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Garbo - A Spy in WW II?

“When my husband asked her about that, she didn't deny it.”
- Garbo's niece, Gray Reisfield, mid 1990s -

The following re-written informations were taken from:
Garbo - by Barry Paris, Greta Garbo: A Life Apart – by Karen Swenson and Conversations with Greta Garbo - by Sven Broman

In her 1928 MGM film, The Mysterious Lady (USA 1928), Garbo played Tania Fedorovna, a Russian spy charged with stealing secrets from the Austrians and she some years later she played Mata Hari (USA 1931) who was the most famous woman spy ever but was Garbo was once a real spy in WW II?

Garbo in The Mysterious Lady

Garbo in Mata Hari

World War II
World War II, or the Second World War, was a worldwide military conflict which lasted from the late 1930s to 1945. World War II was the amalgamation of two conflicts, one starting in Asia, 1937, as the Second Sino-Japanese War and the other beginning in Europe, 1939, with the invasion of Poland. World War II was the most widespread war in history, and countries involved mobilized more than 100 million military personnel.

Total war erased the distinction between civil and military resources and saw the complete mobilization of a nation's economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities for the purposes of the war effort; nearly two-thirds of those killed in the war were civilians. For example, nearly 11 million of the civilian casualties were victims of the Holocaust, which was largely conducted in Eastern Europe.

Garbo as real-life Mata Hari
It is said that there is evidence to suggest that Garbo played a small role in the Allies' wartime intelligence apparatus. Due to its neutrality, Sweden was a hotbed of espionage activity on all sides, and Hitler's war machine – especially in the early years of the struggle – depended on the crucial assistance of the Swedish steel industry and its agents.

The real Mata Hari:
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (1876 – 1917)

British spy chief William Stephenson maintained that Garbo identified important Nazi collaborators in Stockholm to British agents there.  Author Charles Higham, after examining a thousand declassified US government files, said Garbo became involved with the British secret service in 1939 through director Alexander Korda, a middleman for recruiting celebrities to the war effort.

She reportedly served as gobetween for the British with shipping magnate Axel Johnson and members of the Swedish royal family. She was also credited with helping obtain the release of physicist Niels Bohr from occupied Denmark to Sweden and later to America, where he worked on the Manhattan Project. If those claims are true, they are a redemptive manifestation of Garbo as real-life Mata Hari.

Greta's feelings about the war
Like everything else in her life, Greta kept her feelings about the war to her-self. She did not attend rallies choreographed to sell war bonds; she did not appear on the USO circuit or at the Hollywood Canteen.

Harry Crocker and Salka Viertel often found themselves defending Garbo in the press regarding her “silent support” of the war effort; Crocker even hired a clipping service to keep track of what was being said and to correct “any mistaken ideas.”

A 5,000 $ check war-orphans
Known for a fact is that on 12 December 1939 she wrote a 5000 dollar check to the Finnish Relief Fund for its war-orphans program during the ‘Winter War' in which Stalin overran Finland. But the donation was made under a strict condition of anonymity, and as the war progressed there was increasing criticism in the press of her apparent uninvolvement and her failure to join the great majority of other stars in war-bond drives and in entertaining the troops.

A GI's request for her autograph
One published story claimed she had even refused a GI amputee's request for her autograph – and it was true. Actor-director Orson Welles was a witness to that most mindless faux pas. As neighbours in Brentwood during the war, he and Garbo were good acquaintances and spent a few evenings together.

One night, he told biographer Barbara Leaming, they emerged from a restaurant to find ‘a soldier in uniform without a leg, standing on his crutches with an autograph book and she refused it. “That is how dumb she was! She refused him, in front of my eyes!”

War bonds
Many critics complained about Garbo while she didn't want to sell war bonds like many other Hollywood stars. Salka Viertel came to her defense: “If anyone has made the suggestion that Garbo isn't selling bonds because her sympathies are on the wrong side, it's too preposterous even to be discussed. There are some people who just cannot face crowds, no matter for what cause. Garbo is such a person. Instead she buys many bonds herself [and] has done her utmost to help me in my work of rescuing anti-Fascist refugees from Europe.”

