"Would you like to have dinner with Garbo?"
Irwin Shaw, in the course of a very long night in 1977, decided that question ranked right up there with the best questions he'd ever heard. Shaw, drinking Scotch, said the line again, savoring it. "Would you like to have dinner with Garbo?" The late writer was lingering at Bestsellers, Peter McAlear's defunct-but-not-forgotten Sunset Strip watering hole. Shaw, the raconteur-novelist-rogue, was talking about Greta Garbo as a neighbor, and he was as dramatic as ever. (Translation: Shaw seasoned his stories with more than a grain of salt.)
In Switzerland, said Shaw, his place and Garbo's were nearby and, for months on end, maybe years, Shaw hounded friends to get an introduction. Finally it came. "Would you like to have dinner with Garbo?" asked a mutual friend.
Shaw's anecdote stopped there, with just the question. The gentleman writer wasn't about to talk about such a dinner, or when or whether it even came to pass. Nor should one have expected him to. Some things are sacred, and Garbo's privacy had better be among them. One fact, however, is worth noting. On Wednesday, Garbo turns 80. So what, you ask. After all, 80 is what 70 used to be--and Garbo will celebrate her own way. She's managed, again and perennially, to outfox her pursuers, the media. Life magazine's entertainment editor, Jim Watters, whose graceful book on aging Hollywood stars, "Return Engagement," features everybody but Garbo, was complaining recently: "To have her on the cover of Life on her 80th birthday would cap my career as a journalist!" He didn't have to add that a brand-new snap of Garbo for the cover of Life would have meant an annuity for any living photographer, paparazzi or not.
But, as somebody said in "Sunset Boulevard," life can be strangely merciful. The photographers and the reporters and the TV cameras have let her be. Last year's rumor, the one about Sidney Lumet persuading Garbo to play herself in "Garbo Talks," proved unfounded. (Lumet instead persuaded lyricist Betty Comden into playing her somewhat-look-alike.)
Garbo's Law--Legend Increases in Proportion to Seclusion--still applies, to everyone from Jacqueline Onassis to Michael Jackson to Jennifer Jones. It's a code, invented by Garbo upon her retirement in 1941, and it works. But why, and how?
A top Manhattan publicist has one explanation: "Years ago, I was a salesgirl at Henri Bendel on 57th Street, and I sold hosiery to Garbo. I'm telling you the God's honest truth that I didn't know it was her, at least not the first few times, because she would indicate her purchases without talking. The day she opened her mouth, I knew it was Garbo. It was the voice. But the other salesgirls, see, they always knew Garbo when she came in. One girl knew her 'cause of the eyes. Another, from the bangs. But me, I needed to hear the voice. When I heard it, I froze. But I didn't let on to her that I knew . That's how you react to Garbo."
"Exactly," replied Anne Bancroft when she was told this story. It was Bancroft who played the dying (and-dying-to-meet-Garbo) mother in Lumet's film last year. "I saw her once, in New York," Bancroft remembered. "Joan Crawford you could walk up to, and even Katharine Hepburn--if you were an actress--her you could approach. Maybe young actresses need role models, I dunno. Crawford fascinated me at one point, and I got to know her. But Garbo? No. I looked, and then looked away. I don't care who you are, you have to respond to her dignity, her need to be unapproached."
If a salesgirl and a movie star respond the same way, you have to ask yourself, "What would you do?"
In January, in the middle of a long Saturday night, I saw Greta Garbo. Have you ever seen a troop of Swedes, maybe five of them, getting out of a station wagon, all looking just like Garbo , some much younger and some not? And the sixth one is Garbo herself? What you do is what Bancroft did. You look, and then look away.
What you see is so personal (beautiful?) it borders on betrayal to describe. Suffice it to say, Garbo has an uncompromised face. She hasn't told all (or anything) and it shows. Big smiles. But not a gesture or a glance is artificial. She's private. No questions asked, none answered.
"Would you like to have dinner with Garbo?"
Sorry, Mr. Shaw, I wouldn't. Nor, I suspect, did you.