“I don’t have to live in New York,” Greta Garbo once said. “I could live in hell.”
For a woman who had become synonymous with solitude, she might as well have. Garbo helped define what we think of as the Golden Age of Hollywood, first as a silent film star and then, triumphantly, as a major MGM star in the 1930s. Yet even at the height of her fame, her fanatical desire for privacy was as famous as she was herself. All of which conspired to make her 50 years of retirement spent walking the streets of New York City into a cat-and-mouse game with tourists and photographers alike. So ubiquitous a presence was she that even when they didn’t intend to, photographers couldn’t help snapping Garbo pics. One of Bill Cunningham‘s first photos in the New York Times was of Garbo in a nutria coat; when he took it, he was so focused on the coat that he hadn’t recognized the woman wearing it.
By the time she was firmly ensconced in Manhattan in the mid 1950s, Garbo was wealthy enough to live anywhere. Yet despite family in Sweden and two decades in Los Angeles, she settled in New York City, becoming as famous a New Yorker as she was a movie star. Garbo sightings were reported breathlessly; even famous fans were awkward and frighteningly intent when they spotted her. (One day, a limousine screeched to a halt on Central Park West, and a wild-eyed young woman leaped out. Garbo escaped, while her companion held the woman back. The fan turned out to be international film star Liv Ullmann, then set to star in a Broadway revival of Anna Christie.) Choosing a life that involved so many people so close at hand seems incomprehensible for a woman like Garbo. But then, much of Garbo’s post-Hollywood life makes as much sense as her abrupt retirement at age 35.