Portraits of Garbo

Is there anyone who was more of an enigma than Greta Garbo? There have been actors who remain a bit hard to understand -- Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Spencer Tracy are some who come to my mind -- but Garbo is by far the trickiest. As an actress, she astounds me, her mere presence bringing a brilliant spark to any scene she is in. As a person, though, I'm not sure we'll ever really know Garbo. To be honest, I'm not sure she completely understood herself, either.

Nevertheless, I set out on a minor mission. Pouring over the internet and all of my books on film, I wanted
to try to capture something of Garbo by looking at others' interactions and remembrances of her. The picture this created is still fuzzy to me, unfortunately, but it became fascinating to read what other people thought of her. Because of her self-imposed isolation and her unwillingness to fully accept her fame, the myths and falsities about Garbo are countless. I ran into quite a few stories that conflicted with each other, as well as some accounts that felt malicious or too gossipy.

I'm not here to speculate about Garbo's sexuality or any other deep, dark secrets she may have had. Instead, I'm presenting the stories, memories, and thoughts of those who knew her or who just admired her from afar. Are all of the stories true? I don't know. With an icon like Miss G., it's hard to tell -- and I have a feeling that's just the way she wanted it.

Van Johnson
Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis
As a huge movie fan, before and after he became a star himself, Van often called Garbo his favorite actor. He eventually became friends with Garbo and in his later years when he was living in New York and working on the stage, Van occasionally had lunch and went shopping with her. They also both loved taking long walks, often running into each other. At the time, Van said "She leaves me messages on our special tree in the park. The messages usually say something like. 'V meet G for lunch.' It's lovely."

David Niven
Bring on the Empty Horses by Niven
In his autobiography, Niven recalls the time director Edmund Goulding invited him to his home in Palm Springs:

"I arrived hot and dusty after a long drive, and Goulding pointed the way to his swimming pool in the palm trees below. 'Go and cool off,' he ordered. As I neared the pool, it became apparent that standing in the shallow end was a naked female figure. ...I retreated to the house and asked my host for a clarification of the situation. 'Oh,' he said, 'it's only Garbo. She's staying somewhere down there and uses the pool when she feels like it.' I hastened once more down the garden path, but I was too late. All that remained was the disturbed surface of the water."

Niven later met Garbo more formally when Richard Haydn brought the actress over to Niven's house one day. Niven's Swedish wife, Hjördis, and Garbo immediately took a liking to each other, and as he wrote, "[d]uring the years to come Garbo often came to see us. Always the same, of undiluted beauty and spontaneity, but always something was held back in reserve. She reminded me of a child living in her own secret world, and with childish directness she came and went as she wished, swam when she felt like it or when she missed the rains of her native land, walked about under the lawn sprinklers, but no amount of pleading on behalf of our Swedish cook could coax an autograph out of her. 'I never give autographs or answer letters,' she said firmly."

During lunch one day, Niven summoned the courage to ask Garbo the question everyone has been pondering for years:

"'Why did you give up the movies?' I asked. She considered her answer so carefully that I wondered if she had decided to ignore my personal question. At last, almost to herself, she said, 'I had made enough faces.'"

Fred Astaire
Steps in Time by Astaire
While starring in The Band Wagon on Broadway in 1931, Astaire had a dance routine with ballerina Tilly Losch. "One night Greta Garbo was in the house. During one of the lifts in our dance, I mumbled to Tilly as I held her up in the air, 'Garbo is out front -- she just sent word back that she wants me for her next picture.' Tilly could hardly keep from breaking up. She chased me all over backstage when we finished with 'You ham, you.'"

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
The Salad Days by Fairbanks
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. not only became friends with Garbo, he also worked with her in 1928's A Woman of Affairs, which was the third pairing between Garbo and John Gilbert. Although he was dating Joan Crawford at the time (they would marry in 1929), Fairbanks recounts how he still became fascinated by Garbo:

"While we were filming, Joan had not yet begun her own next film and sometimes managed to visit our set. She doted on Garbo, admired Jack [Gilbert], and, I conceitedly supposed, wanted to see me as well. When no one was looking, I was still just uncommitted enough to try to ingratiate myself with G.G. so that she might take a shine to me. I remember how my deceitful heart bubbled when for a few days I thought I was well on the way to an underhanded conquest. During one of many long waits between scenes, I inveigled G.G. into following me to a dark, remote corner of the shooting stage with the excuse of passing another of Jack's private messages to her -- this one, I told her, was verbal and quite detailed.

She was always warm and friendly to me -- quite different from the public image she successfully presented -- and she obviously did not suspect my dire motive in luring her away from the set. She came along quite unsuspiciously. When we got to my dark corner of the giant stage...I just stammered, blustered, and said something silly about Jack's message that I don't remember. She, clearly confused by the unnecessary secrecy, volunteered a non sequitur having to do with stories she heard about 'a romance' between 'that nice Joan Crawford' and me. And that, I fear, was that. The very question threw me and I nodded sheepishly and, I suspect, guiltily. A muffed opportunity."

Esther Williams
The Million Dollar Mermaid by Williams and Digby Diehl
Before she made her way to Hollywood, Esther was working at I. Magnin, which was then "the classiest store for women's clothing in Los Angeles." Because of this, Esther saw her fair share of stars coming in to shop, including Miss G.:

"Hidden behind dark glasses and scarves, Greta Garbo would come in almost daily, paw through the entire inventory of the sweater department, and never buy a thing. She always felt she 'deserved' an item gratis by virtue of the fact that she was Garbo. And we'd all have to pretend that she was just another shopper. Strict orders were given that no one was to address her in any manner that would reveal who she was."

Billy Wilder
Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe
Wilder only worked with Garbo once, as one of the writers of Ninotchka. Speaking to Cameron Crowe, Wilder talks about the little time he spent with the actress:

BW: "...I was on the stage one day [during the production of Ninotchka], and Garbo was playing a love scene. So she went up to somebody, an assistant, and she came out and started rehearsing the scene, but in between, they put up a blackboard right in front of me. She had eyes in the back of her head. She saw me there. 'Throw that man out!' So they threw me out. ... Then one day years later I saw her running, exercising, up Rodeo Drive. Rodeo then had a track in the middle where you could run. So she was running up Rodeo and she was very sweaty, and I stopped her and said, 'Hi, how are you? I'm Billy Wilder.' And she said [imitates her smoky accent] 'Yes, I know you.' 'Would you like to have a martini, something to drink? I live right around the corner, Beverly Drive.' She said, 'Yes, I would like to.' I lived right around the corner, so I took her home.

It was in the afternoon, and she collapsed in the chair and I said, 'I will tell my wife, she is upstairs, to come and fix us a drink.' And I said, 'Aud, come on down, guess who we have here.' She says, 'Who, Otto Preminger?' -- somebody like that. And I said, 'No, Greta Garbo.' And she said, 'Oh, go on, go fuck yourself!' And I said, 'No, honestly.' So she came down and I introduced her, and Aud fixes a martini, really strong, big, and [Garbo] had that thing in one gulp, and then another one and another one. They drink them like beer, those Swedish... She stayed on a while. Then she walked out. I wanted to drive her, but she said, 'No no no no no no. I walk a little bit to cool off.'"

