Taken from Writer’s Almanac:
It’s Greta Garbo’s birthday (1905). She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafson in Stockholm, Sweden, and was best known for her sultry voice, sharp cheekbones, and sullen demeanor. The Guinness Book of World Records named her “the most beautiful woman who ever lived” in 1954. Film critic Kenneth Tynan found her beauty so intoxicating he sighed, “What when drunk one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.”
Garbo made a few silent films in Europe before she received an offer from MGM in Hollywood. Studio executives wanted her to lose weight, fix her teeth, and learn English, all of which she did, and she started making potboiler silent films like The Torrent (1926),in which she played mysterious femme fatales. Her films were very popular, but it wasn’t until 1930, when the film Anna Christie was released, that people first heard her husky voice. Sixteen minutes into the film, Garbo says, “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby.” The movie was breathlessly marketed as “Garbo Talks!” She became an international movie star.
Greta Garbo made 28 movies, like Grand Hotel (1932) and Ninotchka (1939), before retiring at the age of 35. When she kissed John Gilbert with an open mouth in Flesh and the Devil, the movie was banned in some places for “moral turpitude,” but ticket sales were through the roof.
She never liked giving interviews, which led to her aura of mystery. She once said, “‘I feel able to express myself only through my roles, not in words, and that is why I try to avoid talking to the press.” She usually played tarnished women who fell hopelessly in love before suffering a tragic death. As she grew more famous, her anxiety about acting increased. Visitors were banned from her film set and when close-ups were shot, black screens were placed around Garbo and the camera so no one, not even some of the film crew or fellow actors, could see her. About the screens, she said, “If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise.”
Most of her films were hits, but some weren’t, and before she retired she was labeled “box-office poison.” For the rest of her life, she lived in New York City, where she became something of a fixture in the city, as she walked her neighborhood in white clothes and large sunglasses. Her appearances in public became kind of a sport for fans and the media. They called it “Garbo-Watching.” A good day included playing tennis, snacking on brown beans and Triscuits, and running the elevators in her Manhattan apartment building when the staff went out on strike.
She walked 11 miles a day through the streets of the city.
Greta Garbo died in 1990. She once said, “I’ve had a fabulous life.”