A Legend in My Life

My encounters with the incomparable Greta Garbo

Vincent Price
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram

Remember someone gone," I am asked. Well, in my profession, one is not “gone” just when a body is planted in Forest Lawn or its ashes scattered on the sea. Actors are “dead,” in our vernacular, from the moment their careers are ended, by whatever means—retirement, age, loss of public appeal, and, yes, even death. True, television has dug up a celestial body here and there, and university cinema societies, with festivals and homages, have revived or kept alive a few more, however temporarily. But immortals are rare—Bogart, Karloff, and Gable; Loy, Gardner, and, of course, Garbo.

Encounters with these legends, unless in the course of work, are for the most part fleeting, if not wishful imagining. Comes the claim, with due theatrical exaggeration: “Oh, yes, I knew Clark Gable!” The reality, usually, is that there had been a glancing meeting—at a dinner party at Ronald Colman’s with Merle Oberon, in my case. “Oh, yes, I knew him!” There are legends in the profession, then. Encountering them is next to meeting the dead, and almost as surprising. There are even well-known actors you bump into whose names you cannot remember, so you make them legends on the spot—in order to get you off the spot. After my fifty-odd years in the business, I can tell that the people who are going to make me into a legend really don't know exactly who I am.

Now my encounters with a real legend were varied, to say the least. And being so placed as to meet almost as many people who are “known” as not, I have often wondered why, in this particular case, the memories have remained indelible. Greta Garbo was not only the screen's greatest actress, but also its most mysterious. The mystique was an achievement perhaps even greater than her acting. “Garbo Talks” or doesn’t talk, is “alone” or accompanied by a band of strange types—male, female, and what-not. All of that went to make up the mystique, which worked both for and against her and, in part, brought about her screen demise. IN a day when fans had to know their idols’ most intimate secrets, she kept most of hers to herself. This finally led to there being nothing more revealing to say about Garbo, except that she was unique. Not enough.

My intake of breath would've made a pearl diver jealous: I held it until the divine Garbo left the premises.

I knew quite a lot about her, however, from an impeccable source, her former agent, Harry Edington, who was not only one of the very first real agents but also a gentleman and an honest man. He was credited with the slogan for her first talkie, Anna Christie: “Garbo Talks!” It was enough to send me full speed to New Haven's Fox Poli Movie Palace. I couldn't wait. What would she sound like? Usually, my silent favorites proved vocal disappointments, if not total flops. One of Garbo’s most famous leading men, John Gilbert, saw his career end because he didn't sound as macho as he looked. But Garbo’s voice was all one could desire and then some. “Geef me a hviskey!” or words written to create that final effect would have been laughable if spoken by a feeble female voice. But G.G.’s was dark and huskily intoxicating, and left you wondering once again if she was for real, or, as I preferred to think, the movie star to end all such fanciful creatures. One great film followed another, her career reaching its height with Anna Karenina, Mata Hari, As You Desire Me, Grand Hotel, Ninotchka, and, of course, Camille.

Like all good Yale boys of that Depression period, I spent weekends in New York City. In the thirties, Third Avenue was a magical place, in a derelict kind of way. The El, for most of that time, was still rumbling the buildings and making it impossible for anyone to inhabit them, except on the ground floors, which were like gloomy cliff dwellings, filled with the residue of past lives, which antique dealers passed on to the living. It was a known fact as far back as I can remember that Garbo lived most of the time in New York and was given to covering that face in a babushka and going for long walks, particularly in that almost seamy neighborhood. I had never heard what, if anything, she collected, but it would have been gilding the lily if it were jewelry. Besides, legend had it that Garbo did not wear jewelry.

I swear it was not intentional, but this unseemly pathway was my favorite haunt, too—not because of Garbo but because works of African and pre-Columbian art, which were just coming on the market, found their way (sometimes, I suspect, illegally) into the Third Avenue stores. So, although looking for Garbo was not my aim, I found myself on her beat, and, I would admit, always keeping an eye out for her. Now I was a jewelry buff, particularly interested in anything antique and inexpensive. Paste and diamonds still are interchangeable as far as I am concerned. What strikes me is the design, the workmanship—and there was one cubbyhole of a shop on Third Avenue, between the Forties and Fifties, that never failed to draw me to its cluttered windows. One day, gleaming in the midst of the junk was a velvet-lined box studded with gold-threaded topaz buttons. The shredded label on the box announced that it was from Scotland, and I recalled having seen Scottish lairds asparkle with cairngorms, as they call them, in their shirts and cuffs. Since these were separate stones, I envisaged them grouped in an iridescent ruche on a gold chain around my future wife's neck.

