The story of Greta Garbo

April 2016

There was a time during the classic Hollywood era when moviegoers would line up around city blocks just to see one particular face in action, and that bewitching face belonged to Greta Louisa “Garbo” Gustafsson of 32 Blekingegatan, Stockholm.

If our current appetite for movies has settled on a high-octane stream of global spectacle, it may sound antique to bring up film historian David Thomson’s lo-tech observation: The most special effect in movies is always the human face when its mind is being changed. Forget the roaring balls-to-the-wall CGI climax, larger-than-life characters trading cute dialogue, or unexpected plot twists that you didn’t see coming, Thomson tells us: the secret to cinema is simply the power of photograph expressions of thought. And indeed there was a time during the classic Hollywood era when moviegoers would line up around city blocks just to see one particular face in action, and that bewitching face belonged to Greta Louisa “Garbo” Gustafsson of 32 Blekingegatan, Stockholm. In flickers of silver, the whole world wanted to know what this Mona Lisa of the moving image was thinking.

 I was born, I grew up, I have lived like every other person. Why must people talk about me?

On the 110th year anniversary of Garbo’s birth (September 15, 1905), people are still talking about The Swedish Sphinx. The buzz continues decades later despite her best efforts during her life to remain off-limits – but also because of Garbo’s determined  veil of secrecy. The last official interview she gave was in 1927, and she of course kicked it off with let’s not talk of me.

Greta grew up in working-class Södermalm, a neighborhood of poor, unskilled laborers where even the grass gave up trying. But Greta herself never gave up, making frequent escapes into her imagination and creating her own theater company at 13. Only a year later, she watched her beloved father die an early and painful death. She left school and worked as a tvål flicka (soap girl in a barbershop) and a hat shopgirl at a department store to make ends meet for her family. Meanwhile, she continued to angle for a way to be part of the greasepaint of the theater that she so dearly loved. After scoring acceptance at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater Academy, her big break came when she was chosen to be the muse of the charismatic and temperamental film director, Mauritz Stiller. He became Greta’s imperious but loving mentor, selecting her screen name and shaping her into his feminine ideal of soulful mysticism and languid sensuality. When Hollywood came calling, it wasn’t for Garbo, but for Stiller. Though some accounts differ, MGM and studio head Louis B. Mayer weren’t much interested in the reticent Garbo. Yet Stiller refused to go to Hollywood unless his protegé were part of the package. In June 1925, Garbo and Stiller boarded a cruiseliner for the United States.

People do not know what it means to my people when someone goes to America….there is always much crying – a feeling that they will never come back. In a way, Greta Gustafsson never return to her homeland. Instead, she channeled her Nordic style to this New World of dramatic opportunity.

To understand Garbo, one must know the wind, rain, and dark brooding skies of Scandinavia. At least that’s what her sometimes friend and rumored one-time lover Mercedes de Acosta believed. But like in all good Hollywood myths, Garbo’s personal history, the studio publicity machine, her carefully-calibrated screen persona and insider gossip crystallize into a funhouse hall of mirrors with shifting perspectives, strange contradictions and cartoonish distortions. (She had the attention span a butterfly… a cornball sense of humor…a drag at parties… a botched abortion…closet lesbian..a spy during WWII). To come to terms with Garbo’s mystery then is to really grasp how constructed identity can be and how central fantasy is to our lives. Put another way, we must confront the currency that Hollywood has traded in from its very beginnings. At the same time, de Acosta’s comment touches on something fundamental and deeper about Garbo’s enigma:  while none of us can ever go home again, the home inside Greta – that Viking’s child troubled by a dream of snow – would find its strange and seductive expression on the world’s biggest stage at arguably its most popular moment.

Privacy, silence, humility, self-restraint. These are words commonly associated with Greta Garbo, but also often with Scandinavia itself. In her biography of Garbo, Karen Swenson briefly mentions the concept of Jantelagen in relation to Garbo’s legendary privacy. Jantelagen or Jante’s Law was first codified in Aksel Sandemose’s 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks as an unwritten, time-honored Scandinavian rulebook for behavior that de-emphasizes individual success featuring 10 fun rules like: You’re not to think you are anything special. As Garbo rapidly conquered the American box-office with her silent vamps and doomed heroines, she retreated further from public view, a living embodiment of this self-negating code of humility. At one point, she would get a remarkable four to five thousand pieces of fan mail each month, to which she replied to the sum total of zero. This stony silence was not snub to her fans, also known as Garbo-maniacs, but rather emanated from her conviction that these people do not know me. Perhaps I am a very bad girl. Perhaps they would not like to get a letter from me.

