john bainbridge

[…] On increasingly frequent occasions the two were seen together at the theater, in restaurants and at parties. To help her overcome her natural diffidence he would sometimes call upon her to entertain when they were out among friends. An acquaintance remembers a party at his house when Stiller abruptly asked her to get up and sing. “She had a pleasant voice,” the friend has said. “She sang until he told her she could stop.” Except on such occasions, Greta was inclined to be pitifully silent and retiring.

She did, however, speak with unusual frankness to a Stockholm journalist who interviewed her during the filming of Gösta Berling. Stiller “creates people and shapes them according to his will,” she said. “As for myself; I am a nice girl who gets very sad if people are unkind to her.” During the same period Stiller told a dramatic critic friend, “She receives instruction excellently, follows directions closely. She is like wax in my hands. Greta will be all right. I believe in her.”

By the time Gösta Berling had been completed, Stiller’s dominion over his protégée was secure. She did nothing without his permission, saw only the people he wished her to see and had legally become Greta Garbo. In name, at least, “The Star” had been born.

Neither Gösta Berling nor Greta Garbo’s role in it drew rave reviews at the Stockholm opening. But Stiller was optimistic about the future of both the movie and his protégée. After the Stockholm premiere of Gösta Berling he went to work editing it into a shorter version for a showing in Berlin, where a critical success would assure its future throughout Europe. He shrewdly contracted to sell the German exhibition rights to David Schratter’s Trianon Films for 100,000 marks ($25,000), a huge sum for that period, but he told Schratter there was one condition to the sale: Trianon must pay all expenses for himself and Garbo to attend the Berlin opening. She would, Stiller insisted, need some new clothes for the trip, for which he made Schratter advance 5,000 kronor.

Schratter had no cause to regret the deal. The Berlin opening was a triumph. The shy Garbo, on her first trip away from home, was disconcerted by all the fanfare. When she and Stiller entered their box at the theater, binoculars were trained upon them from all directions. When she pushed her chair back from the edge of the box, Stiller pulled it up again. When the showing was over the enthusiastic audience demanded that Stiller take a bow. He rose, pulled Garbo to her feet and propelled her to the edge of the box to acknowledge the applause. The German critics applauded Garbo’s acting, which appealed to them as “heartfelt,” “soul-revealing” and “touched with Weltschmerz.” The German exhibitors, who had figured on recovering their investment in four weeks, got it back in one. […]

The Great Garbo, by John Bainbridge; LIFE magazine, January 17, 1955.

(second of three parts)

(…) To the few people who knew her, she seemed to have become even more remote, moody and troubled. Her professional acquaintances saw this side of her character only on rare occasions, as, for instance, the time that a director approached her on the set where she had been working for many hours. “You look tired, Miss Garbo,” he said. “You’d better go home. You must be dead.” There was a long pause before she replied. “Dead?” she finally sighed. “Dead? I have been dead many years.
—  Garbo by John Bainbridge

‘Do you have a lover?’

For Garbo, who was able to express emotions on the screen with such liberated clarity, self-expression away from it often seems an agonizing process. Her conversational manner is inclined to be tentative. She often prefaces a remark with something to the effect that, “I suppose this sounds silly, coming from me,” or, “You probably won’t believe this, but …” Like a child who has moved into a new neighborhood, she is apt to attempt conversation with people she has just met–if she attempts it at all–by asking direct questions: “What do you do? Are you married? Do you have children?” She dismayed a fashionable New York milliner she had just met by suddenly asking, “Do you have a lover?” The tragedy of Greta Garbo, it becomes clear, lies in the difference between what she was and the esthetic, romantic appeal she came to be and symbolize. The two entities, the woman and the legend, are at opposite poles, hopelessly irreconcilable. And yet Garbo must live with both.

The legendary Garbo, the one whose peerless image graced the screen, is the creation of imaginative people who, one of them said in a moment of disillusion, “turned a healthy peasant girl into an exotic spy.” Not content to gaze upon the most fabulous face of the century, they invested its owner with mythical qualities that fascinated them and burdened her. They could not resist making up little stories about her. Garbo’s intimates gossiped about her endlessly among themselves; and some of the facts and stories they related about her inevitably spread to outsiders ready to believe and pass on both facts and fancies. Thus the legend was spun and Garbo became in the minds of the imaginative. millions the myth that had been fashioned by the few–a strange, hermetic goddess, a temple figure of beauty, secrecy and omniscience.

It may all have been, in the end, a great disservice, for the real Garbo has never been able to live up to the myth. She has always been what she is today–a woman with a child’s charming, tragic innocence. She is shrewd, willful; instinctive, completely self-absorbed. She is secretive and she has a childlike indifference to all desires but her own. She is condemned to live in a small, cloistered world because of her reluctance or inability to accept the responsibilities of adult friendship.

The Great Garbo, by John Bainbridge; LIFE magazine, January 24, 1955.

(third of three parts)