Greta Garbo: A Life Apart

Garbo. The woman who all but wore a scarlet “M” on her breast for Mysterious. Definitive icon of the screen, she left moviemaking behind in 1942. The famous recluse, ever on the move, left this world in 1990. Yet, her star is still on the rise through new books and film revival – simply because her affair with film continues to seduce new generations. Greta Garbo: A Life Apart, by Karen Swenson (Lisa Drew Books/Scribner, 1997), is the latest tome about Greta Garbo and fourth in a series of factual and heartfelt biographies since her death: Walking With Garbo, by Raymond Daum (HarperCollins, 1991), documenting ordinary conversations with the star based on years of mutual strolls the author took with Garbo through the byways of New York City; Loving Garbo, by Hugo Vickers (Random House, 1994), a deep study of the on and off again relationships of Garbo, designer Cecil Beaton and author Mercedes de Acosta; and Garbo, by Barry Paris (Knopf, 1995), which is widely considered to be the definitive opus.

I admit to being a Garbo “obsessionado,” devouring everything I can get my hands on regarding the goddess, including the thrill of attending a three-day retrospect of all of her existing American silent films (before Tuner Classic Movies began to get the hint) at the Director’s Guild, in Los Angeles – literally a week before she died on Easter Sunday, April 15, 1990. It was with great curiosity that I dove into Ms Swenson’s account, wondering if there was anything remaining that she could bring to light. I was not disappointed. Barry Paris’s biography still retains its magnificent scope. However, Ms Swenson’s book is nothing less than a necessary companion volume to his 1995 expose. Her contributions more than complement Paris with the insights and amendments her tireless and extraordinary research uncovered.

Ms. Swenson took a literal and figurative journey retracing the steps of the restless recluse. A quote in her book from Mercedes De Acosta was surely the inspiration for this approach: “To know Greta – one must know the North…She will always be Nordic with all its sober and introvert characteristics. To know her one must know – really know – wind, rain and dark brooding skies.” As a consequence, Swenson traveled to Sweden, other parts of Europe and around the U.S. searching for the true Garbo.

While I am generally reluctant to single out gender in regards to writers and other artists, this treatment for Garbo is unique. Why? Until this book, this complex woman was analyzed in full in biographies written by men. It is appropriate that this time a woman, and one of Swedish extraction as Ms. Swenson is, has explored facets of Garbo through a feminine perspective – and one that peers into the Swedish heart and mind. Swenson states in her acknowledgments appreciation to Garbo’s closest relatives, the Reisfields, for their assistance and cooperation with the final manuscript, and to the Garbo estate for their limited cooperation. However, this is far from an officially sanctioned biography (Swenson stresses the estate and family “reserves the right to publish its own book in the future”). The reward is that this is perhaps the most intimate and insightful exploration of Garbo put to paper. It is not merely an exercise in adoration, although it is difficult to bypass Garbo’s image on film. Her intoxicating image inspires a powerful attraction that tends to overpower other facets of this woman. This is Garbo revealed in an intelligent mix of eloquent investigation and articulate myth-shattering.

There are several examples of this myth-shattering, including Swenson’s convincing rethink that reveals what may have really happened at the infamous double wedding of Eleanor Boardman to King Vidor. Were Garbo and Gilbert really supposed to wed at the same nuptials? Did a violent altercation actually occur between guest Louis B. Mayer and Gilbert, who was left in the lurch? Legend has perpetuated this tale as fact over the decades. There are other tales, too, that bear rethinking and benefit from the author’s unflagging desire to leave “no turn unstoned.” Swenson has uncovered new material from two diametrically opposed figures in Garbo’s life – Salka Viertel and Mercedes de Acosta. Garbo’s mentor Mauritz Stiller is also more deeply explored, for without him the world may never have been introduced to this fascinating creature. The Garbo/Dietrich “rivalry” is also explored. It began with Josef von Sternberg, who invented the Dietrich persona. He modeled Marlene “after the star he imagined Garbo to be.” He was, in fact, under consideration by M-G-M to direct Garbo Queen Christina (M-G-M, 1933).

