A few of us, I had been told, take direct action by worshiping discreetly near the house on 52nd Street and shadowing our idol at a reverent distance when she emerges from her shrine. We unorganized Garbo-watchers never approach her. In fact, if Garbo so much as catches a watcher in the act of following her, it is grounds for excommunication (invariably self-imposed). “Garbo-watchers still exist, but we are fewer each year,” a semi-inactive member told me. I decided to join the ranks on East 52nd Street
‘A few of us take direct action by worshiping
discreetly and shadowing our idol at a reverent
distance when she emerges from her shrine.'
Before enlisting, I checked on whatever had happened to Greta Garbo since 1955, when John Bainbridge's comprehensive but unauthorized biography, “Garbo,” was published. I talked to Bainbridge, who said he had schemed elaborately but vainly to meet Garbo “accidentally”; but after his book was written, he encountered her thrice on Madison Avenue. And, at a newspaper library, I was handed a slender bag of clippings, arranged chronologically:
1955: A Midwestern high school petitions Garbo to come out of retirement … 1956: Garbo inherits some money ($160, says United Press; $80, says the more frugal New York Times) from an uncle in Sweden. The letter of notification is sent to Garbo at a Hollywood address. It is returned, stamped RECEIVER UNKNOWN IN U.S.A. … 1958: Garbo plays cards with Sir Winston Churchill on Aristotle Onassis' yacht in Monaco Harbor. On the shore a crowd collects. And two months later, a reporter intercepts her at Idlewild: “What brings you to New York, Miss Garbo?” She replies, “I live here” … 1959: She is “diagnosed” in a Sunday supplement by a psychiatrist who has met her, but emphasizes that she is not a patient: “I sense that she is made miserable by unconquerable shyness … She is tortured by diffidence, by a feeling that whenever she makes a choice or a decision it is probably wrong. Even her mildest expressions of opinion begin with ‘I don't know anything about this' or ‘I know this sounds silly, but–‘ She has solved the problem by deciding to say little and do nothing.” 1961: The Swedish newspaper Aftenbladet reports that Garbo has rented a flat in her native Stockholm and predicts that she will settle there. A week later, Garbo pays her first visit to her homeland in 13 years, but does not settle down. 1962: A rumor in confirmed in May that Garbo reports twice a week for arthritis treatments at the New York University Medical Center's Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. And Life magazine treats its readers to a long-lens photo of Garbo in shorts and a halter on the Riviera. The inevitable caption: “once again, Greta doesn't get away from it all.”
Reconnoitering Garbo's neighborhood, I received this added intelligence:
“I wouldn't know her if I tripped over her,” said a young policeman on the beat.
“She's almost tripped over me several times,” a woman who lives two houses away told me. “She walks so fast that, once or twice, when I stepped outside, I just barely saw her bearing down on me.”
“When she comes out, she stops in the doorway and looks both ways. Then she walks close to the buildings,” said the doorman of a nearby apartment building.
“In the last two months, maybe two people have come to visit her,” a watcher in Garbo's own building told me.
“She always smiles at my little Loretta, said a fruit dealer. “She likes to buy persimmons.”
“If she's not wearing a sweater, she won't come inside, when we have our air-conditioning on,” a storekeeper told me. “If we see her coming, we'll switch it off. But if it's on, she'll wait outside on the street and I'll take her purchases out to her.”
A Thelma Ritter type, whose store Garbo does not patronize regularly, told me: “Sometimes she looks in my window to see the newspaper headlines. But soon as I look up or catch her eye, she scoots along. Most people, you catch them reading the papers for free and what do they do? They smile or they look a little embarrassed. But they don't bolt. … I think she doesn't want people to see she's gotten any older. But we all get older. Look at me! It's nothing to be ashamed of.”
“She's loosened up a bit now that the pressure's off her,” said an art dealer, recalling the days when he used to escort her out the back door as crowds collected inside and outside his gallery. In her shopping nowadays, Garbo seldom uses such pseudonyms as Harriet Brown, Gussie Berger or Mary Holmquist. (She once sailed for Sweden under a man's name, Karl Lund.)
After many such briefings, I began my vigil on a Thursday morning at the foot of 52nd Street.
