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Thursday 13 December 2018

'I am almost always alone and talk to myself' - Greta Garbo's devastating letters set to sell for €22,000

Greta Garbo Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Greta Garbo Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Alice Vincent

It is no secret that life as one of Hollywood's Golden Era actresses was no picnic: Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr and Jean Harlow all struggled under the gruelling routines and rigid control enforced by MGM Studios and its lynchpin, Louis B Mayer.

Now the extent of Greta Garbo's suffering has become clear in a collection of letters written by the Swedish actress that have been translated ahead of their sale by Sotheby's next week.

Garbo was one of the most successful stars of the 1930s, earning sums that far exceeded her contemporaries – an estimated $3 million, or $42 million in today's money – over the course of her career.

But as these letters demonstrate, she was also incredibly lonely. Garbo detested the tabloid fascination with her and the unchanging good weather of Beverly Hills, worried about the success of her films and felt despair over the unfolding events of the Second World War. She appeared to live an increasingly isolated life in Hollywood, instead sharing her innermost thoughts and feelings through correspondence with Marta Wachtmeister, a Swedish countess.

Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo

"I am almost always alone and talk to myself. I drive to the beach and take walks and that's always marvellous. But that's it...", she wrote on November 14 1939, referring to her life in Beverly Hills.

In the Forties, Garbo's career began to wane with the films Two-Faced Woman and Queen Christina. Both gave her anxiety, and she began to pine for the gloom of her native Scandinavia: "The last few days here have been grey and I have been thinking a lot about Tistad. About summers there when it rains and that marvellous melancholy enfolds us...", she wrote during the first half of the decade.

While many believe that Two-Faced Woman's critical failure – it earned well at the box office – finished Garbo's career, the letters suggest she was already giving up on her Hollywood ventures. "But since I would rather go walking in the country than fight for stories, it will have turned out like it has...", she wrote in August 1941, ahead of the film's release, suggesting her mind was far away from the glare of the lights and the camera.

But such apathy was nothing new for Garbo. Even in the early Thirties, when Garbo was making Queen Christina, dubbed her "comeback" at the time, she wrote: "It's been a difficult time, it all went wrong. I'm half-done with Christina now and half-done is what she's going to be when she's finished". 

1935: Swedish actress and movie legend Greta Garbo (1905 - 1990) plays the title role in the film 'Anna Karenina', adapted from Leo Tolstoy's tragic novel and directed by Clarence Brown for MGM. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1935: Swedish actress and movie legend Greta Garbo (1905 - 1990) plays the title role in the film 'Anna Karenina', adapted from Leo Tolstoy's tragic novel and directed by Clarence Brown for MGM. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The gossip magazines made Garbo's life even more challenging, as she dryly noted the following year: "On top of all the other absurdities, they're marrying me for the 759th time". Indeed, when the abdication crisis was dominating the media on both sides of the Pond in 1936, Garbo shared muted sympathies for Wallis Simpson: "Dear Mrs Simpson, now her quiet days are over. She'll be pursued wherever she goes. Hope the camera-hunters will scare her so much that she'll leave my king in peace".

The letters paint a stark portrait of a woman who had been plucked from poverty-stricken obscurity and funneled through MGM's star factory to become one of its most lucrative creators. She was made to have her hairline straightened and teeth fixed shortly after her arrival in America at the orders of Mayer. Even then, in 1925, she was homesick, writing: "You're quite right when you think I don't feel at home here… Oh you lovely little Sweden, I promise that when I return to you my sad face will smile as never before."

Garbo was subsequently made to lose more than two stone, and kept on a strict diet throughout her career. She never married, or had children, and died in 1990 in Manhattan, having built a small property empire through her MGM earnings and fastidious approach to saving.

The letters will go on sale at Sotheby's in London on December 12, and have an estimate of £15,000 (€17,000) - £20,000 (€22,000).

Telegraph.co.uk

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