How Greta Garbo was the world’s first gender fluid celebrity: Big-screen sex siren of the 1920s dressed as a man, called herself Harry and devoured countless lovers 80 years before anyone had heard of the term
She’d played the big-screen sex siren and didn’t relish doing so again. ‘I cannot see any sense in dressing up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures.’
So said Greta Garbo about the prospect of making the steamy 1926 potboiler Flesh And The Devil. And as a new biography reveals, when it came to ‘dressing up’, Garbo preferred to dress up as man.
But for all the Swedish superstar’s reservations about the film — concerning a love triangle involving two best friends competing for the same woman — they melted away after she met her co-star John Gilbert.
As a child, she borrowed her brother Sven’s clothes and later as a sex goddess actress, she didn’t wear make-up off-screen and continued to prefer a male wardrobe of baggy jumpers and trousers. She would dress as Hamlet to fancy dress parties
Smitten, the pair made the most sexually explicit scenes yet offered to filmgoers.
‘They made love horizontally! She was lying on top of him! Nothing this erotic had ever been seen on the screen,’ gasps biographer Robert Gottlieb, author of Garbo.
Clarence Brown, the film’s director, said Garbo had developed a huge crush on Gilbert before their first meeting and he became equally besotted. ‘By the time their first love scene was filmed, they were madly, exuberantly in love,’ he recalled.
‘Those two were alone in a world of their own. It seemed like an intrusion to yell ‘cut!’ I used to just motion the crew over to another part of the set and let them finish what they were doing. It was embarrassing.’
Brown knew what he had: ‘I am working with raw material. They are in that blissful state of love that is so like a rosy cloud that they imagine themselves hidden behind it, as well as lost in it.’
More than 30 years after her death and 80 years since she effectively walked away from her Hollywood career aged 36 and became a recluse, Garbo’s films — including Mata Hari, Grand Hotel and Anna Karenina — are now almost forgotten. And yet the life, and particularly the love life, of the most celebrated and enigmatic of all screen stars continues to fascinate.
She hated crowds and photographers, covering that extraordinary face — including those enormous eyes and deep-set lids — when she saw so much as a glimpse of a camera.
Garbo came to be defined by one of the lines she uttered on screen — ‘I just want to be alone’ — and many have suspected that the reason for her obsessive privacy was her unconventional sex life.
Her lovers included not only Hollywood’s leading men such as John Gilbert and Orson Welles, but also its leading women reportedly including Tallulah Bankhead and Louise Brooks. Even the gay British society photographer Cecil Beaton became an obsessed paramour.
Garbo came to be defined by one of the lines she uttered on screen — ‘I just want to be alone’ — and many have suspected that the reason for her obsessive privacy was her unconventional sex life
Meanwhile, Hollywood’s most notorious seductress, playwright and socialite Mercedes de Acosta — dubbed ‘Countess Dracula’ for her extraordinary claim that she could get any woman from any man — became Garbo’s pathetic ‘sex slave’.
If the traffic through the Garbo bedroom was anything like as busy as has been claimed — ‘I don’t understand how she gets them all,’ remarked her great rival Marlene Dietrich — she didn’t have much time to be alone.
In his new biography, Gottlieb attempts once more to prise open the oyster shell of Garbo’s private life. He concludes she had a ‘natural inclination toward solitude’ that was exacerbated by the intense attention that came with super-stardom.
More startling are his theories on why she hated so much being a pin-up. Long before ideas became fashionable about sexual fluidity and the ‘gender spectrum’, Garbo ‘had always enjoyed cross-dressing’, says Gottlieb.
As a child, she borrowed her brother Sven’s clothes and later as a sex goddess actress, she didn’t wear make-up off-screen and continued to prefer a male wardrobe of baggy jumpers and trousers. She would dress as Hamlet to fancy dress parties.
