With eyes half open, thin eyebrows arched, and soft curls at her cheeks, Swedish actress Greta Garbo has returned to New York. Her accommodations? 11” x 14” frames, white walls, wood floors – a gallery at the Scandinavia House, where one can see large-format portraits display of the actress, captured by some of Hollywood’s top photographers, such as Ruth Harriet Louise, Clarence Sinclair Bull, and George Hurrell. Seventy years after the peak of her career, she is still poised at the height of Nordic beauty and Hollywood stardom.
Fashion-lookers take note: whether bejeweled, fur-wrapped, or peeking out from under the brim of a soft hat, Garbo shines with self-confidence. Need style inspiration? Greta’s fashions are playful, but always becoming. No matter what she wears – trench coat, beret, or cigarette pants – it suits her.
Ranked 38th in Empire magazine’s “Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time,” and once voted in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the most beautiful woman who ever lived,” the Swedish model/actress has remained a legendary icon of glamour, real talent, and mystique. Today, her feminine presence continues to inspire style gurus, film lovers, and fashion mavens.
However, most would agree her life was neither typical nor perfect.
Greta was born to Karl and Anna Gustafson in Stockholm, Sweden. Her father died when she was 14, leaving the family destitute. The following year Greta left school and took a job at a barbershop as a lather girl. It wasn’t until she started working at a large department store, PUB, that she was selected to model hats for the store’s spring catalogue, and got her first taste of fashion and modeling.
PUB also provided Greta with her first taste of film: she appeared in the store’s promotional film, Mr. and Mrs. Stockholm Go Shopping (aka How Not to Dress). She followed this with an appearance in another promotional film, this time for bakery goods at the Consumer’s Cooperative of Stockholm (The Daily Bread). Following this, a comedy producer/director named Erik Petschler gave her a small part in Luffarpetter (1922) and encouraged her to pursue acting.
Greta Gustafson became “Greta Garbo” when she was accepted into the Royal Dramatic Theater Academy on scholarship. She and a girlfriend auditioned for a four-hour film by Swedish director Mauritz Stiller. When it premiered in Stockholm in 1924, Louis B. Mayer saw the film and persuaded Stiller and Garbo to sign a contract and come to Hollywood.
Fortunately, Greta’s lack of English language wasn’t a major barrier: her first American flick, The Torrent, was a silent flick. She went on to gain experience in films such as The Temptress, Love, and A Woman of Affairs, before she starred in Anna Christie (1930) for which she was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Actress). Though she didn’t win, and her next film Romance was less successful, she was soon to be a hit in Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) with Clark Gable, and Mata Hari (both in 1931). She went on to deliver the best performance of her life in Anna Karenina (1935), among other performances such as in Grand Hotel (1932), Ninotchka (1939), and Two-Faced Woman (1941).
Throughout her career, she refused to be interviewed, answer fan mail, or sign autographs – which only heightened her mystique and glamour. In the mid-1950s, Greta Garbo moved to a seven-room-apartment in New York City, where she socialized and traveled with upperclass society. As she grew older, she was said to become more eccentric, she struggled with her health – yet never gave up habits such as smoking and cocktails.
She spent the last year of her life in total seclusion.
The Scandinavia House exhibit captures Greta Garbo in a variety of characters: professional and smooth, exotic and sophisticated, young and innocent, maternal and nurturing. One photo after another, each style is both startlingly beautiful and uniquely true to her.
Perhaps the most commanding style advice we can glean from the exhibit is that whatever the garments, if they suit a woman’s personality, boost her confidence, and help her shine, then she will be surrounded by luxury. Look beautiful, be natural, and don’t be shy to gaze straight from the heart.
The exhibit runs Tuesdays-Saturdays, 12-6pm, through November 12 and screenings of Greta Garbo’s films are on Wednesdays at 5:30 and 8pm, and Saturdays at 3pm through December 17. Film listings can be found at www.amscan.org. American-Scandinavian Foundation members may call (212) 847-9746 to reserve film tickets.