Greta Garbo Biography

Header Photo: Greta Garbo by Clarence Sinclair Bull
© Estate of Clarence Sinclair Bull

Images below © Estate of Clarence Sinclair Bull

Greta Garbo: Full Biog. >> Introduction >> 1905 to 1924 -Sweden: The Early Years >> 1925 to 1941 - The Hollywood Years >> 1942 to 1990 - The Private Years >> The Man Who Shot Garbo >> Trivia >> Photo Gallery >> Film Poster Gallery >> Full Index

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Greta Garbo Biography ~ Introduction

Greta Lovisa Gustafsson

Born: 18 September 1905, Stockholm, Sweden
Height: 5' 7½" (1.71 m)
Died: 15 April 1990, New York City, USA (pneumonia)

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Greta Garbo. The face, the eyes, the voice, the eyebrow raised ... no one who has appeared on the big screen has come anywhere close to replicating the mystique she generated in the 15 years or so of the Hollywood years. Indeed the 60 years of her 'retirement' only served to increase the mystique, helped in no small part by Garbo protecting the Garbo persona to perfection.

© Estate of Clarence Sinclair Bull

No autographs were signed; no appearances on talk shows or a need to promote anything. She was wise with her money so there was no need to even think about a comeback. Think about it: that basic fact seperates her from the rest. Not for her the Dietrich route of appearing in films or touring late in life (she was paid $250,000 in the late 1970s for a cameo role in the cultishly awful Just A Gigolo) or that of the actors departing from the middle of the screen to play character parts on the side of the screen when they have gotten old and are replaced by the younger, pretty stars Hollywood churned out seemingly at will. Though Garbo the movie star 'died' well before she was 40 she lived for 84 years and the only way to preserve the Garbo enigma was exactly how she did so. What was on the big screen was all there was: she gave us nothing else.

And we cannot ask for anything else.

So the otherworldly, breathtakingly beautiful face shots peering out against a backdrop of absolute blackness in the most famous film portrait shots ever created are what we remember Garbo for. The Clarence Sinclair Bull shots (see The Man Who Shot Garbo) are works of art as important to popular culture as a Picasso or a Hopper because they represent an era of ethereal beauty which will never come again. When we conjure up pictures of Hollywood greatness in the 1930s in our mind's eye many of us will immediately have those haunting photos in mind.

She was like a star like no other. Less was more.

The 'O' at the end of her name is like Brando's: a poetic full stop in a prosaic world.

© Paul Page, 2015


1905 to 1924 ~ Sweden: The Early Years

Greta Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 18, 1905. Garbo was born in Stockholm to poor parents. She was 14 when her father died, leaving the family destitute. Consequently, Greta was forced to leave school and go to work, first as a lather girl in a barbershop, then as a clerk in a department store.

The store also used her for her modeling abilities for newspaper ads. She had no film aspirations until she appeared in an advertising short at that same department store while she was still a teenager. This led to another short film when Eric Petscher, a comedy director, saw the film. He gave her a small part in the film, Peter The Tramp (1920). From 1922 to 1924 she studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm. During that period she met Mauritz Stiller, the foremost Swedish director, who gave her an important role in Gösta Berlings Saga (1924; The Story of Gösta Berling), gave her the stage name Greta Garbo, and trained her in cinema-acting techniques.

© Estate of Clarence Sinclair Bull

1925 to 1941 ~ The Hollywood Years

In 1925, when Stiller went to the United States to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he insisted that Garbo be given a contract also. In all, she appeared in 27 films (two in Sweden, one in Germany, and the remainder in Hollywood); the most important of her silent films were The Torrent (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1927) and Love (1927), both with the popular leading man John Gilbert, whose name was linked with hers in a much-publicized romance.

Anna Christie (1930) was the talking picture in which her rich, low voice was first heard. It was a great success, although Garbo herself despised her performance. It earned her the first of her four Academy Award nominations for best actress. That same year, Garbo earned another Academy Award nomination for her role in Romance.

Garbo was her most seductive playing the WWI spy in Mata Hari (1932). So much so that the censors complained of the revealing outfit shown on the movie poster. Her next film that year was Grand Hotel, with one of the first all star casts. The film earned MGM it’s second Best Picture Oscar.

After almost 2 years off the screen, Garbo signed a new MGM contract granting her almost total control over her films. She exercised that control by getting leading man Laurence Olivier fired from her film, Queen Christina (1934), and forcing Mayer to replace him with former co-star and lover John Gilbert, who’s career had faltered since the coming of sound.

In 1935, David O. Selznick wanted Garbo cast as the dying heiress in Dark Victory, but she insisted on a screen version of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel, Anna Karenina. She had already starred in a silent version, Love (1927), with John Gilbert.

