42 Glamorous Facts About Greta Garbo, The Elusive Starlet

Rachel Seigel

Upon moving to Hollywood from Sweden, Greta Garbo became one of the most beautiful and exciting movie stars of the 1920s and 30s. She was best-known for portraying heroines who were strong-willed and mysterious, much like the actress herself. By the time she retired, she’d starred in 28 films. Here are 42 facts about the glamorous actress.

Facts About Greta Garbo

42. Storming Out of Hollywood

When Garbo’s 1941 film Two-Faced Woman was a critical failure, she announced her retirement from Hollywood. Not only did she retire from making movies, but she left Hollywood altogether, moving to Manhattan, and living there until her death in 1990 at age 84.

41. Change That

Garbo’s real last name was Gustafsson. It doesn’t exactly have a ring to it, and director Mauritz Stiller changed it to Garbo—something much snappier and easier to say.

40. Famous First Words

The first line spoken on screen by Greta Garbo was “Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!” in the 1930 film Anna Christie. Ironically, by the time this film was made, her English was so good, they had to retake several scenes with an accent added in to make her character sound more Swedish.

39. I Can Do This!

After appearing in a couple of publicity films for the department store where she worked in her native Sweden, she was given a small role in the silent comedy Luffar-Petter (“Peter the Tramp”). This led to her winning a scholarship to the Stockholm Royal Dramatic Theater’s acting school, where she was discovered by the powerful Swedish director Mauritz Stiller and cast in his 1924 silent film The Legend of Gosta Berling.

38.An Air of Mystery

Garbo was not a fan of the media and refused to abide by the rules of the Hollywood publicity machine. As a result, she was dubbed “The Swedish Sphinx” by the press, which MGM played up, portraying her as a woman of mystery.

37. Long Correspondence

One of Garbo’s closest friends was the Spanish-American poet Mercedes de Acosta, who was also rumored to be her lesbian lover. The pair were introduced by Garbo’s friend, actress Salka Viertel, and enjoyed a 30-year friendship. During that time, Garbo wrote her 181 letters, cards, and telegrams. The 87 letters released by Garbo’s estate after her death contain no proof of any romantic relationship between them, but if there were romantic feelings, they were most likely de Acosta’s.

36. No, No, and No!

In keeping with her general dislike of the Hollywood life, Garbo never signed autographs, answered fan mail, or gave interviews. She also refused to attend film premieres or awards ceremonies, even turning down an invite to the 1955 Oscars, where she was promised an honorary Oscar.

35. I Can Make Her a Star!

There are two different stories about what brought Garbo to Hollywood, Whether Louis B. Mayer of MGM was interested in her collaborator, director Mauritz Stiller first, or was always interested in Garbo, either way, he saw something special in her and was determined to make her a star.

34. Devoted to Diets

For her entire life, Garbo was always on one diet or another, and she particularly liked fad diets. When she met nutritionist Gayelord Hauser, they hit it off, and she started following his diet. The diet consisted of drinking buttermilk, eating raw yeast, vegetables, nuts, and yogurt. With all of the different diet options available today, Garbo would have been in heaven!

33. I Can’t Take That

Garbo’s final contract with MGM stipulated that even if the film didn’t get made, she’d still be entitled to her full payment of $80,000. Most actors would have happily taken the money and run, but not Garbo! When Mayer tried to give her the cheque for her salary, she refused, because she felt that she hadn’t earned it.

32. Where’s Greta?

In her later Years, Garbo was almost as elusive as Waldo. She loved going out for walks and would wear men’s pants, sunglasses, and big hats when she did, but she wasn’t totally unrecognizable. New Yorkers got a real kick out of spotting and recognizing her through her disguises.

31. Yours for $6 Million!

In 1954, Garbo purchased a 7-room apartment in Manhattan overlooking the East River. She lived there until her death in 1990. In 2017, the apartment was put up for sale by the estate of Gray Reisfeld, Garbo’s niece and only heir, for a mere $5.95 million.

30. Falling Star

Even Garbo’s star had to fall eventually, and her 1937 film Conquest lost a million dollars at the box office. It was such a bomb that in 1938, Garbo was listed in an article titled “Box Office Poison,” which noted that she was no longer worth her salary. Ouch!