Leif Leifland
Former ambassador Leif Leifland believes that both Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman “were anxious to show their sympathy with the Allied force. Garbo wasn't a spy, he says, but she cooperated with the Allied effort.America was her second home. I don't find it surprising that Greta Garbo was anxious to prove her allegiance.”

Patriotic radio message
Despite the urging of the State Department, Swedish diplomats, and friends such as Swedish artist Einar Nerman – she refused a request to tape a patriotic radio message to be broadcast to Scandinavia.

Neutrality would not have been the issue, but rather Greta's belief that it was not her place to articulate what other people must do; Sweden and America had their own political leaders who were better equipped for that.

A “fan letter” from Adolf Hitler
Conversely, Garbo revealed to friends that she had actually received a “fan letter” from Germany's ruthless dictator. “I wonder how it would feel to stand face to face with a man like Hitler,” she mused.

Hitler admired Camille
Early in World War II, Garbo was told that Adolf Hitler loved her films and admired Camille so much that he allowed its wide distribution in Germany, despite the ‘racial impurity' of director Cukor. The Führer reportedly “retained” a private copy of the film confiscated by his customs officers.

Garbo in Camille

Garbo to shot Hitler
Garbo, in turn, reportedly said she wanted to meet him and try to convince him to stop the war. She felt the power of her personality could alter the course of history, but “if not – I could shoot him”.  Who would dare to search Greta Garbo on a special invitation from the Führer?

The romantic idea that Garbo was willing to martyr herself by assassinating Hitler sounds apocryphal, but her friend Sam Green confirms it: “Once she said, ‘Mr Hitler was big on me. He kept writing and inviting me to come to Germany, and if the war hadn't started when it did, I would have gone and I would have taken a gun out of my purse and shot him, because I'm the only person who would not have been searched.'

That's a direct quote. She said it to me over dinner, and it was so out of character. It wasn't her habit to make up such a story to stop a dinner party. Or maybe not so out of character. As a child, she had had fantasies that ‘I might shorten the life of a cruel king and replace him by a romantic knight'”.

Considering her abhorrence of brutality of any kind, the scheme was uncharacteristically bold – especially from a woman who fretted that nothing she might do could possibly make a difference.

She neither confirmed nor denied
Some acquaintances would later take this intriguing suggestion as proof that Garbo had agreed to spy or carry messages for the Allies. It was a romantic notion. Nevertheless, MGM's Mata Hari was typically sly when asked to comment on such rumors; she neither confirmed nor denied them. Most of these stories emanated from a book about the British Secret Service entitled A Man Called Intrepid.

Canadian William Stephenson – code name Intrepid – helped to set up a special office coordinating activities between the British Secret Service and its counterpart in the States, and was known to use key entertainment industry figures as covers. Charles Higham, author of several books on wartime espionage, maintains that Garbo was asked by Stephenson to help keep an eye on Axel Wenner-Gren.

Axel Wenner-Gren
Axel Wenner-Gren was a Swedish entrepreneur and one of the wealthiest men in the world during the 1930s. During the war the censors would even open private letters. It may be more than coincidence, if you are inclined to be suspicious, that the only one of Garbo's letters to her friend Hörke Wachtmeister that they opened was one in which she wrote about Axel Wenner-Gren.

In the autumn of 1989 Garbo was being discussed in a very delicate context. Sweden's ambassador to London, Leif Leifland, published a book intended to exonerate Axel Wenner. Wenner-Gren, the industrial magnate, from the suspicion that he had worked for Hitler during the war: Svartlistningen av Axel Wenner-Gren (The Blacklisting of Axel Wenner-Gren).

The book lists documents from Allied intelligence organizations that were believed to prove that Garbo had been used as an agent in order to get inside information on what Wenner-Gren was up to. In common with David Niven and Noel Coward, she was supposed to have been made use of to get facts about the Swedish businessman's activities. Quite simply, Garbo was presented as a spy for the Allies. It is said that Garbo had met Axel Wenner-Gren, who loved being surrounded by celebrities.

But according to Garbo her contacts with him were of a superficial nature.Olof Lagercrantz tells a much saucier story about Garbo and Wenner-Gren, concerning a favourite experience of Bertil Malmberg, the writer and Academician: “I saw Greta Garbo naked.” Malmberg and Garbo and a few others were guests of the Wenner-Grens at Häringe Castle outside Stockholm.

