Garbo felt so at home in Wiltshire

Originally in: Wiltshire Life

The movie star Greta Garbo loved Broad Chalke and the surrounding area, writes Tom Mellors, but even there she couldn’t escape the press.

Greta Garbo was restless. The great movie star had spent the post-war years travelling the world. The press followed her every move and rumours of a comeback abounded. Garbo wanted to be alone, but she also wanted to be happy. It was at the peak of this – the rumours and the restlessness – that she found peace in the most unlikely place. A small Wiltshire village called Broad Chalke.

Garbo’s last movie – a romantic comedy called Two-Faced Woman – had been a critical flop in 1941. Eight years later she considered returning to the screen to star in a film by Walter Wanger, who would later direct Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. The financing fell through however, and she never entertained the idea again.

Despite having devoted fans across the world – one who went so far as to leave her $210,000 in his will – Garbo suffered from severe bouts of depression throughout the 1940s. When holidaying in Cannes with the American poet Mercedes de Costa in 1949, a French newspaper wrote of her notorious black moods: “She drinks champagne, does not dance and is in a very bad temper”.

Greta Garbo was in an equally bad temper when Cecil Beaton – her friend and hopeful lover – met her at the Southampton docks in October 1951. During the car journey to Beaton’s home in Broad Chalke she began to perk up. Beaton had hired Mr Gould – a local publican and farmer – to be their driver. Garbo was intrigued by Mr Gould’s broad Wiltshire accent and smelly old car. “She asked him to repeat certain phrases,” Beaton recalled, and he was soon “throwing back his head and roaring with laughter”.

Mr Gould did not discover the identity of his enchanting passenger until a few days later. By that time Garbo had made friends with half of the village, including the vicar, the butcher, Beaton’s gardener, the shopkeeper and Mr Bundy the pig farmer. For Beaton, who knew from personal experience how difficult it was to befriend Greta Garbo, it was astonishing.

Wherever Garbo went the press followed, and Broad Chalke was no exception. Shortly after arriving local journalists from the Salisbury Times and Western Gazette appeared. Two hours later Fleet Street journalists showed up and began requesting interviews. Garbo refused. Privacy meant everything to her. The villagers of Broad Chalke sympathised with her predicament. They “maintained a canny secrecy,” Beaton later remarked, “and gave away nothing about the luminary in their midst”.

During the six weeks at Reddish House, Garbo underwent an unexpected transformation. She “became her true self, “Beaton wrote in his diary, “she blossomed”. Beaton watched with amazement as she lost her inhibitions. Every morning she went for a walk on the downs where she would joyfully scratch the backs of farmer Bundy’s pigs.

Garbo fell in love with the quiet of Broad Chalke, the seclusion of Reddish House, and the country food. The home-grown vegetables, fresh from the garden each day, tasted “of their intrinsic selves”. There was something about rural life – its simple rhythm and abounding nature – that Garbo loved. As Beaton observed, she took “to Wiltshire ways as if this was where she belonged”.

What appealed most to Garbo about Wiltshire was its isolation. The local people treated her as they would anybody else. Even when visiting Salisbury market, where Garbo and Beaton did their grocery shopping, she went unnoticed. Despite speaking with a heavy Swedish accent, no one ever stared at her. For the first time since her rise to fame she was Greta Garbo the woman, and not Greta Garbo the star.

But it was not to last. On a trip to London Garbo found herself in the spotlight again. Photographers were waiting by the ticket barrier at Waterloo Station for her arrival. As soon as Garbo saw them her mood darkened. “Only now did I fully realise what havoc the Press have wrought on Greta’s private life,” Beaton wrote in his diary. The days of anxiety had returned.

Garbo received a letter from her manager George Schlee in New York. Although married, Schlee was in love with Garbo. He had heard rumours that she and Beaton were getting married and wrote to ‘congratulate’ her. “He’s very clever,” Garbo said, after reading the letter.

Garbo became restless again. One day she told Beaton that she had to go and a few days later she flew back to New York. Beaton was devastated. For the first time his uprooted friend had felt at home, and he had felt closer to her than he ever would again. Greta Garbo returned hurriedly to the reclusive life she became famous for, leaving Beaton – and us – to wonder what might have been had she stayed.