Steamed up, as I always am with a discovery, I burst through the door only to come face to face with the face that, as far as I am concerned, could launch all the navies of the world with a glance. My intake of breath would have made a pearl diver jealous: I held it until the divine Garbo had done her small transaction and left the premises.

My first reaction, after it fully dawned on me what had happened, was: Why hadn't she run away when she was bombarded by a great hulk of a man crashing into her little sanctuary? I tentatively asked the store owner if it was indeed you-know-who and he replied, “Oh, she comes in here all the time!” In a flushed moment of bravado I said: “If you'll give me a good price on those cairngorms, I'll be in all the time, too.”

I thought it beneath our positions in life whatever they were, to interrogate him further about the great mystery lady, so I made my purchase and banged out the door, immediately scanning the street to see if that famous babushka—for, sure enough, that’s what she was wearing—was anywhere in view among the strollers. She had been absorbed completely. But I had seen Garbo in the flesh!

My impressions of this first encounter with my idol were jumbled. Had she looked at me and smiled? I don’t remember for sure, but I sensed that those rolltop eyes had batted in my direction once or twice. It was enough. I felt that perhaps I had tiptoed into a magical, if nebulous, relationship; but I knew in my heart that I was only indulging in a distant hope.

I was a little less sure that there would ever be a chance at greatness again. Oh, it hurt, I'll tell you.

Alas, the next two encounters were almost more fleeting than the first.

Sitting one day on the porch of my shack, overlooking the polluted waters of Santa Monica Bay, I saw a striding figure—hair tied in a scarf, mumbling to herself. It was Garbo, and this, as I found out later, was how she learned her lines. Little did she know that the moonstone hunter who looked up and recognized her was also a moonstruck actor who would have cued her through any part. I left the porch to catch a closer glimpse of Garbo. My ocean-gazing companion that day was the great American writer Rachel Field, whose All This and Heaven Too had been at the top of the best-seller list for a long time. It wasn't that I was not impressed with Rachel, who had a homely beauty and sweet nature. Any woman in comparison to Garbo had to retreat, as the riplets of spent waves went back to the ocean after lapping at the divine Garbo's big feet. Yes, I did notice that. She had big feet—all the better to trample my heart!

During the war, several other out-of-work actors and I opened a little gallery in Beverly Hills. The rent was sixty-five dollars a month, which even we could afford. We rummaged through our personal collections of art that we had bought in better days, and set ourselves up to satisfy some of the art hunger of what we thought of as the culturally bereft city of Los Angeles.

We became well known almost immediately because people had nowhere else to go. Our little single room, with a closet-sized gallery beyond, soon attracted the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley, and many others. All of these great figures impressed us enormously but on only two occasions did we scramble up the stairs to the tiny office and even smaller toilet in order to regain our equanimity.

The first was when one of the most enchanting creatures ever to grace a stage, a screen, or a life—Katherine Hepburn—swept in. She even bought something from us!

The second… of course, you’ve guessed it. Early one morning, while we were sweeping out the place, a little figure—or so she seemed to me, as I peeked down from the upstairs office through the peephole we used to count customers—crept in to look at a show we had of the surrealist poet John Goodwin. Like everyone else, this shrouded woman seemed startled by the main exhibit—a huge Spanish comb nailed on a cross draped with black lace, entitled “The Crucifixion According to Mary Magdalen.” None of us could really identify the visitor; there was a peasant look about her that didn't fit Beverly Hills. Then one of my partners, in a choked whisper that could be heard miles away, exclaimed: “Oh, my God, it's Garbo!” Whereupon we all descended the staircase only to find her… gone.

Piqued by our disappointment, we decided to shut the gallery and go next door to Delhaven's Coffee Shop, and there she was, with her back to the rest of the customers, but unmistakable. The woman had personality—front, back, up, down, over, and under. And beauty. If I had said what was in my mind right at that moment it would have been something like: “How I'd like to know you! We’ve met twice, you now!”