CC: "Did you discuss Ninotchka?"

BW: "I mentioned Ninotchka, but she did not want to talk about the old pictures. She just said, 'I would like to make another picture.' That's when my ears perked up. Then she said, 'I play a clown. I always play a clown [in life]. I will always be a clown in the picture.' ... So that was my only long encounter with Garbo, that was kind of a half hour. 'I will play the clown.'"

William Daniels, cinematographer
Bring on the Empty Horses by David Niven
"She could sniff an outsider a mile away, and if anyone, no matter who, came on the set to get a peek at her, she'd sense it and sit in her dressing room till they'd been put out."

Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman: My Story by Bergman and Alan Burgess
As two of the most famous Swedes to ever make a mark in Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo were often lumped together. People couldn't help making comparisons, asking what they thought of one another, and assuming that they were either friends or enemies. Ingrid herself loved Garbo, but she did it from a distance:

"She was the most beautiful woman, and I think all her performances were absolutely wonderful. But Garbo did not want to meet me; maybe she thought I was there to compete with her."

They did meet very briefly on the MGM lot when Ingrid was just starting out, but Garbo was quite curt. Finally, in Ingrid's later years, the two women connected... for a moment:

"...I was in Barbados with my husband, Lars Schmidt, at a big luncheon party, and in walked a group of people and in the middle was Greta Garbo. ... I went down into the big garden where some people were talking. Lars and other Swedish friends were chatting to her and she must have asked if I was there, because I saw that she looked toward me, and then she came down into the garden and sat down beside me. I didn't know what to say I was so nervous.

But she opened the conversation, 'I understand you're in love with Barbados, and you're going to buy a piece of land here?' And I said, 'Yes, we just love the beach farther up from here, and we've plans for a little house.' 'Oh, I wouldn't do that because here they steal everything.' 'But it's not going to be a luxury house, just a small place with rough wooden furniture, no antiques or anything like that, and we may only use it for a couple of months a year, and then rent it for the rest of the time...' 'But, they'll steal your clothes.' 'Clothes? But all I have with me in Barbados is a bathing suit, a pair of shorts, and a pair of long pants. They're welcome to those if they really want them...' She said nothing, then stood up and walked away. And that was the end of our meetings.

Maybe that explains her attitude to life; she's afraid they're going to steal it all away. I suppose one of the saddest and most ironical things about our meeting there on the Metro lot the first time was that I was just starting my career in Hollywood, and without knowing it she was ending hers. She was doing a picture called Two-Faced Woman, and it was a failure, and Greta Garbo was so depressed or upset that she never made another picture. Can you imagine that? She was only thirty-five years old and a most beautiful and talented actress and she never worked again from that day on. Can you imagine all those years, and you get up in the morning and what do you do? If you have children and grandchildren that's a different thing."

George Cukor
The talented director wound up working with Garbo on two of her most infamous movies: 1936's Camille and 1941's Two-Faced Woman. Cukor seemed to be conflicted about Garbo. I read lots of varying accounts about his feelings on the woman and her acting, some of it harsh and some of it effusive. I decided to go with the positive.

Interview with Richard Overstreet, 1964
"She never saw rushes because they always fell short of what she thought she could do...of what she imagined. A great perfectionist…to the extreme. She often had to quit working early to calm down – when she acted she put her whole self into it and it wore her down, exhausted her. She liked to work the way I do: very sketchy rehearsals and real acting done for the first time before the cameras. She had a talent that few actresses or actors possess."

"In close-ups she gave the impression, the illusion of great movement. She would move her head just a little bit and the whole screen would come alive – like a strong breeze that made itself felt. Wonderful movements."

"She had great self possession. She requested that no one come on the set while she was filming. She had an idea, a notion of illusion that went very far and she didn't want to break it. People around shattered this illusion – and then she didn't want gawkers to see her 'unguarded' while she worked. Thought if they wanted to see her they should go to her pictures."

On Cukor by Gavin Lambert
GC describing a scene in Camille: "...she did this memorable erotic thing. She didn't touch Armand [Robert Taylor], but she kissed him all over his face. That's how you create eroticism. It's the uncensored thought the actor flashes to the audience. Garbo had this rapport with an audience, she could let them know she was thinking things, and thinking them uncensored. There was no 'body contact' in that scene, which didn't matter. Garbo had that quality in her character, and without it you can't generate a real love scene. She was rather cool, but seething underneath. You know that she's reckless and nothing will stop her, but she has those fires underneath. ..."

GL: "Was working with Garbo particularly different, or difficult, as opposed to other actresses you've worked with?"

GC: "No. She's extremely sensible and practical. She says what she wants, and it's very fair and based on common sense. She doesn't play tricks. For example, she always quit at five o'clock, which seemed a great extravagance, but I know it took her that time to be able to go home, have her dinner, compose herself, get some sleep. ... So she took that time, but she was never late and never wasted any time. When she trusted people, she made no fuss."

Cukor's thoughts on Two-Faced Woman:

GC: "Usually, when you make a picture that doesn't turn out well, it's soon happily buried. Except, of course, that television keeps popping up and you may be confused with your past failures. The funny thing about Two-Faced Woman is that because of Garbo it also appears at film festivals. People tell me, 'It's very interesting.' Well, I think it's lousy! The script was bad -- not funny. We all knocked ourselves out, but it just wasn't funny. That's the whole story. ... Even while we were doing it, it had a chill, a portent of failure. And it was most unfortunate, because Garbo was in a very brilliant period at that time."

GL: "Even if the script had been better, don't you think she was a little old for the part?"

GC: "I think you say that because the picture wasn't any good. When it's not good and not funny, everything else goes, everything looks wrong. If it had been good, she'd have been radiant."

GL: "Is it true that she gave up the screen because the picture failed?"

GC: "Not really. It made her very careful about what she'd do next, and for a few years she couldn't find anything... Then she decided to do a picture in Rome, La Duchesse de Langeais -- and unfortunately that turned out to be a different kind of painful experience. It all fell apart. ... It was agonizing, and she felt completely humiliated. ... You know, I really cringe when people say, 'I saw Two-Faced Woman, it was very interesting.' The awful thing is, they're not being polite. They mean it."

Samuel Goldwyn
Hollywood by Garson Kanin
"Garbo was [Samuel] Goldwyn's ideal actress. For him, she had everything: beauty, sex, talent, mystery. Above all, she had made the rare transition from silents to sound. He seemed always to be seeking another Garbo."

Orson Welles
My Lunches with Orson Welles: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, edited by Peter Biskind
Welles isn't always kind when discussing Miss Garbo in this book, and he could be known for tall tales, but I thought I would at least include this snippet anyway. Here, Welles tells Jaglom about the time he had an idea for a film starring Charlie Chaplin and Garbo (!):

HJ: "Could she have played farce, do you think?"

