Greta Garbo, the Hollywood actress of the 1930s, was so mysterious that she was known as the “Swedish Sphinx.” She was best remembered for her leading roles in classics like Queen Christina and Anna Karenina. Her famous line in the 1932 hit Grand Hotel was “I want to be alone” – a line so fitting it’s almost eerie. As her career flourished, she grew more distant, and only after her death in 1990 were we able to get a glimpse of just how lonely the former starlet was.
In a collection of 65 personal letters written by Garbo to a female friend, Austrian actress and writer Salka Viertel, she wrote about just how lonely she really was.
This is a look at the life of one of Hollywood’s most reclusive stars.
Recently placed for sale at auction, the penciled letters were all written to her friend over a period of 40 years between 1932 and 1973. The candid look into Garbo’s intimate life is expected to fetch as much as $60,000 (the actual sale has yet to be reported). In one letter, written in 1937 on a trip to Sweden, Garbo wrote: “I go nowhere, see no one.”
She also wrote that she did the same in Hollywood and begged her dear friend Salka Viertel to rescue her. “It is hard and sad to be alone, but sometimes it’s even more difficult to be with someone,” Garbo wrote. “Somewhere in this world are a few beings who do not have it as we have, of that I am certain,” she continued.
“And if I would stop making film, I could go and see if I could find out a little about it.” She stopped making films a few years later. Her last role was in 1941’s Two-Faced Woman. Garbo’s on-screen sense of melancholy was indeed genuine, but what she found irritating was the popular idea that she always avoided company.
“I never said ‘I want to be alone,’” she clarified in a 1955 Life magazine article. “I only said, ‘I want to be let alone!’ There is all the difference.” Garbo didn’t just write to her friend in Austria; she also sent letters to another female confidante, the Swedish countess Marta Wachtmeister, to whom she also expressed her feelings of isolation.
Her loneliness might have something to do with the fact that she was far from everyone and everything she knew as a child. The woman who was known simply as “Garbo” was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in 1905 to a working-class family in the slums of Stockholm, Sweden. Her parents struggled to make ends meet and feed their three children.
Garbo went on to play tragic, sad characters on screen, which wasn’t hard for her to portray given her humble beginnings. But “humble” is a nice way of putting it – her childhood experience was more miserable than humble, and the extreme poverty her family was in was just the start of it.
The Hollywood starlet described her childhood as a time of extreme anxiety. She and her siblings would sit in silence so as not to disturb their father while he scanned the newspaper for jobs. They couldn’t disturb their mother either, who worked on repairing old clothes (they couldn’t afford new ones).
Luckily for Garbo, the future star had an outlet: the theater. Both she and her older sister Alva fell in love with theater from a young age. But even this shared passion didn’t save them from what was lying ahead of them.
Garbo’s parents worked day in, day out as their three kids attended school. Her parents didn’t have enough money for Garbo to continue on to high school, and for the rest of her life, she carried the weight of that decision.
She later admitted that she felt inadequate compared to her Hollywood peers, who all attended high school and university. But Garbo didn’t have a say in the matter; she never chose to grow up in poverty. Despite the tension in the Gustafsson household, Garbo was close with her family, especially her father.
In 1919, a tragedy occurred that changed Garbo’s life forever. Her father was suffering from an illness that left him unable to work. He lost his job yet needed extensive treatment. So, the young girl stepped up to help her father. Her efforts were heartbreaking.
Every week for a whole year, Garbo would take her father on a long trip to a charity-run clinic, where she would sit with him as he underwent hours of treatment. Sadly, it was all for nothing. The illness ravaged his body, and when Garbo was 14 years old, she lost her father.
His death devastated the young teenager, but it also taught her how to persevere during the years of struggle that followed. After the loss of her father, the family was left with even less money than before, so Garbo went to work.
She first found a job in a barbershop and then in a department store. It was around this time that Garbo found the door to her future – the path that would take her back to her early passion as well as earn her family the money they so desperately needed.
The department store Garbo was working at offered her a job as a model in a print ad, and after that in a publicity short. A director saw the ad she was in and cast the 17-year-old newfound model in a short film called Peter the Tramp.
