Sunday, 5 August 2012

Review: Biography: Greta Garbo: Divine Star by David Bret

Robson Press, £20, hbk, 416 pages
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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    Saturday August 04 2012
    'I want to be alone." That famous line has become indelibly linked with Greta Garbo, Hollywood's most famous recluse. In fact, she never said it: the line was uttered by a character she played in the 1932 blockbuster Grand Hotel. But it stuck for a reason, and in many ways sums up a woman who was deeply ambivalent about fame, and ultimately turned her back on it.
    In the 1920s and 1930s, Garbo was probably the most famous and definitely the most talked-about person in the world. She wowed the critics and broke box-office records with a string of acclaimed hit films, and her hatred of fame only added to her mystique.
    But as this sometimes lurid but nicely written new biography from David Bret makes clear, Greta Garbo was no fey hermit. Garbo was her own woman, an intelligent and fiercely independent individual who refused to be cowed by studio bullies and had the nerve to turn her back on it all by retiring from films at the age of 36.
    She never married, and was rumoured to have been bisexual. Bret's book describes her affairs with men and women in some detail, and also investigates the possibility that she lost a child.
    Greta Gustafsson was born in a poor area of Stockholm in 1905. Her parents hailed from peasant stock and her father worked as a butcher.
    From these unpromising roots, an exotic flower grew. As a teenager, Greta's height and bone structure made her stand out. When she got a job as a clerk in a department store, she was soon co-opted into modelling hats in company catalogues.
    In 1922, she began studying acting at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre, and in 1924 landed the lead role in a Swedish film. MGM boss Louis B Mayer happened to be in Berlin in 1924 and saw the film, called Gosta Berlings Saga.
    He was entranced by Garbo and, according to his daughter, kept muttering: "The girl -- look at the girl."
    The next day, Garbo was summoned to the mogul's hotel and offered a five-year movie contract. But Mayer let her know that Hollywood was no place for shrinking violets -- as she was leaving the suite he called after her: "Tell Miss Garbo that in America, people don't like fat women."
    When the lanky Swede first arrived in Hollywood in 1925, studio executives reckoned she'd never amount to anything. She was ungainly, they decided, her feet were too big, her hips too wide, her teeth too crooked and she hardly ever smiled.
    But when they saw the rushes for her first Hollywood film, Torrent, they were amazed. Her acting and appearance were sublime.
    On the back of imperious performances in melodramas like Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Love (1927), Garbo became a huge silent star. The MGM publicity machine went into overdrive but found the Swede an uncooperative subject. She dodged the press skillfully and took to disguising herself so she wouldn't be noticed.
    For the studio publicists, her private life was a nightmare. She got involved with the silent star John Gilbert but when he proposed to her she was having none of it.
    Though her male lovers are said to have included a Swedish Prince and the Jewish prizefighter Max Baer, author Bret maintains that, from 1927 on, after disappearing for seven months and possibly suffering a miscarriage, she preferred the company of women.
    Garbo is rumoured to have had substantial relationships with playwright Mercedes da Acosta and Swedish actress Mimi Pollak, who may have been the love of her life.
    After Garbo's low, sexy voice was heard for the first time in Anna Christie (1930), public adoration of her reached new levels, and so did the relentless attentions of the gutter press.
    In 1941, after finishing work on George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman, Garbo left the MGM set and never appeared in a motion picture again.
    According to Bret, she spied for the Allies during the war. But if that's true she lived quietly thereafter, moving to New York and appearing sporadically in heavy disguise.
    Four years before her death in 1990, at the age of 84, she explained her withdrawal.
    "I was tired of Hollywood," she said. "I did not like my work. There were many days when I had to force myself to go into the studio. I really wanted to live another life."
    Originally published in
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