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Garbo Brushes Her Teeth!

Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Christopher Conlon. Gilbert & Garbo In Love: A Romance in Poems. Washington, D.C.: The Words Works, 2003. 88 pages. $10.00.


The mysterious Greta Garbo remains a modest industry, still today, thirteen years after her death and some sixty years after her last film. Having made the transition from silent films to sound, she all but reigned supreme in Hollywood for a time. Realizing that age was eroding the beauty that had won her coveted roles and leading men, she devised a remarkable exit strategy: she arranged to become more famous for not making movies than for making them.

Mauritz Stiller, her mentor, and first major director, had created her. It was he who the studios in America had been after. He demanded that she also be placed under contract. It was he who taught her the importance of mystery. He soon wondered if she weren't taking the lesson too far. Almost as soon, he was back in Europe, penniless and wracked with the illnesses that would take him off to an early grave. By then Garbo -- his creation -- was a star of silent films.

She had already been in the process of escaping the strict fatherly protection of Stiller for the not so fatherly protection of Jack Gilbert -- her frequent leading man -- before the former returned to Europe. Gilbert was vastly more famous than Garbo. The gossip columnists had declared them lovers some time before the departure of Stiller. The details of the romance are more than a little fuzzy -- as were the details of all of her affairs. She seems to have found Gilbert an active lover and a powerful advocate with the management at MGM -- and to have appreciated living rent-free at his mansion. Beloved daughter of an impoverished, alcoholic father, Greta was possibly also drawn to Jack because of his alcoholic personality, his heavy drinking.

Much, if not most, of what has been written about Garbo we might refer to as 'historical fiction'. Antoni Gronowicz, in particular, in his Garbo, portrayed her as a fascinating potpourri of innocence and neurosis. She is a believable and fascinating character throughout most of the book. Gronowicz had a decided talent for creating characters. Unfortunately, he somehow gave his publisher the mistaken impression that he had spoken at length with Ms. Garbo about her personal life and that his book was biography. At least Ms. Garbo thought it mistaken. Somehow she was under the impression that she had never met Mr. Gronowicz before. An earlier biography of the Pope John Paul II, it seems, involved a similar misunderstanding and had been recalled by its publisher.

Christopher Conlon, on the other hand, makes no claim of biography for his Gilbert & Garbo in Love: A Romance in Poems. An honest man, we have his disclaimer:

Though based on fact, this 'romance in poems' should not be taken as biography. After all, 'romance' refers not only to a story of love, but also, according to my Random House Dictionary of the English Language, a 'narrative depicting heroic or marvelous deeds, pageantry, romantic exploits, etc., usually in a historical or imaginary setting'.

He is direct about his sources: five books, one of which was Gronowicz's. Being an ex-Peace Corps volunteer, it seems safe to assume that he actually read them, and, being modest to a fault, has probably watched numerous Garbo films for which he has not taken credit.

Actual facts from Gilbert's and Garbo's lives are strewn liberally throughout the 66 poems of Gilbert & Garbo in Love. First, on background, the reader is given a glimpse of the formative years. Some details are given a brief vignette or poem. Most are merely catalogued in passing. This presumably to prepare the reader for references in the later poems.

Jack grows up in the dressing rooms of his show-business mother or with whomever she can pawn him off on. During one particularly memorable period he is left with a seamstress whose daughter is a prostitute and services her customers in front of him. Greta grows up with an alcoholic father. She takes care of him with a kind of desperation while he goes slowly to his grave. After his death, she takes a job as a 'soap lather girl' in a barbershop.

This poetic style continues well into their adult years while the themes that pique Conlon's interest begin to receive fuller handing. Gradually, catalogues of 'salient facts' give way to poems. In 'Death of Valentino' Jack dresses for his competitor's funeral. For years he has taken a backseat to Hollywood's number one heartthrob. Now he is delighted to move into the number one spot himself. In 'The Director: Career' Stiller is foundering. Garbo

watches him watching her
no longer needing him.

It is a nice observation. In 'Living in Sin' Garbo brushes her teeth. Facts begin to try on flesh and blood.

But is it the flesh and blood of Gilbert and Garbo? Or does it even matter? At the end of 'The Director: Career' Garbo

pictures him pissed-on,
mutilated, skin shredded
by wolves, eyes crow-gutted.
The old story.

This describes neither the old story nor the new. Her father had a kidney ailment. As he approached death, he probably grew progressively pot-bellied and big-nosed, from his drinking, and bloated and fish-eyed, from his nephritis. He tended to lapse more and more often into episodes of semi-consciousness. It was this that would have (quite properly) terrified Greta: this is the picture of failure she would more likely have imagined.

Stiller, on the other hand, was gaunt and suave to the end. It does seem likely that Greta chose not to stay in touch with him, after his return to Europe, because she feared another heart-wrenching, slow decline. But she knew full well that Stiller had been ill for years, and had, nonetheless, risen from the ashes time and again.