She was able to get a scholarship at the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s Acting Academy. Around this time, her sister Alva was also finding some success in films. Things were looking up for the girls and their family. Well, at least for the time being…
The director who gave Garbo her real start in film also became her mentor. She approached Swedish director Mauritz Stiller for a screen test, but he (politely) rejected her. He later heard about her work at the Royal Dramatic Academy a few years later and decided maybe now was the time to give her a chance.
Stiller cast her as the lead in The Saga of Gösta Berling. Afterward, Stiller became her manager, dictating all aspects of her career. He was the one who insisted she change her name from Gustafsson to a more glamorous stage name. She was now known as Greta Garbo.
Stiller may have made her a star, but he was also a little too controlling. Their relationship had a dark side. He would criticize Garbo for her weight (sadly, he wasn’t the only one). He was domineering and frequently barked orders at her, that is when he wasn’t completely ignoring her.
On set, Stiller would yell at Garbo in front of the crew until she burst into tears. The director reportedly made a public statement, explaining his mission with Garbo: to break her down until she became the woman he wanted her to be.
An intelligent woman, Garbo didn’t let Stiller and his harsh ways destroy her. Instead, she became acutely attuned to his moods and learned how to play him like a fiddle. Like many women of her era, dealing with a patronizing man was part of the package.
Not only was Stiller her mentor and manager, but he would also make ridiculous demands of any director who wanted to hire his dear Garbo. Movie mogul Louis B. Mayer came knocking on her door, but apparently, he wasn’t looking for her. Mayer wanted Stiller to come direct in Hollywood. That’s when Stiller told the Hollywood big shot that he and Garbo were a package deal.
Mayer’s reaction was cold: He said that Garbo was too fat for American audiences. Moreover, he told Stiller that she would never be a star. Still, the Swedish director insisted that Mayer hire them both. Eventually, Mayer gave in, and the Stiller-Garbo package was about to be sent off to Hollywood.
After a distressing 10-day journey to America by boat, Garbo arrived in New York City with Stiller. They were eager to start a new life in Hollywood and become the next best thing. But that wasn’t exactly what happened…
What did happen was that Garbo and Stiller waited for Mayer and MGM to contact them – to tell them what the next steps were. And so, they waited and waited… for two months. Garbo later described that period as the most miserable. Sadly, it was just the beginning of this new chapter in her life.
After a hot and sticky summer in New York City, just waiting for the call that never came, the Garbo-Stiller duo made their way to Los Angeles. Once they arrived, Garbo again expected to hear from MGM, this time waiting for five weeks.
Garbo was at her wit’s end. She wrote home that she was debating coming back to Sweden. But she didn’t – she came up with a plan instead. The go-getter went right over Mayer’s head and got a friend of hers to arrange a screen test with another MGM executive.
Being the impressive starlet she was, the studio liked her and started grooming her as they did all their young female stars. They fixed her teeth, put her on a strict diet, and, for Garbo specifically, they arranged English lessons. In other words: Greta Garbo was in.
Garbo was cast in The Temptress, which marked a huge milestone for the budding actress. It was exhausting, though, as she was caught in between the studio’s demands and Stiller’s, who was also directing the picture.
One day on set, Garbo received a telegram from her family back home. As she read it, she collapsed. Garbo read that her sister Alva was dead. Doctors had diagnosed her with cancer, and not much later, the disease took its toll. Garbo never even knew she was sick, which meant she never had the chance to say goodbye.
MGM refused to let Garbo return to Sweden for her sister’s funeral. Understandably, she was furious, and she didn’t hide it. It came to the point where Garbo felt like the studio was personally messing with her. And while she often clashed with Stiller, they were still close.
Then, one day out of the blue, MGM fired Stiller from directing The Temptress. Garbo was suddenly put in a difficult position – torn between her loyalty to her mentor and the promising career MGM had in its hands. It was then that the glitz and glamour of Hollywood started to fade for Garbo.
Garbo started seeing Tinseltown for what it really was: a place that chewed people up and spit them out. She was heartbroken. When MGM told her about her next project, a film called Flesh and the Devil, she surprised even the most seasoned studio moguls with her reaction.
