1947Memories of a "hermit about town"...
- Oct 1, 2005Greta Garbo
There is no Hollywood legend greater than Garbo. Jane Ellen Wayne
remembers the day she found the screen goddess roaming Manhattan
wearing galoshes and buying vegetables:
IT WAS a dreary day in New York. The skies were about to open up but
I continued my walk on Madison Avenue. In the Fifties women dressed
well on the East side of Manhattan. Mink coats, alligator bags and
high-heeled pumps were the fashion. I was a working girl and not so
elegantly attired, but my raincoat and hat were from Bergdorf
Goodman. My galoshes weren't fancy but practical considering the
As I strolled uptown I couldn't help but notice a woman in a floppy
hat, shabby raincoat, walking shoes and galoshes like mine. In that
getup she was probably someone's housekeeper, but there was
something oddly familiar about her. When she stopped to look in a
store window, I did too. And there it was the reflection of Greta
Garbo. I didn't know what to do, but I knew what not to do and that
was stare at her or, God forbid, offer a "Hello, Miss G".
She walked on and so did I. She stopped at a kerb for a red light
and I looked and saw her profile that famous magnificent profile
that was breathtaking, despite the damp droopy hat.
Nobody paid attention to her. She walked ahead of me and I almost
collided with her when she suddenly stopped at another store window.
I pretended to be interested in women's winter suits also. Again
that reflection, but this time she glanced at me so I yawned to show
my indifference. I wondered why she was interested in suits since
she rarely wore them. Slacks and sweaters were her preferences.
I continued on alone and stopped at a boutique window. It was one of
my favourite shops but too expensive for me. I was so interested in
their negligées I didn't notice that Garbo was standing next to me.
Sheer coincidence, of course. Why was she looking at these sexy
items? Was there a man in her life? Yes, I learned later on. It was
George Schlee, who was married to the fashion designer Valentina.
They lived in the same building at 450 East 52nd Street.
Our walk continued. She bought some fruit, talked to the shopkeeper.
She took off her sunglasses, lit a cigarette and chatted with the
man about some vegetables. Beans and carrots, I think. She lit
another Kent cigarette and paid for her fruit. I bought an apple.
This time I dared to look at Garbo in the face because she was so
involved discussing vegetables. She wore no makeup. Just a dash of
pale pink lipstick. Her eyelashes were very long. When she blinked,
they curled up like blooming tulips. She had honey-coloured skin,
majestic cheekbones and blue-green eyes. The hair over her forehead
was silver brown.
It had started to rain and I put up my umbrella. Garbo followed me
out to the street, but she didn't have an umbrella. I wanted to
share mine but didn't dare to offer. She walked uptown and I headed
downtown. Suddenly New York City was a very lonely and empty place.
Goodbye, Miss Garbo, thank you for an unforgettable stroll.
When I got back to my office at the National Broadcasting Company my
secretary said: "My God, a glimpse of Garbo in person is more
exciting than spotting a UFO." I had seen many stars at NBC. It was
no big deal for those of us who were veterans, but Garbo was in a
class by herself. She always had been and always would be. Was it
art or instinct? Was she a remarkable actress or a woman so
extraordinary that she made everything she did on screen remarkable?
Garbo retired from film-making when she was only 36 and she never
won an Oscar. Yet she remains the screen's greatest actress and the
most beautiful. Those who are too young to remember Greta Garbo most
likely think my respect for her was absurd. They would rush for an
autograph or a piece of her hair. But we had stars in the Golden
Era, not celebrities. Their aura made them untouchable.
She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm on September 18,
1905, and was discovered by the MGM chief Louis B. Mayer who told
her to lose weight "because American men don't like fat women". She
made ten silent films for MGM and 14 talkies, all in black and
MGM did not know her home address or telephone number. She rarely
gave interviews and did not answer her fan mail. She never signed an
autograph or answered the telephone. Garbo allowed no visitors on
the movie set when she was working, and left promptly at six o'clock
even if she was in the middle of a scene. The other MGM players were
told not to approach her. If she did not get her way with the studio
bosses, she said: "I tank I go back to Sweden." She always won.
Garbo retired and became a recluse in New York. She never married.
It was George Schlee who convinced her to return to films. She loved
and leaned on him but he wanted control of the entire project. This
caused the backers to change their minds. Incredibly, the producers
could not raise the money for Garbo's comeback film.
Schlee had a fatal heart attack when he and Garbo were in Paris. She
fled the death scene, returned home and mourned him for a long time.
His widow Valentina banned Garbo from Schlee's funeral and gave
specific instructions that "the vampire" not be allowed to visit
Schlee's grave. The doorman at 450 East 52nd made sure the two women
did not run into each other coming and going. They did once, and
Valentina crossed herself.
Garbo said, "I vant to be left alone," and she accomplished that for
the most part. She accepted invitations from Aristotle Onassis to
cruise on his yacht the Christina because he promised her complete
privacy. He wanted to marry her but she declined, as she did all
In 1984 Garbo survived a mastectomy. In 1987 she tripped and fell in
her apartment, suffering a severely sprained ankle. Not being able
to take her daily walks was the beginning of the end. Two years
later she began dialysis treatment for a serious kidney ailment. On
Easter Sunday, April 15, 1990, she died of pneumonia. According to
Garbo's wishes her body was cremated and her ashes buried in the
Skogskyrkogarden Cemetery a few miles south of Stockholm.
I often think of that rainy day that I spotted Garbo. In my mind's
eye I can see her reflection that was so haunting. When she removed
her sunglasses, I couldn't resist looking at her up close. Those
extraordinary eyes expressed love, hate and boredom all at once.
It was as if the cameras were rolling. But she was merely a goddess
buying some French beans.
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