Greta Garbo chose to never marry, but she sure loved to get around. The silver-screen icon went out with men and women, gays and straights, singletons and married people, and she did it all on her own terms.
After he enlisted in the military at the start of WWII, the actor Gilbert Roland wrote in his memoirs that Garbo took him to bed to celebrate, even giving him a pair of her panties as a keepsake. Then, when he returned home from leave months later and reached out to her, Garbo refused to take his calls.
Because the actress was so private, she never kissed and told. But it was widely known that she bedded the mostly gay fashion photographer Cecil Beaton. Starting in the mid-40s and continuing for three decades, Garbo and Beaton dated intermittently and were seen together at different times in New York and California, London and Paris.
Beaton gossiped about his liaisons with Garbo with author Truman Capote, who later said to Hugo Vickers, Beaton’s official biographer: “Curiously enough, Cecil was one of the few people who gave her any physical satisfaction.”
Beaton also told Vickers he wasn’t sure how he did it.
“I am so unexpectedly violent and have such unlicensed energy when called upon. It baffles and intrigues me and even shocks her.”
The actress’ exploits are detailed in Robert Gottlieb’s new “Garbo,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which dishes on the busy love life and iconic film career of the shy girl from Stockholm who became Hollywood’s biggest star in the era when movies transitioned from silent to “talkies.”
Born Greta Gustafsson in 1905 to a poor Swedish family — Gottlieb describes Garbo’s father as “a hardworking but unskilled laborer,” with some sources saying he was a “latrine cleaner” — Garbo (which she later adopted as her stage name) never liked school but loved the theater. She schlepped around Stockholm at night just to watch the actors go through the stage door, all part of her plan to become famous herself.
“She was consumed by her determination to become not only an actress but a great star,” Gottlieb writes.
In 1920, 15-year-old Garbo was cast in an advertising film for a Stockholm department store, and her onscreen charisma was so powerful a producer nearly collapsed at the sight of her, falling against a door.
“She is so beautiful that it really pains my heart just to see her,” he said.
Garbo was only 15 — Sweden’s age of consent then and now — when she likely took as her first lover Max Gumpel, a Swedish Olympian and man about town, but even that desirable bachelor wasn’t necessarily the only man she wanted.
She also walked past the Swedish royal palace most nights “because one of the royal princes might catch sight of me,” she explained at the time to her friend, Eva Blomgren.
While a student at the Royal Dramatic Training Academy, Garbo was taken under the wing of Mauritz Stiller, a theatre impresario known for his diamond earrings and ankle-length fur coats. In 1923 Stiller cast Garbo in his film “The Saga of Gösta Berling,” but the two likely never rendezvoused on his famous casting couch.
“Everyone knew Stiller had a different kind of interest,” Gottlieb writes.
In the early 1920s, Garbo filmed G.W. Pabst’s “Joyless Street” in Berlin, where she enjoyed the Weimar Republic’s glittery nightclubs and cabarets. During those months Garbo either did or did not — to this day nobody knows — sleep with the sexual dynamo Marlene Dietrich, then an unknown actress living in Berlin. (Dietrich had an uncredited role in “Joyless Street” and thus crossed paths with Garbo.) Whatever happened, there was bad blood between the two women for the rest of their lives.
For example, in “Marlene Dietrich,” the book written about her by her daughter, Maria Riva, Dietrich is quoted saying she met one of Garbo’s male lovers and was not impressed: “He was drunk the whole evening but if you have to go to bed with Garbo, you have to drink.”
In 1924, studio head Louis B. Mayer saw Garbo in “Joyless Street” and decided, “I’ll take a chance on Garbo.” He signed her to MGM and moved her to Hollywood, where for the next 15 years the actress ruled the film world, with classics like “Mata Hari,” “Grand Hotel” and “Anna Karenina.”
Speaking to a reporter, the actor Melvyn Douglas — who never slept with Garbo but did co-star in three movies with her — said Garbo’s popularity resulted largely from her sexual allure.
“I have never played with a woman with such an ability to arouse the erotic impulse,” he said.
Perhaps nowhere was that clearer than in Garbo’s second MGM film, 1926’s “Flesh And The Devil.” Garbo wasn’t initially enthused about the movie, at least not until she met her co-star, John Gilbert.
“She hated the script, she hated her role, but she didn’t hate him,” Gottlieb writes.
Garbo and Gilbert ended up madly in love, with their off-screen romance leading to scintillating on-screen chemistry. Decades before Hollywood “intimacy coordinators” were a thing, Garbo and Gilbert’s on-set performances were so incendiary it was “embarrassing” to watch, director Clarence Brown said in “Dark Star,” the book about Gilbert written by his daughter, Leatrice Joy Gilbert.
“Those two were alone in a world of their own. It seemed like an intrusion to yell ‘cut!’” Brown recalled. “I used to just motion the crew to another part of the set and let them finish what they were doing.”
“Flesh and the Devil” titillated the viewing public, too.
“They kissed with their mouths open! They made love horizontally! She was lying on top of him! Nothing this erotic had ever been seen on the screen,” Gottlieb writes.
