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Greta Garbo. "I Vant to Be Alone".

Updated on June 19, 2013

Beautiful Great Garbo

The Swedish Bombshell

She was the supreme goddess of film. No one will ever replace the mysterious Garbo. Worshipped by the multitudes, idealized by intellectuals, she was Hollywood's greatest legend for nearly 60 years. The name, Greta Garbo, has a magic to this day.

Somewhere back before the legend there was a baby born in 1905 who was christened Greta Lovisa Gustafson. Her parents were poor though not destitute and lived in a small cold-water flat on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Stockholm.

Shen she was 14 when her father died, forcing her to quit school and find a job. She worked many odd jobs, but wanted to be an actress, and began modeling.

During her modeling years, Greta began an affair with Mauritz Stiller, a Swedish director who took one look at her and decided she would someday be the most beautiful star in the world. He cast her in Swedish movies, and had her lose weight and study her craft. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer came to Europe to scout out some undiscovered talent, and reluctantly signed Garbo. He was coerced by Stiller, but did not see anything spectacular himself.

Greta was subject to cheesy photo shoots, and various publicity stunts, and was gaining a reputation for being dazzlingly photogenic, and mysterious. She made a string of movies that gradually built up her image. The temptress and The Torrent, included.

It is unclear where the famous Garbo aloofness came from. Some say it was a lack of English speaking skills, others say she distrusted Hollywood, either way, she seldom granted interviews or signed autographs, and made an effort outside of her movie making, to keep to herself.

John Gilbert

Greata Garbo Style

Garbo Sighting

Garbo & Gilbert

In 1927 Garbo and romantic lead John Gilbert literally drove America wild with Flesh and the Devil. After only three US films, Garbo was at the top of the Hollywood heap. It was common knowledge that Garbo and Gilbert had a real love affair going, and that certainly didn't hurt box office sales. Sick of playing the vamp, Garbo refused MGM's next choice of film for her. The studio tried to coerce her but they were up against something new, a star who wouldn't capitulate. Garbo meant it when she said she would go back to Sweden if they did not give her what she wanted.

MGM gave in to what Garbo wanted and allowed her to play Anna Karenina in Love, 1927. Garbo was changing the style of women not only in America but in Europe as well. Women were hats like Garbo's, copied her hair style.

Garbo and Gilbert were in love, but for unknown reasons Garbo would not marry Gilbert, and after much pursuading, she agreed to a wedding. John Gilbert arranged the wedding and the guest list. Unfortunately, Garbo deserted her lover at the alter. It was one confused and rocky romance. Gilbert was devastated by Garbo's rejections and threatened suicide. He also did something that was to finish his career. Lovesick Gilbert was brooding over his relationship with Garbo, and MGM boss Louis B. Mayer spoke up with, "just sleep with her and don't marry her", causing John to deliver a stupefying right cross to Mr. Mayer, knocking him out cold. It was all downhill for John Gilbert's career from that moment on.

Greta had been homesick for Sweden ever since arriving in America, and after the release of Wild Orchids, she went back only to find that her famous line, " I vant to be left alone" was not even possible. She had become such a big star that reporters were on board the ship with her, and throngs of fans greeted her arrival including Sweden's wealthiest aristocrats. They were awed by Garbo.

She returned to the United States to continue making silent movies, even though all the studios were now equipped for sound and silents were a rarity. It was 1929 and Garbo had an accent that the studio was uncertain how the public would receive her in a talkie. Her lover John Gilbert, whom she had now deserted twice at the alter, was not well received by fans who thought his voice was too high, and not at all what they thought a tall, dark, and handsome great lover should sound like. 1930 was the moment of truth.

Although talkies were coming into the mainstream since 1927, by 1930 they were extinct, and Garbo had to make the leap. The studio brilliantly released Anna Christie, because the play featured a character who could conceivably have a Swedish accent. The publicity released billboards that read, "Garbo Talks" and Garbo's accent was very well received allowing her career to continue to soar through the early 30's.

Greta made Two Faced Woman in 1941 which was outside her usual glamorous persona and audiences did not respond well to her change in character. It was Garbo's last movie, she was 36 years old and now retired. Over the next two decades there were rumors about Garbo making a comeback, but nothing ever materialized.

Garbo continued to be a mysterious character up until the day she died in 1990 at age 84, she was regularly hounded by the press to grant interviews, which she always declined. She lived in New York and when ever she stepped outside. "Garbo sightings" were reported the next day. Photographers, and fans hustled to get a photo of the enderly recluse wantering the streets of New York throughout the 1970s, and 1980s, and her last decades are still quite mysterious. No one ever really knew the real Greta Garbo.

Hollywood; In The Beginning



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    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 5 years ago from Central Texas

      Delightful Hub -- and so insightful about a truly mysterious woman. Seems Hollywood never gets it when someone refuses the spotlight and Garbo was the most famous "refuser" of all. Voted up! Best/Sis

    • thewritingowl profile image

      Mary Kelly Godley 5 years ago from Ireland

      Very interesting article, maybe she could have had Aspergers Syndrome, hmmm? (I can hear my daughter giving out already, Oh God mom everyone doesn't have autism!)