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by Harriet Parsons


Twenty-four hours with Garbo proves that she is not a recluse. She adores friends but she has the reserve natural to a woman of refinement.


     In the spirit of nostalgia Harriet Parsons granted Hollywood Studio permission to reprint this early story from Silver Screen In 1931. Ms. Parsons later wrote, directed and produced over 100 short subjects and produced, with great success, seven features.

     To the public she is a glamourous figure shrouded in mystery. To the press she's a framework on which to hang wild flights of journalistic fancy.
     Garbo! If all the stories written about her were laid end to end they would reach from Hollywood back to her native Stockholm with enough stray adjectives left over to fill the Grand Canyon.
     Yet no two stories are alike. Why? Because Garbo keeps her own counsel and much of the time her own company.
     Now I, in common with some twenty million other movie fans, had thought about Garbo, dreamed about her, wondered about the hidden facts of her life. And also, I, like some hundred other writers, was dying to get a story on her that might reveal some of the facts about her – show the world the real Greta.
     I was in Hollywood. Garbo was in Hollywood. If I was human – and I certainly am – so was Greta. She existed and had her being. She could be seen. When these bright ideas hit me, I got the big brain wave. Somehow, some way, I would stick by Garbo's side for a whole day – all twenty-four hours of it – all twenty-four hours when I was observing her but she didn't know she was being observed – and find out how she spent just one typical day of her lovely, glamorous life.
     It wasn't an easy stunt – but oh, what a thrill!
     I chose a Saturday night and a Sunday. I thought Greta would be free then, away from the studio and her art, most thoroughly herself. And, by a lucky chance I found out one salient fact – that Greta goes often to a little theatre in the Mexican quarter of Los Angeles, a theatre run by the Yale Puppeteers. I learned that on my particular Saturday there was to be an act burlesqueing Hollywood and Garbo and I gambled that Garbo might go to witness it – gambled and won.
     The theatre is on Olvera Street, a colorful segment of the angelic city, only a block long and barred to vehicles. It is more like a marketplace in the heart of old Mexico than a thoroughfare in the center of one of America's largest cities.
     Next door to the theatre is a subterranean cafe – the Casa de la Golondrina. The menu is entirely Mexican and the people who dine there are interested in their food, not in sightseeing. It seemed to me just the type of place where Garbo might choose to eat before attending the puppet show. So I started my quest there.
     I took no chances. The show didn't start till nine but at seven I was in the little cafe, seated alone with my hat pulled down over my eyes, at a table that overlooked every corner of the room. I stalled over my dinner, lingered over my coffee. Seven-thirty came, eight o'clock, eight-fifteen. I was just deciding this was my unlucky day when the door opened and a man and a girl entered quietly.
     I caught my breath in excitement. It was Garbo! I sat breathless while she and her escort selected a table. It was the one next to mine, not four feet away. Garbo was dressed as no other girl in Hollywood would have been dressed – a grey suit, severely tailored, a man's grey shirt, a navy blue tie with white dots, a heavy grey topcoat and a dark blue beret with no hair showing from beneath it. Her pale, lovely face had a luminous quality and she was quietly very gay.
     I dragged my fascinated eyes away from her to her escort – a tall man and slim, with an ironical mouth. Garbo was speaking to him in German but I decided that he wasn't German. Suddenly I recognized him – Jacques Feyder, the French director, who made "The Kiss," Garbo's last silent picture.
     They began to eat. Greta had enchilada de la tapiata, a kind of Mexican pancake, dry and served with salad. She finished it and ordered a second dish – this time enchilada with a highly flavored chili sauce. Afterward she drank black coffee and smoked a denicotinized cigarette. A flower woman came by the table with her little tray of blossoms. Feyder purchased a gardenia and with a gallant gesture handed it to Garbo. She smiled at him and pinned it to the lapel of her coat.
     At nine sharp she and Feyder left as quietly as they had come and walked next door to the Teatro Torrito. They sat down in the third row from the back of the tiny house and I slipped into the row just behind them. I pinched myself to be sure I am awake and sitting so close to my idol.
     During the first sketch Garbo is quietly amused. I study her face and am amazed by two things – first, that she is even more beautiful off the screen than on, and younger – and, second, that she wears a light make-up, mascara and liprouge. Where is the colorless, drab, homely girl the fan writers have talked so much about? This off-screen Garbo is a lovely woman, wearing just enough make-up to accentuate her beauty.


Garbo in Wild Orchids (1929-MGM).