OW: "Yes. Well, she played comedy wonderfully. I wouldn't have made her ridiculous, but I would have made her herself. I would have made her the distinguished actress that she was. I told [the idea] first to her, and then to [Chaplin], and they were just -- nothing. So that went nowhere."

HJ: "Why did she stop acting? Was it just because of the bad reviews?"

OW: "Of Two-Faced Woman. No business."

HJ: "You mean she was that unprepared for a flop? ..."

OW: "No, I think she was getting older, and I think she hated to act. And I think she was waiting for the flop."

HJ: "To go out with."

OW: "I think so. I was always a wild Garbo fan. ... Did I ever tell you about the time I introduced Marlene [Dietrich] to Garbo? Marlene was my house guest, and for some unaccountable reason had never met Garbo, and she was her hero. I arranged for Clifton Webb to give a party for Garbo so I could bring Marlene. ... Garbo was sitting on a raised platform in the middle of the living room, so that everybody had to stand and look up at her. I introduced them. I said, 'Greta, it's unbelievable that the two of you have never met -- Greta, Marlene. Marlene, Greta.' Marlene started to gush, which was not like her at all. Looking up at Garbo, she said, 'You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, it's such a pleasure to meet you, I'm humble in your presence,' and on and on. Garbo said, 'Thank you very much. Next?' And turned away to somebody else. Marlene was crushed."

(Just an aside: I'm not sure I buy Garbo standing in the middle of a party, on a platform, where everyone could stare at her. She was much more a hide-in-the-corner kind of gal.)

William Frye, producer
"The Garbo Next Door," Vanity Fair (2000)
Frye was one of Garbo's longtime friends. In a piece for Vanity Fair, he recounts his time spent with the strange, wonderful, and frustrating being that was Garbo. Here he discusses the first time they met, which was at the home of Brian Aherne:

"Garbo sat opposite me, so I had a chance to study her closely. She was in her late 40's, and absolutely beautiful. She was wearing black velvet pants with a white blouse and a black velvet bolero. Her hair, cut Prince Valiant–style, came to just above her shoulders, and she kept pulling it back in a repetitive gesture. 'Why do you have cotton in your ears?' I finally asked. 'You know, Mr. Frye, I have a hole in my head, and here at the beach the wind blows right through, from one ear to the other. I cotton them up!' she replied with a straight face. I was totally charmed. After dinner I told Brian that it must be thrilling to have Garbo staying in his home. 'My dear boy, it’s not at all a thrill,' he said. 'It can be goddamned embarrassing. When I go down to the pool in the morning to have breakfast, she’s already out there sunning herself, stark naked. I never know which way to look.'

Garbo frequently visited Frye's home and eventually became his neighbor when she was living with Gayelord Hauser, a famous nutrition guru:

"Garbo looked marvelous in a blouse and slacks, with a sweater on her shoulders. She wore no jewelry. ...I was struck by how undemanding she was, how easy to please. Depending on the time of the year, she drank either vodka or, as she said, 'Guttysark' (Cutty Sark scotch). I always added a little ice. Once, I suggested a splash of water, but she refused, saying, 'No, thank you. I don’t want to rust.'

For the first decade of our friendship, she came to dinner often. Garbo was famous for canceling at the last minute, although she never did it to me. I sometimes cautioned guests to stay cool in her presence, but I forgot to warn actor Vincent Price. When he spotted her, he blurted out, 'It’s Garbo!' Once he was himself again, they got along quite well."

One of Frye's more amusing stories about Miss G. concerns her encounter with the bawdy and
voluptuous Mae West:                     

"Garbo and Hauser rarely went out in the evening, but one of their infrequent excursions intrigued me: George Cukor invited them to his house for dinner with Mae West and one of her musclemen. The two fabled ladies had never met. I went out to the guesthouse as they were preparing to leave. Garbo was in beige slacks and a beige sweater. 'What are you planning to wear tonight?' I asked, knowing perfectly well that she was planning to wear what she had on. 'I am going like this,' she said. 'Put on your black slacks and sweater,' I said. 'Why should I do that?' 'Because Miss West is going to be in white. I’ve never been at dinner with her when she hasn’t worn white. Put on your black slacks, black turtleneck, and black patent-leather shoes.' She took my advice, and the simplicity of the black clothes, combined with her wonderful hair, which was just beginning to turn gray, produced a stunning image. I said, 'Promise me tomorrow you’ll give me a blow-by-blow account of what happens.' She promised.

The next night she arrived as usual for her Guttysark. We talked about this and that, but Garbo didn’t mention Mae West. Finally, exasperated, I said, 'Well, what did you talk about with Miss West?' 'Oh,' she said, 'I didn’t talk. During dinner, all Miss West discussed was monkeys. Do you know she used to have monkeys? I don’t know anything about monkeys, so I didn’t talk.' 'What about after dinner?' I asked. 'Surely she didn’t talk about monkeys after dinner, too?' 'No. After dinner all she talked about was musclemen. I don’t know anything about musclemen, so I didn’t talk then either. I was home at 10:30, and I didn’t say a word the whole evening.'"

If you've been wondering how people addressed Garbo back then, Frye's got you covered:

"To her closest friends, such as Eleanor Aherne [Brian's wife], Greta Garbo was G.G. If you were on the next level of intimacy, you called her Miss G. That is how I always addressed her, and she always called me Mr. Frye. Even Gayelord Hauser, who was one of her closest friends, she always referred to as Dr. Hauser. Everyone else called her Miss Garbo."

Cary Grant
Evenings with Cary Grant by Nancy Nelson
Cary probably has one of my favorite stories about meeting the Great Garbo:

"I was on the set one day when Noel Coward, who was staying at my house, called and asked me to come home right away. He said that Garbo was there having tea. She had a film she wanted to discuss making with me. I was very nervous about meeting her. ... I had idolized her for years. I got off at five and arrived just as she was leaving. In my nervousness, I thrust out my hand and heard myself saying, 'Oh, I'm so happy you met me.'"

Lauren Bacall
By Myself by Bacall
Bacall's life was practically a fairy tale when she first arrived in Hollywood. Taken under the wing of Howard and Slim Hawks, she found herself up close and personal with the very stars she idolized. One such star, of course, was Garbo. At one of Cole Porter's regular Sunday dinners at his Brentwood home, Bacall met the reclusive actress:

"One day I was having lunch at his poolside and was the last to leave. Finally he walked me to the door. At that moment the door opened. Standing there in a white shirt, beige slacks -- with a peach complexion, light brown hair, and the most incredible face ever seen by man -- was Greta Garbo. I almost gasped out loud as Cole introduced me to her. No make-up -- unmatched beauty. It was the only time I saw her at anything but a distance."

