I saw her once.
With her dirty shapeless coat, oversize sunglasses, and floppy hat, she looked like one of those tattered ladies who wander city streets muttering curses and retrieving scraps. “It’s definitely her” the man next to me outside Green Valley Foods on First Avenue said as he and I studied the tall, slender, unsmiling woman in the shop fingering raw chickens. “That’s Garbo.”
She used to walk four miles a day. From her apartment on 52nd Street and the East River she would wander westwards, sometimes as far as Fifth Avenue, before heading north as far as 72nd or south to 48th—but never further. This was her world. Here—in a square city mile—she would idle away her time, acknowledging no one, trailed by gawkers.
Since abdicating from the movies in 1950, after the funding fell through for her planned comeback after the war, Greta Garbo had seemed determined to obliterate her fame, and sabotage her celebrity. She had turned herself by degrees into a cranky recluse, “a non-giving, non-living phantom of the past” as someone said.
From time to time she must have strode past Jimmy Brennon’s bar on First Avenue and 55th, a dive once favored by the likes of Bogart and Crosby when they were in town. Little did Garbo know that holed up in there most days, in the off-hours when the place was deserted, speaking to no-one save Jimmy himself, was another lost star, ravaged and damaged like her, who had also clutched obscurity from the jaws of fame. Compared to Garbo, Louise Brooks, who lived in a cold-water walk-up ten blocks away, had fallen further.
Just imagine for a moment if Garbo had wandered into Jimmy Brennon’s out of idle curiosity. Imagine there, in the gloom, at the end by the bar she had spotted Louise hunched over a pint of gin. By then, twenty years after her last picture, she looked “a fright.” She was bloated, always wrapped in a black coat which she never removed out of shame at her shape. Her face—her once indescribably beautiful face—was full of fury. And those famous “come hither” eyes stared out balefully keeping the world at bay.
Just imagine Garbo recognizing her nevertheless, and enquiring softly, “Louise? Is that you?” And Brooks replying, “Yes, Greta, it is me, I’m afraid.” (The Garbo and Brooks quotes below are taken from written and spoken sources.)
Imagine, after a few minutes of banter in the gloom, Louise leading her long lost idol back to her tiny home, where, she confesses, she spends most of her time in bed, staring for hours at the little pen and ink portrait she did years before of the French nun, St. Therese of Lisieux, which hangs on her wall.
“Welcome, Greta,” she might have said, “to my black cave of forgetfulness.”
They had a lot in common, these two ravaged, damaged former beauties, born half a world away from each other and a year apart. Both had held stardom in their hands—fame, celebrity, the adoration of crowds—and both had done their best to chuck it away.
Thirty years had gone by since they’d last met. “Garbo’s gaze was so intense and so eloquent,” Brooks once wrote, “that I always had to leave after an hour We only met a few times but I was in awe She even made a pass at me.”
What might they have talked about sitting on Louse’s little bed? Well, for one thing, men. They both felt manipulated, used, loved, and let down by a string of them—some of whom they shared.
One such was Georg Wilhelm Pabst, the brilliant Austrian silent movie auteur. It was Pabst who turned each of them into a superstar—Garbo at the start of her career, Brooks at the end.
In 1925 he picked Garbo to play the lead in The Joyless Street, his brutal portrait of post-World War I Vienna, which became her breakthrough film. Four years later, Pabst chose Louise Brooks—then unknown outside America—to star in Pandora’s Box, the tragic tale of a doomed demimondaine named Lulu whose insouciant eroticism inspires lust and violence. Pandora’s Box is generally considered to be one of the masterpieces of the silent era, and Louise Brooks one of its greatest stars.
Her mesmerizing face, shot in massive, slightly slowed down soft-focus close-up, electrified Europe, turning Brooks into a sensation. “The genius of Mr. Pabst,” Brooks wrote admiringly, decades later, “lay in getting to the heart of an actor, banishing fear.”
“I learned also the world from Pabst,” Greta might have said. ”But in the end I despised the level of the films they wanted me to do in Hollywood. I was becoming like a ship without a rudder, bewildered, lost and, very lonely, so I quit.”
Both had paid a high price for celebrity and fame. Both in their different ways were burned and scarred. They might have compared their wounds.
Louise Brooks was utterly penniless, of course, whereas Garbo was rich. Louise had worked at Saks for years selling gloves—and when she needed to, turning tricks. Meanwhile, as Garbo grew older and that famous mouth and perfect nose began to wrinkle, her spirits seemed to sag in sympathy. She traveled from time to time in desultory fashion, taking the occasional cruise in the Greek Islands on a private yacht with wealthy friends, behaving, as one of them said, “like a mad child, talking gibberish.” The gossipy photographer Cecil Beaton, a earlier friend of hers wrote cuttingly for publication that “Greta has become as difficult as an invalid—and as selfish. Perhaps her magic is only a freak of nature which leads our imagination to make of her an ideal she can never be.” Louise, on the other hand, blossomed. In an amazing reversal of fortune late in life, she was plucked from obscurity and found herself resurrected and redeemed. What had happened was that, unbeknownst to her, film archivists at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, had been busy for years piecing the lost Pandora’s Box back together from celluloid shards. When he saw the newly restored print of Pabst’s masterpiece, Henri Langlois, the Cinémathèque’s influential founder, stood up in the screening room and cried, “There is no Garbo. There is no Dietrich. There is only Louise Brooks!” But where was she? No one knew. In the end it was James Card, film curator of George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, who found her lurking in her lair. He befriended her, persuaded her to move to Rochester, weaned her off booze, and encouraged her to write. (Her memoir —Lulu in Hollywood—is a minor classic).
It was what she had longed for. And so it came to pass, that, in a screening room in Eastman House in the late 1950s, Louise finally gazed upon Lulu—for the very first time. Until then she had never seen herself on screen. “I never wanted to be an actress, let alone a famous actress,” she once wrote to her mother. “It is the secret of my failure. Acting is the most degrading of all enslavements.”
Image: Greta Garbo at age 41, photograph by Cecil Beaton.March 9, 2011
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