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First it was her smoldering eyes and frank lust that had moved audiences, men and women both, then—when Greta Garbo finally spoke on film—the soft huskiness of her screen voice. She made the movies immediately adult. She was capable of sinning with her eyes open, a woman with a track record. Of course, the MGM scripts always made her pay for it. As she went on from the passionate silents of the 1920s to the grainy clatter of the 1930s, she finally said it in Grand Hotel: “I want to be alone.” In 1941, retiring, she submerged, the photo-negative of a celebrity-mad world.
This story first appeared in the November 1, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
So photographers chased her for decades, and she hid behind giant sunglasses and big hats. On November 9, 1966, WWD’s staff photographer Sal Traina found her on West 57th Street. She was 61.
“SHE COMES OUT LIKE A HURRICANE,” Traina wrote. “SHE WALKS VERY FAST. Greta Garbo…stopping by Mr. John’s to pick up a couple of hats—one in seal to match a coat and another fur…sometimes she drops by just to pick up some licorice. (John keeps a dish of it for her.)
“She’s wearing the Couture Specialties copy of last year’s Balenciaga raincoat (navy nylon taffeta) covering the knees of her young-looking strong legs…over a turquoise-scarfed blouse and navy skirt…
“THEN SHE SEES ME AND STARTS TO RUN DOWN THE STREET. I am taking a couple of more pictures…but she is making it difficult, you can see. I follow her down the street…shoot seven, eight more shots. She stops…turns back…sees she can’t go anywhere, can’t get away…seems annoyed, very very very annoyed.
“She goes back into the Mr. John building…stays there about 10 minutes. I hide behind a bush, you know those bushes along 57th Street? She comes out, looks both ways, doesn’t see me…but then she sees me through the mirror….turns…runs away…very quickly…
“Then she sees me again. Remember she was using her hands to hide her face?…well, now she’s armed herself with a newspaper.” (WWD, November 1, 1966, opened to pages 44-45.)
“Now we’re on Fifth Avenue. No one knows it’s Garbo…they think I’m annoying her… ‘Gee, she’s refusing to let that guy take her picture…why doesn’t he leave her alone?’ A man with two packages bumps into me, running interference for her…she runs down the street…another footballer trips me…she disappears into the crowd.
“I DID FEEL I WAS INVADING HER PRIVACY.
“But…that beautiful classic face….that immensely interesting face—the deep-set soulful eyes, wide apart—the high cheekbones. She may show her age, she may be getting old, but you cannot change the bone structure of that beautiful face.
“I only wished I had been photographing her when she was 20 years old.
“She is still very mysterious.”