"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)
"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)
A Pre-War Legend in Post-War New York
October of 1953, two years after becoming a U.S. citizen, film legend
Greta Garbo 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 Queensborough 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 Ave. 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.
In an attempt to capture the paths of this most famous fellow flâneuse, I followed in her footsteps over the past few days. Beginning at her apartment building at 450 E. 52nd St., I set out to see what Garbo might have seen, to envision as best I could the changing landscapes she may have encountered over a period of 35 years. I walked to a few of her known destinations, such as the Waldorf and the Museum of Modern Art, but I have no idea the specific route she chose. I am guessing that she was of the sort to improvise variations on the same path.
What struck me most was the idea that 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.
Image: Greta Garbo photographed in 1924 by Henry B. Goodwin (1878 - 1931)
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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.
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 walk looks far in its entirety, but it's not hiking in the woods. If you want to rough it, you can buy good expensive trail mix at Eli Zabar's E.A.T., a little far north on Madison between 80th and 81st St. Also, this itinerary is much more deliberate and defined than the kind that Garbo would take.
I'll get into some of the details shortly, but feel free to click around on the interactive map and see what's here. CONTINUE TO PAGE TWO