Many have called Garbo's performance as the doomed coutesan in Camille (1937) the finest ever recorded on film. Some fans even claimed that during the star's climatic death scene they saw her soul leave her body. Not surprisingly, this role earned her a third Academy Award nomination.

Director Ernst Lubitsch’s finest work of the 1930s was the classic Ninotchka (1939). It starred Garbo in a comedy!

"Garbo Laughs" said the advertisements. And she does, charmingly. Ninotchka earned Garbo the last of her four Academy Award nominations.

At age 36, after the flop of her film, Two Faced Woman (1941), Garbo withdrew from the entertainment field and retired to a secluded life in New York City. In 1954 she was awarded a special Academy Award for unforgettable performances.

Greta Garbo by Clarence Sinclair Bull
© Estate of Clarence Sinclair Bull

1942 to 1990 ~ The Private Years

After World War II, Greta, by her own admission, felt that the world had changed perhaps forever and she retired, never again to face the camera. She would work for the rest of her life to perpetuate the Garbo mystique. Her films, she felt, had their proper place in history and would gain in value. Time has proved her right in that assumption.

She abandoned Hollywood and moved to New York City. She would jet-set with some of the world's best known personalities such as Aristotle Onassis and others. She spent time gardening flowers and vegetables. In 1954, Greta was given a special Oscar for past unforgettable performances. She even penned her biography in 1990.

On April 15, 1990, Greta died of natural causes in New York and with it the "Garbo Mystique". She was 84.

Until the end, photographers still chased her for that one last shot, that one picture that would prove that Garbo had committed the one cardinal sin for Hollywood: gotten old (in particularly the obsessive paparazzo Ted Leyson who followed her stalkishly for the last 10 years of her life). Strangely street photographs of her were not that rare but then even the great Garbo would have had to use the streets to get from a to b occasionally when she was not walking on water.

If the aim was to shatter the "Garbo Mystique" then they failed. They inadvertently added to it for she was still hauntingly beautiful, still immortal in a mortal world.

There will never be another who will even come close to her.

© Estate of Clarence Sinclair Bull

Greta Garbo ~ Trivia

Her first American picture was The Torrent, directed by Monta Bell.

Whilst she was making The Temptress news arrived from Sweden that her sister had died#

Swimming was one of her favourie sports.

She was born in a southside tenement house in Stockholm.

There was an aborted 'comeback' 8 years or so after Two Faced Woman. Screen tests exists and she looks as remarkable in them as she did in the Hollywood years. She had no intention of retiring after her Hollywood farewell yet that was how it panned out.

She was the youngest child. Her brother was called Sven; her sister Alva.

She hated school.

She was seventeen when she was offered a small part in a short comedy film called Peter the Tramp.

Garbo came to America in July, 1925.

Her favourite pets in the early Hollywood years were cats and parrots. Her favourite recreations were reading, walking and horseback riding.

When she walked she did ten or twelve miles at a stretch.

In the early Hollywood years, she drove her own car - a five year old Lincoln.

She would breakfast on tea and toast in her dressing room while making up.

Her favoured alias was Harriet Brown.

Sir Winston Churchill invited her to join him and Lady Churchill when they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.

In 1922, she appeared in a commercial film to advertise the products of the Consumers' Co Operative of Stockholm; the picture was produced by Fribergs Filmbyra and directed by Captain Ragnar Ring.

Gosta Berling's Saga premiered at Roda Kvarn, Stockholm, 10 March 1924.

Die Freudlose Gasse, The Street of Sorrow (US), The Joyless Street (UK), premiered at Mozartsaal, Berlin; 18 May 1925.

All of Greta Garbo's American films were produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

The Torrent's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, New York, 21 February, 1926.

The Temptress's New York premiere was at Captitol Theatre, 10 October, 1926.

Flesh and the Devil's New York premiere was on the 9th January, 1927.

Love's New York premiere was at the Embassy Theatre, 29 November 1927.

The Divine Woman's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 14 January, 1928.

The Mysterious Lady's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 4 August, 1928.

A Woman of Affairs's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 19 January, 1929.

Wild Orchids's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 30 March, 1929.

The Single Standard's New York premiere was on 27 July, 1929.

The Kiss's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 15 November, 1929.

Anna Christie's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 14 March, 1930.

Romance's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 22 August, 1930.

Inspiration's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 6 February, 1931.

Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 16 October, 1931.

Mata Hari's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 31 December, 1931.

Grand Hotel's New York premiere was at Astor Theatre, 12 April, 1932.

