On Kungsgaten, one of the main shopping streets in Stockholm, one can still see the PUB department store, where Greta Garbo used to work in the millinery department. The screen legend who would eventually be voted the most beautiful woman who ever lived by The Guinness Book of World Records was born into poverty. She was just 21 when she played the second female lead in G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street.
She left for America where Louis Mayer reluctantly signed her up. Though there were many doubts about her acting ability and her husky voice, the PR people at the studio saw Garbo’s reticence as gold. Notoriously reclusive, Garbo answered no fan mail, seldom signed autographs, rarely attended social functions, and refused to gave interviews. (In press reporter jargon, refusing an interview is still “pulling a Garbo” or “going Garbo”). In her last interview, as the interviewer (Paul Callan of Daily Mail) opened his questioning with, “I wonder…”, the feisty actress interrupted with “Why wonder?” and left, making it one of the shortest interviews ever published. For MGM, however, mystique surrounding her reclusive nature was so great than headlines screamed, “Garbo Talks!” when she appeared to great success in her first talkie, Anna Christie (1930). “Garbo Laughs!” they echoed in 1939 for her first comedy, Ninotchka. This was a theme also echoed in several of her other roles. In one of the most memorable lines in the cinematic history, Garbo, as the Russian ballerina Grusinskaya in Grand Hotel (1932), lamented, “I want to be alone…. I just want to be alone.” Previously, her characters ‘spoke’ the lines via title cards, “I am walking alone because I want to be alone” (The Single Standard, 1929) and “I like to be alone” (Love, 1927).
Her demons and insecurities eventually overtook her. Severe criticism for her 1941 movie “Two Faced Woman” made Garbo skittish about taking on new parts. Soon she would disappear from the screen entirely and spend the rest of her life (she died only in 1990) vacationing in Switzerland, on the French Riviera, and in Italy but making home base in New York City. She turned down an invitation from the White House for a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth. She would not return to Hollywood, even to accept her Honorary Oscar.
The above picture, was taken at the Club St. Germain in Paris sometime in the 1950s by George Dudognon, a noted chronicler of the Left Bank. Although Dudognon’s photo was more incidental than exploitative, many paparazzi, avant le lettre, would continue to follow Garbo. Fascination with her was such that in 1976, People magazine published topless photos of the 71-year old Garbo, taken with a long-range lens during her vacation in Antigua. Even in her evening years, this woman, who once famously said, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be left alone.’ There is a whole world of difference”, couldn’t escape the media hounds.