Garbo was born in Sweden in 1905 and began acting in Swedish films before being signed by Louis B Mayer to a Hollywood contract. She was given roles that portrayed her as a young but worldly woman, a persona that would make her a major star.
John Gilbert was born in 1899 and was a star of the silent film, known as "The Great Lover." rivaling Rudolph Valentino as a leading man.
In 1926 the already famous Gilbert was given the starring role in Flesh and the Devil. The actress chosen to star with him was the relatively unknown Greta Garbo. They clicked-Oh boy did they click. Their first screen kiss signalled the beginning of one of Hollywood's most written about romances.
Clarence Brown, the movie’s director, said of them:“It was the damnedest thing you ever saw When they got into that first love scene…nobody else was even there. Those two were alone in a world of their own. It seemed like an intrusion to yell “Cut!” I used to just motion the crew over to another part of the set and let them finish what they were doing. It was embarrassing.”
For the next two years they were the couple in Hollywood. They lived together during this time and went on to make other films together. Gilbert wanted to marry Garbo and proposed over and over to her. While deeply in love with him, she didn't want to get married. Then one day Garbo accepted his proposal. Friends King Vidor and Eleanor Boardman were getting married and she agreed to a double ceremony. But when the day arrived she changed her mind and left Gilbert at the altar. In her own words, "I was in love with him. But I froze. I was afraid he would tell me what to do and boss me. I always wanted to be the boss."
Gilbert was heartbroken but the relationship continued for a time. Finally he married someone else. One story has it that Garbo, on the eve of his wedding, phoned the best man to beg him to stop it.
Their friendship didn't end there. In 1933 when Gilbert's career was declining and Garbo was a box office hit, she was chosen to star in Queen Christina. She turned down the studio's suggestions for her leading man and insisted the part be given to Gilbert. They agreed and the movie was a smash. It didn't rekindle Gilbert's career though.
He began to suffer the ill effects of alcoholism and died of a massive heart attack at the age of 36.
Garbo spent her later life out of films, living alone as she desired, but not in total seclusion as was sometimes written about her. She made public appearances from time to time, and even attended a dinner at the White House. There was much speculation about her later affairs and even about her sexual orientation. She ignored it all. In 1990 she died at the age of 84, a wealthy woman who had led the life of her own choosing.