Still angry and disillusioned, Garbo refused to appear in the upcoming film, which nearly cost her everything. (Remember, this was the era in which actors were tied to studios by contract.) After receiving some warnings of “dire consequences” if she were to refuse again, she begrudgingly agreed to appear in the film.
For Flesh and the Devil, Garbo was cast as the romantic lead with veteran actor John Gilbert. The director, Clarence Brown, noticed right off the bat that the two had chemistry — both on and off the screen. Garbo and Gilbert jumped headfirst into a passionate relationship.
Before they even finished filming the movie, the two were already living together. Gilbert was a warm embrace for Garbo’s cold on-screen demeanor. He was also somewhat of a replacement for Garbo’s former mentor, Mauritz Stiller. He helped her become a better actor, but more importantly, he taught her how to navigate Hollywood.
She learned from Gilbert how to properly schmooze at the parties and how to deal with the headstrong studio heads. Garbo was a willing student, and his lessons were useful in her career in the years afterward.
The two love birds just couldn’t keep their hands off each other. There’s actually one story-turned-legend about the pair’s passion. While filming a love scene in Flesh and the Devil, they were “acting it out” so heavily that the director refused to say “cut.” Instead, he slowly cut the lights and ushered the crew off the set one by one. Apparently, a few hours later, director Brown had dinner sent to the couple.
Flesh and the Devil turned out to be a massive success, a game changer for Garbo. The star now had leverage against MGM. Despite only having one film under her belt, she became the studio’s highest-paid star.
The love affair between Garbo and Gilbert created its fair share of headlines and good publicity for MGM, who knew that they needed to pair the couple up again and milk their chemistry for all its worth. And the way they did it was pretty darn cheesy. A screenwriter adapted the novel Anna Karenina into a screenplay. MGM renamed the title “Love” so the poster could read: “Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in LOVE.”
Even though Gilbert replaced Stiller as her unofficial mentor, Garbo and Stiller remained close. The two were also close friends with actor Einar Hanson, who was a romantic lead opposite Garbo in her first films. They were close while living in Hollywood, but one day, Stiller had a disturbing intuition.
He told his friends that he had a vision of Hanson dying in a car crash. Believe it or not, it came true. In 1927, Hanson lost his life in a car accident while heading home from a dinner party the studio threw for Garbo. Hanson was one of her oldest friends in Hollywood. This was now the third death of a loved one she had to deal with.
Then, it came time for a fourth. After multiple Hollywood rejections, Mauritz Stiller returned to Sweden with his tail between his legs. Once back home, he fell ill and was hospitalized. He died not much later, at the age of 45.
He reportedly clutched a photo of Garbo while on his death bed – a photo of the two which was taken soon after they had arrived in California together. It was thanks to Stiller that Garbo ever made it to Hollywood. Now she was there without him or any of her family or friends from back home. The loneliness started to creep in.
Eventually, the flame between Gilbert and Garbo fizzled. Despite starring in films together in the late ‘20s, their romance came to an end, and it was likely because of Garbo’s roaming eye (not his). At the time, she was romantically linked to other actors.
In fact, many of Garbo’s biographers considered her to be bisexual. In 1926, she was said to have had a relationship with starlet Lilyan Tashman. “It Girl” Louise Brooks also claimed she had had an affair with Garbo a year later. Garbo was already hush-hush about her love life, so you can imagine how secretive she was about her romances with women.
Garbo gained a reputation for making bizarre demands on set, and since she was the biggest star MGM had, those demands were met quickly. For instance, she once demanded that as few people as possible be on set while she was filming her scenes. She even banned studio bosses from intruding.
Garbo also had a system of privacy screens set up so any extras or crew members couldn’t see her. Apparently, it was because of the many expressions she was known for making on screen. She argued: “If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise.”
In the beginning, Garbo was part of the silent film era. However, the film industry shifted to sound, and, in 1929, Garbo starred in The Kiss — MGM’s and Garbo’s last silent film. Switching to sound meant a massive change for not just everyone in Hollywood but for Garbo too.
The Swedish actress rushed to learn English and perfect her accent for her transition to sound. It was a major risk, and tensions were high. Garbo was cast in her first sound film called Anna Christie. She was carefully chosen for the film because the main character was Swedish.