By loitering unobtrusively for seven hours that day, I learned that Garbo-watching is also East River-watching, helicopter-watching and doorman-watching. (The doormen communicate by hand signals. Were any of them suspicious of me?) Because the block has no through traffic, Garbo-watching is also driver-training-watching, which ca be perilous. It is pigeon-watching as well. I learned much about Garbo-watching on my first day, but I saw neither Garbo nor Garbo-watchers.
Friday at noon, I met my first Garbo-watchers in action. Two men, dressed informally in sport shirts and slacks, emerged from a car and took up positions near mine. Both were about 40, well-groomed and suburban looking. They talked about jet planes, World War II and baseball. Every now and then, however, they made veiled references to “her.” As they chatted on the sidewalk, the once facing out would eye 52nd Street casually but carefully. At 12:30, they exchanged positions. At 1 P.M., they swapped again. At 1:10, when I sensed that I had become the subject of a whispered conversation, I began to glance though a paperback edition of John Bainbridge's “Garbo.”
“Put that away,” one of the suburbanites told me sharply. “Do you want the doorman to call the cops?” I had made contact.
That afternoon, I learned that the two men were reformed Garbo-watchers who had abandoned it for marriage and two different outposts in Suburbia. Nostalgically, they had returned on a Friday afternoon to relive their bachelor pursuit, which they now found a trifle boring. We talked about Garbo's arthritis, hoped that it was not painful and concluded that it might interfere only occasionally with her walking. At 4:25 P.M., both suburbanites gave up.
“If she hasn't come out by now, she isn't going out for a walk,” one of them assured me as we said good-bye. “You might catch her coming in, but what good will that do you?”
Five minutes later, a screaming child materialized.
Dressed in white and standing forlornly near Garbo's building, the little girl seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. She was about four years old and livid with rage. The doormen exchanged hand signals. A portly female passer-by asked the little girl some questions, which elicited more screams. The doormen nodded reassuringly. The woman moved on. The doormen vanished. The child went on screaming.
And then Garbo made her entrance.
She was heading east toward home. Her arms were swinging and she walked gracefully but rapidly. Her gait was that of a tall young girl just past the coltish stage. She wore lightweight brown walking shoes, a deeply blue dress, a matching kerchief and inexpensive-looking brown-rimmed sunglasses. Her hair was neat and still light brown. Only her face seemed to have aged, but it was unmistakable. She halted before the screaming child.
Garbo gave the child an inquiring look, but said nothing. The child screamed more loudly. Garbo's concern ended when she caught sight of me, watching intently, a few yards away. I will never know whether Garbo, at that moment, identified me as a Garbo-watcher or the child's father. But I was there, so she hurried on into number 450, flashed a tight-lipped smile at the doorman (who had retreated inside for the duration of the screaming-child crisis) and disappeared.
I lingered a little longer. The child bawled until she was hoarse. After three minutes of silence, a governess arrived. She congratulated her charge for being such a good girl during coffee break. Woman and child wandered off, hand in hand. I, too, walked away, reflecting ruefully that I had seen Garbo coming in, but when would I be able to follow her coming out?
At 4:10 the next afternoon, Garbo came out. She wore the same garb she had worn on Friday. Striding west on 52nd Street, she looked neither right nor left. She did not walk close to the buildings, but I did as I trailed her by half a block. No other followers were around.
Garbo turned up First Avenue and, by 53rd Street, two oncoming pedestrians had halted abruptly to study her retreating figure. “That was Garbo!” one of them informed me as I hurried past. I gained a little ground when Garbo stopped to inspect an array of suntan lotions in a drugstore window, but I lost my advantage–and then some–by pausing to take notes. As Garbo approached 57th Street. I was more than a block behind her.
At Second Avenue, she waited for a red light, and a safety poster caught her eye. Its message was “LOOK Before You CROSS …. At The Corners (Of Course),” but Garbo appeared fascinated by its illustration of three alert giraffes, each peering in a different direction. On first glance, it was not easy to tell whether they were three separate giraffes or one three-headed giraffe. Garbo studied them so intently that she missed two green lights.
