Greta Garbo, the enigmatic Swedish-born actress whose cool Nordic beauty and erotic sensuality enchanted and captivated moviegoers all over the world during the 1920s and 1930s, died yesterday in New York City. She was 84 years old.
A spokesman said the actress died at New York Hospital. The cause of death was not released.
Garbo's career spanned the final years of the silent film era through the first decade of sound movies, and it included the likes of "Grand Hotel," "Queen Christina," "Anna Karenina," "Camille" and "Ninotchka."
It was in "Grand Hotel," whose cast also included such luminaries as Joan Crawford and John Barrymore, that Garbo spoke what became her most famous and enduring phrase: "I vant to be alone."
She was the epitome of what has since become a vanished breed -- the movie goddess. At the peak of her popularity she was a virtual cult figure. Everything she did or said, no matter how insignificant or trivial, was considered legitimate news in the United States and Europe. Critics called her "The Swedish Sphinx," "Stockholm Venus" and "Super Svenska."
She made only 24 films in a 16-year period that ended in 1941 when she retired at the age of 36, but the brevity of her career only enhanced her mystique.
For decades her public was tantalized by periodic rumors and reports that she was about to make a comeback, but she never did. For almost half a century after her last movie she lived in near seclusion, seeing only a few close friends in Europe and the United States.
Few of Garbo's films were considered artistically superlative, and some of them were downright bad. But so overpowering was her presence on the screen that the trashiest of stories and the feeblest of leading men rarely caused her luster to dim.
She was at her best when cast as a seductress, and her cinematic love scenes were unforgettable. Her first Hollywood film, "The Torrent," about a Spanish peasant girl who becomes a man-destroying prima donna, made her an instant sex star when it was released in 1926.
Several movies in a similar vein followed, including "The Temptress," "Flesh and the Devil," "Love," "The Mysterious Lady," "A Woman of Affairs," "The Kiss," "Mata Hari" and "As You Desire Me."
Subtle, expressive body movements and gestures and the art of pantomime were critically important in silent movies, and these Garbo did with extraordinary effectiveness and magnetism. She could communicate a range of emotions simply clasping her hands to her face or brow, and she had a saucy way of throwing her head back in a "take-me-I'm-yours" pose that Hollywood publicists exploited to promote her as the ultimate Continental vamp.
Her biographer, Alexander Walker, writing of Garbo and John Gilbert in "Flesh and the Devil," observed: "There are few scenes in American films, either silent or talkie, in which two fully clothed people generate so much sexual desire through simple physical contiguity."
There was one riveting scene in the film where Garbo, playing the role of the seductress Felicitas, turned a communion cup in her hands to drink from the very spot touched moments earlier by Gilbert's lips. She "was able, magically, to convert a holy rite into a sensual act," Walker said.
But it had become apparent by the late 1920s that the silent movies would soon become a thing of the past. Executives at MGM Studios delayed Garbo's sound film debut for two years, then with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension cast her in "Anna Christie," a 1930 film version of Eugene O'Neill's play about a waterfront prostitute.
The movie was heavily promoted with the slogan "Garbo Talks!" and millions of fans jammed theaters all over the world to catch their first sound of Garbo's voice. They got it 34 minutes into the film when the actress stumbled into Johnny the Priest's dockside bar and demanded in a deep, throaty contralto, "Gif me a visky -- chincher aile on the side. And doan't be steengy, baby."
She reached the peak of her popularity in the early 1930s, when she was consistently one of the industry's top draws at the box office, and her dress and mannerisms were mimicked in the world of high fashion.
In published reports Garbo was linked romantically with her original director, Mauritz Stiller; actor Gilbert; composer-playwright Noel Coward; conductor Leopole Stokowski; nutritionist Gayelord Hauser; shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis; financier George Schlee; producer Sam Spiegel; and the British fashion photographer and theatrical designer Cecil Beaton.
Never comfortable or at ease in the high-pressure ambiance of Hollywood, suspicious and mistrustful of the media, and often at odds with MGM executives, Garbo was said on several occasions to be ready to abandon her career and return to Sweden.
She had always been as popular in Europe as in the United States, if not more so, and the outbreak of World War II reduced her box office potential drastically.
Unlike most Hollywood actresses, Garbo took no part in aiding the Allied war effort, and that probably eroded her popularity in the United States. She took what was generally believed to be a sabbatical from acting during the war and simply never returned.
Born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm on Sept. 18, 1905, Garbo was the daughter of a street cleaner and his wife who were rural migrants to the city. She was raised in a cramped, drafty tenement, and got her first job as a teenager lathering up men's faces in a barbershop.
Later she worked in a department store, where she appeared in three promotional films. A chance meeting with a Swedish actor-director led to a part as a bathing beauty in a Swedish film, "Peter the Tramp," in 1922, and that, in turn, led to 15 months' study at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre School.
It was there that she met Mauritz Stiller, at the time Sweden's foremost film director. He cast her in "The Atonement of Gosta Berling," in the role of a countess who falls in love with a defrocked clergyman who is tutoring her children. The movie got Stiller a contract offer from MGM, and he insisted as part of the deal that Garbo -- she had changed her name at his behest -- accompany to the United States.
They arrived in the United States in 1925. Stiller managed to arrange for a striking photo of Garbo to appear in Vanity Fair magazine, and that, in turn, helped persuade MGM to cast her in "The Torrent." Reviewing her performance, Variety magazine observed, "This girl has everything, with looks, acting ability and personality."
By 1927, her popularity had risen to the point where she could negotiate a new contract with MGM that eventually would bring her $5,000 a week -- an astonishing sum for a young actress in those days. By the mid-1930s she was said to have been earning $250,000 to $300,000 a film.
She appeared opposite Clark Gable in a 1930 film, "Susan Lennox -- Her Fall and Rise," and as one of the leading characters, Grusinskaya, in "Grand Hotel," which won the Academy Award as best picture of 1932. In 1935, Garbo won the New York Film Critics Award for her performance in the leading role in "Anna Karenina."
In 1936 she won that award for a second time for her role in "Camille," a screen adaptation of the novel and drama of Alexandre Dumas fils. Many critics considered this to have been her finest performance.
Garbo's last movie was "Two-Faced Woman," a 1941 comedy that was probably her least successful film. A farce about a faithful wife who tries to curb her husband's extramarital inclinations by pretending to be another woman, the film was condemned by the National Legion of Decency for making light of adultery and by movie fans for making light of Garbo.
Initially her retirement was thought to be only temporary, and most of her fans remained convinced she would return to the screen once World War II ended.
Several roles were, in fact, suggested for her, but none materialized for a variety of reasons: The part wasn't right, the script was too depressing, the money wasn't enough, the film studio decided on someone else.
She became a naturalized American citizen in 1951, and in the years since had lived partly in Europe and partly in New York, sometimes under an assumed name to escape the scrutiny of a mercilessly inquisitive press.
She had been nominated three times for a best actress Oscar by the Motion Picture Academy: in 1929/1930 for "Romance" and "Anna Christie," in 1937 for "Camille," and in 1939 for "Ninotchka." She won an honorary Oscar in 1954 for "her unforgettable screen performances," but she did not attend the ceremony.
For years after Garbo's retirement, the media pursued her relentlessly. But in time the media's interest faded, and Garbo all but dropped out of the public view.
She never married and left no immediate survivors.