She also never lost her childhood habit of referring to herself as male, often calling herself a ‘fellow’ and signing her letters ‘Harry’ or ‘Harry Boy’.
Her favourite film part was playing the cross-dressing Swedish monarch Queen Christina and her dream roles were men: St Francis of Assisi, and Dorian Gray, the beautiful young man who never grows old in Oscar Wilde’s novel.
‘Simple cross-dressing, or gender confusion?’ asks Gottlieb. ‘How ironic if ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ really would rather have been a man.’ Dietrich, who engaged in a long-running feud with Garbo so intense they denied ever having met each other, also fuelled the idea of her bete noire having a very mannish side to her character. She claimed Garbo ‘raped men . . . she unzipped her fly and jumped on them’.
Gottlieb, a 90-year-old lifelong Garbo devotee, says Garbo was prickly, stubborn and rather dour. She was also imperious, expecting even close friends to call her ‘Miss Garbo’.
But her air of superiority was a front. Garbo was a painfully shy, unsophisticated and uneducated Swedish peasant girl who had little interesting to say and knew it, says Gottlieb. She barely spoke English when she arrived in the U.S., and for years only mixed with a handful of friends who could speak German.
In such circumstances, of course, she might not want to reveal too much about herself. If the world chose to interpret that reticence as an enigmatic aloofness and lofty disdain for Tinseltown, that misconception worked brilliantly for her. While other actresses worked (or slept) their way up the Hollywood ladder, Garbo was a star from the moment she arrived.
Born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm in 1905, she was 14 when her father, an unskilled labourer, died, so she dropped out of school to support the family. A job modelling hats in advertisements for a local department store provided the entree into acting, her childhood ambition.
Headhunted by MGM studio boss Louis Mayer after he saw a 1925 German film, Joyless Street, (in which Dietrich had an uncredited role) in Berlin, she was whisked off to Hollywood aged 22, with an initial two-film deal that more than paid off Mayer’s risk on her.
She may have hated playing vamps, but her huge popularity was largely down to her astonishing sexual allure. ‘I have never played with a woman with such an ability to arouse the erotic impulse,’ said actor — but not lover — Melvyn Douglas, who made three films with her.
She loved children but never wanted to have any of her own and never even married. That last detail wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of the men she met.
Like so many men and women who fell for Garbo, John Gilbert — when they met, the highest paid actor in pictures and dubbed ‘The Great Lover’ — came to worship her. He had a lavish bathroom installed at his Hollywood home with black marble walls, and a sunken black marble bathtub and gold fixtures. When Garbo complained that the marble glistened too much, he had the walls elaborately re-finished to remove the shine. In all it cost $15,000 — or $235,000 (£172,000) in today’s money.
It was the Hollywood romance of its day. The couple reputedly headed off to a simple marriage ceremony outside town, only for Garbo to get cold feet and, when they stopped for petrol, escape through the window of the ladies’ lavatory and flee back to Los Angeles. On another occasion, it’s alleged, she simply didn’t turn up to a double wedding with director King Vidor and actress Eleanor Boardman.
Eventually, Garbo grew tired of Gilbert, as she always did with her lovers. By the time he died from alcoholism a decade after they’d met, she claimed she couldn’t even remember why she’d fallen for him in the first place.
‘Well, I guess he was pretty,’ she concluded witheringly.
Garbo was no exception to the hoary cliche of actresses having affairs with their directors and co-stars.
While making Queen Christina in 1933, she had a brief affair with its director, Rouben Mamoulian.
According to Marlene Dietrich, the director gave Garbo gonorrhoea. ‘I was in the hospital with strep throat, and she was in a room above me… with the clap,’ sniped the German actress. ‘She got it from Mamoulian.’
Dietrich was the source of the most twisted pronouncements on Garbo, once describing how she met a former male lover of her rival and was not impressed. ‘He was drunk the whole evening, but if you have to go to bed with Garbo, you have to drink,’ she said.
