Born as Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on 18 September 1905 in Stockholm, Greta Garbo is the symbol of the demure and elusive icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age. At the same time, she was one of the most glamorous and popular movie stars in her days, who played tragedy and melancholy to perfection in her most iconic roles and best known for her portrayals of strong-willed heroines.
As a daughter of a labourer, Greta was reared in poverty in a grey working-class district of the city, regarded as the slum of Stockholm. In her early years, she was a shy daydreamer, disliked school, preferred to play alone and became interested in theatre at an early age. At the age of 13, Garbo graduated from school, but did not attend high school, due to an inferiority complex and lost her father in 1920, when she was only 14.
To support the family, she first took a job in a Barber shop, as a soap-leather girl and then joined the PUB Department Store. However, after modeling hats for the store's catalogues, Garbo was surprisingly offered a more lucrative job as a fashion model. Consequently, a director of film commercials for the store cast Garbo in roles advertising women's clothing in 1920, which was premiered on 12 December 1920. It caught the attention of the film director Erik Arthur Petschler, who gave her a small role in his 1922 film Luffar-Petter (also known as Peter the Tramp).
After that, she studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm from 1922 to 1924 and was immediately recruited by the Finnish director Mauritz Stiller, who gave her a major role in his 1924 film Gösta Berling Saga (The Story of Gösta Berling), also starring Lars Hanson and gave her the screen name, Greta Garbo. In 1925, Garbo acted in a German film, the Street of Sorrow. However, in the mean time, she attracted the attention of Louis B Mayer, the then vice president and general manager of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, by her onscreen presence and the luminosity of her eyes, a perfect siren for the silent-screen. He was also interested in Mauritz Stiller, for his work and made an offer.
Both Garbo and Stiller arrived in New York in July 1925 and remained there for more than six months without any word from MGM. At last, with the help of a Swedish friend in Los Angeles, they could contact Irving Thalberg, the production boss of MGM, who agreed to give Garbo a screen test. The result of the test was electrifying and Thalberg began grooming the young actress the following day. As Garbo was unable to speak English, he arranged to give her English lessons, arranged for her surgery to straighten her hairline and teeth, had her eyebrows plucked and was told to lose 30 pounds.
Though she expected to work with Stiller on her first film, she started her Hollywood career with Torrent (1926), directed by Monta Bell and played a peasant girl turned singer. The initial rushes of the film impressed the studio executives, motivating Mayer to sign her to an exclusive contract and raise her salary even before she completed work on this film. Despite its cool reception by the press, Torrent proved to be a hit and Garbo's performance was well received. In her next film, The Temptress (1926), her mentor Mauritz Stiller was assigned to direct. However, as Stiller spoke little English, he had difficulty adapting to the studio system and was fired by Thalberg. With the introduction of a new director and re-shooting, it proved to be a very expensive film and the only Garbo film of the period to lose money, though Garbo received rave reviews. Her next film, Flesh and the Devil (1926) was a massive hit, where she gave a more erotic performance than Hollywood had ever seen. The film made her an International star and she became the biggest asset of MGM. She continued her meteoric rise with her next appearances in Anna Karenina (1927), A Woman of Affairs (1928) and Kiss (1929), Greta Garbo’s last silent film.
During that period Garbo starred in three of her films with John Gilbert as the leading man. He was the most beloved leading man in Hollywood in those days, whose films regularly grossed over $700,000. Gilbert is generally credited with teaching Garbo the acting skills. Their on-screen chemistry soon turned into an off-camera romance and by the end of their first production, they began living together. Gilbert had proposed her marriage multiple times and got as far as setting a date. Unfortunately, he was devastated, as Greta did not show up on the wedding day. Somehow, after the incident Gilbert’s stardom started to decline and within a short time, he became just a memory of the silent screen. Later in her life, Greta confessed that Gilbert was the great love in her life, but she was averse to the idea of being married, as she always wanted to be the boss. She never married and gradually cultivated the air of mystery which became part of her enduring allure.