Ava Gardner
Ava: My Story by Gardner
I just adore Ava Gardner, and this story about hosting Garbo at her home is fun to read, thanks to Ava's delicious, funny prose:

"'We'd love to have her,' I said, the Scarlett O'Hara of hostesses. 'When does she want to arrive?' 'In about five minutes.' 'Oh, my God!' It was midsummer in the desert, hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, but Bappie [Ava's sister] and I rushed around, arranging flowers in Miss Garbo's bedroom and turning up the air-conditioner. We'd barely had time to do anything before a taxi pulled up and out she stepped, wearing not only the expected large sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat but also, I swear to God, a wool turtleneck sweater, this huge woolen scarf around her neck, and quite a heavy coat on top of it all.

'Hello, Miss Garbo,' I said, still the polite Southern miss. 'I'm Ava Gardner.' Did I get a hello back? A handshake? The slightest sign of recognition? No, I did not. Instead there was this sweeping movement toward the house and a booming 'Where is my rooooom?', the echoing vowels as broad as the great outdoors. And no sooner were she and Minna settled in their rooms when word came out that (a) Miss Garbo didn't like air-conditioning and (b) if there was anything Miss Garbo liked less than air-conditioning, it was flowers. Bappie and I retreated to the pool, fortifying ourselves alcoholically for what we were beginning to fear would be a grim weekend.

Then, about an hour later, Miss Garbo decided to join us. She walked out to the pool and I really think she was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. And I mean that despite the fact that she wore a pair of men's baggy khaki shorts that came down to her knees -- and nothing else. Though she must have been in her mid-forties, her breasts and shoulders were glorious. Her face had just a touch of blue eye shadow, her lips a trace of lipstick, and she had that wonderful hair that moved from side to side as she turned her head. She was totally magnificent. She was Greta now, all smiles, with the intention, she said, of taking a little swim. She changed into a dress after that, accepted our offer of vodka, and began a memorable weekend of drinking, eating, laughing, and more eating. Because she was involved with nutritionist Gaylord Hauser and had the stock of health foods and vitamins to prove it, Miss Garbo definitely had a robust Swedish appetite.

There were two other things I remember about Greta's conversation. At one point she admired a small, inexpensive bracelet that Frank [Sinatra] had given me and said, rather sadly, 'You know, I love jewelry, and yet men have never given any to me. I don't know why.' And she also admitted that the only man she'd ever really loved was John Gilbert, her romantic co-star, but that he's 'let me down' by having a surreptitious affair (is there any other kind?) with a little extra during their last film together. She had never forgiven him."

Frederick Sands and Sven Broman, biographers
A to Z of Classic Hollywood Style by Sinty Stemp
"Before a scene was shot, Garbo always asked her cameraman, 'Is ze feets in?' Her concern was not to conceal her feet if the answer was yes, but to change out of the bedroom slippers she wore for comfort under even the most ornate costume."

Michael Caine
The Elephant to Hollywood by Caine
"To become a really big female star, every man in the audience has to think: I bet she'd go out with me if I met her. Of course Garbo was a big star and no one would ever have thought she'd go out with them, but that's unusual."

Ernst Lubitsch
Hollywood by Garson Kanin
Curious as to how Lubitsch knew to cast Garbo in Ninotchka, Garson Kanin asked the director one day and received this answer:

"Because she was funny. You couldn't see it? You didn't know it off the screen? How funny she was? How she would make certain remarks about some of the producers? ... She was funny. And I knew she could be funny on the screen. Even in some of the serious things she showed humor. You didn't notice how she always had such a light touch? Most of them are so heavy. Heavy! But she was light, light always, and for comedy, nothing matters more. ...

There was only one thing worried me a little. I wondered if she could laugh, because I didn't have a finish if she didn't have a laugh. She had the most beautiful smile. And when I began to talk to her about Ninotchka, I said to her one day, 'Can you laugh?' and she said, 'I think so.' I said to her, 'Do you often laugh?' And she said, 'Not often.' And I said, 'Could you laugh right now?' And she said, 'Let me come back tomorrow.' And then next day she came back and she said, 'All right. I'm ready to laugh.' ... And she laughed and it was beautiful. And she made me laugh, and there we sat in my office like two loonies, laughing for about ten minutes. For that moment on, I knew I had a picture with her."

"The Story of Greta Garbo," Alvar Magazine, 2016
"For a woman who didn’t have a problem expressing a certain amount of contempt for the trappings of stardom, her contributions to celebrity culture are legion. Her incognito look (dark sunglasses, berets, cloche hats) was and is still widely copied, as are her endless eyelashes (which were very real). She also ushered in a new paradigm of angular beauty and dressing style that fused 'masculine' and 'feminine' qualities, resulting in fanatical admirers from both sexes. Garbo’s signature debutante slouch was pirated by high fashion and still remains a standard on runways around the world."

Irene Dunne
"The Garbo Next Door," Vanity Fair, 2000
William Frye has a lot of interesting anecdotes, including this one about his friends Irene Dunne and Garbo:

"The two stars were both working at MGM, on different films. Irene always drove herself to the studio, dressed primly and properly in a suit with gloves and a bag. One morning, as her car passed through the studio gate, she noticed that a limousine carrying Garbo was right behind her. Irene wanted to see the storied star in the flesh, so she parked and waited for Garbo to get out of the limo. Their dressing rooms were next door to each other, but they had never met. Ten minutes passed before it became clear that Garbo was going to outwait Dunne. Finally, Irene had to rush to her dressing room or be late for her morning call."

Dunne got her chance some time later when she, Frye, and Garbo were invited to dinner at the home of Brian and Eleanor Aherne, where a surprise guest popped up:

"Since Irene Dunne’s house was on the way, in Holmby Hills, I told Eleanor I’d pick her up en route. Just before I left home, the phone rang. It was Irene. 'Bill, dear, it’s a long drive out to the ocean, and I’d like to sit in the front seat with you.' 'That’s going to be impossible,' I said. 'Garbo always rides in the front seat, and she’s first on board tonight.' Irene wasn’t going to give up without a fight. 'I really would like to sit in front.' I had no idea how to handle this delicate situation.

In the end, as I turned into Irene’s driveway, I said to Garbo, 'Would you mind terribly getting into the backseat? Miss Dunne gets carsick if she rides in the backseat. Even when she’s being driven by her chauffeur, she sits in the front.' Irene, who was looking out the upstairs window, watched in amazement as Garbo moved from front to back. When we got to the Ahernes’, Eleanor—normally poise personified—was in a panic. Taking me aside, she said, 'Bill, I’ve made a terrible mistake. Greer Garson was supposed to come to dinner tomorrow night, but I gave her the wrong date and she’s coming tonight. She’ll be here any minute. I’m scared to death to tell G.G., because meeting one new person is all she can handle, and she’s never met Greer Garson.'

