Garbo was born in 1905 as Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Sweden. Her family’s poverty and her father’s early death led her to modeling for money by the age of 14, and her stunning looks caught the eye of gay filmmaker Mauritz Stiller.
A young Greta Garbo
Stiller recognized her potential and began grooming her for stardom. He urged her to change her name — first to Mona Gabor and finally to Greta Garbo — and directed the film that brought her to the attention of Hollywood’s Louis B. Mayer, The Atonement of Gosta Berling (1924).
Before departing for Mayer and Hollywood, Garbo filmed The Joyless Street (1925) with the legendary German director G.W. Pabst. According to Diana McLellan’s dishy expose book The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, it was on the set of The Joyless Street that the 19-year old Garbo met the 23-year old Marlene Dietrich.
Dietrich was her opposite — as wild and openly sexual as Garbo was naïve and prim. The nature of their relationship would be a source of contention (both denied that they had ever met, Dietrich denied that she was in the film at all) and gossip that would hover over both for the rest of their lives.
Marlene Dietrich in 1930
(Pabst himself caused a scandal when he directed 1929′s Pandora’s Box, shocking American audiences with the seduction of Hollywood pixie Louise Brooks by a rakish lesbian character that he reportedly modeled after Marlene Dietrich. The film made Brooks an international star.)
In The Girls, McLellan’s argues that Dietrich seduced Garbo and then gossiped to those in their circle about Garbo’s shabby undergarments and provincial attitude about sex.
Dietrich referred to Garbo as a “peasant,” and McLellan proposes that the ill-fated affair humiliated and traumatized Garbo. She theorizes that Dietrich’s scarring betrayal may have instigated Garbo’s lifelong denial of her sexual orientation and eccentric disavowal of all romantic liaisons.