Screen Legend Greta Garbo Dead at 84
Screen Legend Greta Garbo Dead at 84
Apr. 16, 1990
NEW YORK (AP) _ Greta Garbo, the husky-voiced, Swedish-born screen legend who turned her back on Hollywood in 1941 to live according to her best-remembered line - ''I vant to be alone'' - is dead at 84.
The reclusive Garbo died Sunday, said Andrew Banoff, spokesman for New York Hospital. At her family's request, Banoff gave no other information except that donations should be made to a kidney treatment center at the hospital.
Ben Buttenweiser, who lived in an apartment below Garbo's, said the actress had undergone dialysis treatment.
With her sculpted beauty, Garbo first gained attention in silent films. When talkies came along, Hollywood worried that her accent and throaty voice would end her career, but they only enhanced her appeal, and she became an international sensation with such films as ''Anna Christie,'' ''Mata Hari,'' ''Grand Hotel'' and ''Queen Christina.''
She reigned in Hollywood in the '30s. Public response to her face and her lithe figure in silky halter gowns was so frenzied that the phenomenon had a name: ''Garbomania.'' Some critics considered her the finest screen actress of all time.
But Garbo disliked the attention and quit at age 36, her 24 films keeping her name alive for generations.
While ''Camille'' and ''Ninotchka'' became film festival standards, the woman known worldwide simply as Garbo remained practically shuttered in her Manhattan apartment, where she moved after becoming a U.S. citizen in 1951, or in various retreats in France and Switzerland.
When she traveled, she slipped in and out of airports in dark glasses and a slouch hat. ''Garbo watchers'' would wait hours outside her apartment, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Photographers who stalked her occasionally stole a quick shot of ''The Face.''
In ''Grand Hotel,'' one of her lines was, ''I vant to be alone.'' Legend has it she used it on reporters who dogged her. But she denied it, telling a friend she actually had said, ''I want to be let alone.''
Nominated four times for an Academy Award, she didn't win until 1955, when the Academy gave her a special Oscar for ''a series of luminous and unforgettable performances.'' Garbo did not appear to collect it.
''As an actress and as a person she had this very special thing about her that I think sort of set her apart,'' actor Jimmy Stewart said. ''It was a combination of the way she looked, her voice and the beautiful way she moved.''
''She was always a living, unreachable myth ... the founder of a religious order called cinema,'' Italian director Federico Fellini said.
''She gave cinema the sacredness of Mass,'' he told the Italian news agency ANSA.
She never married, but rumors of her love affairs with rich and famous men were abundant. Over the years, she was linked with actor John Gilbert, maestro Leopold Stokowski and Russian-born entrepreneur George Schlee.
In comments published in Life magazine in 1989, Garbo described herself as a ''sour little creature.''
''I don't want any kind of attention from anybody, except that I know that someone likes me, and that's nice. Otherwise, it's sickening,'' she said.
In the rare interviews she gave, she said ''you cheapen yourself'' in telling others ''your private joys and sorrows.'' She said she preferred to let her work speak for itself.
Neighbor Buttenweiser, who said he knew Garbo for 35 years, said he sometimes discussed world developments with her but that she would not talk about her film career.
Carl Peterson, a doorman in her building, said he last saw her last week. ''She had gray hair and was very thin. She looked very pathetic,'' he said.
Born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm, Garbo was the daughter of an uneducated laborer who was often ill or unemployed. After her father died when she was 14, she left school and earned $25 a month as a department store clerk.
While clerking, she was chosen to appear in a filmed hat advertisement. The 17-year-old was stagestruck and enrolled in Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theater Academy. She won several small parts, the first in a 1923 comedy, ''Peter the Tramp.''
Her big break came when Mauritz Stiller, then Sweden's leading director, made her his protege, changed her name to Garbo and cast her as the star of his 1924 movie ''The Saga of Gosta Berling.''
At first sight of Garbo on film, Stiller said, ''Her face. You only get a face like that in front of a camera once in a century.''
Stiller's film caught the attention of Hollywood tycoon Louis B. Mayer, who offered the director a contract at MGM. Stiller agreed on condition Garbo be signed too.
For her first talking picture, the studio cast her in ''Anna Christie,'' which called for an accent. Publicity slogans proclaimed, ''Garbo Talks 3/8''
Later, the comedy ''Ninotchka'' prompted marquees across America to blaze ''Garbo Laughs 3/8'' But her next attempt at a humorous role, in ''Two-Faced Woman,'' flopped and Garbo announced her retirement.
Film buffs can recite her first lines on camera: ''Gimme a viskey - ginger ale on the side - and don't be stingy, baby.''
A millionaire through wise investing, Garbo - who reportedly was earning $250,000 to $300,000 a picture by the 1930s - had no need to work again and never did.
A health buff, she was rarely ill.
The hospital spokesman said he didn't know who the family members were who requested details of her death be withheld, but neighbors said she had a niece.
He said services would be private.