Review: 'Garbo' Surveys the Film Icon's Life Anew

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday December 31, 2021

"Why Garbo?," Robert Gottlieb, legendary editor of The New Yorker, asks in the introduction to his latest book. The author admittedly can't really answer his own question in his otherwise fascinating, obsessive, and bemused portrait,. as he seeks to unlock the mysteries of the star dubbed "The Sphinx."

Greta Garbo left the screen at age 36, the screen's most luminous star. Gottlieb writes that no one will ever know what was taking place behind those amazing eyes; "only the camera knew."

Garbo was discovered by Swedish film director Mauritz Stiller, who cast her in the international hit "The Saga of Gosta Berling." Stiller molded Garbo's screen image and they traveled together, many assuming that they were lovers. Gottlieb reveals that Stiller was out of the closet as a gay man, having affairs with his male stars and frequenting gay clubs in Europe and in speakeasies in the U.S.

Stiller brought Garbo to the U.S., and, as much as he was key in her early success, his disregard for MGM's tight "factory" approach to turning out films led to his ouster by studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Garbo was on her own, and not liking the Hollywood fishbowl.

Garbo's early success was unlikely; by MGM standards she was difficult from the start, and she threatened to walk away at key points in her career and return to Sweden. By the mid-1920s Garbo was the biggest star on MGM's lot and too valuable to lose, so she did what she wanted.

Gottlieb goes over the familiar territory of her disdain for her early films, but from different angles than previous biographies. Playing vamp roles, Garbo just seemed to be walking through certain scenes — but then, in a moment, she'd impart a suggestion that would be revelatory to the inner life of the character.

In her silent films Garbo was paired with John Gilbert, MGM's top male star after Valentino's death. Their passionate love affair on the sets of "Flesh and the Devil," "Love," and "A Woman of Affairs" burned up the screen.

Garbo was but a handful of stars that transitioned from the silent film era to "talkies" with the famous line as the prostitute in in the film version of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" — to wit: "Gimmie a whiskey... and don't be stingy, baby." Then came a string of films she made through the '30s that included "Camille," "Grand Hotel," "Mata Hari," "Anna Karenina," "Queen Christina," and "Ninotchka."

Other than the dramas onscreen, Gottlieb chronicles Garbo's personal relationships: Her affairs with John Gilbert, (the notorious) Mercedes De Acosta, conductor Leopold Stokowski, and others.

The final section of the book is filled with impressions of Garbo from writers, artists, and film stars, from venomous quotes about Garbo's allure from Marlene Dietrich to clammy comments about her body by misogynistic male critics of the era. But there are also some real gems, like this one from President Roosevelt after catching a potent image of himself on a movie Newsreel: "That must be the Garbo in me."

To make up for the doggerel, the book offers a Gallery of Garbo. Filled with gorgeous portraits, this section alone makes it worth the price of admission.


"Garbo," by Robert Gottlieb, is available now in hardcover from Farrar, Straus & Giroux for $40.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.