As You Desire Me's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 2 June, 1932.

Queen Christina's New York premiere was at Astor Theatre, 26 December, 1933.

The Painted Veil's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 7 December, 1934.

Anna Karenina's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 30 August, 1935.

Camille's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 22 January, 1937.

Conquest's (Marie Walewska in the UK) New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 4 November, 1937.

Ninitchka's New York premiere was at Radio City Music Hall, 9 November, 1939.

Two Faced Woman's New York premiere was at Capitol Theatre, 31 December, 1941.

In 1947, she agreed to play the French novelist George Sand in a film to be produced by an independant firm and financed in a complicated manner by Briish, French and American capital. Because of money troubles the venture collapsed. It would also of had the services of Salka Viertel, George Cukor and Laurence Olivier.

In 1948, she actually signed a contract with independent producer Walter Wagner and accepted an advance payment of £17,000 to star in a picture based on Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais, a tale of tragic love in which Garbo was to play the beautiful, worldly duchess who, after many a bittersweet romance, finally takes a nun's vows and dies at twenty nine. Having made screen tests (astonising images, ghostly, ethereal and just works of art to look at), Garbo arrived, in the summer of 1949, in Rome, where the picture was to be filmed. However, one postponement followed another, caused by the producer's financial difficulties, and at length, through no fault of Garbo's, the project was reluctantly abandoned.

Garbo became an American citizen in 1951.

The Man Who Shot Garbo

The Mother of All Coffee Table Books!

If you only ever buy one book on Garbo then this is the one. The shots here by Clarence Sinclair Bull, who was MGM's chief portrait and glamour photographer from the studio's inception in 1924 to his retirement in 1961, are what have immortalised Garbo and the Garbo mystique. It was truly a work of genius to have her face illuminated against a shadowy black background. It encases the Garbo beauty in black ice to be preserved in the freezer of screen immortality. More than stunning; better than brilliant...

Immediately, Garbo knew the importance of working with Bull. She wanted no-one else to photograph her. Consequently, he took over 4,000 images of her; from her last silent film, The Kiss in 1929 to her last ever film in 1941, Two Faced Woman (the only study here in colour). This entailed Garbo devoting 2 days in his gallery for each of her films.

The results are this book.

Garbo had no bad side and no bad angle

Thus spoke Bull and these pictures bear testimony to that. How could anyone be that perfect?

There are studies of other actors and actresses Bull photographed in his long & distinguished career but it is the Garbo shots I return to again and again.

Highly recommended.

Available: (direct link) | (direct link)

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Greta Garbo ~ Photo & Poster Galleries

Here you will find promotional posters from her films from all around the world plus a photo gallery as any gallery on Garbo without photo-stills is just kinda weird. The camera loved Garbo and you will love the results.

Photo Gallery | Film Posters

Greta Garbo


Greta Garbo: Full Biog. >> Introduction >> 1905 to 1924 -Sweden: The Early Years >> 1925 to 1941 - The Hollywood Years >> 1942 to 1990 - The Private Years >> The Man Who Shot Garbo >> Trivia

Greta Garbo: Biog. >> Photo Gallery >> Film Poster Gallery >> Filmography >> Anna Christie Movie Review >> Anna Karenina Movie Review >> As You Desire Me Movie Review >> Camille Movie Review >> Mata Hari Movie Review >> Ninotchka Movie Review >> Queen Christina Movie Review >> Two Faced Woman Movie Review >> Wild Orchids Movie Review

More: Greta Garbo Screen Star 1932 Book >> Vintage Garbo Newspaper Clippings >> Greta Garbo A Life Apart Hardback Book - Smartphones Page >> Greta Garbo A Life Apart Hardback Book - Smartphones Page >> The Divine Garbo Book >> The Divine Garbo Book - Smartphones Page >> Loving Garbo Book >> Loving Garbo Book - Smartphones Page

UK Dvds & Galleries: Greta Garbo - Signature Collection Dvd Boxset >> Anna Christie UK Dvd >> Anna Christie Gallery >> Anna Karenina UK Dvd >> Anna Karenina Gallery >> Mata Hari UK Dvd >> Mata Hari Photos >> Mata Hari Film Poster Gallery >> Queen Christina UK Dvd >> Queen Christina Photos >> > >> Queen Christina Film Poster Gallery

Garbo Prints available at
Garbo Books and Dvds available @
Search Site

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Releases & Links

Greta Garbo Screen Star 1932 Book here. Trivia here

Buy Book Treasures

The Man Who Shot Garbo: The Hollywood Photographs of Clarence Sinclair Bull - No one ever gave better face than in this book
[Book, 1989]
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