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Decades before Cher, Garbo became known only by her last name. “Garbo speaks!” says the ads for her first talking picture “Anna Christie.” “Garbo is laughing! shouted the ads for his 1939 comedy “Ninotchka.”

Yet 31 years after her death in 1990, Garbo remains, as she was during her lifetime, shrouded in mystery.

“Garbo,” by former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb, is a compelling biography of the movie legend. Gottlieb, a critic, understands that much of Garbo’s life (his sexuality, his inner thoughts) remains mysterious.

Yet Gottlieb, former editor of Simon & Schuster and former director of Alfred A. Knopf, paints an illuminating portrait of Garbo and his times.

A huge range of photos and film stills add to the beauty of the book. A selection of articles by critics and contemporaries enrich our image of Garbo.

Garbo was born (as Greta Lovisa Gustafsson) in 1905 in a poor area of ​​Stockholm, Sweden.

Garbo was only in Hollywood for 16 years and 24 movies, Gottlieb writes.

Just 36 and still adored by her fans, Garbo suddenly retired from Hollywood. She didn’t give her audience a very insightful reason why she quit making movies.

“I made enough faces,” Garbo told actor David Niven when asked about it, Gottlieb reports.
After leaving Tinseltown, Garbo lived for nearly half a century, mostly in New York City, until his death in 1990.

Garbo was not as popular as Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford.

The mystery of why Garbo lived in “self-imposed isolation” after retiring from Hollywood was compelling, but “almost a distraction,” Gottlieb writes.

Many of his movies were “cliché or worse,” Gottlieb points out. At first, MGM cast Garbo as a vampire, “luring men in with her vampire ways”, reports Gottlieb, “but she hated it”.

Eventually, Garbo became an icon. “But none of this explains,” Gottlieb writes, “why more than any other star, she invaded the public’s subconscious:”

Wherever you look in the period between 1925 and 1941, Gottlieb adds, “Garbo is in people’s minds, hearts and dreams.

Garbo is referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and in the letters of poet Marianne Moore. More recently, allusions to Garbo have appeared in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” and even in “The Simpsons”.

His Hollywood peers loved Garbo as much as movie audiences. “Other Hollywood stars … were also eager to meet her,” Gottlieb writes, “or just to get a glimpse of her as an ordinary fan.”

Her work is “pure witchcraft,” Bette Davis said of Garbo. “I can’t analyze this woman’s game.”
If Gottlieb is respectful and fascinated by Garbo, his biography is not a hagiography.

Garbo, who grew up in poverty as a child, could be cheap. In New York, she was known to be stingy with tips and wages for people who worked for her and shopkeepers.

Perhaps, due to her shyness or her lack of education (she had to leave school at 14 to help support her family), she was not a great conversationalist.

She had relationships with men and women – from actor John Gilbert to queer fashion photographer Cecil Beaton to writer Mercedes de Acosta. But the extent to which (or if) those relationships were sexual is not known, Gottlieb reports.

It is known that Garbo, off-screen, wore men’s pants, shirts and shoes. “How ironic if ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ really would have preferred to be a man,” wrote Gottlieb.

Reading “Garbo” is like sipping whiskey (or ginger ale) with the iconic star. Drink!

‘Garbo’
By Robert Gottlieb
circa 2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$40/448 pages

Few icons are more ubiquitous in the cultural landscape, but also more mysterious than queer icon Greta Garbo.

Even if you’ve never seen “Grand Hotel”, you probably know that in this 1932 movie, Garbo said, “I want to be alone”.

Even the most devout teetotalers would enjoy seeing Garbo say, in the 1930 film “Anna Christie,” “Give me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!”

Decades before Cher, Garbo became known only by her last name. “Garbo speaks!” says the ads for her first talking picture “Anna Christie.” “Garbo is laughing! shouted the ads for his 1939 comedy “Ninotchka.”
Yet 31 years after her death in 1990, Garbo remains, as she was during her lifetime, shrouded in mystery.

“Garbo,” by former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb, is a compelling biography of the movie legend. Gottlieb, a critic, understands that much of Garbo’s life (his sexuality, his inner thoughts) remains mysterious.

Yet Gottlieb, former editor of Simon & Schuster and former director of Alfred A. Knopf, paints an illuminating portrait of Garbo and his times.

A huge range of photos and film stills add to the beauty of the book. A selection of articles by critics and contemporaries enrich our image of Garbo.

Garbo was born (as Greta Lovisa Gustafsson) in 1905 in a poor area of ​​Stockholm, Sweden.

Garbo was only in Hollywood for 16 years and 24 movies, Gottlieb writes.

Just 36 and still adored by her fans, Garbo suddenly retired from Hollywood. She didn’t give her audience a very insightful reason why she quit making movies.

“I made enough faces,” Garbo told actor David Niven when asked about it, Gottlieb reports.

After leaving Tinseltown, Garbo lived for nearly half a century, mostly in New York City, until his death in 1990.

Garbo was not as popular as Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford.

The mystery of why Garbo lived in “self-imposed isolation” after retiring from Hollywood was compelling, but “almost a distraction,” Gottlieb writes.

Many of his movies were “cliché or worse,” Gottlieb points out. At first, MGM cast Garbo as a vampire, “luring men in with her vampire ways”, reports Gottlieb, “but she hated it”.

Eventually, Garbo became an icon. “But none of this explains,” Gottlieb writes, “why more than any other star, she invaded the public’s subconscious:”

Wherever you look in the period between 1925 and 1941, Gottlieb adds, “Garbo is in people’s minds, hearts and dreams.

Garbo is referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and in the letters of poet Marianne Moore. More recently, allusions to Garbo have appeared in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” and even in “The Simpsons”.

His Hollywood peers loved Garbo as much as movie audiences. “Other Hollywood stars … were also eager to meet her,” Gottlieb writes, “or just to get a glimpse of her as an ordinary fan.”

Her work is “pure witchcraft,” Bette Davis said of Garbo. “I can’t analyze this woman’s game.”

If Gottlieb is respectful and fascinated by Garbo, his biography is not a hagiography.

Garbo, who grew up in poverty as a child, could be cheap. In New York, she was known to be stingy with tips and wages for people who worked for her and shopkeepers.

Perhaps, due to her shyness or her lack of education (she had to leave school at 14 to help support her family), she was not a great conversationalist.

She had relationships with men and women – from actor John Gilbert to queer fashion photographer Cecil Beaton to writer Mercedes de Acosta. But the extent to which (or if) those relationships were sexual is not known, Gottlieb reports.

It is known that Garbo, off-screen, wore men’s pants, shirts and shoes. “How ironic if ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ really would have preferred to be a man,” wrote Gottlieb.

Reading “Garbo” is like sipping whiskey (or ginger ale) with the iconic star. Drink!

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