“I want to be alone.” Ever since Greta Garbo uttered that line in Grand Hotel, it’s become an essential — and enduring — part of her mystique: the beautiful screen goddess who had no desire for attention. Back in 1927, the Swedish-born actress told Photoplay magazine, “I detest crowds, don’t like many people.” And 31 years after her death at age 84, she’s still known as the world’s most glamorous misanthrope.
Yet Greta’s great-nephew Derek Reisfield remembers her very differently. “I wouldn’t call her a recluse,” Derek, whose mother, Gray, was the only daughter of Greta’s beloved brother, Sven, exclusively tells Closer Weekly on newsstands now. “If you look at her date books, she’s out and about, meeting people, going to dinner parties, going to people’s homes for the weekend. She was private … but for a recluse, she had a very active social life. I forget who said it, but somebody called her the ‘hermit about town.’”
Indeed, while she clearly didn’t suffer fools gladly — especially those found in Hollywood — Greta knew how to have a good time. “When I moved to New York after school, I lived about five blocks away from her, so I would see her a lot,” Derek recalls. “[Family and friends] would all assemble at 5 for cocktails at her apartment, and then [we’d] go out to dinners or a play or whatever we were doing. That was a weekly event, and it was a lot of fun. She was a remarkable person. She was very intuitive, very intelligent and extremely funny.”
And she had stories to tell. “She would occasionally start talking about Hollywood in the old days and the people she met and hung out with,” remembers Derek, who listened raptly as his aunt detailed her friendship with Charlie Chaplin (“She called him a genius”) or the director Mauritz Stiller, who met Greta at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm when she was 18 and suggested she change her last name from Gustafsson to Garbo. “He was probably the love of her life,” Derek says of Mauritz, who died of pleurisy at 45. “But she had lots of significant relationships over the years.” The most significant? Derek says it was probably Greta’s frequent costar, John Gilbert.
But it was family with whom she formed the most lasting bonds. “It was a very small family,” Derek explains. “Her sister died in her 20s, and her father died when she was 14. So it was really [Greta’s brother] my grandfather and my mother and my siblings.”
While Greta tended to “feel threatened by a mob” and “would avoid big, public gatherings,” she was lively and passionate with those she trusted — and adored deep, philosophical discussions.
And though she didn’t always want to be alone, Derek says, Greta did appreciate her own company. “She loved to walk,” he recalls. “She liked walking in the mountains, or on the beach or in New York City … She was pretty content.”
— Alison Gaylin, with reporting by Lexi Ciccone
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.