On the morning of September 18, 1905, there was hushed excitement in the humble apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Gustafsson at 82 Blekingegaten Street, Stockholm, Sweden. None of the other families in the five-story apartment building were greatly concerned with what was happening in the Gustafsson household. A new baby was not an unusual occurrence in that neighborhood. It was not until years later, when this little baby bad become known all over the world as the great Greta Garbo, that these neighbors remembered to brag that they recalled the very day that little Greta was born.
Number 32 Blekingegaten Street is not a fashionable part of Stockholm. It is located across the river Malar, in a district known as Southside. There are no green lawns with shaded trees in that neighborhood. The plain apartment buildings and dingy shops are built right up to the sidewalk. The playground of the children is the street and the back yard, where clothes lines are always stretched overhead or in one of the vacant lots near by. When little Greta Gustafsson grew old enough to play with her brother Sven and sister Alva, she did not like to romp with the neighborhood children as they did. She much preferred to stay in the house by herself. When her mother sent her outdoors to play she would wander off in a corner by herself or slip away from the others down the street.
When she was old enough to go to school she was most unhappy. It wasn’t the studying that she hated. It was being compelled to sit long hours before a desk. She dreaded the recesses even more. The few minutes she was compelled to play in a small yard with that howling mob of children were torture to her. The whole thing reminded her of a prison. She hated it all.
And she felt so out of place among these little boys and girls, even though they were of her age. The other children often whispered about her because she was so tall. At twelve, Greta was as tall as she is to-day. The only study that interested her was history. She liked to read about foreign lands. Then she could forget that she was sitting at her desk in the drab schoolroom. She could feel herself living with these strange people and visiting in their far-away countries. When school was out, instead of hurrying home with her brother and sister, Greta would steal away by herself. There were several places where she loved to go. One of these places was the little bridge that jutted out from the rocks of Southside. She liked to stand on this bridge and look down on Stockholm as it lay spread out below. Looking over the city, she felt as though she were getting a glimpse of that unknown world that so fascinated her.
Near this bridge was a gate that led into the courtyard of the Southside theater. Greta would stand for hours near this gate waiting to catch a glimpse of the actors and actresses as they came and went into that mysterious region known as “back stage.” She loved the odor of cigarettes, perfume, and painted canvas that wafted through the door as it opened and closed. One day she was brave enough to step into the yard. She longed to go through the door that led into the theater, and one evening she actually found courage to slip inside and get a glimpse of the dressing rooms and the wings of the stage before she hurried out.
Often she walked around to the front of the theater envying the people who were able to go inside. But she was not interested in the people who were buying tickets. It was the land of make- believe within that fascinated her. She would soon hurry around to the back to get as close to the stage door as she dared get. Often she tried to imagine that she was one of the actresses on her way to her dressing room. The Gustafsson children were not allowed to go to the theater, partly because they were too young and partly because there was no money for such luxuries. It was not until Greta was twelve years old that she sat inside that playhouse and watched the players she had so often longed to see.
Unconsciously Greta was seeing in the stage a chance to get away from the everyday life that seemed so tiresome. Hanging about the stage entrance, she was unconsciously feeding her great desire to go upon the stage.
When she was fourteen years old real tragedy entered her life. Her father, whom she loved dearly, became ill and died. She couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen to her. To-day someone you loved was near you. You could touch him. You could talk to him. The next day he was gone and he never could be seen again.
And after he was gone there was no one to pay the rent and buy food for the family. Mrs. Gustafsson and her two older children, Sven and Alva, went out to get work. Greta was too young; she must be kept in school a while longer.
Greta did not like to be the only one not earning money. There was little that a young girl going to school could do, but she decided she would find some way to earn some money of her own. In Sweden, barbers employ girls to make the lather and pat it on the customer’s face and dry the razors and lay out clean towels. Greta found such work in a little shop close by.
But she didn’t like it. Neither did she like the idea of the small pay that went with it. She wanted to leave school and get a real job. One day she persuaded her mother to allow her to apply for a position in Paul Bergstrom’s Department Store. Three days after her application she received
a call to report to the store. When she was given a position in the ladies’ coat department Greta
knew that the hated school days were over. It was soon found that Miss Gustafsson was willing and quick to learn. When there was an opening in the millinery department Greta was given a permanent position there. One day the head saleslady asked the new clerk to help her lay out the hats that were to be used for illustrations in the new fall catalogue. When the advertising man came in to look them over Greta was used as a model, turning her. bead this way and that so that all angles of the hats could be studied.