     The Hollywood sketch comes on. A puppet of George Arliss and one of Aimee Semple MacPherson make their appearance. Then the Garbo puppet, dressed as Anna Christie. A hush falls on the small audience – by now every one in the house knows that Garbo is present. They glance at her surreptitiously to see how she will react to the puppet of herself. But Garbo has seen it many times before. She chuckles throatily at the verse spoken by the little figure – particularly at the last lines:
     Dat old devil sea is a devil maybe
        but he was an angel to me.
     With photography misty I did Anna Christie
        and see what O'Neill did for me!
     If I should decide to go back home
     I could buy a half interest in Stockholm;
     I live life as I please with the world at my knees
        Singing 'Skoal!" to dat old devil sea!
     At the line about Stockholm Garbo laughs out loud – a good, hearty laugh – and looks up at Feyder, smiling. They are plainly very good, understanding friends.
     At ten o'clock the curtain goes down on the final sketch. Garbo and Feyder slip through a side door into Adrian's Shop, next door. Adrian is the costume designer at M-G-M and I begin to feel scared – scared that my prey will slip away from me through some underground passage sacred to ladies of mystery.
     But I go around in front of the shop and paste my nose against the glass of the door. Inside I see Garbo going from one object to another in the small shop, animatedly. She is gay and interested. Suddenly she spies a huge, fantastic monkey with a body of white fur and a comic red corduroy face. She stands delightedly while Adrian shows her how the arms and legs move. She is as pleased as a child.
     Meantime, a crowd has collected outside the patio. With that genius peculiar to crowds, they have sensed a celebrity near-by – their greatest celebrity. But Garbo lingers in the shop until they have all gone except me. It is eleven when suddenly, much to my relief, Adrian, Garbo and Feyder come out and stroll up and down the street. Adrian is showing her the sights of the minature village.
     At eleven-twenty-five Garbo and Feyder enter Garbo's Lincoln limousine and the colored chauffeur starts off. Garbo in a Lincoln and me in a Ford! I pray my poor Lizzie will be equal to the task and set out in hot pursuit. I follow the big car so closely that I almost bump into it at several intersections. West, toward Hollywood, through Hollywood and Beverly Hills on out to the sea. As we approach Santa Monica, the chase grows exciting. Garbo lives somewhere in Santa Monica – but where? And after I discover where, what am I going to do about it?
     Suddenly the big car slows down and turns sharply into a driveway thickly surrounded by trees. I make a note of the address and hastily survey the place. It is entirely surrounded by tall spruce trees, standing black in the blue of a California night. Not a glimpse of the house can be seen from the street. It is just the sort of place Garbo would choose. A fortress as impenetrable and hidden as she is herself. She disappears – Feyder departs alone – midnight arrives–.


Greta Garbo in Queen Christina


     I settle down for a nocturnal vigil.
     Only a little after daybreak, I begin to investigage my surroundings. I am in the vicinity of Brentwood, an exclusive community halfway between Santa Monica and Sawtelle. I wander about a bit and learn things. About five blocks from the Garbo menage is the small, open market where Garbo herself comes after the fresh fruit and vegetables she loves, and the black Concord grapes for which she has a weakness. Here, too, is the drugstore to which she walks often, in the late afternoon. On such occasions she is always alone, clad in top-coat, beret and dark glasses. The proprietor tells me that she always goes straight to the magazine rack and buys all the new fan magazines – but that the clerks never speak to her unless she addresses them first. Her purchases in the drug-store seldom come to more than a dollar or two and she always pays cash, refusing to open an account.
     By this time, the morning is advanced enough for me to return to my post outside the Garbo residence. The place is just as mysterious in the daytime as at night. There is no name on the mailbox. The thick wall of trees veils the house completely. On the east side a vacant lot, on the west another house, completely shut off by the same closely-planted trees. West of that, another vacant lot. I cross the lot on the east side of the house, hoping to get a view from the back – but a sheer cliff faces me. Garbo's garden ends at the cliff's edge and an iron railing runs along the brink. But, just between the last tree in the impenetrable wall of foliage, and the beginning of the railing is a tiny clear space, not more than two feet square. With a sudden burst of courage, I gain a precarious footage somewhere between earth and heaven, and, standing on this spot at peril to life and limb, I can see over a waist-high hedge – at last, a clear view of Garbo's house.
     A two-story white Spanish house, with red-tiled roof. Rambling and larger than I had expected, but not pretentious. Typical of Garbo, who not only has a simple home, but runs it economically, keeping only three servants, a cook, a gardener and a chauffeur. Her bills for food average only sixty dollars a month, although both the cook and gardener live in. Besides buying in Brentwood, Garbo also goes into Los Angeles to get meat at Wreden's, a wholesale market.
     On closer inspection, the atmosphere of her surroundings takes on a different aspect – one of dignity and reserve – but not necessarily of mystery.
     A wide lawn surrounds the house, but at this early morning hour, it is deserted and silent. A heavy medicine ball lies on the grass. And an empty parrot cage. There is a rustle. I jump. A black and white cat strolls leisurely into view, followed by a small coal-black kitten. Hastily I snap some pictures and clamber down from my dangerous perch.
     Garbo is nowhere to be seen so I decide to go and see the neighbors. Their house is only a few feet from Garbo's, but completely screened by foliage. My visit reveals only one thing – Garbo's neighbors have never met her nor exchanged a single word with her. I seem to know more about her after one evening of research than the people who had lived beside her for months.


