She was born in Stockholm on Sept. 18, 1905, to a family so impoverished that a benefactor made a salutary offer to adopt her. Yet young Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, third child of a privy cleaner who died of tuberculosis when Greta was 14, nevertheless managed to make her extraordinary way in the world. Discovered by famed Swedish director Mauritz Stiller, she sailed with him at 19 to New York City and then went to Hollywood, where her luminous beauty lit 24 films. At 36, she abandoned her career, beginning one of filmdom ‘s longest and most puzzling public silences. For nearly five decades, fans, movie buffs and especially the media were hungry for any scrap of news about the actress whose onscreen image was a haunting blend of glamour and vulnerability. What was she doing? Where was she last sishted? Who were her lovers? And, above all, what did she look like? Certainly, the great and secretive Garbo wasn’t saying; and so the enigma, and the legend, only grew. That legend is certain to continue, even though Greta Garbo’s reclusive life ended at age 84 in a New York City hospital on Easter Sunday, of an undisclosed illness. (In death as in life, there was only informed speculation as to causes, though there was confirmation that Garbo was undergoing kidney dialysis.)
Over the years, a privileged few intimates were allowed glimpses behind the mysterious actress’s veil. One of them was film scholar Raymond Daum, now an archivist at the University of Texas at Austin, who kept a careful record of his almost 20-year friendship with the actress. Much of what follows, an unprecedented look at one of the century’s most intriguing personalities, is drawn from the book Walking with Garbo, written by Raymond Daum and Vance Muse, and scheduled to be published this winter by Harper & Row.
Then working as a film producer for the United Nations, Daum was introduced to Garbo in 1963 by their mutual friend (and Garbo’s married lover), financier George Schlee, at a small, elegant New Year’s Day party at the apartment of actress Ruth Ford and her husband, actor Zachary Scott. The atmosphere, says Daum, now 66, was “festive, but there was also a definite reverence about the room—because of her.” Garbo sat on a hassock near the center of the room, with Schlee standing next to her. Lauren Bacall, Jason Robards, Tammy Grimes and others stood away from her, keeping their distance. “Isn’t this remarkable?” Grimes whispered to Daum. “Not one of us will approach her.” Daum, incurably gregarious, eventually did. “Sit down, Mr. Daum,” Garbo said in her smoky near-baritone. “And Schleeski, get me another vodka.” Before she slipped away, Daum offered her a private tour of the UN.
Five months later, Garbo took Daum up on his invitation. His telephone rang on May 16. “She’d like to come today,” said Schlee. As Daum remembers the tour, it was not the UN’s Nordic sculpture, Thai jades or Benin bronzes that made an impression on Garbo, but an enormous blue, handwoven carpet from Great Britain. “Imagine all those girls working like mad at their looms,” she said, “and think how little they were paid.”
More than a year later, brought together by George Schlee’s death, Garbo and Daum began taking meandering, tri-weekly walks through Manhattan, a routine that would continue nearly 20 years, until Daum moved to Texas in 1982. Often they would walk from 52nd Street to Washington Square and back, a distance of six miles. She always initiated what she called their “trots,” suddenly calling him (she never gave Daum her phone number) and saying, “Let’s go.” They sometimes discussed going to a restaurant for dinner, or to the movies (including the 1968 retrospective of her films at the Museum of Modern Art), but such plans proved too ambitious for Garbo. She preferred to simply walk, taking in the impressions of New York street life—how bread smelled at a bakery, what shopgirls were wearing, a couple’s argument at an outdoor cafe. “This sophisticated, worldly woman,” says Daum, “could sound as if she were experiencing it all for the first time.” Garbo and Daum talked about religion, travel, children, cooking, politics, dogs—anything but her career. “Don’t ever ask me about the movies,” she once cautioned him. “Especially why I left them.”
Her reasons, however, are not hard to divine. By the time of her last film, 1941’s Two-Faced Woman, a box office failure in which she was disastrously cast against type, Garbo was falling out of moviegoers’ favor. Yet she never meant her retirement to be permanent. In the 1960s she considered several films, including the title roles in Hamlet and The Picture of Dorian Gray, all of which collapsed from financial complications or her demands for artistic control. On some level, perhaps, she never really wanted to return. Instead, through a desire to be alone and unencumbered, she took refuge in her wealth and a hermetic fame that both shielded and, in time, imprisoned her.
For the last 37 years of her life, Garbo lived in the terraced fifth floor of a Gothic apartment building overlooking the East River. All but three of its seven rooms were closed off, but her living room was an opulent mix of 18th-century antiques, Aubusson rugs and dark damask curtains. On the walls was an impressive art collection, including a Renoir and a Braque. Garbo’s taste in television, by contrast, was admittedly lowbrow. “I watch the dreck,” she said. “Schmutz. If a program is advertised as experimental, I never turn it on.”
“She’d always watch Hollywood Squares,” says Kenny Kingston, a psychic whom Garbo consulted over the years, beginning in 1952. “She adored Paul Lynde. I think she even wrote him a fan letter.”
She often quoted Hemingway, Goethe and Emily Brontë to Daum, but admitted that Joseph Conrad’s Secret Sharer, the eerie tale of a sea captain who harbors a murderer, “makes me so nervous I can’t read it. That’s it, you see. When I read, I get afraid that something terrible will happen. If it doesn’t, I don’t remember it.”
