One of the most iconic actresses
of the 20th century, Greta Garbo, was born on this day in 1905.
Despite her image in the American imagination as the eternally heterosexual
romantic lead and starlet, Greta lived a lonely, closeted life.
Greta Garbo first traveled to the United States at the age of 19 and not two years later she would be one of the most well-known actresses in the country (x).
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born
in the slum of Södermalm in Stockholm, Sweden on September 18, 1905. She was
the third and the youngest child born to a working class family – her mother
worked at a jam factory and her father was a janitor. Poverty haunted her
childhood and she is remembered as having been a shy, daydreaming child who was
interested in theater and performance from an early age; a former classmate remembered
a 10-year-old Greta declaring that she wanted to be an actress when she grew up
“because it’s posh.” After leaving school at the age of 13, she began working
as a cleaner girl in a barber shop, but eventually took a job at the PUB
Department Story. It was there where Greta was picked out for her beauty and
chosen to model women’s hats. Modeling gigs turned into commercial gigs, which
eventually lead her to starring in short films.
In 1922, the director Erik Arthur
Petschler spotted one of Greta’s commercials and invited her to star in his
small comedy film Peter the Tramp.
Seeing a real future in acting, she studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s
Acting School for two years before getting shipped off to America on the request of
MGM Vice President Louis B. Mayer. After the studio forced her to straighten
her teeth, lose 30 pounds, and lean English, Greta became a superstar and
starred in over 20 silent films. In 1929, she became one of the few stars who
was able to make the jump over to “talkies” with the film Anna Christie. Over the next decade, she would star in hits such as
Grand Hotel, Camille, and Anna Karenina
and would receive three Oscar nominations.
Video footage of Greta arriving at Gothenburg Harbor in 1935 overplayed with words from one of her loves, Mercedes de Acosta.
Closely associated with the line
from Grand Hotel, “I want to be alone; I just want to be alone,” Greta hated
publicity and was a recluse later in life. Many historians have theorized that Greta’s social
anxiety and depression were results of her lesbianism and the pressure placed
on her to hide that part of her life from the world. Actresses Lilyan Tashman,
Mercedes de Acosta, and Louise Brooks have all admitted to having sexual
relationships with Greta, but if she had an ultimate love it had to have been
Mimi Pollack. Mimi was a Swedish actress who Greta met during her time at
the Royal Dramatic Theater and the two maintained a close correspondence for
the rest of their lives. The romantic tone of their letters is undeniable;
“’The letter from you has aroused a storm of longing within me,” “’I
dream of seeing you and discovering whether you still care as much about your
old bachelor. I love you, little Mimosa,” “’We cannot help our nature, as God
has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together.”
Mimi’s son was born, Greta even wrote that she was “incredibly proud to be a
Greta’s relationship with Mimi
would not become known to the mainstream public until 2005 with the publication of the
Swedish book Djävla Älskade Unge by Tin Andersen Axell. At the time of Greta’s
death on April 14, 1990, it would be over ten years before the
public who claimed to adore her would know a sliver of who the actress truly