Skip to main content

Garbo Walks: A Pre-War Legend in Post-War New York

Greta Garbo photographed in 1924
by Henry B. Goodwin (1878 - 1931)
In October of 1953, two years after becoming a U.S. citizen, film legend Greta Garbo (1905-1990) bought a spacious apartment in The Campanile at 450 E. 52nd St. A building of understated elegance by today's standards, the apartment building served the needs of discreet older New York families as well as other movie stars. The building, which takes its architectural inspiration from the counterpart in Venice's Piazza San Marco, sits at the far quiet south end of the street and with views overlooking the East River. Garbo lived on the fifth floor with a view of the river and the Queensboro Bridge, and she decorated her seven rooms with attractive antiques and art.

From 1953 until her death on April 15, 1990, she spent much of her time walking the nearby streets. She typically took a walk in the morning and then another in the afternoon after lunch. Sometimes a friend would accompany her, and at other times she was content to stroll alone. Her biographers describe several of her favored routes. She liked to walk up 3rd Avenue to visit the antique shops, but she also frequented 1st and 2nd Avenues. She often walked north on Madison Avenue to look at art galleries or over and down to the Waldorf-Astoria to meet a friend for lunch. From her starting point at the east end of 52nd St. she would also walk to wherever the mood struck her. She would window shop or browse stores, and on a few occasions she bought something. Shopkeepers found her cordial.

She was a pre-war movie star walking into post-war New York. From the vantage point of walking from east to west along 52nd Street, Garbo walked from the old world of a flickering cinematic memory into the brave new world of mid-century - the Seagram Building (1957) and the Lever House (1951-1952), the Colgate Palmolive Building (1955), and the Union Carbide Building (1960). Greta Garbo, the most famous face on nitrate, chose to spend her notorious retirement at the dawn of a glassier, taller, quintessentially modern, and increasingly bureaucratic city that redefined New York. This was the fifties world of "the lonely crowd" and "the man in the gray flannel suit" and the dawn of television. For an independent and self-reliant woman in her late forties and in search of some solitude, she made the perfect choice.


Garbo Walks: Andy Warhol and the Crumpled Butterfly



Before Andy Warhol became the posthumously ubiquitous symbol of Fame itself, he consciously studied the fame of others. Settling into New York, Warhol modeled himself after the famously fabulous Truman Capote. When Capote tired of his young admirer, Warhol pursued Garbo. Even in his own looks he started to fashion himself into a reclusive movie star type, selecting an appropriate wig and some dark glasses. 

"He got himself invited to a picnic with Greta Garbo. He was too shy to speak, so he drew a butterfly and handed it to her. “She looked at it bemused,” recalled another guest. “At the end of the day, she absent-mindedly crumpled it and left it behind. Andy picked it up and had his mother write on it, ‘Crumpled butterfly by Greta Garbo’.” - from an article by Joanna Pitman, Before the soup can, July 28, 2007, Times Online (UK)

From 1974 until his death, Warhol lived in a 30-room townhouse on East 66th Street. As Garbo walked through the neighborhood on her way to favorite stores and galleries along Madison, she probably strolled past his house many times. I can picture Warhol, by 1974 the most successful star-struck artist in the world and the one who understood the most about fame, peering down from a window and catching a glimpse of Garbo, the star who walked away from all that. Warhol died on February 22, 1987 at the age of 59. Garbo died three years later on April 15, 1990. She was 84.

Mapping Greta Garbo




Greta Garbo often walked up and down the streets you see before you, "Mademoiselle Hamlet," as Alice B. Toklas called her, wanting to be alone. Starting at her apartment on the East River, Garbo wandered west and mostly north through streets and avenues of Midtown and into the Upper East Side. This area defines the very art of window-shopping, especially the upscale stores along Madison Avenue. While she lived well, Garbo was often frugal. On occasion she would treat herself to some favorite caviar at a food market, but most biographers agree that she just enjoyed browsing.

