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Letter bombs? Museum will open Garbo's correspondence to alleged socialite lover

Thursday, April 13, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On screen, Greta Garbo was arguably the most erotic actress in film history. In private life, however, she was not noted for being either a lover or a letter-writer. This week, she takes center stage as both of those things -- and the stage is in Philadelphia, of all unlikely places.

 
  Swedish actress Greta Garbo in Gothenberg, Sweden, on Aug.16, 1932. (Associated Press)

International Garbo-watchers, deprived of anything to watch for a decade, will once again be indulging in their favorite sport on the 10th anniversary of her death, April 15. That is when some five dozen letters she wrote to socialite Mercedes de Acosta -- her alleged lover -- will be ceremoniously unsealed at Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum and Library, where they have been carefully kept under wraps until now.

The contents of that correspondence are unknown. There is an equal chance it could produce a fascinating bombshell or -- like Geraldo Rivera's opening of Al Capone's vault -- a plain old deactivated bomb: The reclusive Garbo was restrained from writing in general not only by natural Swedish reticence but by a fear that friends might betray her and release her private thoughts to reporters. On top of that, she hated her own handwriting and steadfastly refused to give autographs. Of her few letters that have previously surfaced, almost none contains a signature other than her initials or a variety of code names.

What is known, though, is that the long list of Garbo's alleged affairs with women contains only one name worthy of credulity: Mercedes de Acosta -- a bizarre figure, then and now.

Mercedes, who introduced Garbo to the haut monde and to vegetarianism, among other things, was a pure Spanish aristocrat raised in America and France, a dramatist, an avowed lesbian and a devotee of astral projection and primal moaning. From an early age, she said, "I had violent attacks of psychological suffering and, going into a corner of the room, put my face to the wall and moaned." Anxiety was a common cause of extinction in her family. Her father and brother both committed suicide.

Mercedes (1893-1968), who had a torrid affair with Isadora Duncan, was one of the great celebrity collectors of the century. Her guests at a 1928 dinner party included Jeanne Eagels, Alla Nazimova, Helen Hayes and Katherine Cornell -- eyeing each other suspiciously. Even in grief, Mercedes could not be distracted from name-dropping: When her sister Rita died, she wrote, "Friends were kind to me, especially Noel Coward, Harold Ross, Alex Woollcott, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Clifton Webb..."

Mercedes was what a later generation would call a space cadet. She studied astrology and yoga with Natasha Rambova, Valentino's bisexual wife. She claimed she got rid of a colony of ants by chanting Vedic mantras and "Please leave the house" over and over until the ants complied. "In my experience," she said, "I believe I have gone out so far on the astral plane that it has been hard for me to find my way back."

Everyone who knew her agreed.

Mercedes was in love with Garbo and felt linked to her by destiny. In 1931, she moved to Hollywood to work on the script of a Pola Negri film and met Garbo. Mercedes was swept away. Garbo was reciprocally delighted with her new playmate, and 48 hours later they spent an intimate day alone together.

The apotheosis of their relationship began when Garbo solemnly informed Mercedes that she was leaving for six weeks to be "utterly alone" on an island in a lake in the Sierra Nevadas. No one could reach her there. Two nights later, Mercedes' phone rang and Garbo said, "I am on the way back. I have been to the island but I am returning for you." The island, about half a mile from shore, had a little house on it.

"How to describe the next six perfect weeks out of a lifetime...," Mercedes rhapsodized in her 1960 biography, "Here Lies the Heart." "There in the Sierra Nevadas she used to climb ahead of me, and with her hair blown back, her face turned to the wind and sun, she would leap from rock to rock on her bare Hellenic feet. I would see her above me, her face and body outlined against the sky, looking like some radiant, elemental, glorious god and goddess melted into one."

From then on, Garbo's domestic life involved Mercedes on a daily basis: "Greta would come down to my house just after the sun was up and whistle under my window. I'd dash into my clothes and we would be off over the hills. Sometimes we took picnic lunches and spent the whole day on the beach far up toward Malibu. We went to bed very early."

Mercedes was part of an elite set of Hollywood lesbians and bisexuals that included Aldous Huxley's wife, Maria, and were known as "Gilette blades" (because they cut both ways). In that sorority, she often sported a tuxedo a la Marlene Dietrich.

Gradually, Garbo's affection for Mercedes waned and turned to wariness, whereas Mercedes' for Garbo did just the opposite. After de Acosta wrote guardedly of their intimacy in "Here Lies the Heart," Garbo never spoke or communicated with her again.

The Rosenbach Museum, in conjunction with the Garbo Estate, plans to make a public statement about the correspondence on Monday and exhibit a selection of the letters in its parlor room Tuesday at 2010 DeLancey Place in Philadelphia.

Whether the suspense and the results will have been worth waiting for remains to be seen.


Post-Gazette film critic Barry Paris has authored several books including biographies of Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo.



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