When the doorbell rang, Eleanor made a beeline for the kitchen. I rushed to the bar and fixed a scotch for Garbo and a martini for Irene. Brian Aherne had the unenviable task of greeting Garson and her husband, the Texas millionaire Buddy Fogelson, at the door. Garson’s voice carried clearly down the hall, and Garbo recognized it immediately. 'What is she doing here?' she asked. Pressed in this way, I came up with the most pathetic story. 'The Ahernes’ house is for sale, you know.' (It really was.) 'Maybe she’s come to see it.' 'At night?' 'Well, potential buyers like to see what a house looks like at night.' Garbo didn’t believe me for a minute.

As Greer entered the room, you could feel the tension. She was wearing a full-length, black-and-white herringbone mink coat over a long green dress with white polka dots. Garbo and Irene were both wearing simple slack suits. It was not a comfortable evening. As we were leaving, Brian asked us to sign the guest book. Greer and Buddy signed first, then Irene. Garbo whispered to me, 'I’m not going to sign.' 'Oh, yes, you are,' I whispered back. 'Otherwise you’re going to walk home.' And so, after all the years she’d known them and all the times she’d stayed with them as their houseguest, Garbo signed the Ahernes’ guest book for the first time."

Jean Arthur
Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew by John Oller
When it comes to privacy, Jean Arthur was similar to Garbo in the way she kept to herself. Arthur even acknowledged this, saying "I like to think that I understand Garbo a little. Her seclusion. Her refusal to talk for publication. Her belief that only her work is important to her public. I feel that way, too."

The women's eventual meeting was less than stellar:

"The two of them met only once, when a friend of Garbo's approached Arthur in New York and asked her to take a package back to Los Angeles and deliver it to the reclusive actress, who was renting a house up the hill from where Arthur lived. After holding the small box for a few days, Arthur summoned up the courage to go up the hill. She knocked on Garbo's front door, was let into the residence by a servant and stood in the foyer until the great woman descended the stairway. Awestruck and tongue-tied, Arthur introduced herself, explained why she had come, then watched as Garbo opened the package. In it was a huge diamond pin that caused Arthur's eyes to bulge with astonishment at the realization of what she had been carrying around. Garbo then turned to Arthur, said 'Vy don't you mind your own business,' and walked back upstairs. Whereupon Arthur beat it out of the house as fast as she could."

The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom by Annette Tapert
"While waiting for her film debut, [Garbo] visited the set of a Lillian Gish movie. Not only did she absorb Gish's professional ability, but she was also impressed by the way MGM's most prestigious star shunned the publicity nonsense. When Garbo told her of the undignified photo shoots [she had been enduring], Gish advised her to refuse to do any further stunts, which she did."

Marcello Mastroianni
Whereas many would have killed for the chance to meet Miss G., Italian actor and icon Marcello Mastroianni wasn't as thrilled:

"I was in New York after the great success of La Dolce Vita by Fellini and I was in the company of Guidarino Guidi, who was my interpreter. An antique dealer called at my hotel and told me that Greta Garbo wanted to meet me. The encounter had to be as casual as possible and I had not to ask her questions. I had to pretend that Garbo was not Garbo. I must say that I was not particularly intrigued, I was not fascinated by Garbo. I thought she had the menacing beauty of the queen of Snow White. The actresses I liked were Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner.

The appointment was fixed at tea-time in the shop of this dealer. We were punctual, on time. We went on the second floor and there were three women: one of them was Garbo. She wore a skirt and a pullover, very casual. She was still very beautiful but I was quite cold. I told her one of the very few words I knew in English: 'How do you do?' And she looked at my shoes and asked if they were Italian. They were English but I replied: 'Yes.' One of the ladies, who could not stop staring at Garbo, said: 'I have recently seen you in Camille. How beautiful you were!' It was like an unforgivable offense. Greta got up and without saying a word, left the shop.

Some time later I was in the Actor's Studio when I was called to the phone. It was Garbo, but I could not understand what she was saying. I gave the handset to Guidi. Greta wanted to apologize. She said: 'I went away because I can't stand stupid women.' That's all. I have never seen her anymore and I must say that now I am sorry about this."

Janet Gaynor
"The Garbo Next Door," Vanity Fair, 2000
During a jaunt to the farmers market, William Frye and Garbo stopped by a bakery, where the actress adorably balked at buying a simple pastry:

"'Oh, look at those cream puffs. I haven’t had a cream puff in years.' 'Well, treat yourself to one.' 'No,' she said. 'Buy it for me.' 'Buy it yourself,' I said. 'It only costs one dollar and 10 cents.' 'Oh, so much!' 'That’s right. Buy one and I’ll get some tea for you and some coffee for me.' When I returned with the tea and coffee, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Garbo had actually worked up enough courage to buy a cream puff. She was sitting at a table eating it, beside herself with joy."

Garbo balked even more, though, when she and Frye spotted another superstar near them:

"Someone 20 or 30 feet away waved at me. Garbo looked up from her cream puff. 'Is that Janet Gaynor?' 'It is.' 'Oh,' she said, 'don’t let her come over here. I don’t know her.' 'Of course you know her. Her husband, Adrian, did all your costumes at MGM. You know exactly who she is, and she’s a dear.' 'Then go over and talk to her, because I don’t want to meet her.' It could have been an embarrassing situation, but wonderful Janet saved the day. By the time I got to her table, she had figured out exactly what was going on. 'You’re sitting with Garbo,' she said, 'and you had to come over here because she doesn’t want to speak to me.' 'That’s it.' 'Isn’t she a funny little creature? But still so beautiful.'"

Lionel Barrymore
We Barrymores by Barrymore
Barrymore co-starred with Garbo four times in The Temptress, Mata Hari, Grand Hotel, and Camille. In his autobiography, he wrote that Garbo "had the true nimbus of greatness; but she was difficult to understand...She was knowable through the usual amenities...I would have attempted some sort of homey acquaintance save for the fact, regrettable for me, that it took me at least two days to emerge from the spell she always cast by her great acting..."

Parker Tyler, film critic
A to Z of Classic Hollywood Style by Sinty Stemp
"The fashion world has been using Garbo ever since she brought out her idiomatic style. For years now, rakishness, bold angularity, mock insolence, and the insinuation of an apparently uncontrollable pelvis have been the fashion model's stock-in-trade. Much more came from the Garbo of the 1920s and 1930s than people have supposed. The negligently slung hip, the cocked elbow and the space straddle were all Garbo's. I mean they were all hers as 'originals,' not as copies. There are no more Garbos..."

Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy just proves how sweet and adorable he was with this story of his run-in with Garbo:

"When I was first at MGM, Garbo was the big star and I would have done anything to meet her. I was a big fan. And one time I was working on the stage right next to her and I found out that when she left she would go right from the stage door to her limousine, and nobody would see her. But I got to know the sound man on her set. And he told me he knew just how much time it took her to get from her dressing room on the set to the stage door. 'So I’ll give you a call one of these days when we finish,' he told me, 'and maybe you’ll be able to run out your door and get to see her before she gets into the limousine.' And, sure enough, a couple days later he called me.

