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Greta Garbo dies at 84

NEW YORK -- Greta Garbo, the legendary film actress whose name was synonymous with reclusiveness, died Sunday in New York-Cornell Medical Center of an undisclosed illness. She was 84.

Hospital spokesman Andrew Banoff said, 'New York Hospital announces with great sadness the death of Greta Garbo.' He said funeral services would be private, and no further information would be released at the request of Garbo's family.

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A large crowd of reporters and fans gathered around the building on Manhattan's East Side where Garbo had lived for about 40 years, said a doorman at the building who did not want to be identified.

'We're just saddened because she was a very nice lady, always said hello, good afternoon, good evening, the usual small talk,' the doorman said. 'We've seen her every day for years.'

The doorman, who refused to give his name, said Garbo left for the hospital by private car on Wednesday but out of respect for her privacy would not provide any additional information.

The Swedish-born Garbo enjoyed a meteoric rise from a barbershop soap latherer to history's most glamorous film actress. The hauntingly beautiful screen star's fame was rivaled only by her mysterious desire for privacy.

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She retired from movie making in 1941 as one of the most impressive box office draws in the entertainment industry. From then she made her home in New York but traveled widely through Europe, always under the cloak of anonymity.

At the pinnacle of her career, she reportedly earned $8,000 a week or $250,000 per picture -- vast sums in those days. Her pay was higher if there were production delays.

She lived comfortably, but not lavishly, and throughout her retirement avoided glamorous or conspicuous clothes. She preferred suits of coarse, rough tweed, flat-heeled shoes and the slouch hat that she made famous.

Garbo was born Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm on Sept. 18, 1905, the youngest daughter of Karl Gustafsson, an uneducated day laborer. She soaped mens' chins in a barbershop when she was 13. Later she worked as a department store sales clerk and posed for hat ads.

She developed an interest in acting and eventually enrolled in Stockholm's Royal Theater Dramatic School. The Swedish director Mauritz Stiller 'discovered' her, changed her name to Greta Garbo and made her the star of his successful movie, 'The Saga of Gosta Berling.'

Stiller served for a time as the guiding spirit of Garbo's life. He told her what to say, what to wear, and what films she would make. He supervised her finances and coached her in all her scenes.

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A turning point in Garbo's career came when Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer chanced to see 'The Saga of Gosta Berling' in 1925. He urged Stiller to migrate to Hollywood, and the director agreed on condition he could bring his young protegee with him under contract.

Stiller did not do well in the United States, but as soon as American film audiences caught a glimpse of his star, they were hooked. Her first Hollywood picture, 'The Torrent,' scored an instant success. After seeing her second movie, 'The Temptress,' author-diplomat Robert Sherwood said: 'Greta Garbo knocked me for a loop.'

All America echoed his sentiments, and Garbo went on to heighten her reputation as Diana in 'A Woman of Affairs' and as Felicitas in 'Flesh and the Devil.' Her forte was the portrayal of misunderstood women who were willing to sacrifice everything for a memorable passion, and thereafter careened toward an inevitable, tragic fate.

When the talkies arrived, filmgoers were intrigued by the question: 'Can Garbo speak English?' She could, with a marked Swedish accent.

The first phrase she uttered in her first sound movie, 'Gif me a viskey,' became famous. The ads for 'Anna Christie' proclaimed: 'Garbo Talks!' From then on came one screen hit after another -- 'Queen Christina,' 'Grand Hotel,' 'Mata Hari,' 'Anna Karenina,' 'Camille,' 'Ninotchka.' For the last, her only comedy, the ads shrieked: 'Garbo Laughs!' Her co-stars in these pictures included John Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Robert Taylor and John Gilbert.

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With the passing of the years, Garbo's command of English improved but never became fluent. Perhaps her best known words were, 'I vant to be alone' and 'I tank I go home.' She consistently frustrated newsmen and even producers with her extraordinary shyness. She dodged reporters in and out of the United States and Europe, hiding behind dark glasses and high coat collars.

Most of her movies were filmed with the same stage crews. Clarence Brown directed a number of her pictures, and George Cukor was another of her favorites.

She made 24 movies during her 16 years in Hollywood. Her only failure was her final film, 'Two-Faced Woman.' Hollywood tried to cast her in the role of an American glamour girl, and it didn't work. The picture pleased no one, least of all Garbo. It was made shortly before the U.S. entry into World War II, and the actress decided to suspend her career until the war ended.

She apparently had no thought then of retiring permanently. She made several efforts after the war to return to the screen, and once signed a contract and accepted a $50,000 advance. But some obstacle always cropped up. She grew increasingly indifferent toward making a comeback, and concentrated on supervising her large fortune and preserving her health.

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She became an American citizen in 1940. She never married, but she was linked romantically with several men, including Leopold Stokowski, Gilbert, director Rouben Mamoulian, health writer Gayelord Hauser, financier Eric Rothschild-Goldschmidt and businessman George Schley.

Photographer Edward Steichen once described her as a 'lovely wildwood animal or child.' She apparently liked to be alone and spent much of her time taking long solitary walks, or shopping in neighborhood or department stores.

Her special delight was buying antiques, and her New York terrace apartment overlooking a garden adjacent to Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive was a treasure house of 16th-century French furniture and objets d'art.

In April 1978 she emerged from self-imposed obscurity to circulate an affidavit describing as a hoax a Garbo biographical manuscript sold to Simon & Schuster. The affidavit said Garbo had never met Antoni Gronowicz, the author, who said he had known her since 1938. The Gronowicz book was intended to be published after Garbo's death.

