At the age of thirteen Greta Garbo was seduced in a tent in the family’s backyard by her older, prettier sister, Alva. A little later she had her first heterosexual union with a local boy in the same tent. Incidentally, Garbo always said she wanted to be let alone. She did not want to be alone. The lady craved privacy not solitude.
Massive orgies like the Berlin Transvestite Balls of the thirties eventually led Hitler to persecute ‘deviants’ and force them out of Germany. Many headed for Hollywood. European cities boasted transvestites clubs, gay and lesbian bars, and all kinds of brothels. Sexual experimentation was the norm in middle-class circles and Garbo, for one, loved the sexual freedom of Europe. She often said that Hollywood was similar. Dietrich felt similarly. They both arrived in California with a high expectancy of continuing the hedonistic lifestyle they had enjoyed in Europe.
One product of the German ‘sexual freedom’ clique was artist Eva Hermann who came to Hollywood and ended up sharing a house with writer Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria. She was soon sharing their bed as well. At parties she would happily strip buck naked, lay on a table and encourage men or women to photograph her body and to touch her sexually. Hollywood suited her very nicely.
Garbo became an American movie star virtually by default. When her mentor, director Mauritz Stiller, was signed by MGM, he insisted she should also be signed or there would be no deal. Mayer put her on $250 a week with the parting comment to Stiller: ‘And tell her that in America we don’t like fat women’. Garbo thereafter referred to Mayer as ‘that gross pig’.
She could be extremely irritating. A knock on her dressing-room door would most likely earn an angry ‘Not in!’ from the grumpy actress. An invitation to dinner next Wednesday night might elicit, ‘How do I know I will be hungry next Wednesday night?’ She would walk straight past people she knew without speaking, but if they did not speak she would quickly mutter, ‘Hullo’, just to make them feel guilty. And then she would walk on.
Garbo at the height of her beauty
Her label as ‘the woman of mystery’ was cooked up by MGM to keep her from conducting interviews in which she invariably offended someone or made some outlandish observation or statement that damaged her image or that of the studio. Personally, she cared little about adverse publicity at the height of her career, probably because she encountered so little of it. When gay director F W Furneau died in a car crash while being fellated by his fourteen year-old Filipino chauffeur, the only movie personage brave enough to attend his funeral was Garbo. Contrarily, members of Hollywood’s notorious ‘Sewing Circle’, a euphemism for its lesbian/bisexual club, went to great lengths to hide their sexuality. But not Garbo. She enjoyed being outrageous and controversial, much like the even more outrageous Tallulah Bankhead who was one of her many lovers.
Tallulah Bankhead – a Garbo lover
Fans, of course, were completely unaware of the sewing circle. Its members included Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Agnes Moorehead and Mercedes de Acosta. There were many, many more. Constance Collier, Kay Francis, Claudette Colbert, Claire Trevor, Janet Gaynor, Marjorie Main, Estelle Winwood, Mary Martin and Ona Munson all had female lovers at some time or another.
It was pretty much understood that Garbo and Dietrich had been in a relationship back in Europe, but they maintained their distance in Hollywood, although they certainly shared some of the same lovers in Hollywood – of both genders. Needless to say, the studio heads knew about most of these liaisons. It was their business to know, so that they could run interference whenever it became necessary. If the press began sniffing around too closely a ‘fixer’ would arrange a ‘lavender marriage’, often between a gay or bisexual actor and a lesbian or bisexual actress, thus nullifying two potentially disastrous situations at a single blow.
Scott & Grant utilised ‘beards’ regularly
‘Beards’ were also provided whenever gay couples attended parties. Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, for instance, would arrive with a couple of starlets provided by Paramount. Before long they would drift away from their partners and then quietly leave together at the end of proceedings. The girls were there simply to throw the press off.
Louise Brooks – bisexual and decadent
Louise Brooks spent one night with Garbo and described the screen goddess as ‘a completely masculine dyke’, but also ‘a charming lover’. Brooks was certain Garbo’s affair with John Gilbert was publicized to cover up her lesbian proclivities. Writer Anita Loos interpreted the Gilbert-Garbo affair differently. ‘She spread her legs like most actresses who wanted to get ahead’, she said with disdain. Garbo herself confided in friends that her attraction to Gilbert ‘lasted about fifteen minutes’.
John Gilbert & Garbo
Nevertheless she moved in with him for a while. She enjoyed entertaining his friends by swimming naked in his pool. The guests, who all wore bathing costumes, tried not to gawk at her nakedness. One of the many women she was sleeping with during her stay with him was Lilyan Tashman. A former headliner with Ziegfeld and star of several films, she was actually introduced to Garbo by Gilbert one day. The two women had sex that same afternoon. Tashman was a fashion icon to women around the world, all blissfully unaware that she was an ardent lesbian whose lovers included Crawford and Kay Francis. She was married to gay director Edmund Lowe, but they led separate lives.
For months Tashman and Garbo were inseparable. The studio, ever alert to such things, told the press and the public that Lilyan was helping ‘refine’ Garbo’s feminine image. But in 1930, Garbo fell for Fifi D’Orsay while filming Romance with her. Just like that Lilyan became obsolete. MGM fixer Eddie Mannix then got in the act. He told Garbo that Fifi had blabbed to the press of their affair. It wasn’t true, but he knew how Greta hated publicity. She ended the relationship at once, refusing to even speak to Fifi ever again.