However, Greta Garbo was never alone in her life. It is believed by many that she was bisexual and had intimate relationships with many women as well as men. In 1927, she was introduced to stage and screen actress Lilyan Tashman, with whom she probably had an affair and according to Silent film star Mary Louise Brooks, known as a flapper icon and sex symbol, she and Garbo had a brief liaison the following year. In 1931, Garbo befriended the American writer Mercedes de Acosta, known for her many lesbian relationships. The friendship resulted in a sporadic and volatile romance and they remained friends for almost 30 years. In 1937, she met reputed conductor Leopold Stokowski, with whom she had a highly publicized friendship or romance while traveling throughout Europe the following year. Famous novelist Erich Maria Remarque also mentioned in his diary his liaison with Garbo in 1941.
In 1941, Greta Garbo was introduced to the Russian-born millionaire, George Schlee, by his wife, fashion designer Valentina. Within a short time, Garbo bought an apartment in their building and snatched him from his wife. George Schlee had to split his time between the two women and became Garbo's close companion, until his death in 1964. Garbo also had romantic feelings for her drama school sweetheart, Swedish actress Mimi Pollack, which started in 1924 and continued for many years. Garbo used to write her regularly and in 2005, Mimi Pollack’s estate released 60 letters that Garbo had written to her. As she learned about Pollack’s pregnancy in 1930, Garbo wrote that they are unable to help their nature, as it was created by God, but she always thinks that they belong to each other. Later, after the birth of Pollack’s son, she wrote that she feels incredibly proud to be a father.
Grerta Garbo became a new brand of Hollywood actress and her style changed the course of American fashion. She imparted a new wave on the screen with her mysterious and alluring beauty, passion, enigmatic sexuality and ethereal appeal, with which she easily captivated the hearts of both male and female audiences. She was aware about the real power of the image she had created on screen and left enough space for the ever-active imagination of the audience. As a result, she became a legend in her lifetime
The advent of sound in film, made the Executives skeptical about the success of Garbo, as they were worried that her popularity would decline by her accent and low, throaty voice. However, in late 1929, MGM cast her in Anna Christie (1930), her first sound film. The film premiered in New York City on 21 February 1930 with the promotional tagline, Garbo talks and her first spoken words on screen revealed a husky, resonant voice that added to her allure and her somewhat asexual persona. The film even made her a bigger star and It was also one of the two films she made in 1930, the other being Romance, for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
In 1931, she was paired opposite to Robert Montgomery in Inspiration and teamed with relatively unknown Clark Gable in Susan Lenox, followed by As You Desire Me (1932), with Melvyn Douglas. In the same year she also played the famous courtesan and alleged German spy Mata Hari, which caused panic on the day of release, as police force was deployed to restrain the waiting mob. In 1932, she passionately portrayed an aging ballerina in the all-star classic Grand Hotel, in which she first uttered her signature line that she wants to be alone. That year, the film owned the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Though MGM had been reluctant to make Queen Christina (1933), they relented at Garbo's insistence. Nevertheless, when MGM suggested Charles Boyer or Lawrence Olivier as her leading man, Garbo rejected both and opted for her former co-star and lover John Gilbert. The studio objected, as they apprehended that Gilbert’s declining career would affect the box office. But, Garbo prevailed and Queen Christina became one of the biggest productions of the studio at the time. Consequently, the film became the highest-grossing film of the year, with positive reviews and box-office triumph. However, the film also faced controversy, as censors objected to the scenes in which Garbo disguised herself as a man and kissed a female co-star.
Her three best-known films of the 1930s and the roles upon which the Garbo mystique is largely based, are Anna Karenina (1935), for which she was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Actress; Camille (1936), which became an international success and she was nominated once more for an Academy Award.; and Ninotchka (1930), which proved herself a capable comic performer and garnered another Oscar nomination for her. MGM attempted to capitalize her success in Ninotchka in their next film, Two-Faced Woman (1041), in which Garbo played a double role that featured her dancing the Rhumba, swimming, and skiing. The film was a critical failure, but it performed reasonably well at the box office.
Two-Faced Woman, which Garbo referred to as her grave, was here last film. She never faced the camera again. At that time, she was 36 and she had made 28 feature films in 16 years. She lived the next five decades in her New York City apartment, made no public appearances and was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1955.
In 1984, Greta Garbo was successfully treated for breast cancer. Since late 1980s, was also suffering from kidney problems and was receiving dialysis for six hours, three times a week. She died on 15 April 1990, at a New York City hospital, due to pneumonia and renal failure.