Garbo was perhaps best described as a “hermit-about-town” rather than the shut-in her public imagined. Her apartment was stocked with current newspapers and magazines. She was occasionally spotted at fashionable restaurants, and she often traveled, booking two seats on an airplane to isolate herself. She also used aliases: Jane Smith, Gussie Berger, Joan Gustafsson or, most often, Harriet Brown. Formal invitations, however, sent her into something just short of terror. “Promises filled her with anxiety, “says Daum. (Her MGM colleague, songwriter Howard Dietz, once asked Garbo to dinner the following Monday. Her reply: “How do I know I’ll be hungry on Monday?”)
Her favorite pastimes were long, aimless walks through the city. “Often I just go where the man in front of me is going,” she said. “I couldn’t survive here if I didn’t walk. I couldn’t be 24 hours in this apartment. I get out and look at the human beings…. People here are being killed off by the air pollution. They all look absolutely pale and putty. I took out my mirror and said, ‘You look the same too?’ And I had to answer, ‘Ja.’ ”
Garbo’s stated preference was for quiet places. “I can’t go to hotels because I can’t stand noise. I have at least 40 earplugs,” she said, but claimed that they enhanced her hearing. “Mine are wax. I’ve worn them since I was 20. It does something psychological to you.” When she did venture out, the real world often stunned her. In 1970 she saw Katharine Hepburn in Coco on Broadway. “How can they do it, these women?” she asked, referring to their performance stamina. “The mere thought slays me. It’s enough to kill an ox in a week.” She once admitted that “a person like me has no business being in New York. I go to bed with the chickens. If I’m out anywhere, which is very rare, I’m home before 7.”
Known as a recluse even during her Hollywood years, Garbo sometimes made exceptions. Undoubtedly, her first love had been her first director, Mauritz Stiller. What she felt for him, she told Daum, was “the adoration of a student for her teacher, of a timid girl for a mastermind.” Others soon followed. Though she briefly loved actor John Gilbert, she skittishly jilted him twice—once on their scheduled wedding day in 1926.
After Gilbert, Garbo boasted a glittering array of admirers: conductor Leopold Stokowski, Baron Erich Goldschmidt-Rothschild, nutritionist Gayelord Hauser, who became a financial adviser. In 1940, Daum’s father, who rented a cottage in Palm Springs next door to the Garbo and Hauser hideaway, wrote, “That skinny Swedish actress and her fancy boyfriend are always running around naked in their backyard.” Yet she married no one. “Imagine a man being known as Mr. Garbo,” she wrote in 1932. “Just that and nothing more!” Among the men who proposed, and were rejected, was photographer Cecil Beaton, who later bequeathed a painting to her—a picture of a solitary rose.
In the 1960s Garbo was an occasional guest on Aristotle On-assis’s yacht, but it was, she groused, “too small. I couldn’t go for my walks.” The steadiest male companion, until his death in 1964, was financier Schlee, a neighbor in Garbo’s apartment building, whose haute couturiere wife, Valentina, jealously referred to Garbo as “that vampire” or simply “the fifth floor.” Once, when the two women met by chance in the building’s lobby, Valentina shuddered and crossed herself. Garbo seemed at times to regard men as excess baggage, preferring to go it alone. She refused even to hire a chauffeur, she told Daum, because “they sit there and wait. And that drives you crazy—to have a man sitting there spending his life waiting in the street for you.”
Rumors long swirled about Garbo’s sexual preference, and with good reason. Silent film star Louise Brooks claimed to have been intimate with her, as did the cosmopolitan aesthete Mercedes de Acosta. Curiously, throughout her life, Garbo referred to herself in masculine terms as a “strapping young boy” or a “bachelor.”
Having once in her early years professed to want a family, she never bore a child. “She said her roles were her children,” says psychic Kingston. “Camille…Ninotchka…” But in a rare response to a reporter’s question in 1947, she provided a more morose rationale. “A baby is always a miracle, but I wouldn’t want to raise a child that might have to go to war.”
Despite the public’s undying curiosity about her, Garbo steadfastly refused to yield to it. “I’ve never wanted any kind of attention from anybody, except to know that someone likes me,” she told Daum. “Otherwise it’s all so false. All they care about is, ‘What does she look like today?’ And look at me! I look the Madwoman of Chaillot, hair hanging….”
As friends passed away, she would murmur, “Well, here’s another chapter ended.” In the end she was a wealthy woman, with a fortune nurtured over a lifetime of savvy business and real estate investments—and few people to inherit her estate (her only known surviving relative is a niece, Grae Reisfield, and her closest friend, her companion Clare Kojer). If there is solace in religion, Daum never knew Garbo to have found it. “I wish to God I were religious,” she told him. “I’d like to get hold of somebody who is and ask them what they think of when they pray.”
Only in her last year did the robust Garbo finally appear to fail. “She was walking quite upright until the last year,” says a neighbor. “Then in the last few months she really started to deteriorate.” A lifelong cigarette habit continued to plague her. “I’ve inhaled since I’m 17 years old, and now my dopey body waits for the next one,” she told Daum in 1969. New York Hospital confirmed that recently she had been undergoing kidney dialysis.
“I’d ask her, ‘How are you feeling today?’ ” says the owner of a liquor store where she bought her monthly bottle of Cutty Sark. “She’d say, ‘You don’t really want to know.’ ”
Privately, she fretted. “If something happened to me over the weekend, no one would know,” she told Daum. “Nobody in the world would know.” Earlier this month she entered the hospital for what would prove to be the final time.
“I was born. I had a mother and father. I lived in a house. I grew up like everybody else,” Garbo told a movie magazine in 1938. “What does it matter?”
In the end, for reasons that sadly seemed to escape her, it ultimately, somehow did.
—Susan Schindehette, John Stark, Victoria Balfour, Maria Speidel in New York City, John Griffiths in Beverly Hills, Laura Sanderson Healy in London