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Wednesday, August 1, 2012


The Great Garbo.

The camera will never love another face the way it did Greta Garbo's. The image of her pensive, vulnerable, yet aloof beauty has become synonymous with early cinema itself-- cinema at its peak, its most brilliant. A single utterance of "Garbo" draws forth even today a momentary pause, a brief second of awe, wherein the history of celluloid in its most perfect form flickers in the mind, the heart, the soul... then flickers out, leaving a feeling of palpable loss and nostalgia. So it was with Greta Gustafsson, who came to Hollywood, breathed more life and soul into it than any woman before or since, then ushered herself into a cloaked world of mystery. Had she not been a product of film, her legend would have lived only through word of mouth and broken recollections, such as acting contemporaries Sarah Bernhardt and Katharine Cornell. Instead, God invented Man, Man invented the Camera, and the Camera invented Garbo. Her allure, spirit, and talent continue to hypnotize; the enigma of her existence continues to draw our curiosity. But, unlike age old riddles, this Swedish Sphinx will never share her secrets nor tell her truths. This is the height of her irony, since history has made her one of our greatest and most trusted storytellers. While Greta herself is a fascinating creature, her makings are not as interesting as the way she made us, or rather, how she somehow accidentally made herself appeal to us so deeply. She seems superhuman, as if there are no dates, earmarks, or explanations in her personal timeline. There is no synopsis, no summary... There is only Garbo.

The greatest debacle in Greta Lovisa Gustafsson's character was her ignorance, or rather avoidance, of her own celebrity. One of the twentieth century's greatest artists, she never recognized her art, nor her talent, and hid in almost near terror of any reference to it. Within her beat the heart of a passionate collaborator in the world of human interpretation. She yearned to create, to share, to relate, to translate, but the equally humble and private part of her personality shunned the lifestyle demanded of such an auteur. In a perfect world, a world of her own invention, Greta would have acted her little heart out with abandon on the the sound stage, with nothing but herself and the camera, then gone home to a distant cottage to which no one else had access. There would be no magazine interviews, no ferocious fans, no prying eyes, no blood-suckers. The price of her fame, thus, was fame itself. Perhaps more than any other celebrity before or since, Greta-- who admitted that she wanted her work to be appreciated-- did not want the notoriety or attention that came along with it. She wanted peace. She wanted to be "left alone." Unfortunately, the cross that the greatest artists, poets, and performers have to bear is the over-eager jealousy of their most devoted fans. There is no peace in genius, only torment. Maudlin and ever-troubled Greta was always, therefore, in agony.

Greta Gustaffson would recall being a "big girl" who towered over her peers at 5'7".
While the world would see her after she lost her baby fat and fixed her teeth,
she just saw the same awkward girl of youth in the mirror.

The question remains, "Why?" In looking at her past, there is no overwhelming red flag that signals her transition from the average Swedish girl, growing up in Stockholm, to the socially ambivalent and hermetic woman she would become. If anything, her character is determined by sound common sense and strong principles. Greta's greatest blessing and greatest fault was her 100% effective bull-sh*t detector. Growing up impoverished, enduring cold winters, and knowing no comfort other than that afforded by family unity, the glamour of Hollywood never held any true allure. It didn't suit her character. A part of her European soul always yearned for the simplicity and material dearth of her earlier existence. A life of discipline and practicality, a life of order and modest happiness: that made sense. The movie stars of the 1920s-1930s, who lived extravagant lives of abundant joy and often obscenity, were nonsense to her. She could not interpret them. Instead, she would watch silently when forced, participate in conversation but rarely-- mostly due to her insecurity over her inferior education and poor English-- and wait for the moment when she could take off the ridiculous gowns and furs the studio adorned her with and traipse around in slacks and bare feet. Material things had no essence. Perhaps, for this reason alone, Greta always projected the epitome of essence in her performance. Whatever "it" is, whatever we human beings are, she got it. The essence of femininity and feminine yearning, of pain, of pleasure-- she communicated these things easily, effortlessly. Greta was not an actress of flash; she had substance. She was both the heavens and the earth.

Certainly, she was a quirky girl. There was a part of her innate personality that was not interested in frivolous things or frivolous people. She longed only for depth, meaning, and even childlike dreams. Insincere friendships, users, or hangers-on, had no chance with her. The protective barrier she built up, which left her isolated even in childhood-- albeit to a lesser degree-- was not easy to penetrate. She trusted few and withdrew her trust quickly at the slightest hint of betrayal. She was possessive of those she took into her sacred personal space, but refused to allow them to be possessive of her. Some postulate that the source of this was her father's early death, when she was but 14. As she was always closer with her father, she took the loss hard. Always the stoic child, she did not shed visible tears, but put her lanky foot forward, hid her emotions behind her impenetrable face, and moved on. Though the youngest of three children, including eldest brother Sven and sister Alva, Greta always took it upon herself to play the role of the oldest sibling. She was a leader. She made the plans, she designated the duties, she saw that they were carried out, and she lived the sort of distant and removed life that all rulers lead. The proof of her affection was seen not in an obvious tenderness but in the mere fact that she was always watching out the corner of her eye to see that those she loved were protected.

