaborate Parisian circus ring set was built at a cost of thousands of dollars. Metro intended to pare no expense in its setting for the new jewel. Hundreds of extras were employed and shooting began. Previous to that, Garbo had done two or three dramatic sequences, but this was the real start of the picture.
It was a gay scene. Colourful costumes, magnificent trappings. Trained trapeze artistes performed on whirling wheels of fire, and round the ring, mounted on a huge white horse, Garbo rode.
Suddenly I saw a messenger boy push through the crowd. He handed his message to Stiller. I saw Stiller raise his arm brusquely, as with a gesture he stopped the action.
Garbo, at his motion, dismounted and came up. Silently he handed her the message and, with a little cry, she sank into a chair, his arm supporting her. The message told her that her sister, her beloved Alva, was dead in Sweden. Until she reads this, Garbo will never knew that Stiller held that message twenty-four hours before delivering it to her! Why he chose that moment, only he knew.
The set was hushed in sympathy as the word spread. For a few moments Garbo was silent, holding her head in her hands, and then she rose to her feet.
“Come, Mauritz, let us go on,” she said, and with a smile she mounted her horse again. The hundreds who saw that have never forgotten it, I assure you. It was the act of a “real trouper”
But that was only the first blow. Stiller in his own country had been a god. He wrote the script, supervised production, took care of every detail of the picture. He tried to carry the same method into American studios, but Mr. Mayer would have none of it. When Stiller refused to have a supervisor, an assistant director, etc., Mr. Mayer became afraid that he had made a mistake, and when The Temptress had been in production but one week he removed Stiller.
Stiller was furious, and so was Garbo. She hurried to his side. He stormed and raged, as only he could. He saw the chance to get his revenge through Garbo, his “find”.
“You are now a great Star, Greta,” he told her, in that deep, soothing voice of his, “and in America great Stars do not work for four hundred dollars a week. Tell them that until they give you much more money you will not return to work.”
“But, Mauritz,” she protested, terrified, “they will send me back to Sweden.” “Not they “—Stiller laughed deep in his chest—” they will not dare.” And so began Garbo’s famous strike. She disappeared from her studio, and none except Stiller and myself knew where to find her. He arranged a signal that I was to give when I wanted entrance, one long and two short knocks.
Detectives were sent out to find her, They trailed me, endeavoring to locate her, but I evaded them. The tension at the studio grew worse. Mr. Fred Niblo had been assigned as director to finish The Temptress, and when I went into the studio, Mr. Mayer asked me to bring her in to confer with him, but I could not move her.
One day she told me that she intended to put the matter in the hands of Milton Cohn, a Hollywood attorney. I informed her that if she did she would only let herself in for huge legal fees. I knew that the thought- of wasting her hard-earned money would frighten her. I advised her to see Mr. Mayer himself.
“Borg, you are terrible,” was all she would say; “who are you, to know best what to do?”
After a time I was able to induce her to go into the studio to see Mr. Mayer. As I knew they would be, things were straightened out, but not before Mr. Mayer, who is a’ patient main, was worn out with her.
“Listen, Borg,” he stormed at me one day, when the last ounce of his patience had been exhausted, “I want you to get yourself a studio car and go down to Santa Monica and tell her that, to me, she has acted as a simple and ordinary dishwasher would do. Tell her that she can go back where she came from,” adding: “I’m through!“
As I drove to Miss Garbo’s hotel I weighed very carefully in my mind Mr. Mayer’s words, knowing the drastic consequences which might arise. Garbo greeted me by: “Hallo, Borg, come in!” And, with a sly wink: “Now tell me the bad news.”
Well, quite differently did I convey the given message, as I thought even big men can make mistakes and say things they really don’t mean. After much consideration and debating on the part of Miss Garbo, she found it best to follow Mr. Mayer’s instructions, and reported at the studio. This, I believe, was her first act on her own initiative against Stiller’s wishes, and was the end of his influence over her.
Another uncanny thing was the inherent clothes instinct that was hers. Never, until the Metro wardrobe fitted her for The Torrent, had she known the feel of really stylish garments, and yet she was as particular and exacting as if she had been born to them. Max Ree, her designer at the time, once said to me:
“It’s uncanny! The girl knows absolutely nothing about clothes, at least from experience, and yet her clothes instinct is far better than mine.”
And this was the Garbo who used to appear on the streets of Hollywood in an old sweater and disreputable trousers! During her conversations about The Temptress with Mr. Nibln, Garbo learned that Max Ree was no longer on the Metro lot. Proceedings stopped then and there. No Max Ree to design her clothes, no Garbo. Niblo at last agreed to get Ree, if he had to pay him out of his own pocket—which I actually know he did.