Greta Garbo, the unsolved mystery of the 20th century
Written by Katarzyna Anosowicz   
She never received an Oscar for any of her film creations. She was nominated four times. When she disappeared for good from the screen and did not exist for the world anymore, however, the Academy awarded her with an honourable statuette for her “unforgettable performances”. She acted in twenty-seven feature films. The career, as was her wish, she finished at the age of 36. She is known mostly for who she really, or rather perhaps, was. The core of Greta Garbo’s fame and immortality is the impossibility
of solving her mystery.

greta-42-20563036What is quite sure in Greta Garbo’s biography, are the facts of her childhood and the years when she was growing up – the moments spent in Sweden right before her stunning Hollywood career. All that happened later on, when she was recognised as the timeless queen of the screen, “the Swedish sphinx”, an inimitable femme fatale, allthat stays in the area of conjecture, interpretation and those kinds of “certainties”, which are never authorised by the person they concern. Garbo, shy and closed to people by nature, was to have used this personality “weakness” as her greatest strength, which at her advisors’ instigation became the basis of her image. Even now, when she is described as “autistic” and created to have lived separately, it is hard to exclude the idea that she perfectly played her showbiz role all her life, and that the role perfectly fitted in her life.

(not) tall girl to soap star

Little Greta, not Garbo yet, but Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born on September 18, 1905 in Stockholm. If she was still alive today, she would be celebrating her 115th birthday. Biographies say that she weighed 3.5 kilo and was 52 cm tall. It is probably important as the distinctive feature of the famous, grown-up Garbo was her great height. So the curiosity of from what “level” she started may be excused. It is symptomatic that nowadays Greta would not be considered tall at all. She was only 171 cm tall, but she was to have complained about it all her life. She never complained, however, about her origin, even though she had been born as the third child in a simple, poor family. She started working as a ten-yearold – as a papergirl, and the money she earned she spent on theatre tickets. When she was fourteen she took up a full-time job at the barber’s, as a “soaping” girl. A year later her beloved father died, and she had to carry the burden of family maintenance, too. Thanks to connections she managed to get a job at a hat store. There she was hired for a photo session with hats playing the main part and it soon appeared that her place is in front of the lens.

Garbo’s creator

greta-42-20209953Before Greta made it to film she took up different jobs. Sven-Hugo Borg, the actress’s translator and kind of a servant in the first years of her stay in Hollywood, in a short biography of the star quotes a story, where Greta works as a shop assistant in a tobacco shop. That was the place, and not the commonly-believed audition in the Royal Drama Theatre Academy, where the great Mauritz Stiller saw her. That, in those times, famous Swedish director, called both a genius and a freak, was to have been looking for a young, untouched girl he would have been able to transform into a great star, formed by him from head to toe. According to Borg, Stiller had a brainwave seeing Greta selling him a packet of cigarettes, but for his incredible absent-mindedness he could not recall which shop he had met her in. Only when he saw her again on a theatre stage, did he recognise the girl from his demiurgic, artistic visions and in one blink of an eye he hired her for “Saga about Göst Berling”, the film that opened the door for her great career.

The picture of seclusion

It is believed that Stiller made up her new surname. That he taught her every move and stage gesture. Stiller was to have assured Garbo, that the most important thing is her image – the image of a woman that is mysterious, inscrutable, whose silence and seclusion will inspire constant desire and kindle the imagination of millions. If Greta’s image was his work, Garbo may be considered one of the most perfect creations of showbiz. Of course, the most brilliant element of the image is the lack of confidence, whether it was the image or the true nature of the Swedish star. Sven Hugo-Borg describes Greta as a quiet, mysterious, often cold and inscrutable, cheerless and shying away from company... but he also mentions that even after Stiller she did not lack friend-advisors in her company, who persuaded her to maintain the enigmatic picture. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that when Greta appeared in Hollywood with Stiller, she was a frightened, modest girl, who felt best in the nooks and crannies of hotels and empty apartments. All social events were to have terrified her and raised dislike from the very beginning.

Drive to Hollywood

Garbo’s career moved very quickly. She arrived in Hollywood in 1925, invited by Louis Mayer, the head of the largest film company in the States, MGM. Mayer did not hesitate for a moment to hire her. However, he did not like the presence of Stiller, who according to rumours was to have been the very star that American producers were “hunting” for. In fact, it was exactly vice versa. Greta performed perfectly in her first two roles – in “The Temptress”, 1926 and “The Torrent”, 1926. When “The Torrent” was being shot, Stiller was fired by the company, and Greta, who was attached to him almost physically, protested and did not appear on set for many months. However, she was a great star by then. She negotiated a pay rise, went back to the film company and accepted Stiller’s leaving, even though the latter – until his death soon after that – was to have been the person who had the greatest influence over Garbo. People gossiped about their affair, which was in opposition to Stiller’s alleged homosexuality. Borg, the translator who was the nearest to both of them at that time, claimed that what they had was a deep platonic love that only a “creator” and his “creature” may feel for each other. She was his masterpiece. And he was the person she owed almost everything to. The bond was unbreakable.

Love with no happy end


The only great and true love that was to have happened to Greta, appeared on the set of “The Flesh and the Devil”, 1927, in the form of an actor, John Gilbert. Their love scenes are said to never have been doubled, that is how real they were. Viewers could have followed how passionate the feelings are born between the two on a screen, feelings which were tohave tormented both of them until Gilbert’s premature death. John is said to have proposed to Greta a few times then, however she never accepted his proposal. Unexpectedly John married another actress, Ivar Kreuger, but in the films made together with Garbo, the passion that connected them exploded over and over again. Nobody else was to have received this kind of love from Greta as John did, however, even this emotion could not win with Garbo’s personality, as in the long term she could not stand anybody’s company, besides her own.

Unfading legend

After making 27 films, at the age of 36, Greta Garbo finished her career. Despite that, for the next 49 years, until her death in 1990, she was the object of the media’s enormous curiosity. Her legend, to a large extent was created by her amazing acting skills, but its main material was her unusual personality mixed with the great beauty of the actress and the empty space she left behind, freely filled by the world with an endless supply of gossip. Almost certainly Greta Garbo was to have been bisexual. Almost certainly she was to have been romantically engaged with the actresses Louise Brooks, Marlena Dietrich And
the writer and lesbian Mercedes de Acosta. However, the correspondence that Garbo had with her, published in 2000, does not contain a single trace that would confirm the thesis. Among rumours, there were also those like the information that Garbo had a daughter, or a son, that she had abortion in the 20s (Gilbert was to have been the father), that she sympathised with Nazis, that she was a British spy, that she was blinded, that she dated Michael Jackson in secret... The only certain thing that regards the great Greta Garbo is that she remained inscrutable. And that gave her immortality.