Was Greta Garbo Reclusive—Or Just Bored?
Reconsidering Garbo’s decades of rest and relaxation.
Photograph from the Donaldson Collection via Getty Images.
The Faults In Our Stars rethinks the reputations we have assigned to legendary celebrities.
“Here, it is boring, incredibly boring,” Greta Garbo is believed to have once said about her life in Hollywood. “So boring that I can’t believe it’s true.” Hollywood itself, of course, is not true—any town in which the phrase “inspired by true events” means that a story is barely factual at all should not be trusted, under any circumstances, to be literal. And therefore it does not matter to me whether the quotation is apocryphal. What interests me is the idea of Garbo, history’s most most aspirational recluse, being neither too rare nor too frangible for fame, but merely fatigued by its dullness, its vapidity. Retiring from the movies, and from public life, at 36—the age that Britney and Beyonce turned last year—Garbo had at one point been the most famous and most desired woman in the world, and evidently found the whole experience lacking. She described America itself as “uggly [sic],” and routinely, brattily talked about how she’d rather be in Sweden than in Hollywood. She told a Swedish girlfriend that when the two women lived apart, and she lived in the States, she felt “slow, tired, boring”; and although it was her character in George Cukor’s Camille who claimed to be “afraid of nothing except being bored,” the line was so in-step with Garbo’s own persona that it ended up more often than not being attributed to her. The only words she ever said directly to Laurence Olivier, whom she had fired from Robert Mamoulian’s Queen Christina, were: “life’s a pain, anyway”—which is so rude, but also very, very baller. Even her most famous line, which first sprang from her own mean reputation and then ended up immortalised on film in Grand Hotel, is often misinterpreted as meaning something other than “fuck off.” “I never said, ‘I want to be alone,’” the actress snarled. “I said, ‘I want to be left alone.’ There is all the difference.”
And there is all the difference. Usually, this difference is a form of privilege, since to choose to be unbothered by the vagaries of modern life, by the necessity of making either an appearance or an effort in the outside world, is not an opportunity that’s universal; boredom unites both the haves and have-nots, but the haves are typically the ones who get to be do-nothings. Something that has lately made me think about bored, bratty Garbo—as opposed to mystic Garbo—is Ottessa Moshfegh’s book My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Following a rich and hot millennial deciding to drug herself into a full year of trust-funded seclusion, it’s narrated by an antiheroine the New York Times referred to as “a kind of brand ambassador for ennui.” She does not want to be alone, but to be left alone.
In other words: What she desires is to remain untroubled, to escape the aching tedium of having to be. “I looked like a model,” she suggests, explaining why her status as a recluse is not frightening or sad, but fine: a stroke of lazy and subversive genius. “I had money I hadn’t earned…. It was too easy to let things come easy and go nowhere.” Nobody really knows what it must have been like to wake up in the morning, and be Garbo—not Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, but Garbo, whose face Barthes once said “[gave] rise to mystical feelings of perdition.” There must have been good and bad days, bright tributes and long and interminable dark nights of the soul. It must have been at times exhausting, unenlightening. One last Venn-diagrammatic touchstone for the Swedish actress and Moshfegh’s girl-deadbeat is this passage from Edward St Aubyn’s At Last, written to elucidate the inherited and inherent strangeness of old money; substitute “old money” for “fame and/or beauty,” and the charge becomes eerily apropos:
“The psychological impact of [fame/beauty], the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang on to it; the demoralising effect of already having what everyone else was sacrificing their precious lives to acquire; the more or less secret superiority and the more or less secret shame of being [famous/beautiful]…the defeated and the idle…living in a world that the dense glitter of alternatives make it hard for love and work to penetrate.”
Like sin, the wages of extreme, transcendent beauty are too damn high, even if it seems like a problem that—like fame, like wealth you’re given for no other reason than an accident of birth—it might be nice to have. Better to hit snooze, to drop out like a gorgeous stone. When Garbo left the movies, she moved to a co-op in New York whose view of the East River made her think, if she did not look at it too intently, of a view that she remembered from Stockholm, and she invested in fine art. Within two weeks in that first reclusive year, in 1942, she had acquired two Renoirs and a Bonnard. She loved pink, green, abstraction, paintings of women that did not look like women. It was a kind of beauty that was easier for her to bear, to lose herself in; and it did not have as high a price—the price just being money.