SAN FRANCISCO — Gray Gustafson Reisfield, the sole heiress to her aunt Greta Garbo’s estate and a woman who was a longtime companion to the late Swedish-born actress, has died, a family member said Monday.
Reisfield died Sunday at her home in Marin County, California, following a bout with pneumonia, said her son Derek Reisfield. She was 85.
Reisfield was separated by 27 years from Garbo. But the two bonded over being strong, independent women and enjoyed the lighter side of life together, sitting by the swimming pool, traveling to Caribbean islands and teaching children to do cartwheels in the backyard.
“She viewed [Garbo] as truly a remarkable woman,” Derek Reisfield said. “I think my mother really respected her because she had accomplished so much, and she had done it her way. She was very independent when women were not, and I think that was a real lesson for my mother.”
Born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1932, Reisfield came to the United States with her parents and spent her childhood in Southern California. She moved to Sante Fe, New Mexico, in junior high school, where she enjoyed horseback riding and fishing.
She attended Bryn Mawr College, spent a year at Yale University, where she met her future husband, the now-deceased Dr. Donald Reisfield, and later transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated in 1957.
Derek Reisfield, 54, said he was about 12 when he realized his great aunt was famous after seeing a magazine that showed his mother and Garbo vacationing together. Every spring, the two women would go to the Caribbean.
“They were very close,” he said.
On one trip to an exclusive Caneel Bay resort, known for its unobtrusive luxury and gentle beaches, Garbo donned slacks as she readied to have dinner with a roomful of women who would be wearing party dresses.
Reisfield followed her lead.
When the two women walked into the room, heads turned and there was moment of silence, but soon everyone got back to having a good time.
“The next evening all the women were wearing slacks,” recalled Derek Reisfield with a laugh.
On screen, Garbo was known for her performances in such classics as “Anna Christie,” “Grand Hotel,” “Queen Christina,” “Anna Karenina,” “Camille” and “Ninotchka.” Both on screen and off, she had a major influence on women’s fashions, hair styles and makeup.
Garbo starred in 26 films in 17 years. In 1941, at age 36, she quit Hollywood, spending the rest of her life in shuttered and fenced residences in France, Switzerland and Manhattan, where she lived in an East Side high-rise. At the time of her death, she owned 18th-century antiques, fine rugs, damask curtains and many pieces of art, including a Renoir.
Known as “the Swedish sphinx” because of her deep fear of reporters and other strangers, she ironically became one of the most publicized women in the world while trying to guard her privacy.
Her biographer John Bainbridge wrote in “Garbo” that except at the start of her career, she “granted no interviews, signed no autographs, attended no premieres, answered no fan mail.”
Garbo never married and had no children, but rather chose her niece as a frequent companion.
“My mother was very close to her and would go into New York once a week to see her,” Derek Reisfield said. “They were both very strong, very independent women, and I think they bonded over that.”
She is survived by her three sons and a daughter, eight grandchildren and one great grandchild.