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Garbo - The Name
- by Annie M. -


* Introduction
* Her Original Name
* Gustafson with one "S"
* Greta Gusta“v“son
* Garbo
* The Name Petition
* Garbo: Where did it come from?
* Did you know?
* Garbos Nicknames and Pseudonyms!
* Her Signature
* Greta Gustafson Garbo
* Greta's Nicknames as a child and teenager
* Greta is or was also known as….



Even after decades it is still not known where the name Garbo came from, who discovered it and what it means? Sometime, in late 1923,  during a break of filming Gösta Berling saga (Sweden 1924), director Mauritz Stiller asked Greta to think about changing her name.

Mauritz Stiller asked Greta to change her name

Her Original Name

Her orginal name was Greta Lovisa Gustafsson. Lovisa was the second name of her mother, Anna Lovisa. Many Garbo writers over the decades – misspelled the family surname.

Greta with 15 years old

Gustafson with one "S"

Many Garbo writers over the decades – misspelled the family surname. When Greta signed a standard player's contract with Svensk Filmindustri on July, 1923. She changed her last name from Gustafsson (two “s”) to Gustafson (one “s”). This was the more contemporary spelling of her last name.

Like her children, Anna Lovisa would follow Greta's lead and use the new spelling of her last name too. “As far as I know, it has always been spelled G-u-s-t-a-f-s-o-n. No one in the family (that I know of) ever spelled it any other way.” says Gray Reisfield. From now on they were  all  Gustafson's (with one 's' !).

Greta's father and mother

Greta Gusta“v“son

When Greta filled out an application for the PUB in Summer of 1920. She spelt her name as “Gustavson”. Greta decided to leave the PUB after nearly 2 years. On July 22, she had her last day in the department store and stated her reason for leaving as “To work on Film”. She was almost 16.

Greta “Gustavson”


Sometime during the break of Gösta Berling saga in 1923, Mauritz Stiller asked Greta to think about changing her name. It was not the first time she had considered it – in fact, many women during this period were adopting more distinctive surnames. After centuries of Adamsdotters and Karlssons, Sweden's youth looked for a new identity.

Gustafsson was such a common name in Sweden, it filled countless pages in countless community directories; like many Swedes, the first thing Greta did was eliminate the superfluouss in her last name. Magda Hellberg, Greta's supervisor at PUB, recollected that the young hopeful did not think that Greta Gustafsson was refined enough for the stage: “She wanted a shorter name which could be pronounced easily in any language.”

On November 9 th , 1923, a document was drawn up and signed by Anna Gustafsson in presence of witnesses, Mona Mårtenson and Greta. This was a formal application to the Ministry of the Interior requesting permission for her daughter to adopt the legal name of Garbo. Less than a month later, on December 4th , permission was granted. On that day Greta Lovisa Gustafson died, and Greta Garbo was born. At this time Greta was working on the Gosta Berling Saga.

Garbo, 1923

The Name Petition

On November 9, 1923 Anna Gustafson  signed a petition asking the ministry to allow her daughter to legally change her name to Greta Garbo. Interestingly, Mona Mårtenson witnessed Greta's signing as well as her mother's. The petition was formally approved by the Ministry of Justice on December 21, 1923. By that time, Greta Garbo was back at work on Gösta Berlings saga.

The petition

Where did it come from?
There are at least nine versions of how Greta Gustafson became ‘Garbo'!

1. The Polish version

The most absurd of which is that it derived from the Polish word wygarbowac – 'to tan leather' – an alleged twist on Stiller's desire to shape her psychic hide.The claim that her name had to be changed in order to fit on a marquee is likewise mythical: surname length didn't hinder such actors as Sixten Malmerfeldt or Jenny Öhrström-Ebbesen. Sweden had few Hollywood- style marquees anyway.

2. The Hungarian king version

More plausible is the account by which Stiller wanted to follow up Erotikon with a similar vehicle for Tora Teje in which the heroine's name was ‘modern and elegant and international [and) says just as clearly who she is in London and Paris as in Budapest and New York'. His manuscript assistant Arthur Norden suggested ‘Mona Gabor', derived from Gabor Bethlen, the seventeenth-century Hungarian king. Stiller rather liked it but kept trying out different variations: Gabor, GabOR, Gabro ... Garbo! Tora Teje was soon abandoned, but when Greta Gustafson later fired his imagination, she had just the right Christian name to go with the surname he already had in mind.

