Strikingly glamorous and famously inscrutable, Greta Garbo managed, in 16 short years, to infiltrate the world's subconscious; the end of her film career, when she was 36, only made her more irresistible. Robert Gottlieb explores her as a unique phenomenon, a sphinx, a myth, the most beautiful woman in the world and, at heart, a Swedish peasant girl—uneducated, naïve, and always on her guard.
The why and wherefore of this woman’s extraordinary life and career is masterfully told in Robert Gottlieb’s new book, Garbo, handsomely published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with more than 250 splendid duotone photos, an extremely thorough filmography...all part of a terrific 100-page 'Garbo Reader' ... This generous addendum includes an amazing selection of Garbo material—comments by everyone from Ingmar to Ingrid Bergman, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Noël Coward ... This 'Reader' is preceded by 18 tight chapters that eloquently take us from a Swedish childhood of poverty and a woeful lack of education...but with many girlish dreams of becoming a great stage actress, all the way to international fame and wealth ... The book is written in a serious but witty, unpretentious, and often charming way, and does a fine job in trying to understand Garbo’s complicated personality.
Much has been written about Garbo over the years, but Gottlieb, a former editor of this magazine, has produced a particularly charming, companionable, and clear-eyed guide to her life and work—he has no axe to grind, no urgent need to make a counterintuitive case for her lesser movies, and he’s generous with his predecessors. By the end of the biography, I felt I understood Garbo better as a person, without the aura of mystery around her having been entirely dispelled—and, at this point, who would want it to be? ... Though she had a sense of humor, she emerges in Gottlieb’s portrait as prickly, stubborn, and stingy ... In today’s terms, Garbo might have occupied a spot along the nonbinary spectrum. Gottlieb doesn’t press the point, but remarks, 'How ironic if ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ really would rather have been a man.'
Robert Gottlieb’s new biography, Garbo, helps elucidate the mystery of why his subject removed herself from the world. Happily, too, the book is great fun to read (and, with more than 250 photographs, gorgeous to look at). Gottlieb...has an easygoing command of the material and describes Garbo’s films, and the business behind them, with insight and wit ... Given the mystique surrounding Garbo, it’s unsurprising that Gottlieb occasionally finds himself relating stories that remain unconfirmed ... In the end the many unreliable accounts don’t detract from the forcefulness of the author’s portrayal.