Both the advertising man and the head of the department remarked on the fact that any style of hat seemed to become Miss Gustafsson. They decided it would be a fine idea to have her pose for the photographs. The fall catalogue for the Bergstrom Department Store had a page of hats modeled by Greta Gustafsson.
One day the advertising manager came hurrying into the millinery department. “Pick out your smartest styles,” he ordered. “Captain Rig and two of his contract players are coming in to select hats for the advertising film they are making for the store. Bergstrom’s are going to show bow they can outfit girls in costumes for every occasion.” When Captain Ring, the owner of the film company, arrived, his attention was drawn to the facts that Miss Gustafsson could set off to advantage any of the models, and that she photographed very well. But Captain Ring was not interested. He had selected actresses for all the costumes he had in mind.
However, the next day it was decided that a comedy touch was needed in the picture. Then Captain Ring remembered the tall, awkward, yet strangely attractive girl in the millinery department who photographed so well. She was chosen to play the part.
Greta was put into a checkered riding habit, two sizes too large for her. She was told to stand with her hands in her pockets, her shoulders hunched up, and her head pulled to one side. For half an hour she practised before a mirror. She was so quick and anxious to follow direction that Captain Ring assured her he would use her soon in another picture.
But it wasn’t until the following year that Captain Ring asked Miss Gustafsson to do more work for him. This was a small part in a film to be released in Japan showing the culture and industry of Sweden.
In 1922 be again wanted Greta to take part in an industrial film for a firm in the city of Orebro. This time there was to be real romance running through the picture. Greta was asked to take the role of a valkyr. It was a great opportunity for her. She commenced to feel that she was getting to be more of an actress than a hat clerk. But the store refused to let her go. The picture had nothing to do with them. There was no reason why they should let one of their best salesgirls have time off for someone else. Greta was heartbroken when she had to give it up.
Greta says that at this time she actually was interested in the business of selling hats. It was
like play to the sixteen-year-old girl. She enjoyed the life and bustle of the store. She loved to wait on the actresses who came in to buy hats.
One night, on her way home from work, Greta stopped to look into a window where shoes were displayed. She was annoyed when she discovered a man standing beside her looking her up and down. She turned quickly and hurried down the street. The man, who happened to be a film director, had been attracted by Greta’s beautiful, clear-cut features and natural, graceful walk. He was debating on approaching her and offering her a part in a picture he was about to make when she hurried off.
The following day this man came into the millinery section with two actresses. He didn’t see Greta, and after he left she inquired who he was. When she was told that he was Erick Petschler, a film director, she decided to ask him for a chance in one of his pictures.
That evening Greta telephoned him for an appointment which he made for the following afternoon. When she came into Mr. Petschler’s office he immediately recognized her as the girl he had seen looking in the shoe-store window. He didn’t hesitate to engage her for a comedy bit in Peter the Tramp. It was a small part and would take only a few days of her time. He thought she could arrange with the store to change her vacation date so that she could make the picture during that time. Greta went home that night thinking that at last she was on the road to becoming a motion-picture actress.
But the store refused to change the date they had set aside for Miss Gustafsson’s vacation. They had no objection to her making the picture if it did not interfere with her store work. But her vacation date could not be changed.
Greta didn’t know what to do. She feared to lose her steady job at the store, but she was more afraid to lose this chance in pictures for which she had always longed. Rather than lose it she decided to give up her position as a hat clerk. That night she went home to tell her mother that she had left the store and hereafter intended to make her living in motion pictures.
Greta had lots of fun making that picture. It was a small part, but it looked very big to her. As one of a trio of bathing girls, she attracted little attention. But because she had lost her position in the store and was so eager to get work in pictures the director promised to give her another part soon.
While making this picture and meeting professional actors, she realized that before she could expect to get very far on either stage or screen she must have instruction. She consulted Frans Enwall, a private coach in drama, on how to go about it.
Mr. Enwall saw the unusual charm and beauty of this young girl. He recognized that here was raw material worth modeling. He knew she had no money for private lessons. He saw a great future for her if she bad the determination and courage to apply herself to serious study. He suggested that she prepare herself to take the test to enter the Royal Dramatic School. In Sweden an actor must first attend the Dramatic School—a part of the Royal Theater— before he can appear upon the stage; just as a lawyer must take a college course before he can practise in the courts of the land.
But before a person is allowed to enter this school he must pass a test proving that he has the necessary ability and talent. These tests are given at certain dates each year. Those who pass them are given a scholarship that entitles them to instruction in the school without charge.
