BOOK REVIEW / Scanty sharkskin shorts: 'Greta and Cecil' - Diana Souhami: Jonathan Cape, 16.99 pounds: Sue Gaisford on the less than grand passion of Greta Garbo and Cecil Beaton

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The Independent Culture
ONE SUNDAY in 1932, Cecil Beaton met Greta Garbo. The event was chronicled immediately in his diary. He had a bath and a manicure, put on white socks and shoes, a white kid jacket and 'scanty little white sharkskin shorts', then he ran gaily down a spiral staircase into her presence. Attired in the same gamine style, she told him he was beautiful, then she kissed a rose and gave it to him. He took it home, framed it in silver and hung it over his enormous rococo bed. It was to be 14 years (and 100 pages) before they met again. Some idiot paid pounds 750 for that rose after Beaton's death. Like the less-than-grand passion of Cecil and Greta, like this book, it stands as a symbol of trite, ephemeral sentiment inflated way beyond its worth.

Diana Souhami was drawn to this subject, she says, by the similarities between these two unusual people, and she does suggest a few. Neither of them married; neither was exclusively heterosexual; both worked for a time in the movies; oh heavens, they both plucked their eyebrows. The photographs show each of them dressed as a man, and as a woman, and both posing as androgynous pierrots. But even here there is an obvious difference. Beaton is deeply, convincingly, sincerely in love with his own image: his utter devotion to himself shines steadily from his gaze. Garbo is famously guarded, even in the film stills, and two rather absurd pictures in the book show her successfully hiding her face.

In fact, the pair of them were as different as sequins and sackcloth. Garbo shunned publicity, Cecil courted it. He cheated his way into Harrow and Cambridge, fighting for every foothold in his scramble up the social ladder, whereas she was discovered in a shop and whisked away willy-nilly to Hollywood. He adored parties, she preferred a day spreading manure on her oleanders, followed by a good night's sleep. Most significantly, he was always writing, spilling out at least 124 volumes of detailed, spiteful diaries, whereas she disliked even signing her name. The result is that this book is heavily oveweighted with material about him, while she remains elusive.

Yet they did have an affair. He longed to marry her, so he said, but, wisely, she constantly refused him. It remains a mystery that she even fancied him at all. What seemed like 'infinite joy' to him, she later dismissed as 'fooling around'. Her languour only forsook her when he said he would like them to have a child and she replied that she would behead it. Souhami suggests that she took refuge in his superficiality, which was indeed his profoundest quality, trusting that she did not need to take him seriously.

She was bargaining without his venality. He cajoled her into posing for private photographs and then sold them to Vogue, and finally, in an act of supreme vindictiveness, he published his scabrous diaries, telling the gossipy world about a life that she had thought was private. He made about pounds 4,000 out of it.

On the evidence of those passages quoted here, the gossipy world was robbed. It could learn about Garbo's early nights and frugal diet, but the vast bulk of information concerns the only star in these diaries, their author. The details make you gasp with tedium. For example, he suffered from verrucas and chilblains; he owned a dressing-gown of imitation leopard-skin that drove Stephen Tennant 'mad with joy'; when his boyfriend left him, 'my whole frame shook in an orgasm of misery. I moaned.' And moaned, nearly all day. Then he flew to join Garbo on somebody's yacht and fell to cataloguing decrepitude while sitting next to her on deck: the wrinkles round her eyes, the lines on her upper lip, the wizened skin on her arms. 'Let her stew in her own loneliness,' he wrote. Which is very much how the reader feels at the end of the book, about both of them but particularly about him. It might have been better if we could have left them on that Sunday long ago, both in their little white shorts, speculating as to the sex of the two cold chickens on the buffet table.