‘30s star Greta Garbo ‘had social anxiety and a fear of crowds’ but was not ‘a reclusive figure,’ author says

Greta Garbo famously declared “I want to be alone” in the 1932 film “Grand Hotel,” but one author claims the screen siren was far from a recluse when cameras stopped rolling.

“I was surprised to find that Garbo was not really the reclusive figure that everybody assumes that she is,” author Donna Rifkind told Fox News. “She was actually quite friendly… She enjoyed the company of people and she was not the sort of caricature ‘Sunset Boulevard’ figure who wanted to be alone all the time. She was actually quite social.”

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John Barrymore (1882 - 1942) contrives to seduce the eccentric Greta Garbo (1905 - 1990) in a scene from the film "Grand Hotel," directed by Edmund Goulding for MGM.

John Barrymore (1882 - 1942) contrives to seduce the eccentric Greta Garbo (1905 - 1990) in a scene from the film "Grand Hotel," directed by Edmund Goulding for MGM. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

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While the ‘30s star developed a reputation for being Hollywood’s most famous hermit, she actually wasn’t alone. In fact, Garbo shared a decades-long friendship with actress-turned screenwriter Salka Viertel, the mastermind behind many of the star’s screenplays.

But the Galician native was more than just a gal pal to the actress. During the 1930s, Viertel tirelessly worked to help European artists and intellectuals flee Nazism in Europe for a better life in California.

Viertel arranged visas and raised money on their behalf, and later offered introductions, companionship and housing, the New York Times said. Her Sunday afternoon gatherings in Santa Monica, Calif., which served as a safe haven, would go on to become legendary.

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Salka Viertel is the subject of a new book written by Donna Rifkind titled 'The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler's Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood.'

Salka Viertel is the subject of a new book written by Donna Rifkind titled 'The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler's Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood.' (Courtesy of the author.)

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Viertel passed away in 1978 at age 89 in Switzerland. Since then, she has seemingly been forgotten with time — at least until now. Rifkind, who previously discovered Viertel’s memoir from the ‘60s, which has long been out of print, was compelled to revisit her life and legacy in a new book titled “The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood.”

“I, as many people do, I fell completely in love with her,” Rifkind explained. “She had a Hollywood story that explained Hollywood in a  way that nobody ever had before. Explaining how many people in Hollywood were emigres who had come over from Europe and brought a level of sophistication to Hollywood that had not been there yet.

“A the same time, she was a hostess in her home in Santa Monica for many, many refugees who were running away from Hitler right before the war and she became a den mother to a whole host of movie stars, directors, producers and musicians,” Rifkind continued. “She was what you might think of as a connector in Hollywood. She had studio influence, if not power, and was able to make introductions.”

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Despite Salka Viertel's influence during Hollywood's golden age, she is seemingly forgotten today.

Despite Salka Viertel's influence during Hollywood's golden age, she is seemingly forgotten today. (Adam Shaw/Photo courtesy of the author.)

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While most of Viertel’s family is no longer living, Rifkind was able to track down two daughters-in-law, as well as many grandchildren, who introduced her to many people who were once part of her circle.

“Many Hollywood biographies downplayed her role, accused her of not really writing the movies that she wrote,” said Rifkind. "I went into the archives at the Academy Library to look at all the scripts… I saw a lot of influence that it was possible that she did, in fact, write many of those scripts. It was, of course, a collaborative process, but her mark was there.”

Garbo and Viertel met at a party sometime in 1929. And the two women instantly became inseparable.

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Actress Greta Garbo poses for a publicity photo for the MGM movie "As You Desire Me" which was released in 1932.

Actress Greta Garbo poses for a publicity photo for the MGM movie "As You Desire Me" which was released in 1932. (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

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“Salka, all through Garbo’s career, served as an acting coach, especially in the [1936] movie ‘Camille,’” said Rifkind. “She coached her for certain roles because of her training on the stage in Germany and throughout Europe. They had an instant and electric connection… They genuinely loved each other.”

And Viertel helped Garbo shine. The actress, who fiercely protected her privacy, was described as having a “deep fear of reporters and other strangers,” the New York Times reported. Garbo’s biographer John Bainbridge previously explained that even at the start of her career, Garbo “granted no interviews, signed no autographs, attended no premieres, answered no fan mail.”

“Greta Garbo had social anxiety and a fear of crowds,” said Rifkind. “At the same time, she was the most popular celebrity Hollywood had ever seen [at the time], so it was a perfect storm of discomfort for her. Salka was a person who was very comfortable with all kinds of people and she was able to be a little bit of a buffer between Garbo and these large crowds that she might’ve had some trepidation about.”

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Salka Viertel went on to write many of Greta Garbo's screenplays.

Salka Viertel went on to write many of Greta Garbo's screenplays. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

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“Salka had loyalty and diplomacy and was able to deal with the studio in a way that Garbo might not have felt as comfortable as doing herself. Garbo, on the other hand, had power and prestige and celebrity, and was able to make Salka’s screenwriting career possible in Hollywood… [Garbo] would come sometimes to Salka’s Sunday afternoon parties, although she preferred not to — she would rather have more quiet one-on-one with people. But she enjoyed the company.”

The women’s close relationship has since sparked rumors of a love affair, which Rifkind disputes.

“There isn’t a shred of evidence either way and we will never know,” she said. “And I think often in Hollywood, the first way to ruin a woman’s reputation, or a man’s, was to accuse them of homosexuality. Sala was a strong, confident European woman who a lot of people might’ve felt threatened by in the studio, or at least saw as an adversary. So to plant those rumors would, from their point of view, be beneficial to them. Salka herself identified strongly as heterosexual. She was married, she had three sons. She always claimed that there was no intimate physical relationship between the two women.”

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Greta Garbo's love life continues to spark rumors decades later.

Greta Garbo's love life continues to spark rumors decades later. (Getty)

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“That being said, we’ll never know for sure,” shared Rifkind. “They genuinely loved each other, but I can’t say definitively that there was a physical component to their relationship.”

We do know that Garbo was eager to ditch stardom. In 1941 at age 36, she made the last of her 27 movies, the New York Times reported. She then went into what was to be a “temporary retirement,” but she never returned to the screen. Garbo spent her later years traveling to Switzerland, the French Riviera and Italy. She then became an American citizen in 1951 and chose New York City as her home base for more than 40 years.

And she never forgot her beloved friend.

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Despite leaving behind Hollywood, Greta Garbo never forgot her beloved friend.

Despite leaving behind Hollywood, Greta Garbo never forgot her beloved friend. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

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“Much, much later when Salka moved to Switzerland in the 1960s, Greta Garbo would visit her every summer and they would go hiking together in the hills and spend time together,” said Rifkind. “Even after Salka died, Garbo continued to go to Switzerland to the same place, sort of an homage to her friend.”

Rifkind said that Viertel chose to move to Switzerland in her late 60s, where she could live closer to her son Peter Viertel, a screenwriter who was married to actress Deborah Kerr.

“She would visit Charlie Chaplin, who lived nearby in one of the Swiss mountain towns nearby,” said Rifkind. “She traveled a bit. When her book was published, she came back to the U.S. to see her other two sons, who were living there. But for the most part, it was very different from her incredibly gregarious life in California.”

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Salka Viertel spent her final years in Switzerland.

Salka Viertel spent her final years in Switzerland. (Schulberg Collection/Courtesy of the author.)

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Garbo passed away in 1990 at age 84. Today, Rifkind hopes her book will shed light on the woman who stood by her side, long after cameras stopped rolling.

“The two women complemented each other in very important ways,” said Rifkind.