Mr. Enwall explained to Greta that here was her opportunity to get the needed training to become an actress. He offered to help her prepare for the examination. For this test be gave her a part from a play by Selma Lagerlof and another part, in Madame Sans-Gene. Greta threw herself into the work of preparation. Day after day she studied her lines and the gestures that went with them.
She would be seventeen years old in September. The test was set for August. If she passed she would have a three-year scholarship in one of the finest dramatic schools in the world, with every promise to fulfill her dream of going on the stage. If she failed, a life of doing everyday things in the everyday world lay before her. She was determined that she would not fail.
Greta was not the only nervous person when the day for her test arrived. The boys and girls who met at the school for the same purpose were just as anxious as she. They were all whispering about the newspaper critics, dramatic teachers, and famous actors who had gathered out in front to act as their judges.
When Greta’s turn came to speak her lines, her knees trembled so, she scarcely had strength enough to carry herself out on the stage. She went through her act as though she were in a trance. As she left the stage after it was over, she nearly collapsed. But she soon pulled herself together and hurried home and into bed, where she lay awake all night long, hoping and praying that she had proved herself worthy to enter the school. The next day passed, and there was no word from the theater. The second day passed without a sign. Greta bad commenced to give up hope when there was a telephone call saying that her name was among those entered on the rolls as one of the pupils of the Royal Dramatic School for the seasons of 1922-1923 and 1923-1924. Although there was no tuition fee, attendance at the school involved expense. Naturally, Greta needed suitable clothes. There was make-up to buy. There were certain books necessary. Her sister, who was working in an office, helped meet these expenses.
When Greta started to this new school she didn’t know life could be so happy. Here she studied elocution instead of arithmetic; fencing instead of geography. She was presented with passes to the best theaters, for it was a part of her education to study and watch the great actors and actresses. She met friends who were interested in the things in which she was interested. Life was taking on a new meaning for her. This kind of studying wasn’t work, it was play.
The instructors soon recognized the talent lying dormant in Miss Gustafsson. The directors
of the school believed that the best way to bring out real talent in a student was to give actual experience with instruction. Greta, with several others from her class, was engaged as a “contract pupil” at forty dollars a month. Now, while she was studying, she took parts in actual performances given in the Royal Dramatic Theater. Not only was Greta learning to become an actress, but she was making money while she was doing it. In the spring of 1928, Gustaf Molander, director of the school, advised Greta to see the motion-picture director Mauritz Stiller, who was looking for talented beginners. Mr. Stiller, he knew, preferred to mould clever novices rather than to work with those wise from years of experience. He was about to start production on the biggest picture be had ever made, called Gösta Berling’s Saga. Mr. Molander felt that Greta had a good chance to get both work and experience under this great director
Greta called on Mr. Stiller one night after school. He was not in, but she was told to wait, as he was expected soon. Waiting in his office, she was so frightened that she felt like stealing out before he arrived. Suddenly the door opened and a tall man with a big dog came slowly into the room. He looked Greta up and down. It seemed to her as though be were looking through her. Bluntly he asked her to remove her coat and bat. Then he told her to put them back on again. After asking a few questions he let her know that he was ready to have her leave. She felt that she had failed to impress him as she bade him good-bye. But in three days Greta had word that Mr. Stiller wanted her to report to the Rasunda Film City for a test.
She rode out there on the street car with her schoolmate Mona Mortenson, who also had been requested to come out for a test. Both of them were anxious to get a part in one of Mr. Stiller’s pictures. Both of them were nervous and frightened at the thought of making a motion-picture test.
When Greta arrived at the studio she was directed to the make-up man, who spent a half hour in making up her face: quite a different process from the method used for the stage. Then she was sent to a set where Mauritz Stiller was waiting for her. After looking her over be abruptly pointed to a bed and ordered, “Lie down and be sick.” She lay down on the bed, but it seemed so silly to her she couldn’t for the life of her pretend that she was sick.
Suddenly Mr. Stiller stood over her. “For God’s sake, don’t you know what it is to be sick?” he asked. Greta realized that this was a serious business. Although very confused and self-conscious she tried her best to imagine that she was desperately ill. After that was over she waited for something else. But that was all. Mr. Stiller told her she could go home.
A few days later she received word that she bad been chosen to play the part of Countess Elizabeth Dohna, in Gösta Berling’s Saga. She learned that her friend Mona Mortenson had been chosen for another part in the same picture.