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That Fabulous Face : The Founder of the Joffrey Ballet Still Carries a Torch for Greta Garbo, 45 Years After She Retired From the Screen

April 27, 1986|ROBERT JOFFREY | Robert Joffrey is the founder and artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, resident dance company at the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion . Its spring season begins Wednesday and closes May 18

"I've had a terrible crush on Greta Garbo since I was very young. There's something special about her-- that clear, pristine beauty, that flawless face. She's haunting. Long after you've seen one of her films she remains vivid in your mind.

That face first captivated me in my early teens, when I saw 'Camille.' I began clipping pictures of Garbo for a scrapbook, and I still do. My collection of Garbo memorabilia consists mostly of newspaper clippings, photographs and books. Most of the news stories are from the 1940s and 1950s, and many of them reflect the shock felt around the world when she suddenly abandoned her acting career in 1941 after starring in 'Two-Faced Woman.' I also have some rare early photographs of Garbo taken before she came to America from Sweden. I carefully store these mementos in large scrapbooks, slipped into protective sleeves so that they can be removed easily without harm.

Garbo memorabilia is a natural hobby for me, because I'm a lifelong collector. I've gone through many phases, collecting at one time or another miniature trains, stamps, coins, brass objects, Currier and Ives prints, Buddhas, dance and art books, marble, ivory, American Indian baskets, hobo art, Eskimo art, and photographs of Anna Pavlova and Nijinsky. I would get excited about one collectible, then move on to another. My apartment in New York is filled with what I've accumulated. I keep some possessions in my dressing room in the theater, and they travel with me when I'm on tour.

I've seen Garbo, although we've never met. It was at the old Met in New York in the late 1950s, at the opening night of the Bolshoi's first season in this country. She must have come in at the last minute, because I spotted her right before the performance. And I couldn't have missed her; she was striking. It was springtime, and she was wearing an elegant beige suit with a slouch hat. I even remember where she sat: Facing the stage, she was on the left side in an aisle seat, row J or H, I think. As soon as the curtain went down after the performance, she hurried out.

I didn't try to approach her--she's a private person, and I respect that. In fact, I know where she lives in New York, and even the assumed name she lives under, but I won't tell anybody, and I'd never bother her. I do know that she's a fan of dance, and I'd like to think that she's seen my dance company perform.

I loved the recent movie, 'Garbo Talks.' In it, Anne Bancroft played a Garbo fanatic, and she reminded me of myself. On her deathbed, she convinces her son to chase Garbo all over New York so that she can meet her. Finally, Garbo (played by an actress with a close resemblance) visits her in the hospital, and the woman tells Garbo how much she means to her and how she has big feet like Garbo's.

While on tour, I try to search for additions to my Garbo collection in each city. Generally, we get one day off in each location, and if I'm not involved in fund raising or giving interviews, I go hunting for new things. It's relaxing and fun to rummage through dusty bins in bookstores, secondhand stores, flea markets and movie memorabilia shops. Every time I pass an old bookstore, I pop in and ask. Usually they have plenty of Claudette Colberts and Mae Wests, and sometimes a few Garbos as well. The Garbo photos are always the most expensive. Now I'm a regular at several stores, and the proprietors will save items for me.

I found the most recent addition to my collection in a Los Angeles bookstore during our last tour. It's a shot of Garbo with Melvyn Douglas from 'Two-Faced Woman.' It was a small store, and the photos weren't filed alphabetically, so I had to go through the entire bin to find the picture. But discovering it just lying in a bin was unusual, because Garbo items are in demand and getting harder to find all the time. Still, valuable things show up in the oddest places. Some of my best Garbo photos are from old stores in Paris. It's a great feeling when you find something you don't have.

One thing I don't have is Garbo's autograph, even though my friends and I are always on the lookout for this rare treasure. Even people who make a hobby of autographs don't have Garbo's; I don't know anyone who does. I've never written to her asking for an autograph; I wouldn't do that. But maybe, if she reads this. . . ." PRODUCED BY LINDEN GROSS

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