Most of her friends contended that she didn't really want to be alone. Rather, they said, she fought a life-long battle against overwhelming shyness. Often she let the phone ring on, preferring to call her friends when she needed them.

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One of her intimates called her 'a sounding board for others with no real emotion of her own.'

A 1984 movie comedy, 'Garbo Talks,' starred Anne Bancroft as a woman whose dying wish is to meet Greta Garbo. Reports said the filmmakers tried to persuade Garbo to make a brief appearance in the film, without success. The part was played by actress Betty Comden, back to the camera in a floppy Garbo hat. Garbo ignored an invitation to the gala premiere.

Garbo marked her 80th birthday in 1985 in Klosters, reportedly in the company of an unidentified young man described by a friend as a 'tall, gorgeous brunet about 28 years old.'

New York business executive Robert Schuler, then recently in Klosters with his wife, singer-actress Patrice Munsel, said of Garbo: 'She looks wonderful. She is smiling and flirtatious. All of us should look that good at 80.'

This was not unusual for a woman who once refused an invitation to the White House. President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson asked Garbo to a state dinner for visiting Queen Elizabeth II, and it was suggested that an old friend, publicist Earl Blackwell, escort her. Blackwell said he urged her to go but she refused, saying, 'Earl, what are you getting me into? I have nothing to wear!'

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When Garbo's close friend Hauser died in 1985 at the age of 89, she did not go to his memorial service but afterward received some of his intimates at Hauser's own home in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was described as 'remarkably gracious and sweet to everyone.'

In April 1988 Garbo was visited at her New York apartment by Sweden's King Carl Gustaf and his queen, and she later joined the royal visitors at a friend's for dinner.

With the passing of the years, Garbo's command of English improved but never became fluent. Perhaps her best known words were, 'I vant to be alone' and 'I tank I go home.' She consistently frustrated newsmen and even producers with her extraordinary shyness. She dodged reporters in and out of the United States and Europe, hiding behind dark glasses and high coat collars.

Most of her movies were filmed with the same stage crews. Clarence Brown directed a number of her pictures, and George Cukor was another of her favorites.

She made 24 movies during her 16 years in Hollywood. Her only failure was her final film, 'Two-Faced Woman.' Hollywood tried to cast her in the role of an American glamour girl, and it didn't work. The picture pleased no one, least of all Garbo. It was made shortly before the U.S. entry into World War II, and the actress decided to suspend her career until the war ended.

Advertisement

She apparently had no thought then of retiring permanently. She made several efforts after the war to return to the screen, and once signed a contract and accepted a $50,000 advance. But some obstacle always cropped up. She grew increasingly indifferent toward making a comeback, and concentrated on supervising her large fortune and preserving her health.

She became an American citizen in 1940. She never married, but she was linked romantically with several men, including Leopold Stokowski, Gilbert, director Rouben Mamoulian, health writer Gayelord Hauser, financier Eric Rothschild-Goldschmidt and businessman George Schley.

Photographer Edward Steichen once described her as a 'lovely wildwood animal or child.' She apparently liked to be alone and spent much of her time taking long solitary walks, or shopping in neighborhood or department stores.

Her special delight was buying antiques, and her New York terrace apartment overlooking a garden adjacent to Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive was a treasure house of 16th-century French furniture and objets d'art.

In April 1978 she emerged from self-imposed obscurity to circulate an affidavit describing as a hoax a Garbo biographical manuscript sold to Simon & Schuster. The affidavit said Garbo had never met Antoni Gronowicz, the author, who said he had known her since 1938. The Gronowicz book was intended to be published after Garbo's death.

Advertisement

Most of her friends contended that she didn't really want to be alone. Rather, they said, she fought a life-long battle against overwhelming shyness. Often she let the phone ring on, preferring to call her friends when she needed them.

One of her intimates called her 'a sounding board for others with no real emotion of her own.'

A 1984 movie comedy, 'Garbo Talks,' starred Anne Bancroft as a woman whose dying wish is to meet Greta Garbo. Reports said the filmmakers tried to persuade Garbo to make a brief appearance in the film, without success. The part was played by actress Betty Comden, back to the camera in a floppy Garbo hat. Garbo ignored an invitation to the gala premiere.

Garbo marked her 80th birthday in 1985 in Klosters, reportedly in the company of an unidentified young man described by a friend as a 'tall, gorgeous brunet about 28 years old.'

New York business executive Robert Schuler, then recently in Klosters with his wife, singer-actress Patrice Munsel, said of Garbo: 'She looks wonderful. She is smiling and flirtatious. All of us should look that good at 80.'

This was not unusual for a woman who once refused an invitation to the White House. President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson asked Garbo to a state dinner for visiting Queen Elizabeth II, and it was suggested that an old friend, publicist Earl Blackwell, escort her. Blackwell said he urged her to go but she refused, saying, 'Earl, what are you getting me into? I have nothing to wear!'

Advertisement

When Garbo's close friend Hauser died in 1985 at the age of 89, she did not go to his memorial service but afterward received some of his intimates at Hauser's own home in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was described as 'remarkably gracious and sweet to everyone.'

In April 1988 Garbo was visited at her New York apartment by Sweden's King Carl Gustaf and his queen, and she later joined the royal visitors at a friend's for dinner.

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