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In a clearing, deep in a forest in Sweden there is a statue. It is called the Statue of Integrity and is by the Icelandic artist Jón Leifsson. There are no signposts to reveal its location. It is not included in any guide books. Anyone out hiking is simply meant to stumble across it. The statue is of Greta Garbo, the Swedish film actress who became the greatest star of Hollywood’s golden age. It represents the intimacy that Garbo enjoyed with nature and the elements. Garbo’s connection to the natural world was profound. She enjoyed an intense, almost pagan oneness with the wild.
At the age of just eighteen, when she had finished filming one of her first films, Gösta Berlings Saga, she rented a cottage in a remote corner of Värmland County in Sweden. There she stayed for several weeks in splendid isolation. She would go out walking every day in the surrounding countryside. But Garbo did not consider herself to be alone because she was with her closest companion, nature. Communion with the natural world filled Garbo with feelings of transcendence. The British photographer Cecil Beaton described how she would often recite poetry and sing out loud whenever they went walking in the country together.
When Garbo lived in Los Angeles, she found the sustained periods of uniform sunshine depressing. She missed seeing the seasons change as they did in her native Sweden. Outside her bedroom window there was a dead tree. Somebody else might have had the tree removed, but Garbo cherished it. Whenever she felt gloomy or frustrated, she would go to look at the tree. She would imagine it had just dropped its leaves for the winter and that soon snow would come to rest on its branches. She told her lover Mercedes de Acosta that the tree was her joy. She called it her winter tree.
Whenever there was a heavy thunderstorm in Los Angeles, people would dash for cover. But as the crowds were running inside, Greta Garbo would be running outside. She loved to experience the power of the element, to hear the crash of the thunder, see the flash of the lightning and feel the drumming of the rain on her skin. She would remain in the downpour as long as she could, drenched but elated. In life, Garbo experienced repeated moments of intense bliss when confronted by the natural world in all its majesty. During these times her sense of separateness and distance from the outside world would simply melt away.
Garbo’s close communion with nature was reflected in many of her films. In the title role of Queen Christina (MGM, 1933), she goes out after a snowstorm. She tells the Lord Chancellor how much she loves the snow. She describes it as being like the wild sea, something to lose oneself in. In Camille (MGM, 1936) she bends down to smell the earth during a walk in the countryside. She tells her lover Armand that it has a beautiful aroma, like perfume. And in Romance (MGM, 1930) Garbo plays opera singer Rita Cavallini. In an early scene, she reminds her wealthy benefactor Cornelius van Tuyl of the time he stood beneath her window and she sang to him. She remembers how all the roses in the world seemed to blossom in the moonlight ‘and the wind and the sea and the big old moon’.
Spirit of Garbo is the new book by Moon Laramie. It explores the spiritual quest of Greta Garbo and is published in both hardback and paperback editions by Martin Firrell Company.
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