Greta's work in The Joyless Street would increase MGM's interest in her, 
(though Louis B. Mayer was already more than intrigued after seeing 
her work in The Saga of Gosta Berling.

In her father's death, a part of her remained stunted, and it is this part that can be seen in her moments of childlike innocence on the silver screen. A part of Greta never grew up. Another part of her did, and it was the same part that led her to adopt more typically masculine attributes, attitudes, and styles. Her legendary androgyny is the result of Greta stepping into her father's pants when he sadly left the earthly plain. This duality in Greta is the explanation for her amazing transformations on the silver screen. She is one moment the graceful, suffering lady in gowns of satin; the next she stands sternly with the look of a drill sergeant. She is both man and woman-- the mother earth of the silver screen. While she was beautiful and desired, while she conveyed great love and sexuality, there is very little sex identifiable in Greta. Greta was always more about the romance than the carnal act, which is perhaps why she spoke so well to and for her sisters. There was always a spiritual element to her sexuality, which heightened her performances above the erotically superficial. Whether you were consigning yourself to Heaven or Hell by mating with her, you were giving yourself up to a power greater than yourself-- as pure in its lust as in its devotion. This almost elevated expectation of sex on the screen is something she carried in her personal life, and it manifested itself in an almost asexual form. Whether she indulged her desires with men, women, or both, sex was the last thing on her mind and a messy and annoying side-effect of attraction that she didn't seem to enjoy too much. This is not to imply that she was completely frigid-- her demeanor and her actions at every instance implicate a depth and sensuality that was overpowering. On the other hand, it implicates more about her protective exterior. For a woman who feared scrutiny, judgment, and intimacy on any level, the act of love-making was never a question of soulful connection. In her fragile and fearful mind, no matter how tender the partner, it felt a lot more like rape.

Greta would find love with John Gilbert on and off screen, but the beautiful music
was not to last.

She did occasionally let her fierce guard down for temporary trysts, the most memorable being that between herself and John Gilbert. After her success in Mauritz Stiller's The Saga of Gosta Berling and G.W. Pabst's The Joyless Street, she and Stiller arrived at MGM and almost instantly she was partnered with "Jack." The two quickly fell in love before the eyes of the crew, and subsequently the eyes of America. Jack became at once lover, father figure, and friend, but his hopes that the passion of their on screen affair would translate into reality failed. Greta Garbo lacked one thing which is essential to all lovers: surrender. Her independence, her need to feel unbound and un-possessed, would forever cripple her chances at perfect love. With Jack, it is assumed, she came closest. While he was able to draw her out of her shell and bring her more into Hollywood society, high society meant little to her. The constant pull within her that at once beckoned her to her craft and begged her to return to her native soil made it impossible for her to compromise herself into the starlet, harlot, Goddess that Jack imagined her to be. He was too much the dreamer; she was too grounded in reality and all its unanswerable questions. She would embark on a steamy but brief affair with a more private actor, George Brent, during their teaming on The Painted Veil, but John remains her celebrity soul mate. Other rumored lovers range anywhere from good friend Mercedes de Acosta to Cecil Beaton to Louise Brooks. But all were temporary, and platonic friendship was always more favored in any case than romantic love. Many fell in love with her, or the idea of her, but none could get their hands on her. Garbo became an accidental Siren, pulling ardent wooers to her like moths to a flame, but she consistently failed to understand her power.

Greta had a natural command and nonthreatening ambiguity that allowed her to eclipse 
gender roles with ease. Whereas Marlene's cross-dressing is tongue in cheek or 
Katharine Hepburn's was defiant, Greta's androgyny was totally inoffensive. 
She just was.