A previous biographer has claimed Dietrich and Garbo had an affair while making Joyless Street together, although Gottlieb doesn’t repeat the allegation.
Garbo met novelist Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet On The Western Front, at a 1941 New Year’s Eve party. Although married, Remarque was a philanderer and later wrote floridly of his first night with Garbo: ‘She entered the bedroom, the light of the dressing room behind her, softly flowering over her shoulders, enchanting her outline.’ The magic soon wore off and he would later tell his wife, actress Paulette Goddard, that Garbo was ‘lousy in bed’.
Orson Welles had a brief affair with Garbo, but ended it after seeing her refuse to give an autograph to a uniformed World War II veteran on crutches.
Another veteran — actor Gilbert Roland — was luckier, revealing how Garbo slept with him to celebrate his enlistment, afterwards giving him a pair of her knickers as a souvenir. When he returned home from leave a few months later, she refused to take his calls.
She had a ‘peculiar’ on-and-off affair with Cecil Beaton in the post-war years, during which marrying her became his ‘greatest ambition’. Gottlieb believes he became so fixated he must have been seriously mentally unbalanced. Beaton himself acknowledged how the fact that Garbo ‘doesn’t give a damn’ for any of her suitors, including him, only increased the ‘frenzy’ of their fixation on her.
She came to stay with him in 1951 at his Wiltshire pile, Reddish House, and — according to another guest, biographer James Pope-Hennessy — Beaton ‘guarded her like an eagle and nobody was ever allowed alone with her’.
She had, the writer added, ‘the most inexplicable powers of fascination’, but was also ‘entirely uneducated’ and had ‘conversation so dull you could scream’.
As for other women, Garbo described her love affairs with them as ‘exciting secrets’, but the fact she surrounded herself with so many bisexual and lesbian women meant her Sapphic inclinations were hardly difficult to spot.
Her celebrity lovers reportedly also included singer Billie Holiday and the extraordinary dancer and spy Josephine Baker.
Both Garbo and Dietrich were members of the so-called Sewing Circle, a sisterhood of closet Hollywood lesbians and bisexuals who met at each other’s for lunch, conversation — and more.
The two closest women in Garbo’s life were rivals for her affections. The first was Salka Viertel, a sexually liberated Austrian actress and writer who was 15 years older.
The other was Mercedes de Acosta, a ‘ubiquitous lesbian rake’ who claimed to have had some 50 lovers, including Dietrich, Bankhead, Isadora Duncan and even the Gilded Age novelist Edith Wharton. It was de Acosta who introduced Garbo to wearing trousers, a women’s fashion statement that at the time was regarded as shocking even in Hollywood. Under the headline ‘Garbo in pants!’, a newspaper reported bystanders ‘gasped in amazement’ as the two women strode along Hollywood Boulevard in ‘men’s’ clothing.
The pair would retreat to an island on a lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where Garbo would swim naked and posed topless for de Acosta’s camera. ‘She was never embarrassed by being naked,’ says Gottlieb.
The women’s relationship lasted three decades, although Gottlieb says that, after an initial infatuation, Garbo cooled towards de Acosta and became increasingly fed up with her ‘stifling and dramatic jealousies and sufferings’. De Acosta became Garbo’s ‘love slave’ until the actress abruptly dropped her.
Between 1926 and 1941, Garbo starred in almost 30 films, but World War II saw her and the film industry falling out of love with each other. She never officially retired but moved to New York in 1953 where she was described as a ‘hermit-about-town’. She died aged 84 in 1990.
Sam Green, a close friend in later life, recalled once walking through Paris with Garbo, then in her late 60s, and wandering into a sex shop. ‘She said she’d never been in one before and was curious. It was crowded with horny men, but she went in and took a long look around,’ said Green. ‘Then, outside, she said, ‘Ah, the sex thing. I’m glad that part of my life is over.’
The sex siren, who had always wanted to be alone, had finally got her wish.