Greta Garbo

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Photo by Edward Steichen

Garbo, Greta (18 September 1905 - 15 April 1990)

Although rumored to have been an unbeliever, partly because her ability to portray sexual passion was associated in some people’s minds as being sacrilegious and that therefore she must be “irreligious,” Garbo - born Greta Gustaffson in Sweden - does not qualify.

According to Loving Garbo, the Story of Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton, and Mercedes de Acosta (1994) by Hugo Vickers, GG (as she called herself) had an affair with, among others, the homosexual Cecil Beaton, an English scenery and costume designer who once attended a party in pink chiffon and a bustle. And she may have had an affair with Leopold Stokowski. George Brent, Fifi D’Orsay, and Marie Dressler. One of Garbo’s lesbian lovers, Mercedes de Acosta, was known also for having had affairs with Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, and Eva Le Gallienne. But Garbo never married, nor did she ever again speak to de Acosta after her 1960 memoir about their affair.

Garbo, in fact, became known for her inaccessibility, saying offscreen, “Why don’t they leave me alone?’ and ‘I want to be left alone,’ and memorializing William A. Drake’s line in the 1932 script of “Grand Hotel,” “I want to be alone.” Vickers comments that, to console each other because of Garbo’s inaccessibility, Beaton and de Acosta resorted to exchanging news about their previous love. The tragic heroine of Annie Christie (1930), Anna Karenina (1935), and Camille (1936) was famed on the movie screen for being the lover with “one of the most beautiful faces of the 20th century,” but she detested the film industry and the studio system.

Beaton found her dull and he tired of her “saying no to everything including Life.” Relationships meant little to her, he observed, and she was little interested in intellectual matters.

In 1995, biographer Barry Paris made the case in Garbo that de Acosta was one of the great loves of Garbo’s life. “I would see her above me, her face and body outlined against the sky, looking like some radiant, elemental, glorious god and goddess melted into one,” de Acosta was quoted as saying. In the 1930s the two took a vacation in the Sierra Nevadas where they swam in the nude and cooked their own food. Garbo’s other love was said to be Lilyan Tashman, a “slinky blond” and former Ziegfeld girl who was bulimic and who eventually died of a brain tumor. Paris alleges that Garbo as a pre-teen had several affairs with girlfriends and “possibly also with her sister, Alva.”

Paris also states that various sources insist that Garbo had several abortions performed by a doctor on retainer at MGM, her company. He includes such other trivia as that Garbo did not have big feet, that her size 7AA was ideal for a 5’ 7” woman; she never said, “I want to be alone,” but, rather, “I want to be left alone”; that when a made-for-TV movie touted its leading lady as “the new Greta Garbo,” she growled, “There is only one Garbo!”; and while on Fire Island when a parade of gay men passed by, she said, “Should be called ‘Royal Island.’ It’s filled with kveens!”

Garbo, according to Barry Paris, cooked with peanut oil, loved fresh vegetables, but disliked buying flowers because “What’s the point? They’d only die.” Known for her tart rejoinders, she replied to an individual offering a dinner invitation, “How do I know I’ll be hungry on Wednesday?”

Begged by fans for her photo, she replied, “Why do they want my picture? I’m not their relative.” When Adrian, her couturier, suddenly resigned from MGM, she told him, “I’m very sorry you’re leaving. But you know, I never really liked most of the clothes you made me wear.” Her “Whatever you suggest, it’s no” was illustrative of her frequent imperiousness. Paris wrote that “the metabolism that photographed as listless sensuality was really closer to fatigue. What looked like a migraine on Joan Crawford was, on Garbo, ‘an intense form of sexual yearning. Few could believe the simple truth - that the connection between Garbo’s erotic screen essence and her private sexuality was nonexistent.”

Her interests, particularly during her legendary seclusion from 1941 until her death, were going to bed early, exercising, being massaged, eating organically grown vegetables, collecting a cache of dynel-haired toy trolls, and pursuing homeopathic cures. She was cremated and her ashes were interred at a secret spot few know about. In 1999 her cremains were buried at her birthplace outside Stockholm. As for her alleged non-belief, no, she was interested in theosophy.