Saturday, 16 June 2012

Exclusive: Sunday Express: David Bret: Greta Garbo Biography

Exclusive: Sunday Express: David Bret: Greta Garbo Biography


Silver screen icon Greta Garbo in 1927
Silver screen icon Greta Garbo in 1927
Sunday June 17,2012
GRETA GARBO was an enigma. She appeared as if from nowhere, taking Hollywood and the world by storm. the general public could not get enough of this creature of great mystery and of great beauty. As well as her ice-queen beauty, sharp wit and abrasive tongue, Greta Garbo wielded a power no other actress has ever possessed.
Garbo always called the shots be it in dealing with producer, director, lover or journalist. Though there have been numerous biographies of Garbo, none has investigated fully two so-called “missing periods” in her life: the first, during the Twenties, forced MGM to employ a lookalike to conceal what was almost certainly a pregnancy and the second during the Second World War when Garbo was employed by British Intelligence to track down Nazi sympathisers.

In 1926, she infuriated MGM producer Irving Thalberg by defying his orders to star in Women Love Diamonds. Could she have been pregnant?

Garbo confided in Sven Hugo Borg, her friend, secretary and lover, about her desire to have a family. Who better to produce the perfect fair-haired, blue-eyed Swedish child than this towering, handsome specimen?
Greta Garbo is one of the most enigmatic stars of Hollywood’s golden age. Now a new book sheds light on the two ‘missing’ periods of her life: personal agony and secret bravery
Borg had been largely replaced in Garbo’s affections when she met John Gilbert who shared her top billing in Flesh And The Devil. However, he had cheated on her throughout their now deteriorating relationship with a number of women.

He seemed reluctant to have children with her anyway: “Frankly I don’t want to marry some dumb Swede and raise wheat and kids miles from civilisation,” he said. Often, if Gilbert was in one of his moods, Garbo would call a cab, head for a hotel and spend the night with Borg.

Garbo’s desire to have children is also implied by Borg’s recollection of her reaction when an Italian baby crawled towards them one day when they were on the beach: “Garbo said to me: ‘Borg, some day I want a little one like that, all of my own.’ I have often noticed this inclination of hers towards children.”

When Garbo failed to report to MGM’s costumes department for the filming of Anna Karenina, Borg’s response was: “Miss Garbo is tired and doesn’t want to do it.” More speculation over whether Garbo was pregnant can be drawn from the compromise that was reached.

The studios had a no-nonsense approach to unmarried stars who ended up in the family way: they could have an abortion, be sent away until the child was born and put up for adoption, they could marry the father and the birth would subsequently be reported as premature or they could be fired.

Garbo was no ordinary star who could be pushed around and did not care whether she stayed in the movies or not. Therefore, as if aware that she would be absent for some time, Thalberg hired a bit-part actress, Geraldine Dvorak, who was not just the exact height, weight and shape as Garbo but who acted, walked, talked (in a fake accent) and so looked like her that anyone meeting her for the first time could not tell them apart.

Officially, Dvorak’s job was to stand in for Garbo at costume fittings, and in long shots where her face would not be seen. Unofficially, to stand in when her swelling figure might be detected.

Garbo and Borg had in fact retreated to La Quinta, the recently founded resort in California’s Riverside County. It provided a well-protected hideaway for Hollywood stars and socialites wishing to avoid scandal. The movie moguls brought their mistresses here, actresses recuperated here after secret abortions or waited out the last months of their confinements safe from the prying eyes of the press.

On 21 April 1927, Garbo reported for work on Anna Karenina, the first time anyone other than her intimates had seen her in 27 weeks.

Garbo was suffering from irregular periods, accompanied by excruciating pains. Some sources attributed this to a recurrent ovarian infection but this infection could have been the result of a difficult labour and birth. A week later she fell ill with what she said was food poisoning and there followed yet another lengthy period where she seemed to disappear off the face of the earth. Finally Thalberg closed down the production.

Quietly and without boasting, Greta Garbo went on to become one of the unsung heroes of the Second World War. Unable to travel to Sweden, she announced that she would be spending her usual between-movies vacation in New York.

In fact, earlier in the month, Garbo had been approached by producer Alexander Korda who was working as an agent for MI6 and she agreed to take on the role of a real-life Mata Hari. If Garbo had been caught, the missions would almost certainly have cost her life. Her mission was to gather information on one of the world’s richest men, Swedish millionaire industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren, rumoured to be a friend of high-ranking Nazi Hermann Goering.

On February 17, 1940, Garbo chartered a plane to Nassau where she boarded the Southern Cross with Wenner-Gren, his wife and several unnamed passengers suspected of being arms and munitions dealers. On February 28 the yacht reached Miami at which point Garbo’s “adventure” ended for the time being.

On July 15 Alexander Korda contacted Garbo again.

Wenner-Gren accompanied by his wife and sister-in-law were en route to Los Angeles aboard the Southern Cross. The next day, according to one source: “Garbo met them at the docks and took them with her in her Buick Sedan, Wenner-Gren sitting in front with the driver, FBI agent Frank Angell following them, to Paramount Studios… She was keeping an eye on Wenner-Gren, looking for indications of admiration for Hitler. These loyalties became obvious very quickly.”

Garbo also liaised on a secret intelligence operation with future United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, providing him with names of suspected Nazi sympathisers.

Then in August Garbo put a call through to Stockholm from Alexander Korda’s office where she spoke at some length to Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist. Bohr had been smuggling Danish physicists out of Germany and sending them to safe houses in Copenhagen.

In September Garbo went to the very top, calling King Gustav of Sweden himself and begging him to grant Bohr an audience, wherein the King was persuaded to offer asylum to Danish Jews.

Capturing Bohr would have been a huge coup for Hitler; because of Garbo, he failed, for it was she, liaising with Sir William Stephenson, who personally arranged for friends to get him out of the country.

For the remaining months of the war she kept a low profile. By this time Garbo had left the movies, following what she considered unfair criticism of Two-Faced Woman in 1941. Despite numerous phenomenal offers, she never faced another movie camera.

When she decided that she was done with the whirlwind of life as Hollywood’s darling she withdrew completely, leaving her public begging for an encore that never came.

● Adapted by Charlotte Heathcote from Greta Garbo: Divine Star by David Bret, published by The Robson Press at £20. To order a copy, send a cheque or PO made payable to Sunday Express Bookshop to: Express Bookshop, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or call 0871 988 8366 (calls cost 10p per minute from UK landlines) or order it online at UK delivery is free.

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