When she looked up, a small, rapt crowd had collected. Garbo flinched and hurried on. The crowd dispersed silently. Lingering in the entrance of the White Turkey Gobbler Bar, a young man in Bermuda shorts stared and decided to follow her. But just as he stepped forth, the traffic sign flashed DON'T WALK, and he veered away. He looked relieved.
Garbo continued west, pausing at a bank window (“Ask for Free Booklet ‘Buying Your Own Home'”) and a perfume display in a drugstore window.
From a bar between Lexington and Park Avenues, a man in shirt sleeves (the manager or cashier, perhaps) darted out with two male customers in tow. He pointed at Garbo retreating and exclaimed: “She's wearing her blues! I love her blues!” One of the customers said: “Greta Garbo, huh?”
The late Saturday afternoon weather was now overcast. Garbo adjusted her blue kerchief to cover her hair. In doing so, she extended the kerchief to its full width behind her neck. For about 20 seconds, without slowing her stride, Garbo held her arms in this weight-lifting, slightly heroic pose.
During those 20 seconds, a rather slack-jawed young man came strolling toward her. The sight of Greta Garbo advancing on him like a moving statue caused his jaw to drop further and him to teeter precariously. When I passed him, he was trying to say “Garbo!”
But words had failed him.
In the 40 minutes that I was to spend following Greta Garbo, I counted 41 people who definitely recognized her. I may have missed a few.
My downfall as a Garbo-watcher began on 57th Street near Madison Avenue at 4:36 by the IBM clock. My comeuppance came 14 minutes later, on Fifth Avenue at 51st Street.
On 57th , Garbo stopped short before the window of the Hammer Galleries. I was juts a few feet behind and I should have continued on past her. Instead, I stopped short, too, in front of an adjacent window. I feigned interest in a flower arrangement.
Garbo glanced at me and then looked at a Vlaminck landscape in the Hammer Galleries' window depicting a solitary walker. The she gazed at me again. I suspect that she suddenly recognized me from the previous day's screaming-child crisis. In any event, she bolted across Madison Avenue.
At this point, a spectator sport became a chase. I had never had any intention of speaking to Garbo; in fact, I had specifically planned not to accost her. But now that I had frightened her, I felt that at least I ought to say something apologetic or reassuring.
Zigzagging down Madison Avenue (at 55th Street, she jaywalked for the only time), Garbo was clearly eager to lose me. When she veered west on 51st Street, I thought she might seek sanctuary in St. Patrick's Cathedral. But she turned left on Fifth Avenue and continued downtown.
Below 50th Street, in front of Saks Fifth Avenue's Window 22 (“brilliant beads in color” wrapped around 14 disembodied necks), I caught up with Garbo, who made a frantic U-Turn and scurried past me. I caught a glimpse of her sad blue eyes beneath the sunglasses. I turned around, too, but slackened my pace. I had only succeeded in frightening her more. I would give up the chase. I drifted uptown, trying to lose my regrets and unspoken apologies in the crowd of Saturday shoppers.
At the northeast corner of 51st Street, Garbo was waiting for me. She had the same expression with which she had confronted the screaming child, but she addressed me severely in a husky, accented voice that recalled her first sound film, Anna Christie. (GARBO TALKS! the ads had proclaimed. Her first words had been: “Give me a whisky and don't be stingy, baby!”) This time, however, her words were:
“If you follow me any more, I am going to call a cop.”
I stammered out a vague apology, of which I recall only two key words–“sheepish” and “admiration.” I never got to explain myself, but her voice softened a little as she said:
“Then why do you follow me? Please don't at all.”
Garbo strode off, bound north on Fifth Avenue. I stood near a window of Best & Company (“BORN TO WANDER. … Completely Composed Jet Age Wool Knits by Goldworm”) and wrote down the details of our conversation.
My immediate emotion was a relieved, “Well, at least she spoke to me first,” which did nit seem far removed from a child's plaintive, “He hit me first!”
Later, I felt remorse. The last thing I had wanted to do was annoy Greta Garbo. After a few days, I consoled myself by going to a revival of Ninotchka . Garbo laughs!
VOLTAIRE SAID IT:
Who serves his country well has no need of ancestors.
In general the art of government consists in taking
as much money as possible from one class of citizens to
give to another.
The secret being a bore is to tell everything.