Garbo by Barry Paris

“Every one of us lives his life just once; if we are honest, to live once is enough.”
— Greta Garbo

Nowadays, some people will go to any lengths to “get famous” no matter what ignominies they have to endure — witness the popularity of Jackass and television’s The Bachelor and all those other “reality” shows. People today want to be noticed and recognized and famous. Everyone wants to be a star.

And once these so-called “stars” are in the public eye we can keep track of nearly their every move. We can get on the Internet and find numerous interviews with our favorite stars, view pictures of them throughout the various stages of their careers, find out when they’re appearing next on talk shows, magazine covers, or MTVs Total Request Live. We can watch any movie or television program over and over in the privacy and comfort of our own homes. Our stars, though they may live a continent away, are always accessible and ever-present. We talk about them with co-workers, ridicule them in message boards, love and loathe them, wish we were them. They are the raison d’être and impetus for many of us. Without them our lives would be dreary and dull indeed. Even though they are, in effect, slaves of the star making machinery.

Nowadays, everyone has the potential to become a star.

So with all this in mind it’s terribly difficult to fully realize and comprehend the awe that was Garbo. Back when stars were known by their surname instead of their first (Ciccone, Sarkissian, or Kilcher, anyone?) Greta Garbo was one of the most famous, admired, desired actresses of her generation. And stars were in short supply back in a time when Hollywood was still young and fresh and full of promise and infinite possibility. Some stars were born; others were made. Garbo was both.

The star Greta Garbo was born Greta Gustafson in Stockhold, Sweden in 1905. As a child she would play dress up and act out skits for her family and friends. By the time she was seven years old she was sneaking out of the house to hang out at the local theatre and watch the actors and actresses rehearse. But it wasn’t until she caught the eye of Swedish film director Mauritz Stiller, a hurricane of a man who promptly put her through acting lessons and a whirlwind makeover session that she ultimately emerged, not as the awkward Swedish girl Greta Gustafson, but as the temptress soon to be known the world over simply as Garbo.

After making a few successful Swedish films, Hollywood caught wind of the excitement and picture studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, trying to lure as many creative European types into its doors as possible (MGM already had German great Ernst Lubitsch and would soon have Fritz Lang of Metropolis fame) brought both Stiller and his ensemble of actors and actresses over to try them out. But once there, MGM grew tired of Stiller’s vast ego and inability to adapt to Hollywood’s customs and sent him packing back to Sweden where he lived out his days directing plays and doing his best to forget all about Hollywood. Garbo’s eccentricities, on the other hand, were lauded and her career not only flourished, she quickly became MGM’s greatest asset even with the advent of “Talkies”– which killed the career of many a famous silent film star (Emil Jannings or Mary Pickford, anyone?) This despite the fact that the divine Miss Garbo was hampered by a thick Swedish accent and a less than knowledgeable understanding of the English language.

So what was it that made Garbo a star? Even though her films are mostly ignored by today’s DVD hungry public, her name is instantly recognizable as a past famous film star of import. Her face so identifiable that even fifty years after she had made her last film she feared walking the streets of New York for fear of being recognized. And rightly so: she was mobbed on more than one occasion, sometimes running for her life.

Garbo was impulsive, shy, tough, determined, no-nonsense, thrifty, bi-sexual and vegetarian long before it became vogue, cool and mysterious. She turned down numerous marriage proposals, sometimes stringing her suitors along for years. She banned all visitors to her film sets, preferring to act only in front of the director and as small a film crew as they would allow.

Garbo had a rare and mysterious luminescence on the screen. Those who saw her on the set would remark that they saw nothing special about her performance until they saw the dailies. Only there would her uniqueness shine through onto the screen; someone who was ungainly and unassuming off camera, transformed onscreen into an overwhelming, demanding presence that no man or woman could take their eyes off of.

A perfect face, a deep, cool voice and a sexy walk described by one critic as “oblique.” Garbo was the original original.

Then, after 27 films and all the fame in the world, she simply went away. Moved to New York to live in a small but comfortably lavish apartment, and occasionally travel abroad with her few friends. She had no interest, not even of acting anymore, but of fame itself. She ignored the numerous film festivals in her honor, despised the public attention she received, and forbid her friends to even speak of her to journalists or take her picture in public.

What caused Garbo — a woman who dreamed of being a performer, a star, ever since she was a young girl — to become nothing more than a recluse upon the realization of all that she had worked for is still something of a mystery. She was never camera shy, always assured of her acting skills, and very headstrong. As famous as she was in the past, she is probably the only person to never capitalize on her earlier fame: She never wrote an autobiography, she never turned up in any sit-coms or on Hollywood Squares, she never tried to make a comeback or even act on Broadway. As far as she was concerned, the past was over, why dwell on it? She spent nearly fifty years alone in her New York apartment, an ocean away from Sweden, her homeland, and a continent away from Hollywood, the land that made her famous.

Garbo was, more than anything, a self-expatriate, hell-bent on living up to one of her most famous lines: “I want to be alone,” from the 1932 film Grand Hotel.

Barry Paris’ book is extensively researched and fact-checked; he points out various discrepancies in previous Garbo biographies, sifts fact from the many legends surrounding her myth and — pleasantly enough — her mystique is actually heightened by these truths coming to light.