It was perfect – Garbo didn’t have to hide her accent. MGM’s promotional ad for the film had the tagline “Garbo Talks!” That was all it took for the film to be a success. It was the highest-grossing film of the year and netted Garbo her first Oscar nomination.
It didn’t matter to Garbo, though. She was utterly miserable. Why? Because of the way the film portrayed Swedes. It frustrated her beyond belief, and she found herself furious at the studio again. If circumstances were different, she would have packed her bags and left MGM.
The thing is, and according to MGM exec Irving Thalberg, Garbo couldn’t just up and leave. She was hiding a dark secret. A screenwriter expressed his reservations about Garbo’s dedication to the studio, which is when Thalberg let the cat out of the bag.
The MGM exec revealed that Garbo had all of her money in one bank in Beverly Hills and that her life savings had been wiped clean as a result of the Stock Crash of 1929. Just like that – Hollywood’s most bankable actress was penniless. A stable paycheck was what she needed more than ever.
By the early 1930s, MGM was looking for their newest young movie hunk. They chose Clark Gable and put him opposite Garbo. The results were explosive. The film was a commercial success, but the two stars were like oil and vinegar when the cameras stopped rolling.
Garbo said she thought his acting was “wooden,” which was nicer than what he said about her – that she’s a “stuck-up snob.” Her next film was Mata Hari, in which she portrayed the dancer-turned-WWI spy. The much-anticipated film was such a sensation that a mass panic ensued when it premiered.
When Mata Hari premiered, a mass “panic” led the police to bring along reserves in order to keep the waiting mob in order. Mata Hari was MGM’s most successful film that year and the biggest of Garbo’s career.
On the set of another movie, 1932’s Grand Hotel, she had strict requirements for her love scenes with John Barrymore. Word on the set was that Garbo and Barrymore got so carried away that they didn’t hear the director saying “Cut!” and he was saying it for a full three minutes! The scandalous part? Barrymore was married. But Garbo had someone else on her mind anyway.
In 1931, Garbo met female writer Mercedes de Acosta, and the two began a stormy love affair that would last for years. Since Garbo was rarely satisfied with the films MGM put her in, she brought them a script by de Acosta about Joan of Arc.
MGM wasn’t interested and immediately shut down any possibility of the lesbian couple doing a passion project together. Her already icy relationship with MGM was only getting colder. Her last film in her MGM contract was As You Desire Me, and instead of antagonizing the studio heads, she spent her time covering for her co-star, Erich Von Stroheim.
Von Stroheim was a European director whom MGM had mistreated and subsequently fired. Even after MGM banned him from the lot, Garbo insisted on hiring him for As You Desire Me. When Von Stroheim was too depressed or sick to work, Garbo lied and said she was sick, too.
As a result, the studio had to shut down production. It was one final blow to the studio that put her on a pedestal while also doing nothing for her artistically. She completed her contract and was finally free. She was hoping to return to Sweden for the first time in years. But not just yet…
MGM did everything they could to get Garbo back for a second contract. She was willing to listen to what they had to offer her but had her own demands, too – mainly that she wanted to star in a film called Queen Christina.
MGM was desperate to have her back, so they gave in. When they were casting a male co-star, they debated a number of big names, but every time they tested Garbo opposite a new actor, she froze up. I’m sure you can guess by now that she was doing it on purpose. Garbo knew who she wanted to play her lover — and her decision stunned the studio.
The actor whom Garbo was adamant about starring opposite was John Gilbert, her one-time lover and co-star from the past. She didn’t care that his fame was on the decline, either. Gilbert was on the verge of retiring from acting when she told MGM to offer him the role in Queen Christina.
The studio was then forced to offer him another contract. Gilbert was recently remarried at the time, with a baby on the way, so the timing was perfect. It seemed as though Garbo was using her second contract with MGM to atone for her past sins. Gilbert wasn’t the only one she tried to save.
Garbo’s next film, Camille, was anticipated to be the pinnacle of her career. Garbo and MGM producer Irving Thalberg were able to set aside their differences and actually become friends. Thalberg was greatly involved in the making of Camille, especially in Garbo’s performance.
Then, all of a sudden, Thalberg contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 37. Hollywood stood still at that moment. He was, after all, an incredibly important figure, and his death left many big wigs in Hollywood inconsolable — Garbo was one of them.
