Why Was Greta Garbo Called The Swedish Sphinx?

Greta Garbo's famous line in "Grand Hotel" — "I want to be alone" — followed her for the rest of her life, seeming to define the way she lived. In her private life, she insisted, she had only ever said, "I want to be let alone" (via Smithsonian Magazine).

Garbo was an elusive figure even at the height of her popularity as a film actress in the 1920s and 1930s. She avoided the press, which she mistrusted, and rarely gave interviews or went to the premieres of her movies. Though her love life was the subject of much public speculation, there is no proof of most of the reported affairs, or that she was ever married, according to The New York Times. This mysteriousness in her private life only enhanced her on-screen image as a glamorous woman frequently unlucky in love. It was her elusiveness that gained her the nickname "the Swedish sphinx" (via The New York Times).

Privacy on set

Garbo kept herself aloof from fans, never signing autographs or answering fan letters. She also kept herself apart even from those on a movie set with her. She never allowed visitors on set, a wish MGM respected. She believed if visitors watched her act, the illusion of the film would be destroyed. She also felt she could act better alone than with others, insisting that black screens be put around her for any close-up shots, blocking her from other actors, putting her alone with the camera (via The New York Times).

She even sometimes preferred to be separated from her director. In intimate scenes, she essentially directed herself, according to Reuben Mamoulian, the director of Garbo's movie "Queen Christina." She asked him to leave the set during the filming of one of these scenes, saying she normally allowed only the cameraman and lighting director to stay. Mamoulian refused to go, so they came to a reluctant truce (via The New York Times).


Garbo retired early, in 1941, aged only 36. World War II had cut her off from her European audience, a large part of her fan base, according to The New York Times. Her retirement was meant to be temporary, but became permanent. This added to her mystique: The great star only made 27 movies, and she was preserved on screen as forever young. Though she traveled often, she spent most of the rest of her life in Manhattan and was sometimes seen out and about near her home (via The New York Times).

Even at the height of her career, Garbo was often lonely and unhappy, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Letters to her friend, fellow Swede Countess Marta Wachtmeister, reveal that she didn't like her life in Hollywood. She said she spent most of her time by herself, talking to herself, and that walks on the beach were the only thing she really enjoyed in California. She was homesick for Sweden. While complaining about press coverage of and speculation on her personal life, she was also frustrated with the writing and production aspects of some of her movies, but by the end of her career, she had lost the energy to fight for changes. She may never have regained the stamina to face Hollywood again.