Lives Behind the Legends: Greta Garbo – Social Butterfly
Greta Garbo’s most famous quote is undoubtedly ‘I want to be alone.’ But it wasn’t Garbo who said this, it was her character in Grand Hotel who uttered those famous words. Garbo herself made a more nuanced statement: ‘I never said, “I want to be alone.” I only said, “I want to be left alone.” There is all the difference..’ Because despite her hermit-like image, she was no recluse. Away from the public eye, Garbo had a secretive but lively social life. The elusive star combined two opposite sides of the spectrum into one mysterious personality: a homebody who loved routine and a social butterfly about town.
Though she is seen as an enigma by many, plenty can be learned about Garbo’s personality throughout her life. As a child in Sweden, Garbo’s childhood was spent in bleak poverty. She later remembered being ‘sad’ as a child. Though she was shy and already had a penchant for spending time alone, she was never without friends. Garbo had a lively imagination and had already decided that she wanted to be an actress. She would stage little shows telling her friends and even her two older siblings exactly how to perform. She later admitted that even though she was the youngest sibling, she had always felt and behaved as the eldest. So it comes as no surprise that her childhood friends would later describe her as ‘bossy’. But she was also said to be ‘loads of fun’ and ‘always ready for mischief’. Garbo, as she referred to be called in her adult life, would stay in touch with some of them even as she was heading towards old age. But one pattern had already emerged: she had no problem cutting friends off. As a 14-year old she wrote to a friend, that she did not like her trying to hang out with Garbo’s other girlfriends. Ending the letter with: ‘If this letter offends you, you don’t need to write to me again.’ Her friendships were always on her terms.
After her father died when she was 14, Garbo had to work to help support her family. She became a soap girl at a barbershop. As always, she was shy at first. But when comfortable, she was fun, with a sharp sense of humor. Some customers enjoyed her company so much, they asked for her specifically. Once she was accepted into the Royal Dramatic Training Academy, she was finally surrounded by like-minded people. She could talk for hours about acting and have fun with a new group of friends. Still, she was keenly aware that she was one of the poorest students, struggling to make ends meet. Maybe that’s why, as another student later commented, Garbo could be lost in her own world. Making everybody wonder if they truly knew her.
When director Mauritz Stiller discovered Garbo, their bond became intense. Though it reportedly remained platonic, he was the only one who could ever boss her around. She trusted his direction completely and he became her mentor.
So you can imagine their joy when they were both offered a contract by American studio MGM. She was nervous about leaving her family and home behind but knew that this was an amazing opportunity.
In America, she was incredibly lonely. Garbo could not speak English yet and Stiller was occupied with impressing MGM. Meanwhile, her studio gave her the usual star treatment: her hairline and teeth were straightened, eyebrows plucked and she had to lose 33lbs. Garbo also had to pose for the required starlet photos, something she would refuse as soon as she became a star. That did not take long as her first American feature Torrent catapulted her to stardom.
She co-starred with John Gilbert in her third American film The Flesh and the Devil and the two began dating. He encouraged her to join him at social events and her world opened up more. Though he even proposed to Garbo, she later said she was only with him because she was lonely and didn’t speak English. Adding, with her usual cynical sense of humor: ‘Well, at least he was pretty.’ After Gilbert, Garbo dated but steadfastly refused to get serious with anybody. ‘”Wife” is such an ugly word,’ she later quipped.
The centre of her social life in those days was Salka Viertel. The Jewish Polish screenwriter and her husband had an unofficial salon for European artists at their home. Here, Garbo socialized with people like composer Igor Stravinsky, director Max Reinhardt and actors like Charlie Chaplin and Johnny Weissmuller.
Although her social life had progressed, she still struggled in Hollywood. In letters to her friend Mimi Pollak in Sweden she described her life as: getting up early to go to set, work 12 hours and then be too exhausted to do anything else. ‘Like a machine,’ she wrote. Her sadness, loneliness and frustration are tangible in the letters she sent during her Hollywood years. When her beloved sister Alva passed away, the studio wouldn’t allow her to go back to Sweden to attend the funeral. This no doubt added to her resentment towards Hollywood.
Fame proved to be overwhelming for Garbo and she soon refused to do interviews or answer fan mail. The studio decided to capitalize on this and promoted her as a mysterious European beauty, only adding to her popularity. She was devastated when Stiller, who never made the impression on Hollywood he had hoped, moved back to Sweden and died only a few years later. Restless, she took up long night walks with a hat pulled low over head, so as not to be recognized. Long walks would be her main form of relaxation for the rest of her life.
Garbo never liked the ‘vamp’ roles the studio cast her in. ‘I cannot see any sense in dressing up and doing nothing but tempting men.’ Though she admitted to friends that she didn’t care enough to fight for better roles either. ‘I have sold myself and have to remain here,’ she wrote in another letter to Mimi Pollak.
Garbo was never truly happy with her work. ‘Oh, if once, if only I could see a preview and come home feeling satisfied,’ she remarked. Her frustration with Hollywood reached its apex in 1942. After the release of The Two Faced Woman, Garbo left Hollywood for good. People were shocked: she was only 35 and still at the height of her fame. Garbo later explained: ‘I was tired of Hollywood. I did not like my work. There were many days when I had to force myself to go to the studio. I really wanted to live another life.’
At the time of her retirement, World War II was in full swing and Garbo worried about her homeland. Salka Viertel and her European salon were of great comfort. She was introduced to millionaire George Schlee. Though he was married, he would be Garbo’s frequent companion until his death in 1964. He even bought a house in the south of France where she spent so much time, locals still refer to it as ‘Garbo’s house’.
