On this day in 1990, the beautiful, enigmatic Swedish film star Greta Garbo dies at the age of 84, in New York City.
Born Greta Gustaffson, Garbo grew up in poverty in Stockholm, working in a barber shop and later in a department store to help support her family after her father died. From 1922 to 1924, Garbo studied on scholarship at the Stockholm Royal Dramatic Theater’s acting school. She was discovered by the director Mauritz Stiller, who cast her in his epic film The Legend of Gosta Berling and gave her the stage name Garbo. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered Stiller a film contract, he took Garbo with him to Hollywood. She made her American film debut in 1926’s The Torrent, and quickly became a sensation.
By the end of the 1920s, Garbo was playing the leading lady–on- and off-screen–opposite John Gilbert, the preeminent silent film actor of the day, in Flesh and the Devil and Love, among other films. Garbo made her sound debut in 1930’s Anna Christie; the film’s tagline was “Garbo Talks!” Her husky voice and thick accent only increased her exotic, mysterious appeal, and Garbo would reign supreme among Hollywood’s A-list actresses throughout the 1930s. She stood out in a star-studded cast in Grand Hotel (1932), the film in which she famously declared “I want to be alone,” as well as in a reunion with Gilbert (whose career in the era of sound did not fare so well) in Queen Christina (1933). Two later performances, in Anna Karenina (1935) and Camille (1936), both won her Best Actress honors from the New York Film Critics.
Garbo’s first comedy–marketed as “Garbo Laughs!”–was the acclaimed Ninotchka (1939), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The coming of World War II cut off the European market, where Garbo’s films had always been more popular than in the United States, and when MGM refused to meet her salary demands, Garbo announced her retirement. Though she intended to return to work in Hollywood after the war ended, the planned projects never came to fruition. Despite three nominations, Garbo never won an Academy Award for Best Actress. She was given an honorary Oscar in 1955, however, for what the Academy called “a series of luminous and unforgettable performances.”
Known as the “Swedish Sphinx” for her unreadable image onscreen and her legendary aloofness, Garbo did no interviews after the early years of her career and declined to participate in the autograph-signing, public appearances and other trappings of the movie star life. She was never known to have married, but her love affairs–with Gilbert and others–inspired endless speculation. Having become an American citizen in 1951, she spent much of her post-Hollywood life living in New York, though she traveled frequently to Europe.