Garbo by Robert Gottlieb

One evening back in the late 70s, I was talking about Greta Garbo with Orson Welles. He was a big fan of hers and was praising her unique quality, her smile, her voice. Being still somewhat pedantic, I said that I agreed she was great, but that considering all those 27 features she acted in between 1922 and 1941, only two really held up: the devastating drama-love story Camille (1936), directed by George Cukor, and the satirical comedy-romance Ninotchka (1939), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Orson looked at me for a long moment and then said quietly, “You only need one … ”

Although she became an international star during the silent era—starting with two European films, from Sweden The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924), and from Germany The Joyless Street (1925), and later with all her subsequent pictures produced in Hollywood by MGM, the slickest of American studios—she achieved real immortality with the talkies, as evidenced by the two-word ad campaign for Anna Christie (1930), her first sound film: GARBO TALKS! It was the highest-grossing picture of the year. And for her first comedy (the above-noted Ninotchka): GARBO LAUGHS! But after that, and just one more film later, Greta Garbo—from age 36 to her death at 84—never acted in another movie.

Greta Garbo, 1949.

The why and wherefore of this woman’s extraordinary life and career is masterfully told in Robert Gottlieb’s new book, Garbo, handsomely published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with more than 250 splendid duotone photos, an extremely thorough filmography (including, unusually, production costs and shooting schedules, box-office grosses, profits, and losses)—all part of a terrific 100-page “Garbo Reader,” which concludes the volume and harks back to Gottlieb’s influential days as editor of The New Yorker, editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, and head of Alfred A. Knopf.

This generous addendum includes an amazing selection of Garbo material—comments by everyone from Ingmar to Ingrid Bergman, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Noël Coward—starting with Ken Tynan’s famous profile (with the most often repeated sentence ever written about the actress: “What when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober”) and concluding with mentions of Garbo in song lyrics: “You’re the Top,” by Cole Porter (1934): “You’re the National Gallery / You’re Garbo’s salary … ” (which was staggering, even during the Depression); “These Foolish Things,” by Eric Maschwitz (1935): “The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses / The waiters whistling as the last bar closes … ”; and Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started” (1936): “I’ve been consulted by Franklin D. / And Greta Garbo’s asked me to tea” (or, naughtily: “gave me her key”). Gottlieb might even have jumped to 1990 with Madonna’s huge hit “Vogue,” which has a verse that begins: “Greta Garbo and Monroe / Dietrich and DiMaggio … ”

Garbo with director George Cukor on the set of Camille, 1936.

This “Reader” is preceded by 18 tight chapters that eloquently take us from a Swedish childhood of poverty and a woeful lack of education—about which Garbo was greatly troubled and embarrassed throughout her life—but with many girlish dreams of becoming a great stage actress, all the way to international fame and wealth.

There is a special irony to Garbo’s most well-known line (in life and in pictures), “I want to be alone,” since that is where life eventually took her. She never married, and never planned to retire—there were a multitude of offers, but somehow none really worked out. And then her looks began to age slightly, and she didn’t want to destroy the illusion she had created.

Garbo was in love at least once, with the dashing and very good-looking film star John (or, to his friends, Jack) Gilbert, but since she had to act being in love with him two or three times (starting with Flesh and the Devil, in 1926), it was probably hard for her to be quite sure what was real.

She almost married him, but literally left him at the altar, at which point their boss, MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, made a disparaging remark about her, and Gilbert socked him in the mouth, knocking him down and pretty much destroying his own career, Mayer being especially vindictive. Years later, Garbo mused that she wasn’t really in love with Gilbert but that he was “pretty.”

She certainly had a few relationships that occupied her for a year or two—such as with theater-and-film set designer Cecil Beaton, famously gay but Garbo’s constant companion for a while. Another, who called their relationship “destiny,” was the celebrated conductor Leopold Stokowski. Together they traveled through Europe, chased everywhere by press photographers and fans—a curse Garbo endured throughout her life: “It is cruel,” she said, “to bother people who want to be left in peace. This kills beauty for me.”

Garbo and Cecil Beaton, 1951.

After “Stoki” there was the star nutritionist–dietician–health expert Gayelord Hauser, a relationship Gottlieb calls “one of the most wholesome and beneficial” of her life. There was a fling with German novelist Erich Maria Remarque, and a close, long-term friendship with Russian businessman George Schlee, who “oversaw her finances—successfully … ”

The book is written in a serious but witty, unpretentious, and often charming way, and does a fine job in trying to understand Garbo’s complicated personality. Certainly she was in many ways enigmatic—she was therefore sometimes pictured as the inscrutable Sphinx, her unsmiling face superimposed over the ancient Egyptian monument’s visage but retaining the lion’s body. Her eyes, her mouth, her skin, evoked rhapsodic descriptions from all, the one possible minor exception being that her feet were quite big.

Garbo’s only true competition ever came with the arrival in 1930 of Marlene Dietrich, via Germany and Josef von Sternberg; she, too, was sometimes pictured as the Sphinx.

Garbo, photographed by Clarence Sinclair Bull for Mata Hari, 1931.

Yet Orson Welles would tell me that Dietrich herself was an abject admirer of Garbo’s, indeed very anxious to meet her, and so she jumped at the chance when Orson invited her to join him at a party that actor Clifton Webb was throwing for Garbo in the early 40s. Orson said that Garbo was fairly late to arrive, and that when the two were introduced, Dietrich anxiously gushed out a few exceedingly warm and complimentary remarks. Garbo did not in any way reciprocate, but only nodded and moved on.

Dietrich looked crestfallen, Orson told me. On the drive back from the party, for a very long time she said not a word. Finally, rather softly, she made just one remark: “Her feet are not soo big …”

Peter Bogdanovich is a director, actor, film critic, and the author of numerous books, including This Is Orson Welles and Who the Hell’s in It?