In the early 1950’s, Greta made some major life decisions. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen and bought an apartment in New York. She would call this apartment home for the rest of her life. Though Sweden would remain close to her heart, her closest relatives now lived in the U.S. as well: her brother Sven, his wife and daughter had also settled down here.
There were rumors that Greta had become a recluse, which probably stems from Garbo’s intense dislike of her own fame. Therapist Eric Drimmer, who had treated her for six months, wrote that celebrity was the true cause of her anxiety. He compared her response to gathering crowds and fans asking autographs to ‘if a normal human being is suddenly faced with a dangerous wild animal.’ Although she had quit acting, her fame would never diminish. Crowds still gathered once she was recognized, some fans went ‘Garbo watching’ in the hopes of getting a picture of her on one of her walks and she had a stalker for twenty years. So Garbo did everything she could to keep a low profile. She dressed casually and avoided crowded places. Thankfully, there were little tricks she knew. For instance, she always insisted on getting the worst table near the kitchen door at a fancy restaurant, so nobody would realize a celebrity was dining there. She chose her friends carefully and demanded that they respected her need for privacy.
She was close to photographer Cecil Beaton, art dealer Sam Green and poet Mercedes de Acosta. The latter is rumored to have been so obsessed with her, Garbo ended the friendship in the 1960’s. Aside from the ‘creative crowd’, she hung out with famous jet setters like Aristotle Onassis and Cecile de Rothschild. These were the kind of people who knew how to handle a friend who had such fame and success. But if they did not adhere to the rules and boundaries she set within these friendships, she still had no problem cutting people off.
Though she didn’t work anymore, she had many hobbies. Garbo collected art and loved interior design. She had made sound investments over the years, allowing her to spend her money freely. She often browsed antique stores, went to auctions and even designed a rug for her apartment. She enjoyed playing tennis and swimming, remaining fit well into old age. Her appreciation for acting and storytelling never left: she was an avid theatre-goer. Travelling was a big part of her life as well. She developed a steady routine: in early June she would leave for Europe, accompanied by people like George Schlee or Cecile de Rothschild, returning early September. In fall/winter she took trips to California to visit old friends. In between trips she stayed in her beloved apartment in New York, which took up the entire fifth floor of the building. She enjoyed days to herself, in which she also stuck to somewhat of a routine: getting up early for yoga or meditation, eating toast for breakfast in front of the television, calling friends, shopping for fruits and vegetables, going for a long afternoon walk and eating dinner on a tray in front of the bedroom television. Here, her companion was Claire Koger, her loyal housekeeper for thirty years. Even when Claire couldn’t clean anymore because of arthritis, Garbo kept her on. Claire would remain her companion at home, until Garbo’s death.
Despite her need for alone time, her social life remained active. Still, the press would always refer to her as a reclusive classic Hollywood star. Her great-nephew Derek revealed: ‘If you look at her date books, she’s out and about, meeting people, going to dinner, going to people’s homes for the weekend. She was private, but for a recluse, she had a very active social life. I forget who said it, but somebody called her “the hermit about town”.’ In the 1960’s, Garbo’s beloved brother Sven passed away and she grew even closer to his wife and her niece Gray. Once Gray grew up, she became the most important person in Garbo’s life. The two went to Jamaica together every spring, Gray and her family visited Garbo weekly and they all spent the holidays together. Gray’s son Derek remembers Garbo teaching him and his siblings how to do cartwheels, giving them funny gifts and playing practical jokes on them. When he graduated, he moved to New York and lived five blocks away from her. He saw her frequently: ‘Family and friends would all assemble at 5 for cocktails at her apartment and then go out to dinner or a play or whatever we were doing. That was a weekly event.’ He describes her as ‘extremely funny’.
‘Fun’ and ‘funny’ are adjectives friends and family described her with all of her life. And yet the public perception of her is so vastly different. It is true that Garbo suffered from depressive episodes throughout her life, but as with anyone, this does not define her. In her memoirs, Mercedes de Acosta writes that Garbo ‘will always be Nordic with all its sober and introvert characteristics.’ But she rejects the notion that Garbo is morose or serious, writing : ‘she is serious when there is something to be serious about.’ Adding that Garbo could have her ‘literally rolling on the floor with her sense of comedy.’ Garbo’s great-nephew Derek, who is part of her estate, admitted that there is ‘more myth than reality’ around Garbo.
Hollywood likes to define people. Garbo was defined by words such as ‘mysterious’, ‘serious’ and ‘introverted’. But people are three-dimensional beings. Garbo was all of those things, but she could also be described as ‘funny’, ‘social’ and ‘adventurous’. It’s a testament to Garbo’s ability to keep her personal life private that people still buy into Hollywood’s definition of her. Her image as a recluse does not jive with someone who traveled extensively, had a lot of friends and acquaintances and enjoyed spending time with her family. Maybe we should retire the image of Garbo saying ‘I want to be let alone’ in Grand Hotel and replace it with an image of her teaching her grand niece and nephew cartwheels on the grass.
The sources for this article are Garbo by Robert Gottlieb, Loving Garbo by Hugo Vickers, New York Magazine (January 8, 1990), Garboforever.com, townandcountrymag.com, theguardian.com, newyorker.com, smithsonianmag.com, closerweekly.com, theparisreview.org, latimes.com, dailymail.co.uk, and greta-garbo.de/com.
— Arancha van der Veen for Classic Movie Hub
Arancha has been fascinated with Classic Hollywood and its stars for years. Her main area of expertise is the behind-the-scenes stories, though she’s pretty sure she could beat you at movie trivia night too. Her website, Classic Hollywood Central, is about everything Classic Hollywood, from actors’ life stories and movie facts to Classic Hollywood myths. You can follow her on Twitter at @ClassicHC.