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The mystery of Garbo

Can a new biography unveil the icon?

Pablo Lobato for The Boston Globe

Glamorously elusive onscreen and famously reclusive off it, Greta Garbo was the rare silent-movie idol who finessed the transition to talkies. In “Garbo,” his lively new appraisal of her life and films, Robert Gottlieb explores how “more than any other star she invaded the subconscious of the audience.” She may not be the stuff of dreams today, but his goal seems less to lure in the Garbo-oblivious than to try to understand this riddle wrapped in a mystery, sheathed in a silky gown.

An esteemed editor and author of many books, including the memoir “Avid Reader,” Gottlieb seems for this project to have consumed everything written in English about Garbo and her circle. He cheerily gives credit to all those who precede him, starting with the pioneering biographer who 60-plus years ago staked out the now-demolished Stockholm building in which Garbo grew up. After presenting intriguing glimpses of her young life — as when, at age 5, she told her aunt, “I am thinking of being grown up and becoming a great actress” — Gottlieb goes on to show how pivotal events, such as the death of her beloved father when she was 14, shaped the rest of it.


Although Garbo couldn’t speak English when she arrived in the United States as a teenager in July 1925, her unusual beauty and talent helped make her one of MGM’s biggest stars by the early 1930s. Almost from the start, she wielded considerable power over her career, refusing some projects and eventually gaining the right to approve story, director, costar, and cinematographer. Garbo had no grand plan, but she did have a determination to survive and succeed, driven perhaps by her family’s past financial struggles. In chronicling her ascent as well as her years of retirement, Gottlieb notes the many instances when accounts differ, occasionally dropping a bit of gossip that he admits isn’t to be trusted.

Garbo’s Hollywood films are the heart of the book, and Gottlieb pithily describes all the star vehicles she was paid handsomely to push uphill. The plots of her first two MGM movies both involved disastrous flooding alongside extreme character trajectories (naive peasant becomes world-famous opera singer, elegant temptress becomes bedraggled addict), and many of her subsequent 22 films also had risible elements. He variously blames the studio, the directors, and uneven scripts, and often laments the relative weakness of Garbo’s leading men. (One exception was John Gilbert, with whom she had an affair that became international news. But he didn’t thrive in talkies, even after Garbo insisted MGM hire him for 1933′s “Queen Christina,” and is said to have drunk himself to death less than three years later.)


Gottlieb’s critiques of the finished films hold them to today’s standards of watchability while appreciating their old-school charms. He says of “Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise,” in which Garbo played opposite Clark Gable, pre-mustache: “Yes, the story is corny and the dialogue too, but this movie is alive.” His rave reviews are reserved for “Camille,” the 1936 tragedy directed by George Cukor, and “Ninotchka,” the 1939 comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Gottlieb wishes Garbo had been given better projects, and names some intriguing films that she was going to make after “Two-Faced Woman” but for various reasons didn’t.

In addition to admiring her eyes (which stare out from the book’s cover), her face (which can be viewed from various angles in gorgeous duotone images throughout the book), and her acting (at least most of the time), Gottlieb evinces sympathy and fondness for Garbo. In her early 20s, she had “no family nearby and no old friends, and [was] living in a doubly alien world: America and Hollywood.” Somehow her natural aloofness — like her refusal to answer her phone or eat in the MGM commissary or even take part in the “Grand Hotel” cast photo — only added to her allure. But he notes that her personal habits and attitudes were surprisingly fixed from that point, that she would remain “both needy and imperious.” Gottlieb quotes the costume designer Adrian, who had typically mixed feelings about Garbo. He lamented her “queen’s approach to life” and “often felt like crowning her . . . not with a tiara.” But her confident bearing inspired his creative process like no one else. “She had a knack for wearing the most astonishing things with a total lack of self-consciousness. . . . Nothing surprised you if she appeared in it. It was simply Garbo.”


Balancing the tales of Garbo cutting off associates and friends who had spoken about her to the press are stories about friendships that lasted and an enduring playfulness. Gottlieb also points out her generosity toward her fellow actors, while filming and otherwise; she sometimes feigned illness so that a less powerful costar could recover from a hangover or other ailment. After Hollywood, Garbo spent most of her life in New York and Europe, often in the company of men and women of means. Gottlieb doesn’t exactly call her miserly, but he makes clear that she was protective of the fortune she had made.


At book’s end, Gottlieb offers “A Garbo Reader,” 80 pages of vintage criticism, reporting, and remembrances from people who worked or socialized with her. It includes a fan-magazine account of Garbo-surveillance that Gottlieb calls “riveting” and that reminds you why she felt hounded. Given all the scrutiny Garbo has received over the last century, Tallulah Bankhead’s reminiscence comes as a relief: “When at ease with people who do not look upon her as something begat by the Sphinx and Frigga, Norse goddess of the sky, she can be as much fun as the next gal.”


By Robert Gottlieb

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pp., $40

Abby McGanney Nolan, a former film editor of the Village Voice, writes about American history and pop culture.