When Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was fourteen, her beloved father, a
janitor, died and she had to quit school to work fulltime in a
barbershop. She became a salesclerk in a department store in Stockholm,
also modeled for them, made a promotional short film, a feature, and
was discovered by a gay director, Mauritz Stiller, who gave her the
name Greta Garbo. Louis B. Mayer saw their Gosta Berlings Saga in Berlin and brought them both to Hollywood. By the next year, 1926, she was a major star and when her only sister died of cancer at twenty-three, MGM wouldn't let Garbo go back to Sweden for the funeral.
She had an affair with her co-star John Gilbert; they moved in together; and he proposed to her three times. In a reverse of the cliched ultimatums, Garbo wanted to quit working if they got married, he wanted her to continue making movies. She finally agreed to a wedding; the day came; and she left him at the altar.
Delaying the inevitable, knowing it had ruined many careers, she finally made the transition from silents to talkies with Anna Christie in 1930 and again she was a towering success, earning her first Academy Award nomination. Her second Oscar nod came with her second movie, Romance. In 1931 she had four starring roles, including the lead in Mata Hari, and she began her relationship with Mercedes de Acosta. (She also had affairs with Louise Brooks and Marlene Dietrich.) The following year she made Grand Hotel. In 1933 Garbo used her clout to get Laurence Olivier removed from Queen Christina and replaced by her ex-fiancee John Gilbert, now fading. Her stardom skyrocketed throughout the 1930s with Anna Karenina, Camille, and Ninotchka. In 1941 she made Two-Faced Woman, her second movie with Cukor, then took a break from acting. In 1949 Garbo did test shoots for a comeback in Walter Wanger's La Duchesse de Langeais, which couldn't get financed and was never made. She turned down every other role she was offered. She left Hollywood for New York (450 East 52nd St.) but was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1955. She furiously shunned Mercedes de Acosta when she published her 1960 memoir including her lesbian affairs; she survived breast cancer; she survived People magazine publishing photos of her swimming nude in 1976; and she died at eighty-four in 1990. Famously frugal, she left $20 million to her niece.
Garbo avoided interviews, never attended premieres, did not reply to fan mail, never signed autographs, and elaborately eluded paparazzi. Obviously, the mystery increased people's fascination. The Guinness Book of World Records named her the Most Beautiful Woman Who Ever Lived.