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Garbo

By Barry Paris

 

BOOK REVIEW

Garbo
By Barry Paris

University of Minnesota Press : Minneapolis, Minnesota : 2002
ISBN 0-8166-4182-X : 655 pages : trade paperback : $19.95

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
As famously private as Greta Garbo was — as sphinx-like as her persona was — it would seem that a detailed and enlightening biography of one of the world’s most infamous recluses would seem to be an exercise in masochistic frustration. Yet that hasn’t stopped the legions of biographers who have written the more than 100 books on Garbo since the 1920s. Most of them did little for their readers to shed light on the shadowy Garbo, and a few were out-and-out fabrications, being responsible in part for the grand apocrypha that surrounded Greta Garbo through the decades. A few biographies, like that written by Alexander Walker, actually attempted to sort fact from fiction and to paint a sympathetic portrait of the reluctant grand dame of the silent era and the golden age of cinema.

Barry Paris’ 1995 biography is a well-balanced and even-toned portrait, which does a fine job of revealing Garbo as a aloof recluse who could be engagingly social, and as a motion picture star who needed to loathe the industry that enriched her life. A lifelong morose thinker, Garbo denied herself acknowledgement of her own positive qualities to the point that she mistrusted happiness and longed for the solitude that both fed and tortured her soul. Garbo’s inconsistencies were so profound over the years that her closest confidants were often surprised at Greta’s sudden turns of attitude and behavior. Paris captures in the pages of his book what gossamer Garbo can be held before she evaporates into an ether of another indefinable Garbo. And while the person of Garbo is often intangibly spectral, Paris helps the reader look at her with peripheral vision and begin to see a confused, unhappy, spoilt, moody and abusive Garbo, all veiled from sight by the mystique of Hollywood stardom. Garbo was self-aware enough to recognize the dreaded veil of fame for what it was, but powerless to destroy the roots of her insecure need for it.

This book is a fascinating and informative read that has the tone of authority necessary to give the reader the feeling that the facts have been separated from the apocryphal chaff. When Paris is unsure what to make of a number of details, he presents them, admits their ambiguousness, and appropriately leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. For as private as Greta Garbo attempted to be, there is still the imprint of her person on the lives of those people with whom she chose to share her life. Over the years, many of them have shared their Garbo stories and a few have told them for the first time to Barry Paris. He has here, as in his other cinema biographies, made careful and considered work of the portrait of his subject.

The book is profusely illustrated with rare photos from all the decades of Garbo’s life, and its more than 600 pages contains many details and tidbits of information that fill in the larger tales in this, perhaps, penultimate biography of cinema’s most famous hermit. We recommend this book.

 
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