The Story of Greta Garbo — Part III (1928) 🇺🇸
Temperamental or misunderstood? Read Miss Garbo’s account of her first experiences in America.
As told by her to Ruth Biery
“No, I did not find flowers in New York City. I found heat!” Greta Garbo shuddered. “I came at a very bad time of the year. It was in July, 1925. I could not get my breath. We went to a very bad hotel in New York City. A Swedish man came over with us, who had stayed there before. I asked if all hotels in America were like this one. I was there three months. But I saw very little. I went from my room to my bathroom and back to my room again.” She laughed, a little. “I used almost all of the water in New York City. I stayed in the cold water to keep myself from being roasted.
“I did go to ‘The Follies’ and to the Winter Garden. I liked that. It was fun to watch the American people.
“We came to California in September. In New York, I spent all of my time in the bathtub thinking about how it would be when we got to California and I would start working in American pictures. Then it was four months here, before I started in one picture. I was to work with Mr. Stiller. When it could not be arranged, they put me in The Torrent with Mr. Monta Bell directing.
“Yes,” she hesitated a moment. “It was very different. The studio here is a bit of a factory. The studios here are so huge, they have to be kept as factories. Too many people in them to have it different. But I was a little afraid of them.
“I could not speak any English. I did not know about the American people. In Europe we had always been working with just a few people. We knew everybody.
“ It was very funny. Before I had started on ‘ The Torrent,’ Mr. Mayer called me back into his office and wanted me to sign a new contract with him.
“But I said, ‘Meester Mayer’— I could not then talk but a little English and not so good pronunciation — ‘Meester Mayer, I haf not done yet one picture. Let us vait until I haf been in one pictures.’ He wanted me to sign for five years with him. I could not understand it.
“While I was making this picture, this ‘The Torrent,’ and when I was finished, he called me into his office many times and asked me to sign for five years. I could never understand what he meant by it. We never said anything about money. He just said he couldn’t afford to advertise my pictures and put money into me, if I would not sign for five years with them. I had already signed for three years, and why should I sign again when I had not yet a picture — and then when I had only ‘The Torrent’?
“It was very hard work, but I did not mind that. I was at the studio every morning at seven o’clock and worked until six every’ evening. I was so tired. I did not go anywhere. I moved down to Santa Monica to be near the ocean.
“I would go home and lie down and think, think about my sister and my brother and my mother, back home, in the snow in Sweden.
“After ‘The Torrent,’ I started on ‘The Temptress’ with Mr. Stiller. But,” her voice changed, choked for a moment. “Mr. Stiller is an artist. He does not understand about the American factories. He has always made his own pictures in Europe, where he is the master. In our country it is always the small studio. He does not understand the American Business. He could speak no English. So he was taken off the picture. It was given to Mr. Niblo.
“How I was broken to pieces, nobody knows. I was so unhappy I did not think I could go on. I could not understand the English directions. Week in, week out from seven until six. Six months on the story. More than twenty costumes to try on over and over. That is why I do not care about clothes. There are so many clothes in every picture. I cannot think of them when I am away from a picture.
“I never missed a day. I was never late to work.
“It is not true that I have refused to work and have said, ‘I will go home’ as the papers have said about me.
“When I had finished ‘The Temptress,’ they gave me the script for Flesh and the Devil to read. I did not like the story. I did not want to be a silly temptress. I cannot see any sense in getting dressed up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures.
“Mr. Mayer called me in and said I was to start right away. My sister had died while I was making ‘The Temptress.’ My poor body wasn’t able to carry on any longer. I was so tired, so sick, so heart-broken.
“I went to Mr. Mayer and said, ‘Meester Mayer, I am dead tired. I am sick. I cannot do another picture right away. And I am unhappy about this picture —‘
“And they said, ‘That’s just too bad. Go on and try on your clothes and get ready.’
“‘If people are not happy, I should think you would try and make them happy. I am sick,’ was all that I answered.
“I am not the kind of a girl who can powder my nose and say, ‘Ah, go on with you.’ What wouldn’t I have given to have been born an American girl. To have understood the American language and the American business.
“What could I do? I went to the hotel in Santa Monica and lay down to think. I did not think I could go on. I had heard of a manager. So I got one! — somebody who could talk the English language.
“He saw how sick I was, how tired. ‘Poor lady, why don’t you go home and rest?’ he told me.
“So I went home for two days. Then I heard about the papers. They say, ‘Greta Garbo go home’ — ‘She is temperamental — she cannot be handled.’ I did not understand that, so I went to my manager and said, ‘Maybe I better go back to the studio. I have rested two days. It does not make any difference here whether I am tired and sick and have lost my sister. I do not understand and I will go back.’
“So I went back and said nothing.
“ And there I met for the first time, except to nod to him, John Gilbert. And he was so terribly good to work with! He has such vitality, spirit, eagerness. Every morning at nine o’clock he would slip to work opposite me. He was so nice, that I felt better; felt a little closer to this strange America.
“When I finished ‘The Flesh and the Devil,’ they wanted me to do ‘Women Love Diamonds.’ I could not do that story. Four or five bad pictures and there would be no more of me for the American people.
“I did not know what to do. No one would tell me. I still could not speak good English. So I went to the hotel and sat down and waited. I did not know what else I could do. I wanted to be home in Sweden.
“And the next morning they telephoned me to look at some sketches for the story. It was the first time I had not done what they wanted, except to sign a new contract when I already had a new one.