In an industry climate of attention-seeking exhibitionists, Garbo’s almost pathological shyness masked an emotionally high-strung constitution that often got perceived as icy rejection by Hollywood and the public that so desperately wanted to possess her. All she wanted back from them was the impossible – to get on with her work and to be left alone. As much as she wanted to convince herself that she was not better or special or just another face in the crowd, well, good luck with that face.

I will go home now.

Garbo’s ideal was to have two very separate lives – one for the movies and one for herself. In those days, however, the Hollywood studios, more or less, owned your life. A stranger in a strange land, Garbo’s power was that she was willing to walk away from the dream factory at any time, sending studio head Louis B. Mayer into fits while leading to high-paying contracts and the ability to choose scripts and co-stars – all very rare privileges in her day.

Outside of the business of making films, she rarely attended premieres or parties, instead pursuing a different kind of walking – frequent explorations of the beaches and palisades of Santa Monica, preferably on her own. Her solitary jaunts into the outdoors is what Scandinavians call friluftsliv or “free air living.” It is a lifestyle pursuit with philosophical roots that celebrates freedom in nature and a spiritual and subjective connectedness to wild landscape. As an exiled Swede, it seems she instinctively found nature an antidote to the frantic busyness and toxic intrigue of the gilded cage of celebrity. On one occasion, when she had been missing from the studio for a few days, her co-star and off-screen lover at the time Jack Gilbert went to find her. He drove along the California coast for miles before he finally caught a glimpse of Garbo by the shoreline. He watched as she stared out at the glimmering Pacific Ocean for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, feeling like a trespasser, he walked away, leaving her there, deeply in her element – an unbothered, possibly transcendent communion with nature. Garbo would not have had it any other way.

With her popularity waning as movies got more upbeat and patriotic in order to cheer up a wartime public, Garbo’s exotic and existential grace disappeared from the screens. There were rumors of a comeback for years, but she was tired of making those silly faces and had plenty in the bank. For a woman who didn’t have a problem expressing a certain amount of contempt for the trappings of stardom, her contributions to celebrity culture are legion. Her incognito look (dark sunglasses, berets, cloche hats) was and is still widely copied, as are her endless eyelashes (which were very real). She also ushered in a new paradigm of angular beauty and dressing style that fused “masculine” and “feminine” qualities, resulting in fanatical admirers from both sexes. Garbo’s signature debutante slouch was pirated by high fashion and still remains a standard on runways around the world.

While jury is still out on Garbo’s amorphous sexuality, it is beyond dispute that her on-screen love scenes rattled the prudish censors of the time, showing a free-spirited woman with agency, in charge of her own desires. In fact, her androgyny may have been one of the most powerful contributors to her mystique, culminating in her passion project, Queen Christina. A period drama about Sweden’s most famous 17th-century royal, the role offered Garbo a chance to act out of version of herself and make a statement about her own lifestyle choices that had been so tirelessly scrutinized by the public. The real Christina was an iconoclastic monarch who rejected the sexual role of a woman, refused to marry, and finally abdicated the throne to become a great patron of the theater and arts, biographical contours paralleled in Garbo’s life. Superficially, the film peddles in romantic melodrama, as Garbo’s Christina falls for a Spanish nobleman, but it is also well-known for its queer subtext, transgressive for the time: Garbo kisses her a duchess on the mouth, disguises herself in men’s clothing, and delivers lines like I shall die a bachelor. Mostly because of Garbo’s mesmerizing gravitational pull, the film manages to sidestep kitsch, and it provides one of the most breathtaking close-ups in film history. After abdicating the throne, on a ship with her dead lover’s body, Christina/Garbo is shot by the camera as it slowly tracks toward her blank, impenetrable face. She is not looking at the camera or anywhere else, it seems. Instead, she gazes into the distant unknown and plumbs the depth of the interior. After many takes, the director of the film, Rouben Mamoulian, famously told her to feel nothing and don’t even blink your eyes…let each man and woman write on your face. Not that the Swedish Sphinx needed much encouragement in that direction, but that’s exactly what she did, and that’s exactly what we are still doing today. In fact, a new $100 Swedish kronor banknote with Garbo’s face is scheduled to enter circulation soon.

WORDS Daniel Cantagallo