On September 18, 1905 a baby girl was born on the Stockholm island of Södermalm. Her parents would give her the name Greta Lovisa Gustafsson. How could anyone know that the young infant would one day become the world’s most famous woman? A woman whom everyone would come to know as Garbo.
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Garbo was a shy daydreamer as a child. She disliked school and preferred to play alone. Garbo was a natural leader who became interested in theatre at an early age. She directed her friends in make-believe games and performances, and dreamed of becoming an actress. Later, Garbo would participate in amateur theatre with her friends and frequent the Mosebacke Theatre. At the age of 13, Garbo graduated from school,and, typical of a Swedish working-class girl at that time, she did not attend high school. She later acknowledged a resulting inferiority complex.
Garbo first worked as a soap-lather girl in a barber shop before taking a job in the PUB department store where she ran errands and worked in the millinery department. After modeling hats for the store’s catalogues, Garbo earned a more lucrative job as a fashion model. In 1920, a director of film commercials for the store cast Garbo in roles advertising women’s clothing. Her first commercial premiered on 12 December 1920. In 1922, Garbo caught the attention of director Erik Arthur Petschler, who gave her a part in his short comedy, Peter the Tramp.
From 1922 to 1924, she studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s Acting School in Stockholm. Here she met Sweden’s leading film director, Maurtiz Stiller, who became her mentor: first, he changed her name to “Greta Garbo,” and then, when MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer offered him a contract to come to Hollywood, he brought his protégé along. Garbo and Stiller arrived in New York in 1925 and were introduced to photographer Arnold Genthe. Fascinated by Garbo’s eyes and by “what is behind that extraordinary forehead,” Genthe persuaded her to sit for a photo session that transformed her career. The results of this sitting (above), soon published in Vanity Fair magazine, convinced MGM that Garbo had a very special quality, and she was quickly signed to a contract.
Still only twenty, Garbo had a bit more baby fat than fit the MGM mold, teeth that needed straightening, and a mop of hair that was entirely too frizzy. The studio glamour doctors went to work, and her metamorphosis yielded results. In 1926 Garbo made an auspicious Hollywood debut in The Torrent, and the next year played opposite John Gilbert—then one of the screen’s most popular leading men—in what became a tremendous box-office hit, Flesh and the Devil. Their chemistry sizzled both on and off the set, and they would be paired in several other films, including Love (1927), A Woman of Affairs (1928), and Queen Christina (1933).
As the Los Angeles Times noted at the time, Garbo represented an “utterly different type” of movie star. Earlier stars such as Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish conveyed innocence; Colleen Moore and Gloria Swanson were prototypic Jazz Age flappers; Clara Bow had “It.” But all seemed dull and dated when the screen filled with Garbo’s lambent aloofness and sophistication. Her evanescent movie image was enhanced by the art of still photography, particularly the 4,000 photographs taken between 1929 and 1941 by MGM’s chief photographer, Clarence Sinclair Bull.