Greta Garbo

Karen Swenson, Author
Karen Swenson, Author Scribner Book Company $32.5 (640p) ISBN 978-0-684-80725-6
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
Hardcover - 978-0-02-615620-2
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The continuing fascination with Garbo is based on three factors: her astonishing face and the stunning way it photographed; the mixture of aloofness and vulnerability she projected on screen; and the fact that she stopped making films near the peak of her superstardom, living in fiercely protected seclusion for the rest of her life. The very definition of a movie star, the woman herself, however, was by all accounts not particularly interesting--and Swenson (Barbra: The Second Decade) never quite overcomes that handicap. Exhaustively researched and very well written, the book gives as detailed a portrait of Garbo as her mania for privacy allows. Born Greta Gustafsson in Sweden in 1905, Garbo started her European film career as a teenager, and her discovery by Louis B. Mayer led to early triumphs in Hollywood, where her affair with the silent star John Gilbert ended when she eclipsed his success in talking films. Two-thirds of the book are necessarily devoted to Garbo's 20-year film career, while the final 50 years of her life are, perhaps equally necessarily, a little dull to read about (we learn, for example, that she paid for her groceries in cash). Though Swenson has had access to letters and other sources unavailable to earlier biographers, there are no great revelations here, and readers ultimately are left with 600 detailed pages about a woman whose favorite activity was ""inactivity: sitting on the couch... reading or listening to music."" Garbo's allure, it seems, exists only on celluloid. Photos not seen by PW. (Sept.)
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