Her power was mighty, nonetheless. What Garbo brought to the screen was something more than anyone had ever seen before. While she played temptresses, she was never quite the vamp; while she was new and fresh, she was far from a flapper. These two new female forms brought with them a scintillating sexuality, but while empowering women they too continued to objectify them. Garbo's mysterious sensuality alone set women free. Ever in control, she was also a woman at the mercy of her heart. Her beauty may have been her entre into romance, but it was her great depth and almost innocent passion that rendered her beauty nonthreatening and heightened her desirability. She was ethereal, impulsive, and also-- as Barry Paris pointed out-- "intelligent." This was not some woman simply sitting around yearning for a hubby, nor a street girl using her body to cling desperately to life-- or her next meal. Garbo was the master chess player, winning every game she played-- even if she lost. She made her move by not moving; by letting the other players rashly race around her to their own ruin. Meanwhile, she breezed past them all to a seamless victory. This could be said of her career as well as her self. Garbo had little to contribute to her success other than her performances. She did not choose her roles so much as not refuse them. Everyone around her would bargain, wheel and deal, make offers, and she would sit silently, ponder the opportunity, and if underwhelmed utter the now iconic: "I tink I go home now." Did she choose her most famous roles or did her most famous roles choose her? From Flesh and the Devil, to Anna Christie-- when she first spoke in that evasive yet familiar drawl-- to Ninotchka, Greta became the safety net of MGM. 'Garbo' was a continual promise of box-office success.

Until she wasn't. It took only one flop for the always uncertain and second-guessing girl of Stockholm to pack it in and remove herself from the world she had both loved and hated in the same breath. After Two-Faced Woman failed  to draw in ticket sales, Greta's insecurity got the better of her. She quit. Always doubtful and uncomprehending of her own talent, it took legions of compliments and confidantes to build her up and but one flickering, negative thought in her own mind to send her crashing to the ground. In the back of her mind too was this un-toppable image that she had somehow created-- Garbo-- that she could never live up to. The strain between fact and fiction was too difficult to uphold. Yet, by withdrawing into the shadows, she forever cemented the fiction, making it only more compelling by living a curious and secretive life for the next 50 years. She never returned to the screen, no matter how much the people and various collaborators begged her. A part of her yearned for a return, but self-doubt and the painful damages of time ruined any possible will she had to make such a move. Instead, she hid, saw a bit more of the world with trusted friends like Salka Viertel, Aristotle Onassis, Gayelord Hauser, and Sam Green, then passed away into the darkness. But celebrity death is never death. The darkness they dwell in is simply a waiting room-- inadmissible to the layman-- where they lay in wait for the great projector, the television, or the NetFlix instant player to roll their film again and bring them to life. Garbo thus continues to wake from a dream, perform her dreams before our eyes, then pass into that mystical dream land again. 

Greta rarely played for comedy, but when she did, she nailed it. This scene in Ninotchka
the film in which she played to and against her own universally recognized 
taciturnity, is one of her funniest: "Suppress it." Her humor in life 
was rather dry and rarely understood.

The events of her life, while fascinating and curious, are not as important as the work that she completed in her brief time on the silver screen, nor as important as the legacy she left behind. This is a truth she believed in most of all. She once quipped in one of her rare interviews that it should not matter who she was, where she was from, what she did, who she knew... Who cared? Well... everyone, but she had a point. People didn't want the true her, because the true Greta was very plain. They wanted Garbo. Her smartest move was maintaining her independence, was drawing the shade so that people could enjoy the illusion, and she could enjoy the tranquility of her privacy. She gave so much of her soul to Hollywood that she refused to let us have all of her. There had to be something left over for herself. She would not be caged. And so, she remains unreachable, untouchable, unknowable. She is a Wonder who encourages the human mind to wonder. Like the child she once was-- who put on breeches and performed plays with her friends-- she continues to indulge in this wonder of life. What is concrete is reassuring but uninteresting. Thus, she like the intangible questions of the universe, remains provocative, dangerous, desired, and feared. God created Garbo. Garbo created cinema. Her religion endures.

Not bad to look at. Greta's slightly hunched walk and awkward postures would
 influence the very definition of beauty. One looks at the broken angles
 of today's models and still sees a world of "posers."


  1. I am so glad you went back a bit to a star who began in the silent era. Your post was so in depth and I learned many new things about Miss Garbo. I cannot wait to read more. Thanks Meredith.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I went a different route with her bio, which was less biographical and more analytical, so I am glad that it was well received, hahaha. Thanks, Bill!

  2. Very thorough look into the star --

    What were you main sources? I ask because I am writing a play about Greta Garbo and have done extensive research. I am always interested in how fellow Garbo fans get their information.


    1. Thanks Lauren. That's amazing that you are writing a play, and on such a worthy subject. Good luck!

      My top sources for this particular post were, of course, Barry Paris's biography, and also Leatrice Gilbert FOuntain's bio of her father John, "Dark Star." I also found a lot of interesting stories in Adela Rogers St. Johns " Love Laughter and Tears." Barry Paris's bio on Louise Brooks also has some interesting references to Garbo. You have probably already looked through all of those!