“And I had a letter saying by not coming down to see the sketches I had refused to work and they could not pay me. What could I do?
“Then a very kind friend told me about a man who would understand both me and the people of this country. I had a lawyer to manage me up to this time. But this new man, they said, knew all about the studio and all about the making of pictures. He had been in Europe a long time and would sympathize and understand that all I wanted was no trouble and just a chance to make good stories. So I went to see Mr. Harry Edington, and after talking to me every day, almost, for more than a week, and coming to believe that I was not all the papers had said about me, he said he would handle all of my things for me. My contracts, my money, my work, — everything. You do not know what that means to a girl who knows nothing about this big country and this big American studio business.
“Since then, I have not had trouble. Because he understands both their business and understands me and my business.
“But before I employed him I was home seven months without pay. I did not say anything or do anything. And the papers always said I want money.
“I was terribly restless. I figured out that maybe the next moment I would be packing my trunks. I was so low, as you say, that I thought I would break. But it’s like when you are in love. Suppose the man you love does something to hurt you. You think you will break it off; but you don’t do it.
“Finally, they call me and say they have a story. I read it and went out and asked what part I was to play and they said the little part. Aileen Pringle and Lew Cody were to play the big parts. Mr. Edington tell me to do it, so I did not say a word, but tried on the dresses and was all ready to play the little part in the picture, when Miss Pringle said she would not do it.
“Then they called me and said I was impossible and could not be handled. For the first time I answered Mr. Mayer back. I said I had all my clothes fitted and was ready to play the little part. ‘What more did they want? I am very sorry I answered back. I guess I did not understand them. It was all because I speak one language and they speak another. And the newspaper men who print all the bad stories, they could not understand either.
“They said it was a new contract they wanted. So Mr. Edington fixed up a new contract, for five years. Because it was not money I had wanted in the first place, money was not so important. But Mr. Edington’s contract did give me more money than when I came to this country. They had a cartoon of me in my country, holding out my hand with many American dollars. They thought I get five thousand dollars a week. That is funny.
“Now Mr. Edington makes us understand one another and we are all very happy.
“And that is all there is to my story. I am twenty-two years old and I have played in two pictures in Europe and five in this country. I was nineteen when I came to New York City.
“I will go back to Sweden this year. I do not know whether I will bring my mother to this country. When I am working I like to be alone.
“And if I were working hard — I love my mother. We will see.
“I want to stay in this country’. Hollywood is the place to make pictures. It is where there is a future for me or any other actress.
“I cannot help it if I do not like to be with many people. I have some good friends. Mr. and Mrs. Jannings. Mrs. Jannings is a real woman.
“ She says what she means. Mr. Jannings is a real man.
“I do not mean feminine and masculine, as you say it. I mean the inside, deep — real people. I have to keep learning German so I can talk with my good friends, the Jannings.
“They wanted me to go to a Mayfair party. It was a nice party. But why do I have to go. I do not like parties.
“I never know what I am going to do next, when I am not working. I walk on the beach for many miles. But I never know what time I will do it. I stand on the beach and watch the sea for an hour, perhaps two. What is that to people?
“I like it. That is all there is to it.
“I do not think one person should judge another. You can never tell why one person does not like another.
I do not think one person can talk about another. It is not of their own business they are talking.
“ I love my work. I want to be a big actress. That is natural. Do you not want to be big in what you are doing? And the other American people?
“When I was starting ‘Anna Karenina,’ (and here Anna Karenina (1935)) the wardrobe department sent me flowers. I was so pleased. I know in a big factory-studio they cannot send you flowers and do things for others.
“But — it made me feel a little closer.
“Love?” She laughed softly. “Of course, I have been in love. Love is the last and the first of a woman’s education. How could you express love, if you have never felt it? You can imagine, but it is not like the feeling — who hasn’t been in love? I am no different from the others.
“Marriage? I have told many times, I do not know. I like to be alone; not always with some other person.
“There are many things in your heart you can never tell to another person. They are you!
“Your joys and sorrows — and you can never, never tell them. It is not right that you should tell them.
“You cheapen yourself, the inside of yourself, when you tell them.
“There is really nothing to my story, as I told in the beginning. I was born in a house, I grew up like other people. I have found my life work, and all I want is to do it and then travel.
“I have had troubles the same as other persons. The company went broke in Constantinople, but I found another. Mr. Stiller had to go back to Europe. How I miss him. He talked in my own language. I owe everything to Mr. Stiller. I have not understood everything over here, but now everything is settled and we are all working together. I cannot stand trouble.
“The future? I have no plans. After I go back to Sweden, then who knows? My contract is for five years, remember.
“I have told the truth. That is everything there is to it. Honest! No,” she smiled a wee smile, “American cities are not covered with flowers, but I have found many flowers in America.
“And that’s all. My little story of my life in pictures, — of my whole life as far as that matters — is finished.”
Greta Garbo drew her grey woolly cloak “such as we wear in Sweden” around her. Her eyes sought the windows, as though to penetrate the dark secrets beyond them. And as she looked past me, beyond, into a world which my eyes could not vision, there was born in me a great ambition, an ambition to acquire this woman as a friend.
“Love? Of course, I have been in love. Who hasn’t been in love? Marriage? I have told many times, I do not know. I like to be alone; not always with the same person.”
Illustrations by Chris Marie Meeker
Photoplay front page: Painting by Charles Sheldon
Source: Photoplay Magazine, June 1928