Garbo's first sound film made in 1930
for MGM was Anna Christie.


     I returned to my vantage point. This time through a small gap in the tree-wall I can see a figure lying on the grass in a patch of sunshine. It is Garbo. She is curled up under an old robe with only her bare legs visible. She talks to the cats. She sings in a deep pleasant voice a German song – Schubert's Serenade. At twelve the cook comes out, bringing luncheon on a tray. Garbo speaks to her in English & asking for some Swedish bread! They talk for a moment – gesturing toward the empty cage. They are bewailing the fact that the parrot has flown away. Both are despondent, but Garbo especially feels the loss. For she loves all sorts of birds and animals, and is apt to take her whole crew of pets with her when she goes away for a week or two. When her kittens were at a veterinary hospital she went to see them every day.
     Leaving Garbo to eat her luncheon in solitude, I take up my post across the street. House of waiting. Being Sunday, she prolongs her solitary sun-bath. At last she goes in the house and before long a lone figure emerges from the heavily shadowed driveway. She wears a polo coat and the inevitable beret, a white skirt and blue navy jacket and heavy flat-heeled shoes. She walks vigorously and so fast that I have difficulty in keeping up with her, even at a discreet distance. Through back streets, down into the canyon behind her home, then into the hills on the other side she plunges, with me fast on her heels. At last she doubles back and toward the ocean, winding up finally at a house in a side street very near the sea. The mailbox tells me that it is the home of Viertel, the director. Mrs. Viertel, a German, played Marie Dressler's part in the German version of Anna Christie and coached Garbo in the language. They are close friends, and when she is not working, Garbo goes almost every day to the Viertels, and almost as often to the Feyders. Those two families are her closest friends, and she is gay and sociable when she is with them.


"Camille" 1936


     About four-thirty the entire Viertel family, including a crew of youngsters, emerges from the house with Garbo. They all pile into a Buick sedan. Garbo drives. She's an erratic chauffeur and the cab which I hastily summon (having left my own Lizzie parked before her house) has difficulty following her devious route. But finally we end up at the Feyder home in Brentwood, some four miles away.
     By this time I was quite proficient at looking over fences, so with a paean of praise for Spanish patios, where all is open for the world to see, I manage to find a place from which I can view the Feyder festivities.
     The entire French colony seems to have gathered there – among others I recognized Mirande, the writer, Gregore, the actor, and Andre Luguet and his wife. The place is alive with children. There are three small Feyders and several small Luguets.
     Garbo comes into the patio, beret in hand. Her hair hangs almost straight to her shoulders, parted on one side as she wore it in "Anna Christie," and without any attempt at coiffure. But she still wears a light make-up like that of the night before.
     She talks to the children and plays with them. Obviously she loves them and they adore her. Then she talks to Feyder about the picture she is soon to begin and seems anxious about her work. Contrary to the accepted opinion, she adores her work and has no desire to give it up. And before each new picture, she is as nervous as an amateur. After each picture is completed, she is certain that she has given a bad performance and talks of leaving the screen. When the picture is a success - as it always is! - she decides to try once more/ And because she is so engrossed in her work, she loves to talk about it even during her hours of relaxation.

     Finally, she turns from Feyder, and leaning on the back of a chair, engages in conversation with Mirande. She is gay, laughing, full of life – not at all the sombre melancholy figure I had expected her to be. The patio is alive with laughter and conversation.
     Garbo stays just an hour. Then takes her departure alone. No one tries to stop her or to insist upon going with her. All seem to take it as a matter of .course that she should leave suddenly and by herself. They understand her desire to be alone.
     Again she strides along the quiet roads and back streets. She seems to know every stone – she walks alone from two to three hours every day either early in the morning or late in the afternoon – whether she is working or not.
     There is no sign of life anywhere, except for the tall solitary figure of Garbo. She turns up the driveway, dark and gloomy now that the sun has set.
     It is my last sight of her for the day. There is no sound from the house and there are lights only in the bedroom and kitchen. Apparently she is having her dinner in bed, just as she frequently does when she is working.
     It is eight-thirty. The golden moon hangs low in the cloudless California sky. The air is sweet with the scent of blossoms drifting down from distant hills. I watch the big house and see the lights being extinguished one by one. Then everywhere there is silence and peace. The garden lies quiet.
     Garbo is asleep.


What was Garbo really like?

Well, the descriptions are on paper, but you won't be able to read them until after the star of the great silent films is dead. Those are the conditions under which Simon & Schuster bought the comprehensive version of her life story – Garbo: A Life in Her Own Words by Toni Gronowicz. What is the book like? “Very personal, very intimate, very sexy, “says S&S's director of subsidiary rights. Connie Sayre. Gronowicz was an intimate friend of Greta Garbo's in the nineteen fifties and has been writing this book for a long time.


from:   Hollywood Studio Magazine,      1978, No. 5
© Copyright by  Hollywood Studio Magazine



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