JULY 28, 1974
Garbo: She Keeps
Her Legend Alive
By KEITHA McLEAN
GARBO WALKS ON. Some say she was, and–approaching 70–still is, one of the most beautiful women in the world. Others insist Garbo is a man, having the ultimate joke on a still slavish public.
Yet, 69 years after she was born Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm, 42 years since “Gosta Berling,” her first film, and 33 years since her last, “Two-Faced Woman,” the film that marked the end of one of the most dazzling careers in movie history and the onset of a determined and reclusive retirement, Greta Garbo walks on, or stalks on, as many Garbo-chasers claim – one of the genuinely mysterious figures of the 20th century.
Garbo has interest–and she knows how to fan it ... by loping through Manhattan with a newspaper over her face and a gang of fans behind … by sneaking into the projection room of the Museum of Modern Art during a showing of a film for members only … even by walloping a hapless photographer over the head with her umbrella during a walk in the rain.
Spurns Role Playing Herself
Moreover, Garbo talks. Recently offered the part of an aging movie star who plays herself in “Airport '75,” the sequel to the Arthur Halley novel, Garbo forfeited the role (to Gloria Swanson) when she announced, “What could be worse than playing a movie star?”
But Garbo was not always the living legend, the perfect woman. “Miss, you're much too fat,” said Mauritz Stiller, the great Swedish director, when he was casting for “Gosta Berling.” Greta dropped 20 pounds and got the part.
In those days, Greta was like any other starlet. When she came to Hollywood in 1925, MGM's Irving Thalberg made her “buckle down.” She did, went on a strenuous diet and had her teeth straightened and capped.
She went the whole Hollywood route–posing with a tame lion, playing the ukulele, even twirling a parasol on the beach for discreet cheesecake publicity photos.
By 1926, however, the Garbo look had emerged–loose hair, pencil-thin eyebrows, eyelids sculptured in the crease with a pencil and long mascaraed eyelashes–and by 1929, after a visit to Sweden, so had her personality – nervous, moody, withdrawn.
On one occasion, Groucho Marx, meeting her slumped in the corner of a studio elevator, tried to draw her out. He tipped up the corn of that famous slouch hat. “Oh, I'm sorry,” he deadpanned. “I thought you were a fellow I knew in Pittsburgh.” Garbo didn't flicker an eyelash.
The men in Garbo's life read like a who's who in arts and pleasures–John Gilbert, Prince Sivard, Wilhelm Sorensen, Leopold Stokowski.
One of the most verbal, albeit treacly, was Cecil Beaton. In descriptions from his autobiography, Beaton waxes lyrical. In what was an unprecedented gesture of intimacy, Garbo once let him touch her vertebrae. This was more than Beaton could cope with and he immediately wanted to marry her.
Beaton Goes Bananas–Or Apricots
“She was like a large apricot in the fullness of its perfection,” he gushed. A few years later, although “the apricot quality had given place to vellum,” he continued his obsession. But Garbo wanted nothing of marriage.
At their last meeting, she said he could stay until breakfast, “if you remain … beside me like a brother.”
During the late ‘30s, there was another man destined to play a major role in the story of Garbo, and he bounced on stage full of vim, vinegar and brewer's yeast.
Gayelord Hauser, the pioneering nutritionist, lured Garbo to his house for one of his specialties: Hamburgers made of wild rice and chopped hazelnuts, mixed with an egg and fried in soybean oil.
Obviously it was a successful diet. A bright-eyed and agreeable Garbo emerged–for a while–and Hauser remained a friend, in and off, r years.
During those early days, there were even rumors of romance, if not marriage, and Louella Parsons pronounced, in her inimitable fashion, the two were “thataway.”
In 1938, Garbo's star began to wane. She and Hauser drifted apart. The high spot in “Ninotchka” in 1939 was the “Garbo laughs” bit, “Two-Faced Woman” was still more shallow, and while MGM touted a new and different Garbo, Greta quietly retired.
In the years since, there has been endless speculation about “Garbo returns”–except, apparently, by Garbo herself. And at work or not, Garbo has continued to make news with her friendships, some of them private, some celebrated, such as the curious ménage among Garbo, George Schlee and his couturiere wife, Valentina.
