Garbo's lonely legacy: Seeking the actress's final resting place
Garbo starred in such classics as "Queen Christina," "Camille" and "Ninotchka."
This metal sculpture adorns Greta Garbo's Torg, a small park built near the childhood home of the actress on the island of Sodermalm.
Playing the ballerina Grusinskaya in "Grand Hotel" (1932), an Oscar winner for Best Picture, Greta Garbo immortalized the line "I want to be alone." She often strove for this goal in life as well.
Film icon Greta Garbo is buried at Skogskyrkogarden, a huge cemetery outside Stock-holm, Sweden.
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STOCKHOLM -- Even in her death, Greta Garbo is alone.
The reclusive Swedish actress, as known for her luminous screen performances as for her reclusive, notoriously private behavior that only enhanced her mystique, died at 84 in 1990 in New York City.
Although the camera and public loved Garbo, the "flawless sphinx" (as one critic dubbed her) retired from the screen in 1941 at age 36 -- a smart, shrewd move since she knew leading roles would be hard to come by and that her unique brand of cinema magic was on its way out. When she died, she left an estate of $20 million bequeathed to her niece and sole heir, Gray Reisfield. (Despite lovers of both sexes and a list of suitors as long as the credits to any of her films, Garbo never married.) The actress was cremated, but it wasn't until 1999 that Ms. Reisfield decided to inter the ashes in Garbo's native land.
Or did she?
Some say Garbo never made a final return to Sweden. Stories abound that the tombstone is really a cenotaph, a courteous nod to the country which many feel she abandoned when she went to Hollywood in the '20s. As for the Associated Press photos and TV footage of the burial ceremony? Some say they are a ruse, sort of in the same way man never really landed on the moon.
Far out? I decided to find out.
I spent part of my summer vacation scouring through Stockholm, determined to get questions answered.
And determined to find Garbo's grave.
Let me unearth a disclosure here: I love dead celebs. Rather, I love their final resting spots. For the past 40 years, whenever I can, I have paid my respects to those who have gone before us ... standing (usually) no more than six feet apart from the rich and (in)famous.
Now it was Garbo's turn.
Armed with a crude map, a guidebook which gave no mention of Garbo other than to acknowledge she was "a most famous Swede," and $1,000 worth of krona in my pocket, I set out to trace the footsteps of the woman who once demanded (in her first sound film, "Anna Christie," 1930): "Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby."
Garbo -- once named by "The Guinness Book of World Records" as the most beautiful woman who ever lived -- greets me at Arlanda airport. Actually, it was a huge blow-up of her face, that famous iconic Hurrell portrait known throughout the world that greets me. It's one of several such oversized black-and-white photos of famous Swedes that welcome visitors to the Nordic country, but it's the only one at which people stop and pose for photos.
When I get to my hotel, I ask the clerk: How do I get to Garbo's grave? She makes some calls . . . "after all," she tells me in near-perfect English, "that was a long, long time ago. Most people don't remember her anymore."
I learn Garbo is buried at Skogskyrkogarden, a huge cemetery outside town. I take the subway, getting off at the station named for the cemetery. A six-minute walk brings me to the front gates. The cemetery is so lush and so green I expect to see picnickers unfolding blankets and children frolicking. It's so quiet it's unsettling. No signs of life -- in fact, no signs at all.
I walk into the crematorium. I wander through the Faith, Hope and Holy Cross Chapels. I walk back into the crematorium, round a corner and bam! walk right into a female employee. She is far less startled than I am. I ask how to get to Garbo's grave. "Garbo! You're here to see Garbo?" Her tone is incredulous. "No one comes to see Garbo."
She tells me that Garbo is indeed buried there. "I was at the ceremony," she says. "Her family was so afraid someone would steal her ashes that she is buried two meters deep, her urn in a block of concrete."
She eyes my camera and swollen fanny pack. "You're not going to steal her ashes?" she asks, laughing before I do.
Finding Garbo's grave is easy, she insists. "Walk to that parked car. Turn there, turn here, walk there, go here." She punctuates the air with her finger. "You cannot miss it."
I miss it.
A female gardener, sitting on a gravestone, offers no help. She shakes her head, the universal sign for "no speak English." I try again and write down one word. "Garbo!" She stands and waves. There, in the distance, I can see it: The terra cotta-colored gravestone, sitting upon a small knoll, the gold lettering of the signature glistening in the sun.
I run to the grave.
Garbo! The woman who played Tolstoy's heroine Anna Karenina!
Garbo! The woman who laughed as Communist agent Ninotchka!
Garbo! The woman who sizzled as legendary spy Mata Hari is lying beneath my feet.
