She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm, Sweden, the youngest of three children born to Karl Alfred Gustafsson (1871-1920) and Anna Lovisa Johnasson (1872-1944). Her older sister and brother were Alva and Sven.
When Greta was fourteen, her father died. Consequently, she was forced to leave school and go to work. Her first job was as a lather girl in a barbershop. She then became a clerk in a department store, where she would also model for newspaper ads.
Her first film aspirations came when she appeared in an advertising short for the department store where she worked. That led to another short film, which was seen by comedy director Eric Petscher. He cast her in a small part for the movie Peter The Tramp (1920).
From 1922 to 1924, she studied at the prestigious Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. While she was there, she met the Swedish director Mauritz Stiller. He trained her in cinema acting technique and cast her in a major role in Gösta Berlings Saga (1924) (English: The Story of Gösta Berling). He also gave her the stage name Greta Garbo. She starred in two films in Sweden and one in Germany.
When Stiller went to the United States in 1925 to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he insisted that Garbo be given a contract as well. But their relationship came to an end as her fame grew. He was fired by MGM and returned to Sweden in 1928, where he died soon after.
The most important of Garbo's silent films were The Torrent (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1927) and ''Love'\' (1927). The latter two she starred in with the popular leading man John Gilbert. Her name was linked with him in a much publicized romance, and she was said to have left him standing at the alter when she changed her mind about getting married.
Having achieved enormous success as a silent movie star, she was one of the few who made the transition to talkies. Her low, husky voice with Swedish accent was heard on screen for the first time in Anna Christie (1930), which was publicized with the slogan "Garbo Talks." The film was a huge success, but Garbo personally hated her performance.
When she was filming, if something happened that she was not pleased with she would say, "I think I'll go back to Sweden!" This would frighten the studio heads, who gave in to her every wish. She was known for always having a closed set to all visitors. No one could watch as her scenes were shot.
Garbo appeared very seductive as the World War I spy in the title role of Mata Hari (1932). The censors complained about her revealing outfit shown on the movie poster. She was next part of an all star cast in Grand Hotel (1932).
She then had a contract dispute with MGM and did not appear on the screen for almost two years. They finally settled and she signed a new contract, which granted her almost total control over her films. She exercised that control by getting her leading man, Laurence Olivier, replaced on Queen Christina (1934) with former costar John Gilbert.
David O. Selznick wanted her cast as the dying heiress in Dark Victory in 1935, but she insisted on being cast in another screen version of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel Anna Karenina. She had made a silent version, Love, with John Gilbert in (1927).
Garbo's performance as the doomed courtesan in Camille (1937) was called the finest ever recorded on film. She then starred opposite Melvyn Douglas in the comedy Ninotchka (1939) by director Ernst Lubitsch, which was publicized with the slogan "Garbo Laughs."
She was also famous for shunning publicity, which became part of the Garbo mystique. Her famous byline was "I vant to be alone." Except at the very beginning of her career, she granted no interviews, signed no autographs, attended no premieres, and answered no fan mail.
After her film Two-Faced Woman (1941) failed at the box office, Garbo retired at the height of her success, never again to face the camera. She withdrew from the entertainment world completely and moved to a secluded life in New York City, thereafter refusing to make any public appearances.
By her own admission, she felt that after World War II the world changed perhaps forever. Her films, she felt, had their proper place in history and would gain in value.
She would at times jet-set with some of the world's best known personalities, such as Aristotle Onassis and others, but chose to live a private life. She spent time gardening flowers and vegetables and was known for taking walks through New York City streets dressed casually and wearing large sunglasses, always avoiding prying eyes, the paparazzi, and media attention.
Greta Garbo has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6901 Hollywood Boulevard.