Furthermore, from what little verifiable information is available, her father seems to have been considered amiable by his friends and customers. Children, in particular, were drawn to him. There is no indication that the picture drawn in the poem 'White Dark' is legitimate:

Karl the butcher who comes home
smelling of blood and brain, Anna
who can match him blow for blow

Anna was a tiny woman who continually and vociferously berated her husband for his drinking, as she had earlier in their marriage for making such a small paycheck. It would appear that Karl -- broad shouldered as he was -- was ashamed of the opinion she had come to have of him and stood head down before her fury. Somewhere along the way, he began to spend as little time at home as possible. He went from social drinking to alcoholism, greatly hastening his death.

The ethereal, romantic Garbo of the poem 'Interlude' is highly uncharacteristic. In all of the anecdotes told about her, she hadn't a shred of 'I'm in heaven' romanticism to her. It does bear saying, however, that she was a different person, in some ways, during the time with Gilbert. If ever it had been possible, it was then. But, even during those years, she was alternately, or in combination, demanding, manipulative, cold, arrogant, defensive, fearful, insecure, depressive, withdrawn and neurasthenic. In view of the facts, the pastoral quality of 'Interlude' would seem to indicate that the poet is indulging in a purely cinematic moment.

While the portrait of Jack Gilbert in the poem 'White Voice' was the accepted fiction for years, there are problems with it as well. There would seem to be no record that the film crew of his first talkie -- His Glorious Night (1929) -- found his voice 'squeaky and girlish'. The film itself was a record of the fact that the sound track was inept. The screenplay had been laughably poor to begin with. The combination of the two made it possible for those in the business whom Gilbert had offended, at one time or another, to take their revenge -- especially Louis B. Mayer.

After His Glorious Night Gilbert made at least one movie -- Downstairs (1932) -- in which the quality of his voice and performance both were considered exceptional. More importantly it made a solid profit. Still, he had difficulty finding roles. Much to Garbo's credit, she demanded that Gilbert be her leading man in the movie Queen Christina (1933). (The original lead had been a young British actor, named Laurence Olivier, whom Garbo found it impossible to warm up to.) When Gilbert's drinking left him a shambles, during filming, she conveniently fell sick, forcing a halt to production, so he could have two weeks to get himself together. Gilbert managed to make one more meaningful film before alcoholism and Mayer managed to destroy his career.

The poem 'The Luminous Children' begins with the line: 'The night after she leaves him for the last time'. The poem describes a hallucination Gilbert experiences while regretting that Garbo is no longer in his life. It is appropriately a movie scene as much as a poem. The same is true of a number of the poems in Gilbert & Garbo in Love: an intriguing choice given the subject matter. She did not leave him, however. She moved out of his mansion after she learned, from the newspapers, that he had married. He was on his honeymoon at the time.

On the other hand, the poem 'Two People' catches both Gilbert and Garbo, in their early days together, admirably well:

Today they are the two most
beautiful people on earth, ordained so
by a poll in a fan magazine,...

This sentiment they were both quite capable of. It was almost certainly the fuel of much of their love life. Of course, there must have been more -- some of it surprising -- and Conlon is right to seek for it in his imagination. There are, however, rules for effectively creating characters. There are limits.

'Two People' is by no means the only worthy poem in this volume. 'Getaway' -- in which Jack and Greta go incognito -- is an example of what Conlon can do with understatement. 'The Wedding' is essential to the story. 'The Ringing' and 'Greta Famous' effectively portray the brutal side of fame. 'Pity' is strangely human. In 'News of Jack's Death' there is a deftly handled dream sequence in which Greta is being stung by wasps that turn into an applauding audience.

Ironically, what Gilbert & Garbo in Love needs is a bit more of Gronowicz. Or forget Gronowicz: drawing a portrait Gilbert and Garbo might just call for the talents of a Mailer-in-poetry. Personally complex, obscured by camera lenses and gossip columns, they are daunting subjects. The talents required to find them out are prodigious. Add to this Conlon's comment that he 'wrote two, three, even four a day at times, and the entire manuscript was written in around two months...' and the uneven quality of the book seems adequately explained.

But, then, there is also the fact that Gilbert & Garbo in Love is an early step along a road we are almost certain to go down. The screen-idols of our own age are likely to replace the idols of the past in our poetry as in our emotional lives. Surely Venus and Adonis will be replaced by some Gilbert and Garbo, Achilles by some Sean Penn, Herakles by a Schwarzenegger. Tamuz is already replaced by Elvis, perhaps; Dionysos by Jim Morrison. It would be fascinating to know what roles Nicholas Cage or Madonna will play when they are consigned to poetry. It all promises a refreshing change from the personal anecdote so common as of this writing. Conlon has done particularly well in this regard. It should not be surprising that the early work in a genre is uneven -- perhaps entered into too lightly.

The publisher -- Word Works -- has done a solid job of production. Janice Olson's design is simple and effective. Her choice of a slightly heavier than normal card-stock cover gives the book a feeling of durability. Her finest touch, however, is the satin sheet design on the covers and end papers. It is simple and perfect for this book. This publisher valiantly struggles to emerge from the pack.


© Copyright 2004 Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); Grand Street; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); and Eclectica. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal.