Sweden celebrates Garbo centenary

Greta Garbo, the mythical Hollywood diva adored by millions, came from humble origins in Sweden where she grew up as Greta Gustafsson, whose father was a toilet cleaner and mother a seamstress.

Greta, who was born September 18, 1905, in the then-working class Stockholm district of Södermalm, later in life forged a remote, untouchable image of herself, but in her Swedish youth was anything but.

“She was bubbly and funny,” says Tin Andersen Axell, who recently published a novel called “Djävla älskade unge” (“Cursed beloved kid”) based on letters written and received by the Divine One.

Sweden will remember Greta on Sunday, 100 years after her birth, with exhibitions and film festivals.

Garbo left Sweden early, barely aged 20, for the United States, where she died in 1990.

Her formative years in her native country are crucial to understanding her life, according to Jan Göransson of the Swedish Film Institute.

Her poor background gave her the iron will to succeed, while her solid theatre training opened many doors for her during her career, he told AFP.

Greta grew up in a one-room apartment where she lived with her parents, her brother Sven and her sister Alva, with whom she shared a bed. After seven years of school, she found work in a barber’s shop where her job was to apply shaving foam to the faces of clients, Andersen Axell told AFP.

One day Kristian Bergström sat down for a shave. He was the son of Paul U. Bergström, founder of the PUB department store in downtown Stockholm.

Charmed by Greta, he made sure she got a job in his father’s store, where Greta, barely 15 and by now fatherless, was employed in the hat department, fashion accessories which would later feature in iconic photographs of the diva.

Even today, PUB proudly tells the story of its first encounter with Greta Garbo on its internet site.

Greta’s beauty was such that she did not stay among the hats for long, but was instead asked to pose for PUB’s fashion catalogue and act in a commercial reel called “Mr and Mrs Stockholm go shopping”.

In the film clip, Greta first appears atrociously dressed, before changing into the fashionable clothes available in the store.

“She was funny, she made people laugh. She was a clown,” Andersen Axell told AFP. “She was not at all like her Hollywood image.”

Determined to make her way as an actress, Greta acted in her first movie, “Luffarpetter” (Peter the Tramp) in 1922, before being admitted to the prestigous Royal Dramatic Theatre, Dramaten, in Stockholm where she studied for two years.

Mauritz Stiller, one of her teachers, offered her a role in “Gosta Berlings Saga”, considered a masterpiece of Swedish film and which launched Greta’s career.

In 1925 she left for Hollywood, accompanied by Stiller, and never looked back. She shot classics like “Anna Karenina”, “Mata Hari”, Victor Sjöström’s “The Divine Woman” and “Camille”, and won an Academy Award for her body of work in 1955.

Landing in America, far from home and without a word of English, was, however, not a painless experience for the actress.

She left behind her family and friends, especially Mimi Pollak, a fellow actress whom she met at Dramaten and with whom “she was madly in love”, said Andersen Axell, whose novel is based on, and includes facsimiles of, some 30 letters the two alleged lovers wrote to each other between 1923 and 1984.

More than six decades after Garbo gave up acting, at only 36, Swedes still revere her and are flocking to the film nights dedicated to her.


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