Gabor Bethlen

3. The Etymology version

The most romantic etymology holds that garbon was an old Norwegian word for wood nymph or forest sprite, and that Stiller chose it to signify ‘a mysterious being that comes out in the night to dance in the moonlight'.

There is, in fact, an ancient Nordic word gardbo, for ‘farm guardian', but garbo has no meaning in Swedish. It does have meaning in the Romance languages – with which Stiller and Garbo were largely unfamiliar.

4. The Italian version

Some claim Stiller knew the Italian musical term con garbo, ‘with grace'. Garbo is a rarely used word in Italian that means a peculiar kind of grace and charm.

5. The Spanish version

Similar to the Italian definition of the word in Spanish: ‘gracefulness, elegant carriage', often applied to bullfighters.

6. The Arthur Nordén version

Stiller's Scenarist Arthur Nordén related that the director wanted a name that was “modern and elegant and international.” He suggested Stiller the name Gábor, which apparently delighted Stiller, who rolled it round his tongue appreciatively. He and Garbo were very sensitive to the sound of words, their imaginative stresses as much as their vocal ones.

Mercedes de Acosta remembers mentioning a Russian word, ‘toscar', to Garbo ‘who repeated it many times, pronouncing it richly and turning it, as it were, round her tongue like someone who might be speaking a beloved name'.' Stiller apparently worked the same way, trying accent and spelling variations of Gabor until he lighted on – Garbo.

7. The Mimi Pollak version

And not to be dismissed out of hand is the claim of Mimi Pollack, who insists it was she and Greta – not Stiller – who came up with ‘Garbo'. According to Mimi Pollak, the director never mentioned the name to Greta before she went down to the Ministry of Justice to meet with Mimi's friend, Oscar Adelsson, to discuss the change.

Mimi, late 1920

After looking through a stack of books and tossing around ideas with Mimi and friends, the name “Garbo” was conceived as she and Mimi walked across Norrbro Bridge on the way to the government building. It was a combination of two different surnames. “Greta thought it was wonderful. ‘Now I don't have to change the initials on my towels,' she said.” In Pollack's account, Greta herself felt Gustafson was too long and ordinary for a stage name.

She consulted Mimi, who knew a registrar at the Ministry of justice, where one day they looked through thousands of names. They liked ‘Gar-' as a beginning, she said, and their fancy was caught by the ending ‘-bo' on another name. The pseudonym is said to be a mark of power – a second chance for destiny, as well as anonymity; Coleridge said pseudonyms had to accommodate all meanings and connotations attached to them.

8. Stiller version

Someone wrote that he derived it from the first letters of a sentence he wrote describing Greta Gustafsson: Gör alla roller berömvärt opersonligt (Plays all roles in a commendably impersonal fashion).

Mauritz Stiller

Even if Garbo didn't actually choose hers, she at least had to approve it. Whatever its genesis and its owner's feeling about it. Stiller had a name.

9. Erica Darbo version

The name “Garbo“, many have said, was inspired by Erica Darbo, a Norwegian operetta performer who was much applauded in Stockholm at the time.

Did you know?

 One rumour was that the Norwegian singer Erica Darbo wanted to sue Garbo because she was using her professional name.

 Louis B. Mayer wanted her to drop the name Garbo because he thought it sounded too much like garbage, but the lady proved

 Lovisa was also the first name of the Princess of Sweden (1851 – 1926).

 Stiller and Garbo were often referred to as Pygmalion and Galatea, Beauty and the Beast or Svengali and Trilby.

 Actor John Gilbert called Garbo "flicka", which means "girl" in swedish.

Garbos Nicknames and Pseudonyms!

Rather than be Greta Garbo she prefers to masquerade. All pseudonyms that she has used in an effort to lose her public identity.

    01. Miss Harriet Brown
    02. Miss Karin Lund
    03. Miss Jane Emerson
    04. Miss Emily Clark
    05. Miss Mary Holmquist
    06. Miss Gussie Berger
    07. Harry Brown
    08. Mountain Boy
    09. Eleanor
    10. The Clown
    11. GG
    12. Miss G
    13. G.
    14. James Emerson

Her favourite was Miss Harriet Brown. Hiding behind that drab and faceless fiction, she strolled the streets of New York, Paris, London and Vienna, often stopping to browse in antique shops, where, if she asks that some piece be set aside for her (she almost never buys), she reluctantly gave her name as Miss Harriet Brown, fooling nobody, perhaps not even herself.

