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12/14/2012 10:54 am ET | Updated Feb 13, 2013

Greta Garbo's Mystery Peeled Away -- Her Possessions Go to Auction in Hollywood

"I vant to be alone!" famously said Greta Garbo in the MGM classic Grand Hotel.

It became a mantra for her in private life, but what she really said was "I want to be left alone!"

This week at Julien's Auction House in Los Angeles, the possessions of Sweden's most mysterious star, who died in 1990 at the age of 84, go up for auction.

Among the items for sale are many pairs of trousers, a plethora of simple skirts and suits, flat shoes, a colorful cotton romper -- though one hardly imagines Garbo romping -- a yoga get-up, food scale, juicer, a pair of skis and much, much more -- there are 853 items all told.

Originally, Garbo's family wanted to place the "important" pieces in a museum. But that plan fell through. It always does. (I thought the many items sold at Marilyn Monroe's famous Christie's auction should have gone to a museum -- her annotated scripts, awards, etc. And Elizabeth Taylor's pristine collection of couture clothing, too. But money trumps sentiment and historical value every time.)

Garbo's grand-nephew, who is organizing the sale, recalls her as a "fantastically witty person." He is one of the few who found Miss Garbo a great wit, but as she guarded her privacy so compulsively, this might have been one of the qualities she kept to herself and those close to her.

P.S. I recently watched Garbo's much-maligned Two-Faced Woman on Turner Classic Movies, and found it far more entertaining than expected. Antic comedy wasn't GG's forte, but she is often quite charming.

And the truth is, she never intended to retire completely from movies. Because her films were more popular in Europe, she decided to wait out World War II and then see what opportunities came along. But nothing ever gelled, though she went so far as to do costume and makeup tests for La Duchesse de Langeais in 1948. It was a great loss to films, and to herself, as well. She became rather aimless and dull, according to many, as her "retirement" stretched into decades.

But, like Marilyn Monroe's early death at 36 (Garbo's age when she made Two-Faced Woman) -- Greta's disappearance from the screen enhanced her legend beyond what might have been had she continued in movies.

Alas, Garbo never was "left alone." Along with Jackie Onassis, she was stalked relentlessly by New York paparazzi and her fans. Once the star made Manhattan her home in 1953 it became a game to do "Garbo sightings."

New York has always been known as a city where it's easy to become anonymous and unnoticed. But not when you're Garbo.

  • I am all for modern art, by whim, intention or by accident. But I am wondering, as I read about what goes on down in Miami every year and what is going on in New York, if all of this hoopla is really to be called "art."

    Just for instance, something called the Jason Rhoades Installation at the Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Venet Event at the Rubell Family Collection got a lot of space recently. To me it just looked like a lot of messy junk, hanging. Are we being taken in? (See Art section of New York Times Dec. 8, page 8.)

    Where does presenting a combination of wires and whatever, all tangled together, stop short of suicide?

    The other night I was having dinner with my friend, the philanthropist Pete Peterson at the popular Sette Mezzo. Mr. Peterson advises presidents and was a Nixon cabinet member.

    He was an early-on modern art collector (say some of the best Diebenkorns in existence.) So he's no Philistine when it comes to modern art. Pete was eating something healthy but boring and I was down for the spaghetti marinara. Pete reached across and dragged a clump of my spaghetti onto his plate. It left a definite long-drawn out red stain on the pristine white tablecloth.

    I stared at it. "Rothko?" I asked.

    Pete laughed. "Too indefinite!"

    But all our tablemates agreed. It was certainly "art" and if we'd framed the tablecloth we could probably sell it.
  • Here's a book Hollywood is talking about -- The Sausage Maker's Daughters, a thrilling work from AGS Johnson, who has been described as "like discovering a young John Grisham."

    This is a spellbinding courtroom drama and gritty family saga. People are calling it a nail-biter, and it has a flurry of interest already in transferring to film. (The author is now at work on a second novel based on a true story of medical breakthroughs and a conspiracy to keep them secret.)

    The story is set in Wisconsin during the era of the counterculture and Vietnam. (The state of Wisconsin has been so much in political and labor news, that it's enough to make you feel familiar with it.) In the novel, a 24-year-old named Kip Czermanzki finds herself in a jail cell, accused of murdering her ex-lover. He just happens to be her brother-in-law.

    Do you believe the likes of Michelle Williams, Carey Mulligan, Kate Winslet, Jessica Chastain, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling are already being mythically cast for The Sausage Maker's Daughter? Well, you know, that's Hollywood -- as if these big stars aren't searching forever for their next movie.