Garbo’s next affair was with Mercedes de Acosta, the former lover of Alla Nazimova. Mercedes had married back in 1920 (just to please her mother), but slept with actress Hope Williams on her honeymoon and not with her husband. Before meeting Garbo she had bedded Crawford, Eva Le Gallienne, Stanwyck, Bankhead and Marjorie Main. One of her very first lovers was dancer and all-round fruitcake Isadora Duncan. In fact, ditzy Isadora penned a poem for her:
A slender body, soft and white, is for the service of my delight.
The sprouting breasts, round and sweet, invite my hungry mouth to eat.
My kisses like a swarm of flies, find their ways between your thighs.
‘…kisses like a swarm of flies…? What a romantic image that conjures up.
Mercedes moved house in Hollywood fourteen times, and each time near to wherever Garbo had just moved. The two women spent an idyllic six weeks alone at Garbo’s Silver Lake cottage soon after they met and were the talk of the town on their return. Later, Mercedes became her de facto agent. When their romance got too hot Strickling began planting ‘items’ about Garbo and a succession of male actors she had never even met. Eventually, she and Mercedes tired of each other, the latter moving on to Dietrich who had just arrived in Tinsel town.
Mercedes de Acosta
Her own nakedness meant nothing at all to Garbo. Once, an MGM tour group was astonished to behold her perched on a high chair completely nude and trying on a hat! Neighbors were known to complain about her naked romps with health guru Gaylord Hauser in his backyard. As always, Garbo had no interest in the complaints or problems of others. She was a totally self-centered woman.
Although essentially a lesbian, she still had many affairs with men, and was once diagnosed with gonorrhea following a brief holiday with director Rouben Mamoulian. Polish poet Antoni Gronowicz was bemused by her ritual for warding off pregnancy. Just prior to actual coitus she would suddenly leap out of bed, perform a series of aerobic exercises, chant an obscure Scandinavian peasant song and then hop back into the sack again rearing to go.
Ina Claire said Garbo once made an unsuccessful pass at her. When Claire followed her to the bathroom she was surprised to find the Swedish actress had left the toilet seat up. Author Barry Paris believed Greta had an affair with the aging, dowdy, lesbian Marie Dressler when they worked together on Anna Christie. Neither age nor looks were overly important to Garbo when she chose a lover.
Her housekeeper for many years described the actress as mean and penny-pinching. Given just $100 a month to purchase food, the woman was compelled to shop at cheap wholesale outlets to make the money last. Even then, Garbo complained that $100 was too much to spend on a month’s food, so she reduced the budget to just $80. Every cent had to be accounted for. Soap and shampoo were considered luxuries and she seldom purchased them. Yet all this time she was earning a staggering $25,000 a week!
The average movie extra at that time took home (and got by on) just $10 a week. Her interest in magazines (provided they carried stories about her) was a life-long obsession. She would order copies of every movie publication and read each one over and over, circling articles about herself that she felt were flattering, before mailing them off each week to her mother in Sweden.
The studio claimed she retired at the peak of her popularity because she became bored with stardom, but there was more to it than that. Her final film, Two-Faced Woman, was a major critical and financial flop, but World War Two had erupted anyway and her European fan base had evaporated overnight. Her pictures rarely made money in America anyway, although she was number one at the box-office in nearly every European country prior to the war. When that market dried up she became a liability.
Aware the writing was on the wall, she accepted $250,000 from MGM to terminate her contract ahead of time. During the war she steadfastly refused to sell war bonds, participate in USO tours, or even help out at the Hollywood Canteen. One evening, as she and Orson Welles were leaving a restaurant, she accidentally collided with a one-legged soldier. When the man asked for her autograph she coldly refused him. Welles was appalled.
Soon after this incident she did manage to do her bit for the boys in uniform. Well, one of them anyway. After running across actor Gilbert Roland who had just enlisted, she accompanied him to his home and had sex with him. She even gave him her panties as a memento. Months later, when he came back to town on leave, he tried to renew her acquaintance but she refused to answer his calls.
Some sources claim she identified several prominent Stockholm Nazis to the British during the war. She was even credited with carrying messages for British Intelligence on visits to her native Sweden. There is no verification of this, however, and such activity attributed to such a private and self-centered individual seems totally out of character. By the 1950s she had become so selfish and unsociable that most of her Hollywood acquaintances avoided her, often hiding in their homes when spying the aging, short-tempered actress walking up their driveways.
She still managed the occasional conquest, however, as Frank Sinatra’s valet George Jacobs recalled. He was given the task of looking after her, Dietrich and Hal Wallis’s sister Minna for a couple of days at one of Frank’s homes. Garbo and Marlene swam naked in the pool, he recalled, and lay nude on the chaise, kissing and fondling, while an obviously jealous Minna studied every move they made.
To everyone’s surprise Garbo lived with the very gay Cecil Beaton for a few months in her final years. When he made the fatal error of publicly claiming they were lovers she threw him out. She still loathed any measure of publicity, as he must have known. Maybe they were lovers, maybe not. Beaton was always a bit of a publicity hound.
Garbo’s final appearance in a movie was in the tacky sex flick Adam and Yves, made in 1974. She was depicted as herself walking down a New York street. The makers of the film neither paid her nor asked for her consent. By then she was a total recluse and had no intention of returning into the public eye by suing anybody, so she let the matter drop. She lived out her last days in New York City and died in 1990 from pneumonia, leaving an estate valued at $32 million. Among her assets were two Renoirs worth $19 million. Her body was cremated and, for some considerable time, nobody seemed to want to say where her ashes were located.