She refused to tell her friends where she worked and in a letter to one acquaintance, written before her 15th birthday, she admitted to being “arrogant and impatient.”
What free time she had was spent hanging around local theatres or, as she told Photoplay magazine in 1928 in one of the few interviews she ever granted, “thinking.”
“I wanted to be alone, even as a child,” she said. “I used to go to a corner and think…. Thinking means so much, even to small children.” She was 5 feet, 7 inches tall and an awkward 130 pounds by the time she was 12. Fully developed, her measurements were 34¼-28-37¼. It was not the stuff of which stars are made, but ambition kept her going when looks and talent could not.
Somewhere around her 18th birthday she was modelling hats in a Stockholm department store when Erik Petschler, a producer of low-brow comedies, came in to purchase some gowns for a picture. She wound up auditioning for a part as a bathing beauty in Peter The Tramp, in which her plump figure was shown to full advantage.
Petschler saw her potential and encouraged her to study drama. It was while she was studying at the Academy of Royal Dramatic Theatre and earning an occasional 3 crowns a performance that she met the man who became the most influential in her life.
Mauritz Stiller was the foremost director in the Swedish film industry. He was 40 and she was 18. Hers, he said, was a face he wanted. But only in the figure supporting in weighed 25 pounds less.
Stiller got her out of her contract and began to shape his 18-year-old starlet. Greta Gustafsson became Greta Garbo.
How the name was choses remains enigmatic. One version has Greta and a girlfriend poring over names at the Swedish Ministry of Justice and the two young girls choosing “Garbo,” an old Norwegian word for wood nymph. The more accepted story is that a friend of Stiller brought up the name of Bethlen Gabor, a 17th century Hungarian king. Stiller rolled it around his tongue and it came out Garbo.
At any rate, when American movie mogul Louis B. Mayer met Greta Gustafsson in a Berlin hotel in 1924-25, she had become Greta Garbo.
Irving Thalberg, MGM's boy-wonder producer, cast Garbo in her first American role, that of a peasant girl in The Torrent.
After The Torrent premiered in February 1926, Garbo found herself likened to Pola Negri and Norma Talmadge all rolled into one.
Garbo found her next picture, The Temptress, a trying experience and complained loud and long about the plot and the direction. The public, however, loved it and Mayer wanted to extend her tree-year contract.
Within a week MGM had sent her another script. This was Flesh And The Devil, based on Hermann Sudermann's novel, The Undying Past. It co-starred John Gilbert, and the feeling he had sparked in her when she saw him on the screen in New York soon poured out on the set.
Clarence Brown, who directed, sad it was a case of “love at first sight.”
The cameraman was William Daniels, who worked on nearly all the Garbo films. It was Daniels who had Gilbert hide a small light in his hand when the two stars embraced, the better to silhouette the Garbo profile. Within weeks Gilbert had proposed, buying a larger house and a yacht he dubbed The Temptress. The relationship, played to the hilt by the Hollywood press corps, made Flesh And The Devil one of the top-grossing silent films of all time.
By now the once halting, backward immigrant was world famous (she has kissed Gilbert with her mouth open, an act that may have scandalized but also sold tickets).
Also now, for the first time, Garbo publicly told the world she “vanted to be alone.”
After only four films, there was a “Garboesque” mystique loose on the land. American women were peering at their husbands through nearly closed eyelids; fashion designers were turning out Garbolike gowns and everyone was saying “I tink I go home,” a phrase their object of worship reportedly used once when she threatened to walk off a set.
While Garbo was abroad in 1929, Gilbert married Broadway actress Ina Claire, finishing a romance that had become more meaningful to press agents than to Garbo. Her next film, The Kiss , was the silent film farewell for the reigning queen of Hollywood.
“GARBO TALKS,” said the advance publicity campaign for Anna Christie, the film adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play about the perennial fleet follower.
Sound pictures had already doomed the careers of Pola Negri, Norma Talmadge, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Gilbert. To minimize the risk, Garbo was given a property in which her accent and sultriness could be shown to advantage.
In her first scene she enters a saloon and growls, “Give me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, babeee.”
The world fell in love with her almost masculine voice, as it had with her mite sensuality.
After she portrayed Mata Hari in 1931 she became part of a studio campaign to lure moviegoers back to the theatre, for the Great Depression had left America worried more about food than about frivolity.
The chosen vehicle was Grand Hotel, and its all-star cast included Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry, Joh and Lionel Barrymore and MGM's biggest attraction, Garbo.
In the film she portrayed an aging ballerina who, in one scene, sinks to the floor and utters, wearily and publicly, the Garbo signature phrase: “I vant to be alone.”
In 1936-37 director George Cukor was placed in charge of what many feel was Garbo's finest portrayal, the courtesan Camille. Its cast included Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore. Two-Faced Woman, a farce not even Garbo could pull off, opened in December 1941, to unfavourable notices. It was her final film. She was a multimillionaire, a woman who had appeared on the screen as a bejewelled queen yet who confined her own expenditures to expensive antiques and valuable property in New York and Los Angeles. She had always lived and dressed simply, and her wealth permitted her to eschew the film offers that followed her into retirement in 1942.
Contrary to public perception, she “vasn't alone” but with some of the world's most glamorous men – photographer Sir Cecil Beaton, whose marriage proposal she rejected, and Aristotle Onassis, the shipping magnate.
The aged Garbo, if seen at all, appeared in floppy hats and baggy clothes. The epitome of filmed grace swaggered like a man off-camera. The woman who in retirement refused all public appearances, even those for charity, did however give large sums to favored charitable institutions.
She moved between New York and Europe. In 1984, in a classic case of life imitating art, she was the unseen subject of Garbo Talks , a film about a son who tries to produce the reclusive Swede for his hospitalised, star-stricken mother.
Neighbors knew little of star recluse
NEW YORK (Reuter) – Neighbors living on New York's exclusive East Side knew very little about the legendary actress who lived in their midst for over 20 years until she died in a nearby hospital yesterday.
Car Peterson, an employee in the luxury building where Greta Garbo lived, described her as “very reticent. I would ask her about an old movie I saw on television and she would look in the other direction. She didn't want anyone asking her questions – she wanted to be alone.”
Samuel Green, the New York art dealer and longtime friend of the actress, told Reuters that in the last years of her life she had withdrawn from most of her friends.
“She lived in a tower of privacy, in relative luxury,” Green said.