Wednesday, Jun. 03, 2009

Greta Garbo

Born Greta Lovisa Gustafson in 1905, Garbo grew up in a Stockholm slum and happened into acting after a film director discovered her in a local department store. By 1930, the "Swedish sphinx" had become an icon of the silver screen, captivating American moviegoers with her androgynous appeal and husky voice. Her first spoken words onscreen — "Give me a vhiskey" — were later eclipsed by the line "I vant to be let alone," from the Oscar-winning 1932 film Grand Hotel — a declaration that perfectly encapsulated her approach to the outside world. The actress shunned all the trappings of Hollywood life, refusing to sign autographs, declining all interview requests, leaving fan mail unanswered and avoiding film premieres and awards ceremonies — including the 1955 Academy Awards, despite the promise of an honorary Oscar.

Ironically, her wariness of the spotlight only made her that much more appealing to the media. "I feel able to express myself only through my roles, not in words, and that is why I try to avoid talking to the press," she once said during a rare statement to reporters in a plea for privacy. In 1941, at the age of 36, Garbo announced a "temporary" retirement; it would last 49 years, until her death in 1990 in Manhattan, where she lived by herself — she never married and bore no children. Her apartment on East 52nd Street, filled with expensive pieces of furniture and art, belied her poverty-stricken upbringing — except perhaps for the beloved dime-store blow-up snowman that she kept near a carved Louis XV chair.

Read TIME's 1990 obituary of Garbo, "The Last Mysterious Lady."