He said, 'Now hurry and hang up and go out your door because she’s just leaving.' And so I did. I had to go on the dead run to get to the end of the stage. And as I went around the corner to the door, I ran smack into somebody. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I just kept running, right out to the door, and as I was about to open it, I stopped and looked back. And there was Greta Garbo all right—flat on her ass. I knocked the poor woman down. I don’t think she’ll ever forget me for that."

Hedda Hopper
From Under My Hat by Hopper
Obviously, since this is coming from Hopper, you can determine for yourself how much is her invention and how much is true:

"Jack Gilbert begged Garbo in vain to marry him. He even had a suite of room arranged in his house for her. According to hearsay, the black marble bathroom set him back fifteen thousand dollars. When it was finished he showed it to her. Later he described how she put her slender, beautiful hands over her eyes and murmured, 'The marble -- it is too shiny --' Jack said he brought in workmen with chisels, who fluted the marble to take the shine off.

Gilbert was so hurt over Garbo's refusal to marry him that when the famous stage star Ina Claire came to town to make a picture, he began wooing her like mad almost the minute he met her. In the beginning I think the idea was to make Garbo jealous, but he misjudged the distance. I don't believe Garbo has ever been jealous of anybody or anything in her whole life. Perhaps she was as surprised as the rest of us, therefore, when we got the news that Ina and Jack had eloped to Las Vegas.

The silliest thing the studio ever did was to try to punish Garbo. Their plan backfired. When she refused to sign a new contact on their terms, they decided she must conform. To make her see things their way, they took the star part in her next picture away from her and gave it to Aileen Pringle. Garbo was ordered to play the maid. She made no protest; even had the maid's costumes fitted to her. Aileen prepared to start the picture, but those of us who had been around a long time knew she would never finish it. Sure enough, the day before the picture was to start, the studio capitulated. Aileen went back to her minor roles and Garbo stepped into the place reserved for her.

Playing Garbo's sister in As You Desire Me was the only contact I had with her. Before shooting we rehearsed for a week. The star was invariably prompt, but always shy. At week's end, though, she was one of us, and remained so all through the making of the picture. She'd arrive on the set at 9 a.m., letter-perfect in her lines and ready to shoot. Every afternoon director [George] Fitzmaurice served tea made by the property man, and members of the cast would vie with each other in bringing delicious cookies and cakes from home.

One day Garbo bit into a cookie and said, 'My mother used to make these at home. Where did they come from?' 'I brought them,' I said. 'My cook is Swedish too. Her name is Dagmar, and she made these especially for Miss Garbo.' She was delighted, and I brought cookies on the set every other day until the picture was finished. --- film finished --- Three weeks later I glimpsed Garbo on the lot, waved, called, 'Hi, there!' She gave me a frightened glance and flew off in the opposite direction."

Myrna Loy
Being and Becoming by Loy
"I made several friendly gestures to Garbo. She never responded. One day we ran into each other in the hall, and there was no way she could avoid me. I looked at her and smiled. She lowered her head, and in that low, lingering voice said, ‘Hallooo…,' and hurried on by. That was my only exchange with Greta Garbo."

Cecilia Parker
A to Z of Classic Hollywood Style by Sinty Stemp
"She taught me to be immaculate, which is quite a different thing from being 'dressy.' I have never seen anyone more immaculate than Garbo. Her shining, brushed hair, her clean, strong hands, without nail polish or benefit of beauty parlour...She is so shiningly groomed that it makes all that seem cheap by comparison."

Ruth Harriet Louise, photographer
Louise was a photographer at MGM and frequently had Garbo in front of her camera (the picture above is just one example). Louise commented that although Garbo was "a wonderful personality," she could still be difficult to photograph because she "has so many sides to her personality that one cannot do her justice ... She is so young, and so sad; she has so many moods, and even when she smiles I always sense a great sadness."

Jane Fonda
Oprah's Master Class episode
Jane Fonda had a pretty fabulous, life-changing encounter with Garbo. While visiting her father and his wife in the south of France at the age of 16, Fonda met the actress when she stopped by for lunch:

“[She] looked at me and said, ‘Would you like to come swimming with me?’ First of all, none of the people that ever came there ever noticed me or looked at me... I [said], ‘Yes! I want to go swimming with you.’”

When Garbo returned in a bathrobe and a rubber swimming cap, the two walked to the water. Fonda was surprised to find out that Garbo was completely naked once she took off her robe.

“She wasn’t perfect. She was an athlete. She was muscular. She was sturdy. It made me so happy that she was just a good, healthy body. ... She looked at me right in the eye and said, ‘Do you want to be an actress?’ And I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Well, you’re pretty enough.' I was so shocked. I think I had a Cheshire grin on my face for the rest of the day.”

The experience started to give Fonda a new perspective:

“My more mature, smarter part of my brain knew there were a lot of very beloved, wonderful, fabulous women who weren’t perfect. But it took me a long, long time to realize we are not meant to be perfect. We’re meant to be whole.”

Howard Dietz, songwriter and former MGM publicist
"The Great Garbo," People, 1990
"Dietz once asked Garbo to dinner the following Monday. Her reply: 'How do I know I’ll be hungry on Monday?'"

Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk, William Schoell
As you read from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Crawford idolized Garbo. Before she kind of starred in Grand Hotel with Miss G. (they had no scenes together), Crawford worked with John Gilbert in 1927's Twelve Miles Out.

"He was so in love with Garbo at the time -- Garbo was living in his house -- that he seemed completely distracted most of the time. Oh, he could work himself into the mood when that mood was called for -- but as soon as the director called 'Cut!' he switched it off so abruptly it made my head spin. He was always rushing to call Garbo. Once, I recall, she came to see him from a nearby set and he was as excited, showoff-y and nervous as any high school boy. What that lady did to that man was a caution indeed!"

The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom by Annette Tapert
"Garbo's face was so well proportioned that for years plastic surgeons proclaimed it the hallmark of perfection. The space between her eyes was the width of one eye. Her nose length was one-third the distance from the hairline to the chin. Her lower lip was slightly fuller than her upper lip. In addition to balance, Garbo was blessed with eyelashes so long and thick that in photographs they look false... She had luminescent skin and, though audiences never saw the color of her magical eyes, they were a translucent grayish blue."

Gene Kelly
This is one of the stories that I found that I'm really not sure about. I mean, if it's real, it's quite spectacular. Gene was having a demonstration for steam cooking equipment done at his house when Garbo appeared on his doorstep:

"I opened the door and saw it was George Cukor and he'd brought with him Greta Garbo, who was a diet fanatic and was very taken with the whole idea of cooking with steam. When everyone arrived, we moved into the kitchen. Garbo sat on the sink. Hedy Lamarr crossed her legs on the sideboard. Ava Gardner propped herself against the refrigerator, and Rita Hayworth squatted in a corner on the floor. Our young demonstrator didn't have a clue who any of us were, and began by showing us how to cook carrots without water. ...

