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Garbo and Mercedes: Read between the lines

Monday, April 24, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

April 15, 2000, was the day Greta Garbo most dreaded -- not due to any post-mortem fear of the IRS. The 10th anniversary of her death in 1990, it was the date on which her correspondence with kiss-and-tell socialite Mercedes de Acosta was unsealed at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, the long-awaited public unveiling of 55 letters that would confirm or debunk their alleged lesbian love affair once and for.

To the relief of the Garbo estate and disappointment of a huge international media contingent, the actress's grandniece Gray Horan announced at an April 17 press conference: "There is no concrete evidence that any sexual relationship between these two women ever existed.... The letters indicate that they had a long-standing friendship, one that had its ups and downs, but one that could not be characterized as tumultuous or amorous."

Conclusion: inconclusive. Case closed on the same old ambiguous note -- a bit too fast. In fact, the de Acosta letters, with the aid of a little Sherlock Holmesian background sleuthing, resolve it, but Garbo mystery-lovers will have to let me take them through it slowly and wait for its "solution" to the end.

The closest thing to what Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Carrie Rickey calls the "smoking lipstick" are three letters from Garbo to de Acosta, two of which were unread or overlooked by most of the news media. The one they all "got," from circa 1948, contained this:

"I told you before you came [to visit] where we stand. I wish to be left alone. You couldn't have come at a more unfortunate time. Be a good boy and don't bother me now."

The phrase "where we stand" is international for "in a love relationship."

Buried deeper in the correspondence was this response, written a whole decade later in February of 1958, clearly after de Acosta had confronted Garbo with knowledge of a rival lover:

"You always come with the same line, that you always find out everything and so fort [sic] and so fort [sic]. If you would stop finding everything out, I would like it more. I close up like a clam to all people who always find everything out. Take what is offered for the moment and that is yours."

In between those two letters was one written in 1950, elaborating Garbo's annoyance about Mercedes' jealousy:

"Look my friend, ... it is tiresome to talk about a situation which doesn't seem to change and for which none of us has a solution ... and I simply cannot go through over and over again this thing ... It is a waste of emotion repeating the same thing I ... can offer no solution for."

Garbo was 25 and de Acosta 39 when they met in 1931 and spent an idyllic vacation together in the Sierra Nevadas. Thereafter, Garbo's feelings cooled while de Acosta's fueled. The "affair," if that's what it could be called, lasted only until 1932 and an unsolicited visit by Mercedes to Garbo in Sweden -- after which Garbo was thoroughly exhausted and decided, in effect, "never again!" de Acosta would spend the next 25 years unsuccessfully trying to recapture, rekindle and change the situation.

Only about a third of Garbo's 55 letters, 17 cards and 15 telegrams -- for which the Rosenbach paid de Acosta $5,000 in 1960 -- are on display, following a monumental round-the-clock curatorial effort by Judith Guston last weekend. Under the leadership of museum director Derick Dreher, the cataloging and the exhibition were accomplished in 36 hours -- "a cooperative effort something like triage," says Guston.

The choice of 30 of the 96 objects for display in the museum's "Garbo Unsealed" exhibit (open to the public through June 4) was entirely left to Gaston. But caught up in haste and the immediate demands of news coverage, both the museum and the media itself (half of them from Europe) neglected to find or focus on essence.

Mercedes wrote in her autobiography that she honestly thought she was a boy until age 7 -- indicating, if nothing else, a bit of slowness in childhood cognitive development. She was "a peculiar woman, who always dressed in black," Horan said. "You don't have to look too far to see that she was obsessing on Garbo, who had no entourage [and] found her useful."

Her great-aunt, Horan added, was "very open-minded and tolerant of people's sexuality in general." Photos taken by Mercedes of Garbo sunbathing topless were not "nude" as far as Garbo was concerned, or proof of an affair -- just typical of an uninhibited Scandinavian.

One letter from Garbo to de Acosta in 1950 says: "If you have a few minutes free one day, would you be so kind and get up to the lampshade place on Lexington right next to 'Dovers' [and] ask for my little lampshade frames I left there." Another -- addressed "Honeychild" -- thanks her for getting them.

Said Garbo biographer Karen Swenson upon reading those in Philadelphia: "It's like, 'Stay out of my face, but would you please fetch my lampshades?' "

The new cache of Garbo letters does not confirm their "lover" status in overt Harlequin romance or American sexual terms -- hence the general conclusion of a mystery unsolved. But the answer is wonderfully simple and obvious in the newly revealed letters to anyone who stops to think about the objective reality and DUALITY of the relationship. Truth is not "unknown," just paradoxical and dual:

An intensely torrid, profound "affair" on de Acosta's side was just a short and subsequently troublesome intimacy on Garbo's. The passionately heavy romance for the one was merely a brief fling for the other. End of mystery for anyone capable of seeing it. When all is said and done and revealed: Garbo laughs!

Post-Gazette film critic Barry Paris is the author of the 1995 biography "Garbo" (Alfred A. Knopf).

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