In Which We Run Cowardly From The Spectre Of The 1940s

With Garbo

The diaries of Cecil Beaton span the entire first part of the twentieth century. This bisexual photographer’s true talent lay in his writing, but he was also a hell of a picture-taker. His portraits of Churchill at the front and his society snaps of the artists and writers he knew intimately remain masterpieces of composition and setting. Complemented by a talent for written observation that also exceeded most of his peers, Beaton’s investigations into the central figures and places of his era, arranged to diminish his grandiosity and verbosity, are cogent windows into individuals of any time. The following excerpts from his writing concern his relationship with the actress Greta Garbo.

When I first arrived in New York in the late twenties, Frances Wellman, a middle-aged woman of singular ugliness and persistence, had become quite well known for giving parties in her hotel suite in which members of “cafe society” mingled with Broadway celebrities. Of all her pet guests, Noel Coward was perhaps the most cherished. The hostess, who had surprisingly distinguished hands, would “ssh” her guests, with her long index finger to her pouting mouth, to signal the coup of the evening: “darling Noel” at the piano.

Neysa McMein, a most delightful person but a very bad painter, and groups of fans and friends, close and otherwise, would sit on or around the piano in ecstasies, while lesser devotees were “sshed” in the background. Twenty years later the same lady was tonight giving a party to honor Noel Coward. Anita Loos said “It’s awful. No one seems to be going.”

I was being a boor; however much I drank I couldn’t get the “party spirit.” I found this group of older people, insistent on still behaving like the bright young things that have long since ceased to be, really rather offensive. Surely they were now too old to be quite so silly.

+

Greta Garbo has dropped the bombshell that she must return to the coast. Could I join her there? No, from California she would sail almost immediately to her native Sweden. “Could I meet you in Stockholm?” “Oh, no!” The idea of her departure saddened me greatly. For the last weeks I have lived only in terms of her. She filled my days, and I dreamt of her at night.

Suddenly New York seemed pointless without her. Frederick Ashton wired me from Covent Garden that he had a ballet for me to design if I could return at once. It was the ballet Les Sirenes with music by Gerald Berners. I might as well go home. When I arrived back in England a telegram arrived, unsigned, from Greta bidding me good morning.

+

Time and again the same mistake is made: nowhere I am immune from the fateful possibility that Greta may be nearby – hidden in the crowd in the theatre or in any surroundings, however unsuitable. Everything I see, every place I go to, brings back to me the times we spent together. Central Park has become an absolute nightmare of memories: each tree has its specific associations, and each mountain and hillock reminds me of that advent of spring when we welcomed the first rays of sun and celebrated the coming warmth by lying full length on the grass.

Now there is only silence.

+

After many further attempts to speak to Greta on the telephone (I would call at all times of day, and I could hear the operator being told by Greta’s sad voiced servant that Miss Brown was not at home and she did not know when she was expected back) this morning I was again fortunate enough to gain my quarry.

At first she was exasperated and treated me as a tiresome burden that might as well be disposed of once and for all. “This is no good,” she said. “We are too different. By your action you have deprived me of a friend.”

“Who is the friend?”

“You were!”

This was pretty near to disaster for me, but by banter and repartee we returned to better terms.

+

Now that I am ostensibly busy, Greta is no longer as busy as she was while I was not busy. At 3:30 pm she would meet me at Sixty-Third Street and Fifth Avenue. She was wearing a mink coat. “Isn’t it obnoxious?” she said; “it’s so frauen.” I must admit it wasn’t suitable: it made her appear thick on the bosom with square shoulers. We strode into the park. Soon the lights started to fade and the landscape had no reality. It was like time out of time: a leaden gray sky with scurrying apricot clouds grew dark and tempestuous: it was as if mankind were going to be exterminated in violence for its wickedness.

It was a strange walk and we seemed to have a relaxed feeling that we hadn’t enjoyed before. Occasionally we would stop dead in this cold winter landscape to kiss one another, but Greta was worried in case we were being watched, and when it became quite dark she was scared lest we should be “stood-up” and robbed. At one interval for embraces she said, “Are you eaten up with passion?” and then laughed and explained: “Nobody but myself would say that, and yet it’s quite feasible and natural.”


+

We were going to a theatre and were late, but luckily Eugene hurried a room service meal through in record time. Eugene is a nice, ugly little man with sad eyes and an nose like a toucan. Perhaps he is sad because he intended to be an electrical engineer, but after eleven years he gave it up for “waitering.” He could not resist six dollars a day plus tips. “It’s not much of a life,” he says, “and I haven’t got far, but my son is nine years old, and will do better.”

Eugene is helpful and treats me as a favorite, but even he cannot improve the hotel food. We ate lamb that was rather like discarded chewing gum as we talked about ourselves in slightly veiled terms. I was enjoying turning the tables on her. “You are so unreliable,” I said, “I couldn’t ever marry you. You aren’t serious about me.”

“What a rebuff! And I adore you, Cecil – I love you – I am in love with you!”

We both laughed.

+

The night descended. It was too late to go into the park: she was scared – quite rightly – of unseen things. So we walked along looking into more windows, although we did once enter a shop to buy some Swedish bread and cakes. Here Greta was served by a young Swedish blonde and, for the first time, I heard her talking her native tongue. It was both delightful and comic to my ears – like birds spitting.

+

Out into the ice-cold night for a dinner at a Brazilian restaurant called Semon. The atmosphere was convivial, the food savory, and we both hungry. Greta’s mood was joyful and I was in good spirits. She told comic stories – she has a fount of them – the sort that no matter how many times I hear I can never remember later. If I try to tell a comic story in return, she stops me if the premise is not probable. “Nothing is funny to me that isn’t a possibility.”

+

After our picnic I set Greta to work drawing with some colored chalks. She started to do a pot of hyacinths, looked very hard at the flowers, and did a quite skillful representation of them. She was rather self-conscious and excited like a ten year old, but soon gave up and perpetrated infantile likenesses of myself with a great number of buttons on my suit. Before throwing the drawing block aside she ruthlessly scratched out her efforts, leaving only a careful drawing of a pink walnut as a relic of her talent.

1948

“North London” – Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood (mp3)

“The Times They Are A-Changin” – Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood (mp3)

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