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1947Memories of a "hermit about town"...

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  • thegreatgretagarbo
    Oct 1, 2005
      Greta 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
      marriage proposals.

      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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