29. Face on a Krona

In 2015, Sweden unveiled a new series of Krona notes honoring 20th-century Swedish icons. Greta Garbo became the new face of the 100 Krona note, worth about $11 US. The bill also portrays strips of motion picture film from her movies on the face, while the back includes familiar scenes from her native Stockholm.

28. A Little Makeover

Believe it or not, when Garbo signed her contract with MGM, Louis B. Mayer memorably told her “American men don’t like their women fat. And get your teeth fixed.” This wasn’t the first time she’d taken flack for being too heavy. When director Mauritz Stiller was casting for Gosta Berling, he told her “Miss, you’re much too fat,” so she lost 20 pounds.

27. Definitely Not!

Despite being “retired,” Garbo was offered a role as an aging movie star who plays herself in Airport 75, but she resolutely refused, saying “What could be worse than playing an old movie star?” Ouch!

26. Opting for Comfort

One good thing about floor-length dresses is that nobody knows what you’ve got on your feet underneath. Garbo always wore bedroom slippers under her dresses, partly for comfort, and partly to help her act more naturally.

25. Misquoted

One of Garbo’s most famous quotes was allegedly “I want to be alone,” but she always claimed that she’d been misquoted. What she actually said was “I want to be let alone,” which basically meant she wanted the public—and particularly the press—to stop hounding her. Seems like a fair request!

24. Few Can Top Her

In 1999, the American Film Institute surveyed more than 1,800 key people in the film community to select their top 25 male and female screen legends (who debuted prior to 1950, or after 1950 and have died) and Greta Garbo was ranked #5, below only Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Ingrid Bergman. I’d say she was in good company!

23. Most Beautiful

It’s no surprise that a woman as beautiful as Greta Garbo would end up setting a record for it. In 1950, she was named by Guinness Book of World Records as the “most beautiful woman who ever lived.” Had People Magazine been around back then, she probably would have won their top honor too!

22. Marry Me!

One of Garbo’s romantic associations was with actor Cecil Beaton, who was totally nuts for her. He once described her “like a large apricot in the fullness of its perfection.” After being allowed to touch her vertebrae, he immediately wanted to marry her, but marriage wasn’t her thing and she refused him.

21. Keeping Busy

Just because she was retired from films didn’t mean that Garbo sat around for four decades doing nothing. With all that free time on her hands, she took to painting, writing poetry, gardening, designing clothing, and exercising daily. I wish I had half her energy!

20. None of Your Business!

In her first interview with the American press, Garbo did not respond well to what she saw as invasive questions. When asked about her private life, she tersely responded “I was born. I had a mother and father. I went to school. What does it matter?”

19. Cash Cow

Garbo was a huge moneymaker for MGM, so it’s no wonder they were willing to give her the moon if it made her happy. Between 1925 and 1926 she was responsible for 13% of their profits, and she knew how to take full advantage of her position.  During a contract dispute, Garbo threatened to go home to Sweden, and the studio not only gave her a new contract, but they also increased her salary to $270,000 and gave her control over her roles. That’s some power!

18. Setting the Mood

Garbo was very specific about how she wanted her love scenes with John Barrymore to be filmed in Grand Hotel. She wanted front-lighting and curtains between the camera and the crew to make it appear as though she and Barrymore were alone. As you wish, Madame!

17. I Said Cut!

During the filming of Grand Hotel, Garbo got so caught up in a romantic scene with John Barrymore that she continued kissing him for a full three minutes after the director yelled cut. Hot!

16. Paying Him an Honor

Garbo was so excited to work with John Barrymore that she waited outside the door to the set wanting to honor him by escorting him inside. Not knowing anything about this, he reported to set promptly at 9 AM and was quite annoyed when there was no sign of her 20 minutes later. Finally, a prop boy arrived and explained that Garbo had in fact been waiting for him, and he ended up greeting her at the soundstage instead.

15. No Visitors Allowed!

When she was on set, Garbo always refused to allow any visitors, and sometimes even banished the director. Before you start thinking that she was being a diva, her reasoning was entirely about the craft. As she explained, when she had to film in front of an audience, it destroyed the illusion. She needed to be by herself so her face would “do things I cannot do with it otherwise.”

14. Garbo the Spy

During WWII, Garbo allegedly assisted the British Secret Intelligence Service by secretly collecting information about Nazi sympathizers in Sweden. She also supposedly transmitted messages back and forth between the British agents and the King of Sweden.