One former Valentina employe puts it this way: “Valentina never liked the arrangement, but she put up with it. We could never figure Garbo out.”
More recently, Garbo's life in Europe has revolved around Klosters, Cecile and Lilliane de Rothschild and such friends as Fred Chandon and Irwin Shaw. A special favorite is Peter Viertel's mother, Salka, now in her late 80s and often described as a mother to Greta.
She Doesn't Need Jack LaLanne
Despite her advancing years, Garbo continues her Sparta physical-fitness regimen. When she goes to the south of France to stay at Castellaras, the house of French industrialist Leon Kaplan, she sunbathes nude every afternoon. In Klosters, it's exercise, light lunches and those celebrated tramps through the forest.
In New York, these days, her life is much the same, but less Spartan. According to the gospel of Gayelord Hauser (G a r b o and Hauser renewed their friendship), there is no place in his “Look Younger, Live Longer” Philosophy for smoking or drinking. Yet Garbo does both.
In days long gone, the Garbo favorites were caviar and champagne. In “Ninotchka,” director Ernest Lubitsch had a tough time getting a drunkenly convincing “gimmie a visky” out of his star. Today, however, Garbo smokes three packs a day and there's always vodka on hand for Garbo and her guests.
Billy Baldwin tells of visiting her apartment on a decorating assignment and noting a corner with three open vodka bottles on a table. “That is my corner,” Garbo told him.
Baldwin also says, “I've had her to lunch a couple of times and she never utters a word about health food or anything special.”
Today, Gayelord Hauser, over 80 and still full of energy, still opposes drinking ad smoking, but adds, “She smokes less now and one drink before dinner.
“She eats intelligently. One of my favorite Lunches, and hers, is a cup of chicken broth with chives, cottage cheese, half a ripe avocado with a vinegar, herb and oil dressing, a slice of pineapple and one piece of toasted and buttered dark bread.
“As a vegetarian, Greta came to me for help 35 years ago. I have nothing against vegetarians, but it's much more difficult to get a balanced diet,” continues Hauser, who added protein to her diet. “She exercises constantly and has the body of a young girl.” Whatever the slight modification of her life style, Garbo still lives by the Hauser principle. Daily she leaves her upper East Side apartment for one of those long walks that she called more that 20 years ago “just milling around.” She visits the nearby Nutrition Center, where she buys health food – chicken, dried apricots and whole milk.
Shuns Store-Bought Beauty
However, she buys none of the center's bio-based cosmetics. According the reports, even at the height of her career, she was never obsessed by the mirror, and her beauty routine consisted simply of ice cubes on her face and a dash of powder. Today, if she wears anything, it's pale pink lipstick and eyebrow pencil.
The hair that years ago Cecil Beaton called “Beautiful cinder-mouse” is completely gray.
Now, although her body remains young and strong, the face is beginning to show its age. Perhaps, because of this, she has, according to Hauser, discussed the subject of cosmetic surgery. “But not in relation to her,” he insists. “She has not done anything like that.”
So Garbo walks on, Striding to a secret gym in the East 40s for her exercises, Halting traffic at the jewelry counter of a Fifth Ave. specialty store. Stopping conversation in a theater as she sweeps in, swathed in mink.
She's even the heroine of a popular novel. (Jacqueline Susann won't admit she based the character of Karla in “Once Is Not Enough” on Garbo, but Susann's husband, Irving Mansfield, says that anybody who puts 2 and 2 together is “very perceptive.”)
Increasingly, however, there are those who question the legend. One neighbor who sees her along the street constantly says, “I believe she loves to be recognized and stared at.”
A photographer says, “If she doesn't want to be photographed, why doesn't she simply take a cap when she sees photographers, instead of walking 15 blocks so we can get all the pictures we want?”
Then there's the comment of Mauritz Stiller, her original mentor: “Mystery has served me well. I could do as much for you.”
Maybe true, maybe not. Nonetheless, at the end of one f her many alliances years ago, Garbo remarked, she wished she could find someone with whom to share her life. At another time she said, “I'm sort of drifting.”
Today, Garbo drifts–alone.