BOOK REVIEW / Screen goddess in camera: 'Greta and Cecil' - Diana Souhami: Cape, 18.99

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THIS is an account of the English society photographer Cecil Beaton's long infatuation with the Hollywood legend Greta Garbo, a case of the unspeakable in pursuit of the unreachable. The title, photographs and chapter headings all imply equal billing for the two players, but Diana Souhami's list of sources tells a different story. Garbo could hardly bring herself to sign her autograph or write a letter, while Beaton was unable to dress for dinner without recording the colour of his expensive underpants for posterity. He published six volumes of diaries, and those were just the edited highlights. Souhami quotes from and paraphrases them (using the unexpurgated manuscripts when she can) unstoppably. For her scantier insights into Garbo's heart, she must usually rely on speculation based on the biographical bare bones, on other people's memoirs and on the famously reclusive star's rare interviews. This then is largely the gospel according to Cecil.

Apart from the simple pleasure of prurience, the charm of the story is its oppositional symmetry: Beaton the loquacious fop paired with Garbo the uncommunicative, mannish beauty. She had affairs with women, he wept into his pillow over his failure to make the man of his dreams fall in love with him. He lavished infinite care on the decoration of his self-consciously theatrical homes 'and his lawn was the best in the West Country'; she bought houses as an investment, then holed up in a couple of rooms with just the odd Modigliani and Bonnard for company. He was a party animal; her idea of a good time was a day's muck-spreading in the garden followed by bed, alone, at 7.30. He spent happy hours photographing himself, often in frocks; she favoured no-nonsense men's clothing and preferred not to be photographed at all. Souhami proposes that what Cecil saw in Greta was some impossibly perfected mirror image of himself, but really it's a wonder their relationship ever got past first base.

After years of wishing, Cecil, his heart thumping, was finally introduced to his idol in 1932, while visiting Hollywood to photograph Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and other portfolio- enhancing stars. Garbo was perfectly friendly, and declined to see him again for 15 years. Some authors might see this hiccup in the narrative as unfortunate, but with those diaries to fall back on Souhami fills much of the interval with an intricate profile of the less secretive of her subjects. The portrait that emerges is hugely unattractive. It's not the unremitting campery that appals, but the depth of Beaton's superficiality, what Souhami calls the 'facadism' designed to conceal a void. Preoccupied with his career and with social climbing (in Cecil's case practically the same thing), he barely registers anything remotely meaningful. His brother's suicide leaves him unmoved, though he is shocked to see the unbecoming marks of grief on his mother's and sister's faces. His own sentimental education is full of pettishness and pining and gushing, and dashing home to write it all down.

Just why Garbo eventually allowed Beaton into her life remains a puzzle, unless it was simply that, having effectively retired from acting by the time they re-met, she was even more bored than usual and found him, in small doses, entertaining. Though the affair spanned several years and obsessed Cecil, they spent much of the period on different continents. When they were in the same city she often refused him an audience. When they were together she usually sent him home before supper and had an early night or went out with someone else. Cecil boasts in his diary of his sexual finesse, but Garbo said that they just 'fooled around', and that going to bed with him was like going to bed with a sailor. Cecil proposed repeatedly, Garbo said no or (plainly not meaning it) maybe. When he said he wanted them to have a child, she replied, with unusual gusto, that if that happened she would cut the baby's head off. There is little evidence that Garbo thought about him when he wasn't around. Cecil, by contrast, dreamed of married bliss, scribbled every greedily gleaned detail about her in his wretched diary (which he later published without a qualm or by-your-leave) and sold to Vogue the private photographs his beloved occasionally allowed him to take.

As you would expect, there are bit parts here for many celebrities, but the most interesting supporting character loiters darkly in the shadows. Garbo met Georges Schlee, the Russian-Jewish husband of a New York dress designer, in 1941. She was with him in Paris when he died of a heart attack in 1964, long after the affair with Cecil had fizzled out. In between, he was her business manager and confidant. Just good friends? Hardly. Cecil referred to him as 'my rival' and, less novelettishly, as 'that little jerk'. Garbo bought an apartment in the Manhattan block where Schlee continued to live with his wife. After his death, the women remained ensconced there, avoiding each other, and poor Mrs Schlee arranged a formal exorcism to rid her household of all traces of the hated goddess. Greta and Georges might have been a more profoundly revealing book, but, failing the discovery of several volumes of conveniently indiscreet Schlee diaries, Greta and Cecil will have to do.