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Garbo Unmasked

Winston Churchill called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Same goes for Greta Garbo: an introvert who sought stardom. A recluse who claimed, “I vant to be alone,” but walked daily around Manhattan. A notorious penny-pincher who left a $32 million estate. Garbo personified romance on screen, yet never married and confessed she lived “like a nun.” She crafted cinematic art and watched The Flintstones; owned three Renoirs and collected plastic trolls with fluorescent shocks of Don King hair.

Gone for 33 years today, why does she still fascinate us?

While doing research for a movie-hosting presentation on one of her pictures, I was struck by how Garbo’s melancholia – which permeated her work – also illuminates her craving for financial security and solitude.

Here, Garbo paints a vivid scene of her family’s meager life in Stockholm: “It was eternally gray, those long winter's nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room, my mother is repairing ragged clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in low voices, or just sitting silently. We were filled with anxiety, as if there were danger in the air. Such evenings are unforgettable for a sensitive girl.”

Garbo left school at 13 to care for her beloved father, who died a year later: “From that time, there was only sobbing and moaning to be heard in our home. My siblings would not even try to control their grief and I often had to ask them to be quiet. To my mind, a great tragedy should be borne silently. It seemed disgraceful to show it in front of others, and for more than a year I cried myself to sleep every night.”

No wonder they called her “The Gloomiest Scandinavian Since Hamlet” – that was some bleak childhood!

At 19, Garbo left Sweden for Hollywood, where she became an overnight sensation playing tragic women like Camille and Anna Karenina. “No one could suffer like Garbo,” declared The New York Times.

Then, in 1939, she revealed a surprising flair for comedy as a dour Russian envoy who falls for Paris (and playboy Melvyn Douglas) in Ninotchka, directed by rom-com king Ernst Lubitsch, with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot).

Two years later, we were the ones left alone when Garbo abruptly retired at the age of 36. She vanished from the screen, yet continues to haunt our dreams.


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1 Comment

Karen Hannsberry
Karen Hannsberry
Apr 26, 2023

Like so many, I can never get enough Garbo. I've never read a bio on her, so I didn't know about her sad childhood. I have at least one in my collection, though; maybe I'll read it as one of my books for the summer classic movie reading challenge. I love your opening, btw -- she was certainly a mass of contradictions!

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