Glorified as she rejected glory, the reclusive screen goddess died in 1990

By Melissa Pierson
April 19, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Easter, for the faithful, celebrates the promise of eternal life. For Greta Garbo, at the age of 84, it was the portal thereto. The ”Swedish Sphinx” died on Easter Sunday, April 15, 1990, perhaps having succeeded too well in vociferously protecting her privacy. Her mourners were admirers of performances that belonged to a world long gone, drawn to something greater than the acting art.

We knew her, most gloriously, in the close-ups that showed her almost otherworldly beauty: self-contained, regal, silken — and, above all, unknowable. She did not understand how those very qualities also made her fans desperate to pull her close: ”I give them everything I’ve got on the screen — why do they try to usurp my privacy?” she asked. In a country where fame for its own sake is a secular religion, her apparent disdain for it was perplexing.

”I vant to be alone,” she declared in 1932’s Grand Hotel. Many thought she repeated the line off screen, yet Garbo maintained she had in fact wanted ”to be let alone.” The difference makes some sense of the often mystifying details of her later life.

Few friends were allowed behind the thick curtain of secrecy she kept drawn around her, perhaps so no one would see the ”sour little creature” she once described herself as having become. But she remained to successive generations a goddess who never grew old, just more unreal. For years on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where she had moved after her last film, 1941’s Two-Faced Woman, Garbo spotting was a local sport. Ironically, she made it easy, always wearing dark glasses and a large hat, and often using the pseudonym Harriet Brown. She deflected countless requests to be interviewed, photographed, or feted. Her strategy of personal quarantine saved her from doddering cameos in after-school specials, but it did not prevent the paradoxical — or was it intentional? — stimulation of the attention she claimed to deplore. In 1984 her legendary reclusion became the centerpiece of director Sidney Lumet’s Garbo Talks.

Even till the end, Garbo would not capitulate to anyone else’s idea of how she should live. As screen scholar Robert Osborne, a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, says, ”Her silence preserved the magic that made her so fascinating. Maybe if we knew how much — or how little — actually went on inside her, she would not have appeared half as interesting.” But she alone knew why she did what she did. Funeral services were, of course, private.

Time Capsule: April 15, 1990
Tommy Page promised listeners ”I’ll Be Your Everything”; moviegoers went ”cowabunga” for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Robert Ludlum issued The Bourne Ultimatum; and TV viewers adored that ”domestic goddess” Roseanne.