I sit on the grass in front of her grave. I hear footsteps. A young married couple has joined me. They are from Salzburg, Austria, and tell me they make a yearly "pilgrimage" to the grave. "You are the only person we have ever seen here," she says. "No one is ever here. It's as if she is forgotten," he says.
We make idle chatter. It begins to rain, then pour. They say goodbye; I continue to sit. My T-shirt and running shorts become sponges. I touch the gravestone. I walk behind it. (Funny, but the back is unfinished, just a simple coating of concrete.) I kiss it.
Fifteen minutes later, the rain has stopped. Sopping wet and smiling, I leave.
Grave matters, this Garbo.
I am dying for more.
Back in Stockholm, I head to the Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern, the Royal Dramatic Theatre where Garbo was a scholarship student. Though photos exist of her during her years there, she is simply an asterisk these days. The next day, I cross the bridge into Sodermalm, the island on which Garbo was born. I make my way through the crowds of locals, arriving at Greta Garbo's Torg. The small park at the end of the street pays homage to the actress, an attractive metal bas-relief sculpture capturing her profile in exaggeration. It's complimentary without being a caricature. I look closely and see that someone has graffitied swirls of mucus at her nostrils.
A woman spots me taking photos. "You like her?" she asks. I say yes. She stands. "Garbo was born down that street," she says. "But there's nothing there. The house was knocked down and this park built in her honor." I ask her why no one seems to care about Garbo anymore, why Sweden's most famous export is all but forgotten except for die-hard devotees.
"She turned her back on the country," the woman says. "She left to go to America. She came back to visit, but America was her home. We haven't forgotten that." She eyes my cameras. "But you! You haven't forgotten her. She would be proud."
The next day takes me to PUB, the landmark store at which Garbo worked as a sales clerk and part-time model in the millinery department. Although it had long been converted to various specialty shops and boutiques, I knew PUB had commemorated its most famous employee with a "Garbo Room" -- a re-creation of her living room from her apartment at 450 E. 52 St., in Manhattan, complete with the actress' original sofa, table, carpets, bureau, even paintings.
I ask the young security guard at the front door where to find the Garbo Room. He has no idea. "Is that a store?" He radios to his supervisor. Finally, the answer comes through: The "Garbo Room" is in the sub-basement.
The escalator takes me down. I look around. A locksmith. A shoe repair shop. A toy shop. A trio of queries and the responses are the same: "We have no idea." The owner of a camera shop has the answer. "It was here," he says, walking me outside his shop and pointing to the space next to the shoe shine. "But it is gone. No one visited so someone took it all out."
Tears well in my eyes; Greta Garbo's living room has been replaced by a water closet.
"Greta Garbo? Who's that? I know Britney Spears!" I am standing in front of the Royal Palace, taking an informal survey of young Swedes. No one knows Garbo. They learn I am an American from Southern California and ask me about Spears and Paris Hilton and Brad Pitt.
It is my last day in Stockholm, and I am visiting Gamla Stan. This is Old Town, the heart of medieval Stockholm, the first of the original settlement, first mentioned in ancient documents as a town in 1252. Here is where the tourists flock to view antiquities and artifacts. I dash into the Hall of State at Kungliga Slottet (the Royal Palace) for a quick peek at its most valued treasure: the sterling silver throne of Queen Kristina, a gift from Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie for her coronation in 1650. After having converted to Catholicism and abdicated her throne, Kristina spent her last years in France and Rome; Garbo's portrayal of her in "Queen Christina" (1933) is perhaps her finest.
I meander up this street and down that one, wanting to get away from the hordes of tourists. I find myself in front of an antiques shop. In the window: A still of Garbo from "Camille." I enter the shop, so full of "stuff" and so small that no more than three people can enter at any one time.
I ask the owner about the Garbo photo.
"I bought a huge collection from an estate," he says. "They are very expensive." He searches through piles and mounds, wiping dust with his shirt sleeve. He hands me a small pile of photos. I rifle through them -- nothing. Then I see it: a still of Garbo and longtime friend and fellow Swede Nils Asther in a scene from the 1929 silent "The Single Standard." It's an original still, evidenced by the emulsion cracks and MGM stamp on the reverse. I pay him 150 krona (about $21); he tucks the photo in a manila folder and a bag. "I slipped in an extra one for free," he says with a smile.
I leave the store, pausing down an alley to peek at the photos. The freebie is a still from "Romance," a forgotten 1930 drama in which Garbo stares intoxicating into co-star Lewis Stone's eyes.
It begins to drizzle. I lift my shirt and place the photos close to my heart.
Garbo is no longer alone.
First Published September 9, 2007 12:00 am