13. Her Biggest Fan

Greta Garbo was one of Hitler’s favorite actresses, and he loved her film Camille so much, he allowed it to be widely shown in Germany, despite the director not being racially “pure.” He supposedly even kept a personal copy of the film, which had been seized by his customs officers.

12. The Feeling’s Not Mutual

Garbo, on the other hand, did not reciprocate Hitler’s admiration. She allegedly wanted to meet Hitler in person to try and convince him to stop the war. She also had a backup plan in place just in case her personality alone couldn’t do it. As she mused to her friend Sam Green, “I would have taken a gun out of my purse and shot him, because I’m the only person who would not have been searched.”

11. Code Name Garbo

While the real Garbo may not have been an actual spy for the Allies during the war, there was a double agent with the codename Garbo, so called by MI5 because he was “the world’s best actor.” Garbo the spy, real name Juan Pujol Garcia, was so effective that he managed to make up a whole bunch of stuff about the Allies that the Germans and Hitler totally bought into, and is credited with helping to defeat Hitler.

10. She Speaks!

As Hollywood began to usher in the era of the “talkies,” many silent film stars failed to make the transition, and MGM was understandably desperate to keep their biggest star out of them for as long as possible. When they couldn’t hold out any longer, they made a pretty big deal about it, and structured an ad campaign around the tag line “Garbo Talks!”

Luckily for them, audiences were immediately enchanted with Garbo’s voice, and her first talkie Anna Christie earned Garbo her first Oscar nomination.

9. Always a Bridesmaid…

Not that it likely mattered much to her, but Garbo was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar four times in her career (and once for two films in the same year), but she never won. She was given an honorary Oscar in 1955 for her entire body of work, but never for a single performance.

8. Inspiring Art

The Spanish sculptor Pablo Gargallo must have been quite taken with Greta Garbo because he created three pieces about the actress—“Masque de Greta Garbo à la mèche,” “Tête de Greta Garbo avec chapeau,” and “Masque de Greta Garbo aux cils.” His work was pretty avant-garde, so they don’t exactly look like her, but it must have been flattering nonetheless!

7. Royal Refusal

According to her Los Angeles Times obituary, MGM once arranged for Garbo to have lunch with Prince Wilhelm of Sweden, but she turned him down with one of the most epic rejection lines in history, saying “Thank you. I’m not hungry.” It takes serious guts to turn down lunch with a prince!

6. Mutual Dislike

Clark Gable was a rising star known for his looks, and he was frequently tapped to star with some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, including Greta Garbo. On screen, they played well together and their one film Susan Lenox was a hit. Off screen, however, they allegedly disliked each other immensely. She thought his acting was “wooden,” and he thought she was a “stuck up snob.”

5. Double Loss

Garbo became a massive star after she made the jump from Europe to the US, but few people knew about the tragic life she was leaving behind. When she was young, she suffered the loss of two close family members in less than a decade. When she was 14, her father died of nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys), and then just seven years later, her sister died of lymphatic cancer.

4. Playing it Up

The supposed true love of Garbo’s life was silent film actor John Gilbert, with whom she starred in several films. MGM even changed the title of one of their films to Love so that they could advertise John Gilbert and Greta Garbo “in” Love and play up their real-life chemistry.

3. Jilted Lover

As much as Garbo and Gilbert were supposedly in love, marriage just wasn’t in the cards for the pair. He proposed several times, finally getting her to agree to a double wedding with King Vidor and actress Eleanor Boardman. On the day of the wedding, however, she stood him up at the altar, leaving him disappointed and understandably angry.

2. Stop the Wedding!

In 1929, Gilbert proposed yet again to Garbo, but she still wouldn’t accept, and he got engaged to Ina Claire instead. The day before they were to be married, Garbo supposedly called Gilbert’s best man and begged him to stop the wedding. His reply was that only she could do that, but Garbo didn’t want to create a scandal and let it go on.

1. It’s All Downhill from Here

By the early 1930s, Gilbert’s career had mostly gone down the tubes and he was depressed and drinking. Despite their failed romance, Garbo still wanted to star with him in another film, and he was cast in the 1933 movie Queen Christina. The movie was a hit, but it didn’t do anything to make Gilbert a star again, and he only made one more movie before dying in 1938. Poor guy!

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29

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