In a time when leaping on a sofa is counted as bizarrely independent behaviour for a movie star such as Tom Cruise, what hope would there have been for a modern-day Greta Garbo? Refusing a fabricated biography or a preassembled studio image, she handled interviews truthfully or not at all, and stood up to Louis B Mayer, the belligerent, duplicitous head of MGM, fighting him until she won. But she could get away with such behaviour because audiences were on her side. She was strange and exotic, certainly, but always highly professional. What she demanded was not unreasonable: to be respected as a human being and not regarded as a stage prop. Better still, her attitude was in accordance with her image. By being mysterious and secretive she increased her publicity. Understanding that public appearances destroy screen illusions, she felt that "the creative artist should be a rare and solitary spirit".
Garbo's outsider status was confirmed by her liaisons and by her largely gay social circle. She only ever signed one autograph in public, for a little girl who had approached her car and promptly fainted in her arms, and there was just one, self-penned magazine article, in which she asked: "Why are people so interested in the matrimonial status of film stars? It is damaging to have the intimate details of their domestic life broadcast far and wide. Imagine a man being known as 'Mr Garbo' – just that and nothing more!"
After a brief reign as the Queen of Hollywood, Garbo vanished from view at the age of 36. The conclusion at the time was that the relative failure of her controversial film Two-faced Woman for George Cukor affected her adversely, but it seems more likely that she simply grew tired of adopting a public role about which she had only ever been ambivalent.
This is not news, of course – Garbo biographies are virtually an industry in themselves. But David Bret is after something more. Digging into previously unsourced material and collating fresh stories from friends and fellow studio employees, he tries to close the two major gaps in his subject's life. The first was a mysterious period in the late 1920s when she almost certainly fell pregnant, and the studio employed a lookalike to bury rumours. The second was during the Second World War, when she became a hunter of Nazi sympathisers for British Intelligence. Hiring someone so secretive made brilliant sense, but accounts of her assignments for MI6 still feel opaque and contradictory.
Paradox lies at the core of the Garbo myth: a woman whose male friends were happy to suggest they were sleeping with her when, in fact, most were gay or bisexual; a legend whose fame rested on a mere handful of roles; an outsider at the centre of the Hollywood system; a public figure who not only professed a need for solitude but took it at the first opportunity. Bret's biography is rightly partisan and fully prepared to name enemies, which makes it a bracingly pleasurable read in these anodyne times.Reuse content