Early one morning after a late night, Malmberg saw Garbo from his window, walking on her own down to the deserted swimming-pool in the garden. Garbo took off all her clothes there and jumped naked into the water, little knowing she was being observed Maybe it was Bertil Malmberg who was the spy.

Her first assignment as a “spy”
Her first assignment would have been the trip to Nassau from Miami in February 1940. “For the rest of the war, she would devote herself to the allied cause,”  he declared. “She would risk her life involving herself in the mass rescue of Jews from Denmark, and would bring to bear a strong influence upon King Gustav of Sweden ...”

Stephenson's original claim was much more vague. “As a member of the Stephenson-Churchill group, [Garbo] provided introductions and carried messages,” his Intrepid biographer recorded.

When Stephenson called on her royal admirers, he was quietly arranging escape routes – especially for [Denmark's pioneering nuclear physicist] Professor Niels Bohr ...” For his part, Stephenson made no connection between the actress and “tainted” Swedish businessmen such as Axel Wenner-Gren or Axel Johnson. “I would have died of shame if I had ever had anything to do with spying,” Greta said later.

But would she have carried messages? First, there is no indication that Garbo ever left the United States between 1938 and 1946. However, in the 1960s, after meeting U.N. secretarygeneral Dag Hammarskjöld, she would confide that there were “some things that hap, pened a long time ago that we had to talk about. We spoke Swedish to each other,” she told Raymond Daum. “It was very painful for me ... but I can't tell you that story.”

Dag Hammarskjöld
In later years, Garbo made puzzling references to Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish diplomat and United Nations secretary-general, who had intimate knowledge of Allied intelligence operations in Scandinavia.

She and Hammarskjöld subsequently met in New York City, after which she told Ray Daum, “There were some things that happened a long time ago that we had to talk about. We spoke Swedish to each other. It was very painful for me – but I can't tell you that story.

Garbo told Sven Broman
Garbo's friend Broman once rang Garbo in New York and told her what he had read. At the same time he  pointed out that it was bound to be seen as an honourable deed to have helped to find out information that led to the downfall of Hitler's Germany.

“I would have died of shame if I had ever had anything to do with spying,'‘ Garbo said. “But it is made clear you were on the right side,” Nerman answered . “That makes no difference. No one asked me to do anything like that. No, you can deny it, Mr Broman,” Garbo replied.

Did you know?
In Dublin on September 2005, a international conference given at the Irish Film Institute in order to celebrate Garbo's centennial. Among the speakers there was film historian Kevin Brownlow who presented his new TCM documentary on the Divine called Garbo.

He spoke, among others, about interviewing Garbo's family (her niece etc) about Garbo for the documentary and said that among the surprising things he learned was the family's insistence (and he said that they had proof as well) of Garbo's intense activity in famour of the Allies during World War II. He said that he was amazed, but he simply could not fit all that info in a TCM documentary so he chose not to include that, since it would almost seem incredible to some people.

Garbo - the real spy
Juan Pujol Garcia (1912-1988) was a Double Agent For Britain During WWII. His codename was GARBO due of his mystic and because people who knew him said that he was without doubt the finest actor they have ever seen.


Juan Pujol Garcia aka "Garbo"

Was Garbo in England 1942?
There is a small Hotel in a rather remote part of England, called "The Wheatsheaf", in Carperby, North Yorkshire, which advertises itself as having a SECRET!!

They claim that Garbo stayed there in 1942. In the Hotel's own words she stayed during a break from performances at nearby Catterick Garrison, the UK Army's largest base. When enquiries were made as to what evidence was available to substantiate the story of Garbo's stay, i.e. a visitors book, etc...

The reply was:
"Greta Garbo stayed here with Henry Hall in Jan 1942 after entertaining troops at Catterick. We have the original register with entries and have independently verified these. We only have a photograph of Greta around that time but not here at the Wheatsheaf.”

It's an interesting story but unfortunately there is no indication that Garbo ever left the United States between 1938 and 1946.

Garbo – A Biography – by Barry Paris, Greta Garbo: A Life Apart – by Karen Swenson and Conversations with Greta Garbo – by Sven Broman

Thanks to Kata and Bea

Garbo Rumors - Introduction


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