Her favourite was Miss Harriet Brown

But her desire to avoid playing the role of Greta Garbo before strangers was overpowering. She had never fully understood the part. In later years her friends and family only called her….GG……

Her Signature

Letters were mostly unsigned, even when they were it was usually with a pseudonym,  and the subterfuge even extended to a reluctance to date anything, so envelope postmarks  are  the only reliable  clue as to when they were written. When a signature was included, she preferred  to use one of many nicknames and pseudonyms. 

Harriet Brown was a favourite, so she would just sign H.B. or Harry Brown, but at other times her mood would dictate different persona's: "Mountain Boy" (M-Boy) for her secret, contradictory, but gentle masculine side;  or  "Eleanor" for her wistful, feminine side.  They were mostly in pencil, and often on very inexpensive note-paper, where she would lightly scratch her initials- GG or just G. Her signature was a lifelong concern. More about her signature  HERE!

Greta Gustafson Garbo

During and after Gösta Berling, 1924 she kept up her studies at the Academy. Now, with increased prestige from the film, she was offered a contract as ‘leading pupil', with a thirty-dollar-a-month raise in her stipend. She signed herself ‘Greta Gustafson Garbo' this time

Greta's Nicknames as a child and teenager

1. Kata

Kata (spell: Keta) was her childhood nickname and also in later life by her family and friends. The name derived from the way she pronounced her name when she was very small. In 2005, Garbo's nephew Scott Reisfield said that t his was the nickname she was given as a child–after Swedish suffragette Kata Dalstrom–presumably for her strong will.

2. Gurra

Gurra, was a nickname she was given by her friends from the Royal Dramatic Theatre Academy. The name "Gurra" is related to the name – Gustav.

Greta is or was also known as….

The legendary woman of mystery, Greta Garbo has baffled journalists at home and abroad. She has eluded them both in body and spirit. For more than a quarter of a century, Greta Garbo's admirers on six continents have contended with one another in trying to describe her particular spell.

The Divine

Their prolonged and enchanting verbal skirmish has been trippingly fought on the field of superlatives. Her most famous Description. Is Garbo and The Divine (in several languages).Greta Garbo has been called “The Divine” in several languages and not a few dialects. Groping for the revealing phrase that would provide a clue to the unguessed mystery, they have had to settle for something rather commonplace, such as:

    01. The Swedish Sphinx
    02. The Hollywood Sphinx
    03. The unapproachable Sphinx
    04. The bashful Baltic beauty
    05. The Divine Woman
    06. The shy Valkyrie
    07. The dazzling enigma
    08. The Swedish Swan
    09. The Arctic Mystery
    10. The Face

    11. The million-dollar hermit
    12. The Mysterious Lady
    13. The Dream Princess of Eternity
    14. Garbo
    15. The Sarah Bernhardt of Films
    16. The New Duse
    17. The Divine (in several languages)
    18. The Divine Garbo
    19. The Incomparable One
    20. La Divine (France)

    21. Die Göttliche (Germany)
    22. The Incomparable One
    23. The flaming icicle
    24. The frozen torch
    25. The First Lady of Hollywood
    26. The Queen of Hollywood
    27. The world's most alluring spinster
    28. The face of this century
    29. The sphinx of the 20th Century
    30. The transparent viking girl who enchants and poisons

    31. The chrystal flower
    32. Sphinx of Hollywood
    33. Die Märchenhafte (German for " in a fairytale")
    34. Lady of Mystery
    35. Sphinge du Nord (France)
    36. Femme fantôme (France)

To some of her worshippers she is simply “poetry, sunrise and great music.” In England she has been characterized as “A superhuman symbol of The Other Woman,” and in Germany as  “The supreme symbol of inscrutable tragedy.” America she has been hailed with majestic dizziness as “the mysterious, inscrutable, available but untouchable essence of the indefinable.” At the peak of her film career, when she had just turned thirty, she was “every man's harmless fantasy mistress".  Whatever else Greta Garbo may represented or still represent, she is undeniably the classic symbol of womanly beauty of the 20th century.



Garbo - by Barry Paris
A Life Apart - by Karen Swenson
Garbo - by Robert Payne


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