"When we did pass, the brim of the hat flopped up and I saw her face. It was Greta Garbo wearing dark glasses, and totally oblivious to my presence. The face was still beautiful, but there was a sternness in it as she began walking a bit faster. She must have feared a word from me, some interference in her solitary morning exercise." - Wallace Fowlie, Sites: A Third Memoir (Duke University Press, 1987)

Of course, many stores that are here today were not around during Garbo's time. But, as she lived at 450 E. 52nd St. from 1953 until her death in 1990, she saw many new stores open and close, favorite restaurants shuttered or re-opened under new management, and new office buildings replace older landmarks. Even the older places underwent extensive remodeling. This itinerary is much more deliberate and defined than the kind that Garbo would take.

"I am not what you call a movie fan. When I worked, I had no time. I did not make time. I preferred to be out in the air doing something physical. When I stopped working, I preferred other activities, many other activities. I would rather be outside walking than to sit inside a theater and watch a picture moving. Walking is my greatest pleasure. " - Greta Garbo, from an interview in Ingrid Bergman, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (Simon and Schuster, 2007) 

(revised from a post originally published in 2007)

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

Museums in New York Open on Tuesdays

American Folk Art Museum , 45 W. 53rd St. Asia Society and Museum , 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street) Guggenheim Museum , 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th St.) Pictured left International Center of Photography , 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street The Metropolitan Museum of Art , 1000 Fifth Avenue NEW: Beginning May 1, 2013 MoMA will be open seven days a week. 11 W. 53rd St. The Morgan Library & Museum , 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street Museum of the City of New York , 1220 Fifth Avenue New York University, Grey Art Gallery , 100 Washington Square East Mondays and Tuesdays are the hardest days to remember which museums are open. See the list for NY museums open on Mondays here .

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

The Marx Brothers in New York: Interlude - On Groucho Walking

This special new series about the Marx Brothers in New York continues this week, following the brothers into a career in Broadway and into the movies, but first I would like to take a little time to discuss Groucho's peculiar way of walking. Sometimes described as a "lope" or "stoop," Groucho's silly and often lecherous walk became just as an important part of his persona as his glasses, eyebrows, cigar and greasepaint moustache. He didn't walk this walk all the time, but as you recall from the films, Groucho would often bend his knees and lean forward as he proceeded from point A to point B. To imitate Groucho properly at a costume party, it's important to get this part down. • Groucho explained that it was simply a bit of inspired improvisation. From the book Hello, I Must Be Going by Charlotte Chandler, he says, "I was just kidding around one day, and I started to walk funny. The audience liked it, so I kept it in."(pps. 153-154) Chand

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

A Walk From Lincoln Center to Zabar's

If you happen to be attending a noon or matinee performance in Lincoln Center or otherwise happen to be hanging around there for whatever reason and find you've got some time, I recommend a stroll up Broadway to Zabar's, the famous Upper West Side food emporium. This stretch of Broadway takes in the sights of several new housing sky-rises, several theaters, and some flamboyant former apartment hotels of the early 20th century. Flâneurs will love the Belle Epoque ambiance of these overly-ornamented buildings, and the distance from W. 66th or so to W. 80th is not so taxing, especially if you're dressed in shoes for the opera. View Larger Map Several noteworthy structures along the way - The Dorilton, 171 W 71st St., from 1900-02, at the northeast corner of Broadway, is considered a Beaux Arts masterpiece. The 72nd St subway station dates from 1904 and is a funny little thing. Verdi Square, at the convergence of Broadway, Amsterdam, an W. 73rd, is a nice small park fea

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

Coping with Anxiety and Crisis: A Selected List of Fine Chocolate Stores in New York

Fears of recession, concerns about the state of the world, worries about job prospects, and anxieties about the future dominate the news headlines these days, but these kinds of stories are perennial, coloring the way we conduct our lives. Fortunately, we now believe that the 400+ ingredients in dark chocolate may alleviate some of the worst symptoms of this kind of external stress. Had a bad day? A little brisk walk to your local chocolate boutique may fix you right up. It's funny, but studies show that taking a chocolate supplement doesn't work as well for a sense of individual well-being as the act of eating a piece of chocolate. I understand. I think aesthetics matter. Eating beautiful chocolates can make you feel all yummy and special on the inside. My chocolate cravings can even be satisfied by unravelling the classic and minimalist Hershey's bar. Yet, I still prefer a visit to the city's finest purveyors of chocolate. At the following places (links provided), c