Futility

Gabriele Annan

  • Garbo: Her Story by Antoni Gronowicz
    Viking, 476 pp, £15.99, August 1990, ISBN 0 670 83651 6

This biography is sad and bad. Bad like a bad pre-war Hollywood movie – monumentally, heroically implausible. But its badness is also its greatest asset: the style and attitude transport one to the time and place where most of the action is set. Everything that happens is drama, every conversation is script. Antoni Gronowicz, now dead, claims that he met Garbo in Paderewski’s house on Lake Geneva in 1938 when she was 35 and he was 22. They went for a moonlight walk and Garbo seduced him. Gronowicz immediately conceived the idea of writing a book about her. She was against the idea and forbade him to take notes in her presence, let alone use a recorder. But he lured her into intimate conversations which continued over the years, and he would write down everything she said the moment he was alone. By the end of the Fifties he had enough notes to begin pressurising her about a biography. Her reaction was in full make-up: ‘I will deny that I talked with you, I will deny that I know you, I will deny that I have even heard of you.’ And he replied: ‘If you imagine that you will always be great, I am warning you now that you will gradually sink below the horizon of remembrance and be gone for ever.’

  ‘I live as I want to,’ she yelled back.

  ‘If thou livest slapdash,’ I said, trying to confuse her, ‘as thou wantest to live, thy life is trivial, thy life is flimsy and paltry.’

The second-person singular did the trick, and she agreed. But she must have changed her mind later, because a note on the back of the title-page reads: ‘This book uses the first-person literary device to emulate the voice of Greta Garbo. The words are those of Antoni Gronowicz, not Miss Garbo, who publicly denied having any involvement with Mr Gronowicz or making any contribution to his book. Neither Miss Garbo nor her estate authorised or consented to the publication of this book.’ There are people who believe that Gronowicz and Garbo never met at all. So there are reasons for not buying the book. On the other hand, it has many unfamiliar photographs (not counting stills), and any photograph of Garbo may seem worth having. Besides, its preposterousness evokes – far better than a cleverer book like, say, What makes Sammy run – the dream landscape that stretched all the way from Hollywood to UFA in Berlin and Svensk Filmindustri in Stockholm.

So much for the badness. The sadness is Garbo’s own, and that is not news. Everyone knows that her later years – and there were a lot of them, from her retirement after the failure of Two-Faced Woman in 1941 to her death last year – were lonely and purposeless. Wearing her famous dark glasses, long mackintosh and headscarf, she would take the lift down from her Manhattan apartment to buy a pair of gloves in a department store. That would be on Tuesday. On Wednesday, in the same gear, she would go back to the store and return the gloves. This image of futility doesn’t come from Gronowicz, but has been embedded in my mind ever since I came across it years ago in an American magazine. The most convincing passages in Gronowicz’s book are Garbo’s complaints, beginning quite early on in her career, about what he calls ‘the trivia’ of her life. Even at the height of her success she was always disappointed, disillusioned, distrustful, disapproving and apprehensive. She blamed her unhappiness on other people and on her unhappy childhood.

She grew up in the poorest quarter of Stockholm. Her mother was harsh, but her father was kind to her and she loved him dearly. He was an alcoholic. One day when she was still a schoolgirl she watched him collapse in the snow outside their house. The next day he was dead. She was no good at lessons and left school at 14 to earn a pittance as odd job girl in a barber’s shop. The family pastor helped her to better herself in a department store, but her distrust of men was confirmed by the discovery that he did it not from Christian motives, but because he enjoyed squeezing her arm and had designs on her mother: an Ibsen-like scenario. Still, it was her big chance: the store commissioned a publicity film, she was chosen to model in it, and her amazing photogenic quality was discovered. Greta was on her way. She was given small parts and won a scholarship to the Royal Dramatic Academy. Her dream had always been to be an actress. She longed for fame and money; and she soon discovered that acting gave her a sexual kick. Gronowicz’s book – and therefore presumably his conversations with Garbo – are quite explicit about sex. There is a good deal of masturbation, a dress stained with semen (John Gilbert’s), lesbian couplings, Stokowski failing to make it, Churchill groping and salivating on the Onassis yacht, and a total disavowal of the famous interlude with Cecil Beaton. If Gronowicz’s transcriptions are to be believed, Greta Garbo kept no soft spots for ex-lovers.

Except for her Svengali, the director Mauritz Stiller; and even then it wasn’t so much a soft spot as a wound. The Oxford Companion to Film says that Stiller was born in Helsinki, but Gronowicz says it was Lvov: for once one believes him. His credentials are that he himself was a Polish Jew from Lvov, and that his family and Stiller’s were connected. He seems almost to be emulating the gifted and audacious Stiller, and at times this weird book reads like the story of a triangle, with the two men from Lvov competing for the Swedish ice maiden – except that Stiller was dead by the time Gronowicz came on the scene. Stiller was working in Stockholm when Greta Gustafsson (as she was before she changed her name) was beginning her career, and in 1924 he gave her the lead in a film based on Selma Lagerlöf’s novel Gösta Berling. ‘Every hour of every day you will have to obey me,’ he said. ‘If you do so, I will promise to make you great.’ At this Garbo fell in love with him. Gösta Berling made her name and his, and according to the Oxford Companion, caused Louis B. Mayer to invite them both to Hollywood. Gronowicz’s version of this episode has a touch of Felix Krull about it.