Without Thalberg around, Garbo’s interest in film diminished. It happened to come at a time when audiences were losing interest as well. A group of theater owners put up an infamous ad that called out Hollywood producers and a number of their biggest stars as “Box Office Poison.”
Garbo was among the ones pointed out. The atmosphere was rough, so MGM had a plan. They figured they could warm up her icy appeal by putting her in a comedy, 1939’s Ninotchka. And it actually worked… at first. Then, they tried to do another comedy, which was a total disaster.
When the reviews came in for Garbo’s romantic comedy Two-Faced Woman in 1941, critics didn’t hold back. It proved to be the breaking point for the already broken starlet. She effectively retired from film at that moment.
It wasn’t intentional, though, as she had shopped around for her next project. But at that point, WWII stole America’s thunder, and many productions were put on the back burner. Garbo was still young at 36 and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but she never showed up in a film again.
Garbo was never the kind of celebrity who enjoyed her fame or relished Hollywood life. She never signed autographs, never answered her fan mail, and never did interviews. Garbo also refused to go to film premieres or awards ceremonies.
She actually turned down an invite to the 1955 Oscars! That year, she was meant to receive an honorary Oscar, but she couldn’t have cared less. Ironically, her efforts to avoid fame only increased her allure. Without ever wanting it, she became one of the most famous women in the world.
Her retirement didn’t stop the press from obsessing over her every move. And she didn’t let the media stop her from living her best life, despite how lonely she claimed to be. She spent the next three decades living a life of leisure, filling her days with long walks and the occasional meet-up with a friend.
For Garbo, leaving Hollywood meant leaving her social life. Despite all the good humor and kindness she showed to those she cared about, she was a lot like the sad characters she played on screen. She felt melancholy and moody more often than not.
Garbo once confessed to a friend, “I suppose I suffer from a very deep depression.” She tried to snap out of it by trying out weird diets and attempting mysticism, but she refused to give up cocktails or smoking.
By 1953, her retirement was official. She packed her bags and went to New York. One of her New York friends was a young art dealer named Samuel Adams Green. Due to his job, Green would record most of his phone calls. It was something Garbo didn’t seem to mind until one fateful day.
A rumor went around that Green had played some of their private phone conversations at a dinner party. Garbo learned of the rumor and immediately cut him out of her life, despite his declarations of innocence.
It took many years, but Green eventually realized the truth, which was that Garbo’s physical and mental health had been deteriorating. He happened to be just one of many people that the former starlet cut out of her life. Green kept the tapes to himself before he ultimately donated all 100 hours of their conversations to Wesleyan University.
In 1984, Garbo was diagnosed with breast cancer. She managed to beat it, but her health was on a drastic decline. She had to endure six-hour dialysis treatments three times a week. On April 15, 1990, Garbo passed away from pneumonia and kidney failure. She was 84.
Throughout her life, Garbo persistently withheld many personal aspects of her life from the public eye. After her death, much of what she kept guarded was finally exposed. It was revealed that she had affairs with Cecil Beaton and novelist Erich Maria Remarque, to name a few.
But the one that hurt her the most was her romance with Mercedes de Acosta. Garbo had written her a total of 181 cards, poems, and letters. But when de Acosta released her memoir in 1960, which alluded to many lesbian relationships, Garbo cut her former lover off completely.
Then, there was one of Garbo’s oldest friends, Mimi Pollak, who studied with her at the Royal Dramatic Theatre school in Sweden. Garbo’s letters to Pollak indicate that her feelings were more than platonic. When Pollak got pregnant in 1930, Garbo wrote her another letter, saying, “We cannot help our nature, as God has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together.”
Garbo never had children, nor did she ever get married. The only man who came close to being her husband was John Gilbert, who proposed to her several times. She finally accepted, and they were planning a double wedding with director King Vidor and his fiancée, Eleanor Boardman.
But Garbo got cold feet and backed out at the absolute last minute. Garbo later said she did indeed love him, but she froze when it came time to get married. When Gilbert was about to marry another woman, Garbo begged a mutual friend of theirs to stop the wedding. But the friend didn’t, and neither did she.