For close to 40 years film scholars and biographers of Greta Garbo have waited for the day when 55 letters and 32 cards and telegrams that the actress wrote to Mercedes de Acosta, a playwright, screen writer and poet, would be unsealed at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library.
Garbo fans hoped that the letters would finally reveal truths at the center of Garbo’s mystery, particularly about the sensitive and ambiguous matter of her sexuality. Now many of the letters have been made public, but in true Garbo style, the truths about her private life remain elusive.
Acosta gave the letters to the Rosenbach in 1960 with the stipulation that they remain unopened until 10 years after the death of the last of the two women to survive. Acosta died in 1968 and Garbo on April 15, 1990 — 10 years and a day before they were opened to interested parties on Sunday. In the letters, which cover a range of topics from celebrity to everyday life, Garbo addresses Acosta as ”boy,” ”sweetie” and with other terms of endearment. She warns Acosta, who frequented the gay bohemian circles of 1930’s Hollywood, to be careful to keep her letters private. She scolds her for gossiping about their friendship. She invites Acosta to come and see her.
But then, in 1948 many years after the relationship began, she coldly tells her to stay away and, in so many words, that she wants to be alone.
Only about one-fourth of the letters were on view at the Rosenbach, although a spokeswoman for the museum described them as a representative sample. None contained any outright professions of love or references to what could clearly be defined as romantic get-togethers. Only minimal quotation was permitted.
”There is no concrete evidence any sexual relationship between these two women existed,” said Gray Horan, Garbo’s grandniece, who was present when the letters were opened and who is believed to have read all of them privately.
In many ways the letters made available to the press are what one might expect from the very private and decidedly practical movie star. She asks Acosta to do errands, gives her diet advice and reports on doctors’ visits. There are complaints about the burdens of celebrity. There is even a mantra: Garbo was a yoga advocate. There is a tracing of Garbo’s foot; she had big feet, size 10. Garbo even sent Acosta stock tips.
The nature of Garbo’s sexuality has always been debated because for more than 20 years years she communicated an electric and ambiguous sexuality that riveted moviegoers and a larger public.
She was believed by biographers to have had romantic relationships with such men as her leading man in ”Flesh and the Devil,” John Gilbert; Leopold Stokowski; and George Schlee, a businessman.
She frequently referred to herself as a boy in public and favored mannish clothes, especially trousers. ”I have been smoking since I was a small boy,” she would say. And, ”I am a lonely man circling the earth.” One of her biographers, Barry Paris, wrote, ”Garbo liked to confuse people, or at least not clear up their confusion, and mysteriousness was both instinctive to her, inside, and part of everyone’s projections, outside.”
A rather self-dramatizing figure, Acosta alluded to having had love affairs with Marlene Dietrich, Eva Le Gallienne and Isadora Duncan.
Acosta was born in the United States to aristocratic Spanish Catholic parents. She wore her jet-black hair slicked back like a man’s and dressed in a black cap, long coat and trousers. A feminist and suffragist, she was married to an artist, Abram Poole. The two were said to have an ”open” relationship.
In Acosta’s 1960 autobiography, ”Here Lies the Heart,” she describes first catching sight of Garbo in what was then Constantinople, Turkey, in the late 1920’s. Garbo was ”one of the most hauntingly beautiful women I had ever beheld,” she wrote.
Then, in 1931, in a sequence described in her autobiography, Acosta met Garbo in person at the screenwriter Salka Viertel’s house in Hollywood. When Garbo admired Acosta’s bracelet, Acosta gave it to her. She and Garbo met again, she wrote, and this time Garbo gave her a flower.
The two went off together to an island in Silver Lake in Nevada. There followed ”six enchanted weeks,” Acosta wrote, though one of Garbo’s biographers, Karen Swenson, says it was probably more like two. ”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,” Acosta wrote of their time at the lake. Nowhere in the biography does she explicitly say the two were lovers.
The relationship cooled on Garbo’s part. Acosta pursued Garbo, with Garbo occasionally bestowing a few crumbs of affection. In 1935 they met in Sweden. ”I was a wreck after she went,” Garbo wrote to Salka Viertel, according to Ms. Swenson’s biography, ”and I told her she must not write me. We had a sad farewell.”
Still, Garbo seems to have strung her along. In 1957 Garbo arrived on Acosta’s doorstep, according to Ms. Swenson, and announced, ”I have no one to look after me.” But she refused to give Acosta her phone number. In 1960 Acosta published her autobiography, and Garbo never spoke to her again.
© THE NEW YORK TIMES, April 18, 2000 by DINITIA SMITH