Greta Garbo: Rapid Magic

This post is culled from conversations with Tenn, as well as notes he made for a proposed profile on Garbo.

My primary influence has been the cinema, the movies, flicks--choose the term you wish, but the experience of being in a dark theatre and watching movies, all those images, shaped me as a person and as a writer. My sense of narrative, for better or worse, was inspired by all of those movies, and the closeness of my relationships with my mother and my sister was solidified by the love we all shared for certain stars and certain films.

I think I must have been introduced to Greta Garbo when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old--I can't recall the date, but I can certainly recall the impact. The film was silent, so I was not distracted from that incredible face, her exquisite movement. My mother and I adored her, and when she ultimately spoke, we were doubly entranced, and we imitated her endlessly. Bill Inge and his mother played similar games with film stars, and they, too, loved Garbo.

Garbo appears to have escaped from some marvelous laboratory, where only a handful of exquisite things were made, and, like Heaven, we search for this place, those formulas, perhaps even some discarded models to illuminate and improve our world. Garbo was always attractively alien to me.

I dreamed about meeting her, and I had many sightings of her in the city, where you would watch in amazement as she walked--determined, erect--through the streets from which she only sought exercise and visual stimulation. I never thought of approaching her, even after I had heard that she had seen Streetcar and had allegedly wept, and had allegedly proclaimed Marlon [Brando] beautiful, and the manifestation of the god and the beast. I do not know if this was true, but I held on to it, and I wanted to believe it.

I ultimately had a conversation of some length with Garbo at a party given by Ruth Ford and Zachary Scott. Ruth was known for hosting a type of salon, and it was both Southern in its open hospitality and nonchalance and frighteningly pretentious. Ruth was afraid that the control of her events would slide from her hands, so she was at your side a lot, and it was Ruth who pushed me--literally--toward Garbo.

It is always shocking to come face to face with a person with whom you have a relationship based on fantasy and projection--both filmic and psychological--and there was a period in that meeting during which I was very uncomfortable: I wanted the Garbo of Mata Hari and Conquest and Camille--not to mention hundreds of photographs I had clipped and saved--and I was now talking to a woman, still beautiful, but very concentrated on getting to all of the food on her plate, and quite disinterested in me.

She was polite but distant, but once her plate was clean, she turned to me, gave me her full attention, and there was rapid magic--she became the Garbo I wanted her to be.

Stars have rapid style and rapid magic, and Garbo's gift--at least in that living room on that day--was to endow me with massive intelligence, and she marveled at everything I said, and she teased me by saying that she was ready to return to work, and perhaps I was the man to bring her back.

I did not know then that this was something Garbo told everyone, and that her rapid magic involved this brilliant, frustrating flirtation.

I toyed with adaptations, new plays; I contacted producers at the studios where my calls were returned; I spoke to friends and associates of Garbo's, all of whom loved her, and all of whom told me nothing, absolutely nothing, would come of my endeavors.

Please don't wake me when I am at my happiest. I did not wish to hear the truth: I wanted to believe that Garbo and I would work together.

I dreamed a few dreams, and, in all of them, she was magnificent.

There were a few jagged, odd meetings over the years, sightings on the street, an occasional, curt nod of the head, but Garbo--as a person--grew older and more distant, and I shifted all of my allegiance to the woman I knew from the screen, who never disappoints.

She's in my plays--my women--I'm pretty sure.

Lonely? Yes. She did her job; she completed it. She is so unlike me, apparently: Afraid of reflection--in a mirror or a dream or a thought--and dismissive of memories.

Nonetheless, Garbo is an ingredient in the recipe of Tennessee Williams.

Photograph by Cecil Beaton.

Photograph by Cecil Beaton.


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