"I have been smoking since I was a small boy," Greta Garbo was known to quip. It was a rather unusual statement coming from a Hollywood starlet, yet it was also a sentiment very true to her nature. She was indeed a prolific smoker; cigarettes, cigars, and, yes, even pipes too. And she was as well what could only be described as "enigmatically contrary". The silver screen beauty often dressed in clothes which, in her day, were considered "mannish", and making such pronouncements as, "I am a lonely man circling the earth." was one of the intensely private vixen's preferred ways of breaking silent moments in conversation. As one of her biographers, Bary Paris put it, "Garbo liked to confuse people..." Even late in her life, this playful turn of secretiveness would keep her amused. In the 1980s a visiting friend of Garbo's, while she was out of the room fixing them drinks, dropped one of the peanuts he had been snacking on, and in bending down to pick it up discovered what he described as a "whole little community" of miniature "troll dolls" arranged beneath her couch - which is to say, right beneath the noses (and posteriors) of her every visitor. Thereafter he would take to peeking at them whenever he was over and she happened to leave the room, always finding them rearranged.
Greta was notable not only for her heady and intriguing combination of coy eccentricity and breathtaking, haunting beauty, but also for being one of the few big names who proved themselves able to transcend from the Silent Era into Hollywood's Golden Age of "talkies" - a transition which ended many of even the most prominent acting careers. The talent and character which enabled her to survive this great upheaval of the medium, and likewise the roots of her complex, curious quirks of personality, likely traced themselves back to her formative days, growing up in the Sodermalm slum district of Stockholm as the daughter of an unskilled laborer. It was a place she described in no fond terms: "It was eternally gray — those long winter's nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room my mother is repairing ragged old clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We are filled with anxiety, as if there is danger in the air. Such evenings are unforgettable for a sensitive girl. Where we lived, all the houses and apartments looked alike, their ugliness matched by everything surrounding us."
Such environs are as liable to break as to make a human being's spirit, but for young Greta her dull and oppressive surroundings gave birth to an escapist imagination. (And what was that penchant for unusual statements which she would later become known for, but a manner of escaping the status quo of the mundane norms of commonly accepted social interaction?) The young Greta was known as a shy, quiet girl, who hated school and who played little: "I did most of my playing by thinking. I played a little with my brother and sister, pretending we were in shows. Like other children. But usually I did my own pretending." Her "own pretending" found its outlet in a love for theater, a love she developed at an early age; a love that would see a girl born into nothing emerge as one of the most famous women in the world, and which was itself born of the same elusive imagination which kept her amused long after she retired to a life of privacy and discrete playfulness. It was a love of imagination, one the girl known as the Swedish Sphinx kept carefully guarded.
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