"She was like a horse on a track: Nothing, and then the bell goes, and something happens," said Hollywood cinematographer James Wong Howe about Greta Garbo.
If you're like me, sometimes you roam your living quarters picking up and putting down books that have accumulated in piles, all of which you intend to read -- someday. This happened when I discovered Loving Garbo by Hugo Vickers. I didn't notice that it was first published in 1994 and had been waiting for me ever since. The subtitle is 'The Story of Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton and Mercedes de Acosta.'
I knew perfectly well that the mythic Garbo had been rumored to be a long 'off-and-on' lover of the somewhat effete Cecil Beaton, the English designer who won three Oscars in his time and helped make My Fair Lady a hit. I knew she had also been an 'off-and-on' early love of the lesbian screenwriter Mercedes de Acosta. I felt there was nothing new for me in this tome and that's why I had avoided it for so long. But when I began reading, I couldn't stop. They were all here -- the extravagant lovers and admirers of Garbo, who seemed to treat them -- in the post-Hollywood years -- with elaborate disregard, while claiming their attentions inevitably.
What I liked best about this book were the names of all the principal players who flocked around or encountered Garbo in Hollywood, Garbo in New York and Garbo in Europe.
I was writing for the social "Cholly Knickerbocker" column back in the '50s-'60s, and Garbo was omnipresent in New York. So I was stunned at how many 'players' mentioned in this book, I had known myself.
Garbo was finished with movies in the '50s. Some of the famous back then were people I had merely been introduced to, others I came to know well. I started counting them up. In spite of my lowly ink-stained job and social status from the '50s to the '70s, I discovered 65 big names in this work on Garbo, people I had met or come to know.
When I first arrived in New York in the '50s, my pals and I, our noses ever pressed against the glass of good restaurants, clubs, theaters, did something silly. We 'collected' celebrities. We kept a tally and each week the person having seen the most celebrities, won a free drink. It was an honor system and Garbo was so important, she rated five points. It became a joke, really, because Garbo was the star you were most likely to see if you haunted wine, antique, and health food stores on the Upper East Side. She was forever out walking, avoiding everyone.
I was interested to read about 450 E. 52 Street, an important building where Garbo resided on one floor and where her admirer, George Schlee, with his designer wife Valentina, resided on another. As Alexander Woollcott had also once lived on this important dead-end street overlooking the East River, it was dubbed by insiders as 'Wit's End.' And it was said later that when Schlee died in 1964, his wife, who was famous in her own right, had their apartment practically exorcized to rid itself of the Garbo aura. Valentina never spoke to Garbo again, and they avoided using the elevator at the same time. But for years, the Schlees and Garbo had some kind of threesome going. Nobody knew exactly what it meant. (If you know, please write and tell me!)
The funny thing was, I had known George Schlee. He often took me to lunch to pick my brain as to how my bosses, the Cassini brothers, were doing. He was forever flirting with me, promising to introduce me to Garbo. But I had no expectation and he never did. I once ran into Valentina in Venice at the Cipriani Hotel, where she reigned in her declining years. We had a splendid chat about her husband. I didn't mention Garbo. And I adored meeting the designer because of her famous mottos: "Simplicity survives ... women of chic are now wearing dresses they bought from me in 1936. Fit the century. Forget the year!" And, of course, there was Valentina's famous witticism: "Mink is for football. Ermine is for bathrobes. Children are for the suburbs."
At this time, I also met Mercedes de Acosta after she wrote her tell-all memoir "Here Lies the Heart." Garbo had broken her heart by banishing their long friendship. But Mercedes' book was praised by many who thought she had caught Garbo's mysterious but true essence. (Alice
B. Toklas wrote: "Your story of Garbo is a classic -- at the end you have made her one of the heroines of all time -- just as you have left Marlene Dietrich a warm, but ordinary woman." Someone remarked at the time of this publishing that Garbo hadn't cared what Mercedes wrote about their romance; she simply felt Mercedes was 'bad luck.')
I met many other players of this era, for instance -- Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison, Tammy Grimes, Bette Davis, Kate Hepburn, Carol Channing, Joan Crawford, William S. Paley, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones, Irene Selznick, Garson Kanin, Diana Vreeland, George Cukor, Josh and Nedda Logan, Art Buchwald, Coral Browne, Kenneth Tynan, Dorothy Parker, Janet Flanner, Gloria Vanderbilt, Andy Warhol, Oliver Messel, Jo Carstairs, Eleanor Lambert, Lillian Gish, Louella Parsons, Adele Astaire, Alice Astor, Serge Obolensky, Sydney Guilaroff, Jerome Zerbe, John Richardson, Sam Green, Alex Liberman, Mary Astor, Jimmy Donahue, Bill Blass and Ned Rorem, to name a few.
Once, in Athens, I saw Garbo and her then "best friend"--the Baroness Cecile de Rothschild. They came into the Grande Bretagne for lunch. Of course I didn't bother them, merely noting that Garbo, in a silk shantung pants suit, still looked pretty devine. I secretly chalked up a "five" on my old celebrity list when I departed the dining room. Vicker's book tells quite a lot about how the Baroness waited on, and was abused by Garbo, to the end of their lives. Cecile it was said, reveled in her masochism and her servants simply hated Garbo, who never tipped them.
So, I never met Garbo. And now the celebrated screenwriter Linda Yellen has completed a wonderful historic bit of work slated for movie production. It will tell, I've heard, the story of the early Garbo, the early Dietrich, the ill-fated Mercedes, and silent screen star John Gilbert who maybe Garbo loved and maybe she didn't.
I guess we'll never know for sure!