© THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 14, 1995 by JANET MASLIN:
Greta Garbo's Pedestrian Side – Everything Not on Film
She watched "Matlock" and "General Hospital," cooked with peanut oil and collected paintings of harlequins and dogs. She kept a secret cache of dynel-haired toy trolls. Leading a life that was pedestrian in every sense, with a daily routine incorporating two long walks and a nap in between, she worried obsessively about sensible shoes. She loved fresh vegetables but never bothered with flowers. "What's the point?" she would say. "They'd only die."
The brusque Greta Garbo described in this late section of "Garbo," Barry Paris's thorough, dutiful portrait of the screen's most enigmatic icon, is not truly a great departure from the Hollywood goddess she once was. This book's touchingly banal account of her life as a New York recluse is consistent with qualities that showed even at the pinnacle of Garbo's career, when her aloof, spellbinding beauty never really masked her peculiar reserve. Capturing the essence of Garbo's mystery, Joshua Logan once said: "I defy anyone to make the person she is fit the women she has played on the screen." As the biographer himself notes: "The stated goal of this search was not to knock Garbo off her pedestal but simply to climb up for a closer look. Yet when we get there -- she is gone."
Mr. Paris need not debunk his subject's glorious screen image to describe the inherent contradictions between her artistry and her life. "She was a textbook case of dazzling exterior far removed from inner self," he writes, while making a strong case for that conclusion. Even at the pinnacle of her unwanted glamour, Garbo was better known for tart rejoinders than for behavior that befit a movie queen: like her famous response to a dinner invitation, "How do I know I'll be hungry on Wednesday?"
It was a reserve that went way back. At 19, she told an interviewer: "They were my mother and father. That was enough. Why should the world talk about them?" And it never left her, as when she once asked about her fans: "Why do they want my picture? I'm not their relative." When Adrian, the couturier whose creations served her so well, suddenly resigned from MGM, Garbo said flatly: "I'm very sorry you're leaving. But you know, I never really liked most of the clothes you made me wear."
Much of this is a matter of record, as Mr. Paris compiles anecdotes from familiar Hollywood memoirs to describe Garbo's years as an actress. Anyone who ever got near Garbo had a story to tell, and the author diligently assembles those recollections to tell the Hollywood section of her story. (Louise Brooks, the trenchant author of "Lulu in Hollywood" and the subject of an earlier biography by Mr. Paris, is quoted to particularly good effect.) Mr. Paris also notes in his introduction that he was asked "Hasn't she been done to death?" and that question would be fair if this book stayed on the well-trod territory of her life in Hollywood. But Garbo lived five decades past her retirement, which gives this account its greatest curiosity value.
"I am the image of living inertia," she once said. Tennessee Williams put it better when, after running into Garbo in New York City, he described her as "the saddest of creatures, an artist who abandoned her art." In any case, Mr. Paris offers cogent analysis of the fears that made Garbo a victim of her own celebrity ("Success acted on Garbo like a depressant," one film historian said) and sent her into such a solipsistic state. His sources for much of this material are the younger men who were enlisted to walk Garbo around New York and otherwise do her bidding. One of them, Raymond Daum, accompanied her on these expeditions for 18 years without ever being given her telephone number. When she wanted him, "Daum's phone would ring and the unmistakable voice would say, simply and peremptorily, 'Let's go.' "
Sam Green, an art dealer who was for a time one of Garbo's closest companions, made tape recordings of their conversations, some of which are reprinted here. (Garbo was careful to leave behind little written record of her thoughts. Mr. Green well knew her passion for privacy, but their friendship ended in a falling out, which explains his cooperation with the author.) When Garbo talked, at least under these mundane circumstances, it was about hypochondria or lighting fixtures or a wart on her toe. Imperiousness was a common thread in her remarks to a lifetime's worth of accommodating male admirers. "Whatever you suggest, it's no," she told Mr. Green one day.
The movie queen who once said, "I'm a woman who's unfaithful to a million men" was not terribly interested in any of them, if Mr. Paris's considerable evidence is to be believed. She abandoned all pretense of heterosexual romance after having nearly married John Gilbert. ("Did she deliberately lead him on?" Mr. Paris asks rhetorically. " 'No, she just didn't contradict him,' " the actress Eleanor Boardman explains.) Beyond that, she spent much time with female companions, referred to herself often as a man, and may have come closest to a sexual romance with Cecil Beaton, the photographer, who courted her slavishly but told his diary that if she hadn't been Garbo, "nobody would've wanted to be around her for 10 minutes." Mr. Paris, citing four years' research and hundreds of interviews, finds it likely that the cinema's most transfixing romantic icon led a largely sexless life.
"The metabolism that photographed as listless sensuality was really closer to fatigue," he writes. "What looked like a migraine on Joan Crawford was, on Garbo, 'an intense form of sexual yearning.' Few could believe the simple truth -- that the connection between Garbo's erotic screen essence and her private sexuality was nonexistent." Or that the beauty of Hollywood's grandest illusions is so truly in the eye of the beholder.
Additional Press Articles about Greta Garbo:
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[Intro (2MB)] · [Franz Blei: Die göttliche Garbo] · [Stummfilme] · [Tonfilme] · [E-Mail]
[The Greta Garbo Collection] · [Interview with Greta Garbo (English)]
[Press Articles about Greta Garbo] · [True Story of Garbos Life by Sven-Hugo Borg]