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
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
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
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
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.