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. Garbo appeared in just 24 Hollywood movies, yet her impact on the world—and that indescribable, transcendent presence she possessed—was rivaled only by Marilyn Monroe's. She was looked on as a unique phenomenon, a sphinx, a myth, the most beautiful woman in the world, but in reality she was a Swedish peasant girl, uneducated, naïve, and always on her guard. When she arrived in Hollywood, aged 19, she spoke barely a word of English and was completely unprepared for the ferocious publicity that quickly adhered to her as, almost overnight, she became the world's most famous actress.
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.'
Gottlieb is a renowned New York editor who at the age of 90 has earned the right to be self-indulgent and he chats wittily about his idol while leaving others to do the hard work of analysing Garbo’s appeal ... Best of all, Gottlieb dispenses with words in a gallery of photographs in which Garbo cups her head like the calyx of a flower, lowers her eyelids to semaphore desire or perhaps drowsiness and smokes a cigarette as if lighting a candle to place on her own altar. The mutable human face is saved from decay and flesh and blood are somehow sculpted into the likeness of Pallas Athene.