An honest biography is not afraid to explore the good, the bad and the ugly. Ms. Swenson reveals that Garbo may have been the perfect screen goddess, but as a human being she failed to truly and deeply connect with others. On an intimate level, there were the friends and family who took the risk of attempting to become close to her, often times hoping to possess her or at least be granted an invitation into her inner circle of one. Most of the time they were summarily rejected by her. Many simply described her as indifferent and selfish. However, Swenson deftly expresses the facts that Garbo did exhibit affection, concern and sympathy for those she felt truly drawn to and, more notably, if they protected her she in turn protected them. The recipients of her trust and affection were not surprisingly her close friend and champion Salka Viertel, her fitness guru Gaylord Hauser and her devoted companion George Schlee. Revealed in this book is the tender support she gave to troubled actor Montgomery Clift, her confidant and publicist Harry Crocker and author Erich Maria Remarque.

Why was Garbo expected to satisfy the fantasies that others hoped she was? All her life she fought any references, inferences or reminiscences pertaining to her movie career. Even Billy Wilder’s famous line uttered by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. (Paramount, 1950) (“We didn’t need dialog – we had faces. There just aren’t any faces like that anymore. Only one: Garbo…”) deeply wounded her, according to Swenson. There is the niggling feeling that even if Garbo had made herself available for every interview, photo op or political endorsement – she would have been damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. When someone has been elevated so highly, these expectations can never be met. Perhaps this is what contributed to her solid stance of insisting on complete privacy.

Brooding was Garbo’s nature. Swenson relates that Acosta poetically described Garbo as a “A Viking child troubled by dreams of snow,” and Marie Dressler, her costar in Anna Christie (M-G-M, 1930), observed that Garbo seemed as if she was living “in a core of vast aching aloneness.” Garbo was a restless recluse steeped in boredom, depression and emotional self-flagellation – not behavior that one would expect from a woman who lived a charmed life and seemed to have it all. So much was expected of this mortally reluctant woman. It has been said by author Frances Marion, “The bigger they are, the simpler they are.” This was not a condemnation, but an astute observation of the problems of the public deification of mere mortals. Many may be loathe to relinquish adornment of their “object of affection.” The biggest fear being the attraction, mystique and illusion of their idol will evaporate and leave behind dregs of disappointment. But in reality, knowing our idols and understanding them makes them flesh and blood, and, as a result, brings them closer to their admirers than ever before.

In Garbo’s case, maybe it was more appropriate to say “still waters run deep.” A major aspect of Garbo that Swenson touches on, and unfortunately does not linger upon, was Garbo’s desperate desire to get out from under the chronic depression with which she was burdened. She spent a great many years attacking it through a health food regimen (of course, she could never give up the chain smoking and cocktails). More importantly, and probably the most private side of Garbo (more than her love affairs), was her ongoing search for spiritual fulfillment. She was most attracted to Eastern meditation and philosophy. She searched very intensely and sincerely to find a place within herself of peace and happiness. In the end these desires remained elusive, and this disappointment was not lost upon her. One woman wrote about this in her memoirs – Nancy Cooke de Herrera, author of Beyond Gurus (Blue Dolphin, 1993). She devotes an entire chapter to Garbo and their mutual friend, Gaylord Hauser. De Herrera was asked by Hauser to help him help Garbo find the inner contentment she was looking for.

Despite the relentless intrusion of the paparazzi, Garbo’s obsessive reluctance to reveal anything made her all the more fascinating. Karen Swenson successfully managed to further demystify her, yet make the demystification process a significant right of passage. She includes a rare collection of well-chosen photos that illustrate the different phases of her life and career. Through Swenson’s eyes, Garbo is richer and more deeply dimensional than ever. To understand Greta Garbo is to appreciate all aspects of her life and her art as the well-spring of her enduring popularity.

Is this the last smorgasbord of Garbo? Probably not. There are still some loose ends. Her ashes still remain in the New York funeral home where they were deposited. They have yet to be returned to Sweden where she deeply wished to mingle with the earth. Also, rumor has it that the late historian Kenneth Mundin, of the Library of Congress, knew the whereabouts of and surreptitiously screened a 10-minute Technicolor screen test (perhaps one of the ones shot by James Wong Howe) that Garbo made in 1949 for the ultimately aborted venture La Duchesse de Langeais. The existence of this reel was last known to be secreted within a Citizen Kane-like warehouse of film cans – deep within the basement of the LOC – in the 1960s. Swenson describes Howe’s screen tests, mentioning only tests in black and white – imagine experiencing Garbo in living color! Greta Garbo: A Life Apart answers much, but perhaps leaves a door slightly ajar, for when the conversation pertains to Garbo – we always want to know.

Madison Morrison