The initial heat between Garbo and Gilbert waned, partly because she rebuffed his numerous marriage proposals. By the time Gilbert died young from alcoholism a decade later, Garbo couldn’t remember what all the fuss had been about, dismissing any feelings she might have once had. She explained to the playwright S. N. Behrman that she’d only got involved with Gilbert because she was “lonely” and “didn’t speak English” after she moved to Los Angeles, and another time wondered to a companion what she ever saw in him.
“Well, I guess he was pretty.”
But Garbo had never been short of lovers. When MGM hired Sven Hugo Borg to be her interpreter in LA when the actress moved there in 1925, she quickly welcomed the handsome translator into her bed. In the 1934 movie “The Painted Veil,” George Brent’s character nonchalantly seduced the unhappy wife portrayed by Garbo, while in real life “Greta and George enjoyed a romantic interlude for a while — she even moved in with him,” Gottlieb writes.
At a 1941 New Year’s Eve party, Garbo met Erich Maria Remarque, author of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” who, although married, was a playboy known for many lovers, soon including Garbo. Remarque romantically described his first interlude with Garbo in his journals.
“She entered the bedroom, the light of the dressing room behind her, softly flowering over her shoulders, enchanting her outline, the face, the hands, the trembling, something imperceptible shook her, then the voice … the absence of any form of sentimentality or melodrama — yet full of warmth,” he wrote.
It’s lovely, although Gottlieb also writes how Remarque would later snark to his wife, screen star Paulette Goddard, that Garbo had been “lousy in bed.”
Later in the war, Orson Welles briefly dated Garbo — that is, until he saw her refuse an autograph request from a uniformed soldier on crutches. Welles found that behavior disqualifying and immediately stopped seeing her, Gottlieb writes.
In 1934, Rouben Mamoulian directed Garbo in the well-received “Queen Christina” while also enjoying intimate relations with his Swedish star. But Condé Nast writer/editor Leo Lerman reported in his journal, “The Grand Surprise,” that Dietrich told him the director gave Garbo gonorrhea.
“I was in the hospital with a strep throat, and she was in a room above me . . . with the clap,” Dietrich allegedly said. “She got it from Mamoulian.”
As for her lesbian leanings, Garbo had documented dalliances with Tallulah Bankhead, Billie Holiday and Louise Brooks, and a rumored affair with Josephine Baker. But the actress’ enigmatic love life was perhaps best summed up by her alliance with the poet Mercedes de Acosta. According to Gottlieb, de Acosta was a “ubiquitous lesbian rake,” who claimed to have shared Sapphic sex with a “who’s who” of the era’s leading ladies, including Dietrich, Bankhead and even author Edith Wharton.
For more than three decades Garbo and de Acosta were friends and, maybe, lovers. Along with her on-and-off affair with Cecil Beaton, the relationship with de Acosta was one of the most long-standing in Garbo’s life, even though they never had any official relationship. The poet’s 1960 memoir revealed an emotional attachment between the two but doesn’t mention sex. Neither do de Acosta’s letters, opened years after her death. And although de Acosta was known to have taken a photograph of a topless Garbo, getting the actress naked was apparently not hard to do.
“Garbo was famous for shucking off her clothes to swim — in her pool, in the ocean, wherever,” Gottlieb writes. “She was never embarrassed by being naked.”
The author believes de Acosta fell prey to Garbo’s enigmatic charm, a passion that was never requited; “Mercedes was madly in love; Greta was responsive, then fed up with her friend’s stifling and dramatic jealousies and sufferings.”
Between 1926’s “Torrent” and “Two-Faced Woman” in 1941, Garbo starred in almost 30 movies and was nominated for an Academy Award three times. (She never won, but was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1955.) But World War II changed everything, including Hollywood — with the movie industry losing interest in its Swedish star and the reclusive Garbo seemingly losing interest in acting. She never officially retired but never agreed to another role, leaving California for New York City in 1953.
Of the seven-bedroom apartment she bought on 52nd Street, Gottlieb writes that Garbo had all the same troubles as the rest of the city’s residents when it came to real estate.
“I had a hard time getting this,” Garbo said. “They don’t like actresses in this building.”
Until her death in 1990, Garbo enjoyed a private Manhattan life, with one source describing her as a “hermit-about-town,” Gottlieb writes. She took long walks most days, bought art — including three Renoirs — and, according to the sportswriter Tony Kornheiser, enjoyed regular New York Rangers games as a season ticket holder.
She never had kids, never married, never really even had a relationship that could’ve been described as serious. Over the years no one could really figure out her love life, and no one was more confused about Garbo’s laundry list of lovers than Marlene Dietrich.
“I don’t understand how she gets them all,” Dietrich wrote in a letter to her husband, Rudolf Sieber.
The notoriously private Garbo, meanwhile, never cared to explain herself to anyone. And neither did she give much thought to Dietrich. Asked by a reporter late in her life about the “German Garbo,” the Swedish original coyly demurred.