After the demonstration was over, Greta disappeared into the lounge, and returned a half an hour later having bought a complete set of utensils for $87. This most sophisticated Swedish woman -- and probably the most famous film star in the world -- was completely won over by the man and took everything he said dead seriously. We just couldn't believe it was the same woman who had played Camille or Marie Walewska. She was so completely naive.

In retrospect, it one of the evenings I remember most vividly in all my years in Hollywood: Garbo, Lamarr, Gardner, and Hayworth -- four of the world's most beautiful woman -- draped 'round my kitchen like ordinary hausfraus. I wish someone had taken a photograph of them."

Max Factor, cosmetician
A to Z of Classic Hollywood Style by Sinty Stemp
"She has natural eyelashes more lovely than any artificial lashes I can supply."

Katharine Hepburn

Kate Remembered by A. Scott Berg
Kate's thoughts on Garbo are very much my thoughts on both women:

"I think she was a great actress. But even more than that, she carried so much mystery with her. From the moment she walked on the screen, you simply couldn't take your eyes off her, you wanted to know everything about her, and you knew she wasn't going to give it to you. That's a movie star."

The Dick Cavett Show, 1973
Cavett: I feel I have to ask you this. Everybody says that Garbo had something that no one had before or since. I'm willing to believe that this is not true.

Kate: No, this is true.

Cavett: It is?

Kate: Yes I think so. She had a real mystique, and a real, real gift for movie acting.

Cavett: And what is it – if I were in a room with her and the cameras were there and she were here, and I could see her on the set of Camille, would I see that in that room?

Kate: Yes, I think you would – I think she was mysterious – is mysterious.

Cavett: Have you met her?

Kate: Yes, yes – many times. She is charming and sweet and nice and funny. But she's – she certainly photographically had something that nobody else had. I think that's what made her. You don't become that famous for no reason.

Cavett: Do you get the feeling that she got pleasure from her career, though, she seems not to…

Kate: Yes, I think she did, I think people – everybody has a different way of living, you know, they have to… Some people have happy natures, some people have – I have a happy nature, so I have a good time, you know.

Me: Stories of My Life by Hepburn
"Another time, just after I'd rented the house, George Cukor and Garbo came to call. She'd been told about the house and wanted to see it. I showed it off. Went upstairs -- showed her the bedroom. She walked over to my bed. There was a lump on the bed (obviously a hot-water bottle). She looked at me, patted it and sighed. 'Yes, I have one too. Vat is wrong vid us?'"

Bette Davis
"The Garbo Next Door," Vanity Fair, 2000
"Her instinct, her mastery over the machine, was pure witchcraft. I cannot analyze this woman's acting. I only know that no one else so effectively worked in front of a camera."

Walking with Garbo by Raymond Daum and Vance Muse
"Often they would walk from 52nd Street to Washington Square and back, a distance of six miles. She always initiated what she called their 'trots,' suddenly calling him (she never gave Daum her phone number) and saying, 'Let’s go.' They sometimes discussed going to a restaurant for dinner, or to the movies (including the 1968 retrospective of her films at the Museum of Modern Art), but such plans proved too ambitious for Garbo. She preferred to simply walk, taking in the impressions of New York street life—how bread smelled at a bakery, what shopgirls were wearing, a couple’s argument at an outdoor cafe. 'This sophisticated, worldly woman,' says Daum, 'could sound as if she were experiencing it all for the first time.' Garbo and Daum talked about religion, travel, children, cooking, politics, dogs—anything but her career. 'Don’t ever ask me about the movies,' she once cautioned him. 'Especially why I left them.'"

Leonard Stanley, interior designer
The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom by Annette Tapert
"We were both drinking Scotch and soda. At one point she turned to me and said, 'You know what I like with my Scotch and soda?' I was fascinated to know. What could it be? Caviar? Foie gras? 'A bag of Fritos,' she said."

Karina Longworth, creator and host of You Must Remember This
"The Lover and the Object of His Affection," Slate, 2015
"[Garbo] never married, and though plenty have suggested this was because she preferred the company of several women to any one man, a close friend of Garbo’s reported shortly after her death that Garbo had once drunkenly admitted that Gilbert was her great love, but when it came to marriage, she couldn’t face the thought of giving herself up to another person. 'I froze,' she is reported to have said. 'I was afraid he would tell me what to do and boss me. I always wanted to be the boss.'"

Cecil Beaton
Beaton was one of Garbo's closest allies for many years. He was able to photograph her, resulting in some incredible and intimate pictures, and he frequently wrote about her, which ultimately ended their relationship. After the 1972 publication of Beaton's The Happy Years, the third volume of his diaries, Garbo cut him out of her life due to his revealing the details of their affair.

A to Z of Classic Hollywood Style by Sinty Stemp
"Garbo has been credited with having little clothes sense and obviously pays no attention whatsoever to the rules of current fashion...If she is unwilling to devote her time to becoming a well-dressed woman, she has succeeded, nevertheless, in creating a fashion for herself and, though nonconformist, has been an important factor in contributing to the tone of a whole period."

Beaton proves how enchanted he was by Garbo in his description of their first meeting:

"If a unicorn had suddenly appeared in the late afternoon light of this ugly, ordinary garden, I could have been neither more surprised nor more amazed by the beauty of this exotic creature. ...[S]he pervaded a scent of new-mown hay, and of freshly-washed children."

Beaton claims that at one point Garbo told him "You're so beautiful." He replied, "But you're so beautiful." "No," she said, "you should never return a compliment."

The Book of Beauty by Beaton
"Surely there never has been such beauty before. She was like a rare, white convolvulus, and her acting was so simple and poignantly touching that one wondered why no other actress had been able to act like that before; her smile seemed so spontaneous and candid that it looked easy to smile like that."

Cecil Beaton's Scrapbook by Beaton
"...perhaps her magic is only a freak of nature which leads our imagination to make of her an ideal she can never be."

John Gilbert
Of course I had to have something from Jack!

"One day, she's like a child, naïve, like a ten-year-old girl. The next day, she's a mysterious woman, 100 years old, who knows anything, tired of the entire world, profound."

"The Story of Greta Garbo," Alvar Magazine2016
"On one occasion, when she had been missing from the studio for a few days, her co-star and off-screen lover at the time Jack Gilbert went to find her. He drove along the California coast for miles before he finally caught a glimpse of Garbo by the shoreline. He watched as she stared out at the glimmering Pacific Ocean for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, feeling like a trespasser, he walked away, leaving her there, deeply in her element – an unbothered, possibly transcendent communion with nature."

The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom by Annette Tapert
"The public was captivated by her physical proportions and the way she used her body. Her entrancing walk, always leading with the hips and shoulders, was fluid and seductive. For the first time audiences saw on the screen a body that was not entirely feminine in form. She had an androgynous physique that, in motion, had an erotic naturalism. She also changed the existing notion of screen acting. Unlike her contemporaries, she was not animated; she was able to convey the whole gamut of emotions without, it seemed, doing much of anything. The feelings were all there instinctively in her eyes, in her face."

