Off screen, Greta Garbo rarely courted attention. While living in Los Angeles, she often disguised herself in trousers, a blazer and a low-slung hat so she could take nighttime walks in peace.
Movies were in their infancy when the fiercely independent Swedish beauty started her rise to Hollywood legend. “Women formed her major fan base; they liked her melodrama and admired the power she displayed,” says Lois W. Banner, author of Ideal Beauty: The Life and Times of Greta Garbo. However, Greta disliked life in the spotlight. Red carpets and other publicity events “caused her great anxiety. And despite her grandeur on the screen, she gave terrible interviews,” says Banner.
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Born into an impoverished family, Greta dropped out of school at 14 after the death of the father she adored. “She kept looking for a replacement for him in the men she met,” explains Banner, who notes that, paradoxically, teenage Greta also became swept up in Stockholm’s feminist scene. “She wrote and produced plays that were very melodramatic in which she often played male parts,” says Banner. “She was both extremely shy and very nervy, a common personality type among actors.”
She sailed for America at the behest of MGM Studios in 1925 in the company of film director Mauritz Stiller, her mentor. “In a stunning reversal of fortune, he was soon fired,” says Banner. “He returned to Stockholm while Garbo became a major Hollywood star.”
Fame brought her financial security but at a very high price. “She chain-smoked from the age of 17 and suffered from anorexia nervosa,” reveals Banner. “Hollywood stars were required to be thin, but Garbo had a broad, muscular body. She had several breakdowns when she lost too much weight.”
In her private life, Greta joined salons and circles of fellow European expats. A free spirit, she took both male and female lovers, but she never felt comfortable in Hollywood and its environs. Although she made the leap from silent to talking films seamlessly, working for MGM weighed on her. “She made only two films a year,” says Banner, who explains that Greta often butted heads with Louis B. Mayer, the powerful head of the studio. She also refused to do everything asked of her. “I will no longer shake hands with prizefighters and egg-and-milk men so they will have pictures to put in the papers,” Greta insisted.
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Retiring from films became the goal. “She’d wanted to leave Hollywood for years, but she also wanted to be financially independent and MGM paid her a huge salary,” Banner explains,
The four-time Oscar nominee made her last film in 1941 and moved to an apartment on New York’s East Side. “She had a rich social life, hobnobbing with the wealthy and social elite,” says Banner. Photographers continued to take her picture until her death in 1990. “She is famed for walking the streets of New York — always with a friend,” notes Banner. “She didn’t say, ‘I want to be alone.’ She said, ‘I want to be left alone.’”