In 1925 Garbo made Die Freudlose Gasse for Pabst in Berlin. (Stiller was jealous of Pabst. He got his revenge by introducing him to a syphilitic German prostitute posing as yet another young Swedish actress. The story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates the inventive turpitude of the milieu.) After Die Freudlose Gasse, Stiller and Garbo hung around in Berlin waiting for something to turn up. What turned up was Louis B. Mayer on a talent-spotting trip. He met neither Garbo nor Stiller, but Stiller got a paper to print the story that he was taking them both to Hollywood. He then arranged a farewell party – on credit – for himself and Garbo at the prestigious Esplanade Hotel: all the German film world would be there; Mayer would want to be present; and Stiller would then be able to bend him to his will. And so he did – in Yiddish, because Mayer, too, was an East European Jew. Stiller, not Garbo, is the great fascinator in this story. He was both a con-man and an artist: his early films have a Lubitsch-like wit, and the series of films he made based on Lagerlöf novels are strong on landscape and atmosphere. Unlike the toad-like Mayer, he was tall and good-looking, with enthralling black eyes, so in his classy English suits and bright yellow car he could be his own leading man, the irresistible, sophisticated, cosmopolitan figure that poor boys in Lvov might dream of becoming. To complete the romantic picture, he suffered from TB. Garbo said he was a sensitive director who worked from the actor’s interpretation of the role, instead of imposing his own conception. But while she made an instant success with MGM, Stiller did not. They replaced him as Garbo’s director in The Temptress in the usual brutal Hollywood manner. He went to work for Paramount and made two films with Pola Negri. But he was mortified by the way he had been treated, and Garbo was jealous of Negri. She had an affair with John Gilbert. Stiller and Garbo had sworn to one another that at the end of two years, when they had made a lot of dollars, they would go back to Sweden together, but now she let him go back alone.

He fell apart in the classic manner: coughing, smoking, drinking, quarrelling, and ‘wasting money like water – throwing banquets and buying cars for friends, furs for women, as though he had no tomorrow’. He died in hospital in 1928, possibly of an overdose. Garbo was on set playing a love scene when the telegram arrived. She fainted. When she recovered she said: ‘Let’s finish the scene.’ That was classic too, but not the end: Stiller came back to haunt her. Not just in her thoughts: she saw his ghost in all sorts of places – when she went to lay flowers on his grave in Stockholm, on a street in New York, and on a Californian beach. On that occasion she was so upset that when she got home she took out his photograph from her lingerie drawer: ‘I drank some champagne and talked to him. But he would not answer. When the silence became too painful, I played with my body.’

Totally self-absorbed and beset by possibly imaginary ailments of every kind, she tried every method to find happiness. On the West Coast there were, of course, plenty available: spiritualism, exorcism, massage, exercise, diet, meditation. A rich eccentric called Mercedes de Acosta persuaded her that ‘sex between people of the same gender will be a form of prayer. Happiness shall rule the world.’ It never ruled Garbo. She was not very bright, and she knew it: ‘My personality, which is really flat in relation to people, grew before the camera, and dimensions of my personality submerged in everyday life were evident in every word and movement.’ Stiller taught her to be unapproachable and silent (and shrewd about contracts and investments), and so she became mysterious. It was her myth, and when she finished making films, her myth was what she lived for:

  I despise people even more today, because I don’t need them to build my fame, and I don’t need them in my daily life. I believe – perhaps illogically – that if I bring people closer to myself, they may discover my real character and through their manoeuvrings and gossiping I might lose my legend. My legend is everything to me now. I would not sell it for life, happiness or anyone, including my sister, my father or Moje [Stiller]. As a matter of fact, I would even sacrifice my own life so as not to jeopardise it.

Gronowicz has done his best to jeopardise it for her. It is difficult to believe in every one of the events and conversations he reports: but his portrait of a disoriented, angry and suspicious exile from life carries conviction.

The publisher has added an Afterword which is in fact an essay on Garbo’s acting by the film critic Richard Schikel. He makes the interesting point that until Lubitsch directed her in Ninotchka in 1939, her Hollywood films – or at any rate the kind of woman she portrayed in them – were already archaic when they were made (or ‘retarded’, in Graham Greene’s subversive view). She was an icon for nostalgia then as she is now: a cult object. Schikel quotes other critics – Tynan, Barthes, Stark Young and Alistair Cooke – and gradually the image shattered by Gronowicz gets put together again. Reviewing Anna Karenina, Cooke wrote that Garbo ‘wrapped everyone in a protective tenderness ... she sees not only her own life, but everyone else’s, before it has been lived.’ This compassionate clairvoyance was her special quality, a sense of ‘joy, whose hand is ever at his lips, bidding adieu’. The real mystery is how so hard and obtuse a woman could convey that.