Deborah Kerr
From 1960 until her death in 2007, Deborah Kerr was married to Peter Viertel, the son of Garbo's best friend Salka Viertel. Because of this, Kerr knew Garbo and had interesting memories of her, such as this one:

"She could be so funny and had such a wonderful way of knocking herself. Once in the late afternoon, we were about to have a glass of wine and I asked, 'Miss G, would you like red or white?' She gave me the most tragic look and said, 'Ooooh, De-bo-rah – that is a terrrrible decision!' You never knew with her, whether she was sending you up or not. Peter, on the other hand, was never deferential. He would say, 'C'mon, Greta – just make up your mind!'"

Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me by Gish
"Garbo's temperament reflected the rain and the gloom of the long, dark Swedish winters."

Garson Kanin
Hollywood by Kanin
Director and writer Garson Kanin never ended up working with Garbo, but they did become acquaintances and his wife Ruth Gordon was in Two-Faced Woman. Even before he knew Garbo personally, Kanin admired the actress and had this to say about her:

"Greta Garbo saved her personality for her work. She was never a scintillating dinner companion or an avid partygoer. ... Garbo was one of the figures who brought to the screen an idealization of womanhood so overpowering that it captured the imagination of the moviegoing public the world over. At Metro, it was common knowledge that Garbo pictures were never significantly successful at the box office in the United States, but they did so well in Europe that they were worth making. Very few Garbo pictures lost money."

Kanin also commented on her first sound film, Anna Christie:

"Unlike most of her contemporaries, she did not become preoccupied with the mechanics of the new blimp-covered cameras, with the microphones hanging overhead and hidden in the furniture. Her concern, as it always had been, was with the character, the scene, the feeling, and the interrelationships with the other players. There were times in the major studio days when even the most important players were handled carelessly. But Garbo inspired everyone, even the most crass businessman in the front office, to do his best for her."

After Garbo retreated from making films, Kanin noted that many people tried to be the ones who helped her return:

"I was among those who tried to lure her back to the screen. My idea was to do a production of The Cherry Orchard, with her as Madame Ranevskaya. During our first meetings, she surprised me with her wide knowledge of Chekov and his work. We talked it out for months. I never got her beyond the 'perhaps' point, and in time the idea melted away. ... Looking back, it is easy to see why she occupied a place of her own on the film scene. There was only one Garbo. And she, alas, gave up."

Adrian, costume designer

A to Z of Classic Hollywood Style by Sinty Stemp
"If [Garbo] liked a thing, she wore it with complete unconsciousness. No matter how eccentric it was, she gave it an air of authority."

The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom by Annette Tapert
"She is like a tree with deep roots. You must never put artificial jewels or imitation lace on Garbo. Not that it would be noticed on the screen, but it would do something to Garbo and her performance."

Clarence Sinclair Bull
For over a decade, Bull took all of Garbo's studio portraits for her films, except for 1930's Romance. The photographer and the star's first session came in 1929 when Garbo was making The Kiss:

"I recall that first morning the great Garbo walked into my portrait gallery looking like a frightened schoolgirl. What she didn't know was that I was just as scared. For three hours I photographed her in every pose and emotion that beautiful face could mirror. At the end of the sitting, which had been without a single break, she said ‘I'll do better next time, Mr. Bull. I was quite nervous.' I patted her hand and replied, ‘So will I.'"

Soon enough, Bull became Garbo's favorite photographer. She trusted him completely and felt totally comfortable around his studio, so much so that she would walk around barefoot and play records of popular tunes, not the classical music that Bull expected.

"[Garbo was my] best subject... The easiest of all stars to photograph...having no bad side and no bad angles. Her rapport with the camera was such that she seems to feel the emotion for each pose as part of her personality. Garbo was the most cooperative star I ever worked with, always willing to try the unusual, lighting effects and expressions of inner feelings and conflicts. She never seems to tire of posing. I have known her to hold a pose, either in glaring lights or by the dimmest ones, for more than a minute and a half."

Kenny Kingston, a friend
It may delight you to know that Garbo loved television that was considered lowbrow, according to Kingston, a psychic whom Garbo consulted over the years, beginning in 1952. “I watch the dreck,” she told him. “Schmutz. If a program is advertised as experimental, I never turn it on.” “She’d always watch Hollywood Squares," Kingston revealed. "She adored Paul Lynde. I think she even wrote him a fan letter.”

The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom by Annette Tapert
"It wasn't just her clothes that millions of women embraced. Garbo's face had a greater impact on the public and on her peers than that of any other actress before or since. Off-screen she wore very little makeup -- pencil to darken her nearly white eyebrows, a touch of lipstick, a dash of powder. Except for the famous darkened crease in her eyelids and the eyeliner, on the screen her face didn't require much more than what she used in real life. Store mannequins began to resemble her. Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich were all influenced by her straight hair, minimal makeup, and thin eyebrows. In the real world everyone from models to office girls copied her shoulder-length bob, tried to imitate her eye makeup, and donned long fake eyelashes."


This is my contribution to the Greta Garbo Blogathon, a four-day celebration hosted by Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Definitely check out the other tributes here!


  1. Thanks for collecting and sharing all of these! I'm not a particularly big Garbo fan, but I found these anecdotes fascinating nonetheless.

    1. It was my pleasure! I can understand why Garbo wouldn't be your cup of tea, but I think the mysterious persona she cultivated is hard not to be intrigued by.

  2. Michaela, this is wonderful. I loved reading all these impressions of Garbo. Like you said, some were a little hard to believe, but they made for a great story nonetheless.

    Thank you for compiling this collection – it's made me more sympathetic towards her. I used to think it was selfish of her to not appear on the set until all strangers had left, but now I don't blame her. She was there to do her job, not entertain onlookers like she was a busker.

    1. Yes, I think it's made me soften towards her, too. With the way she valued her privacy, it's like she was made into this mystical creature, but she was just a complicated, endlessly fascinating woman. I loved hearing that she enjoyed Fritos with her scotch and soda, and that she adored wearing ratty slippers under gorgeous Adrian gowns (something that apparently drove Robert Taylor nuts during Camille).

      Thanks for reading, and I'm so glad these stories helped change your perception a little.

  3. What a fabulous post! I was in awe with many of the stories, and some of them were new to me, like David Niven's and Cary Grant's. I can't express the joy that reading those made me feel. Thanks!

    1. Aw, happy to hear it! Many of these stories were new to me, too. Cary's is pretty cute!

  4. This is one of the best articles I've read in a long time. Even though I'm not a Garbo fan, I love seeing her through the eyes of people who knew or met her. Thanks for being so thorough and also including such gorgeous pictures.

    1. Thank you so much! I really enjoyed putting this together, especially when it came to looking for the photos. She took the best photos, I swear!

  5. Thank you for aggregating all these quotes. One of my favorite articles on GG yet!

    1. Wow, thank you! It was certainly a lot of work to put together, but it became a lot of fun, too.

  6. Thank you. The photos are beautiful.


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