GRETA GARBO: A Life Apart by Karen Swenson

GRETA GARBO: A Life Apart

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Yet another biography of perhaps the most iconic of film actresses--this one an awkward accumulation of largely irrelevant detail that leaves Garbo a cipher. Garbo scholars must contend not only with the basic problem of their subject's nearly lifelong public silence, but also with her apparent refusal, even among friends, to talk about her career, her love life, or much of anything else. Most information about her tends to come from the conjectures of acquaintances whose accounts--especially those of her putative lovers Mercedes de Acosta and Cecil Beaton--are notoriously untrustworthy. Biographer Swenson (Barbra: The Second Decade, not reviewed) presents a rewarding view of Garbo's early European film career, including the blustery shenanigans of her Svengali, the director Mauritz Stiller, and the negotiations that led to her signing with MGM. But Swenson's exhaustiveness is often maddeningly pointless. For instance, she devotes a page to a variety of contradictory explanations for an episode of illness; for one diagnosis, pernicious anemia, she offers a detailed medical explanation, then adds a footnote to say that Garbo probably didn't have pernicious anemia at all, leaving us still ignorant as to what ailed her. Swenson goes into commendable depth about Garbo's affair with costar John Gilbert; about later affairs, though, with both men and women, there is so little reliable information that Swenson's disorganized efforts to discuss them seem futile. While she presents the impressions of many of Garbo's friends in Sweden and America, neither the fondest recollections nor the most sympathetic biographer can counter a lot of evidence that Garbo was a childish, intellectually feeble bore whose personality apparently encompassed little beyond wary passivity and spoiled petulance. So it's not entirely Swenson's fault that she fails to find any understandable motivation behind Garbo's half-hearted attempts to return to films after her 1941 swan song, Two-Faced Woman, and the empty globe-trotting decades that followed. Well-intentioned, but regrettably garbled.

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 1997
Page count: 617pp
Publisher: Scribner