Whatever fame and beauty present was now eclipsed. Do I go too far? No, worshippers can't go too far.

I am eccentric, and especially about female beauty. Women don’t have to be pretty to strike me; in fact, it is better if they are not. What we offbeat collectors of beauty look for is the unique and the individual—a fine difference. Have you ever noticed that in albums of photographs of movie stars there is only one who has that quality of ageless, timeless individuality, only one who could be no one but who she is? In Italian, the word garbo means beautiful. Could any name fit her more perfectly? Greta Beautiful. Greta Garbo.

I was smitten, and still am. I am always tempted, when the Academy Awards come around, to give all my votes to her. She gave movie acting its ultimate definition, and nobody has so much as approached her in subtlety or power, but she was never even nominated for an award. Now it must be understood that this was no ordinary, youthful crush. This was a middle-aged man who might well have been ashamed of himself, but wasn’t and isn’t. She, the object, had almost disappeared. The studios had tried to kill her off with bad pictures, but she fooled them. She quit! And when Garbo quit she did it for real—no phoney “if the right script comes along,” “more money,” “this leading man,” or “a picture in Europe.” None of it! Garbo, as far as the public was concerned, was at last alone. And at least one fan felt abandoned. One had looked to her art as a growing thing, a miracle, an inspiration to rise above one's own stagnancy and mediocrity. There had been a Garbo, once upon a time, but now there was none.

So time grew longer and one went about one's business. It had been her business, too, but I was a little less sure that there would ever be a chance at greatness in it again. Oh, it hurt, I'll tell you. One went out to parties and met the latest glamour flurry or renewed acquaintance with others of her epoch, but there was never quite another. Almost, but never quite.

One night I won't forget was with two “almosts.” One of them was a famous beauty—thousands of her photographs were carried into the trenches during World War I—and a fine actress, better on stage than in movies but doing some stylish screen performances past middle age: Gladys Cooper. The other had never been a great actress but, even in her seventies, was still a raving beauty whose presence and charm made up for a so-so talent. That was Cathleen Nesbitt, lover of Rupert Brooke, who kept his memory alive by her exquisite existence. He had to have loved her: she was a poet's dream.

These two famous ladies of the English theater were never close friends until they worked together on a television show in the sixties, in which I was their leading man. We rehearsed for three weeks in New York, and the great thrill of this whole experience was watching them grow to love, even to dote upon each other—each, of course, in her own way. I was caught in the spell of this mature infatuation: I loved them both for loving each other. For the rest of their lives, they were as inseparable as your funny, peripatetic profession allows us to be.

The last time I saw them together was right after that television show at a dinner given by Bill Frye and Jim Wharton, two producer friends who knew everyone. They collected people, and being their guest always meant being in good company. I think this dinner was meant to bring the two ladies together, and I was thrown in to serve as co-star for one last evening. Anyway, it was a joy to be a party to their mutual admiration. Several other old friends were invited, including Brian Aherne, who called almost as we arrived to say that he was working very late, had an early call next morning, and so could not come to dinner. But could his house guest come alone? Of course, Bill and Jim agreed, without asking who it was. And she arrived.

I have been around famous people most of my adult life, and here I was in the company of two of them, Gladys and Cathleen. But the advent of this surprise guest shut the place down, wrapped it up, no, packaged it! Whatever fame and beauty had been present was now eclipsed, for there stood an apparition. Do I go too far? No, worshippers can't go too far. It was Garbo.

Garbo was still singing to me, here, now, just to me—a great aria about baked bread!

After a lot of inane chitchat from the common folk who surrounded the legend, I was designated by room position to talk to her. I had a hard time taking my eyes off the fabulous face: the eyes, the straggly blond hair, the mouth with its tiny lip lines, and the nose—above all, the nose—a whole personality in a nose! When she laughed that almost raucous, Ninotchka laugh, the lips curled as the head went back and the jaw sharpened above the turtleneck of the sweater—worn, I suppose, to disguise her barely discernible wattles. And then I laughed, too, but at my own inadequacy and stupidity.

No matter. I had her attention and so had to say something. But what? “You're not divine, you're human!” Silly. “I loved your last picture!” No, it was terrible. “I hear you like home-baked bread.” There, yes, she had said so a dozen times in print. She was a health food addict—Gaylord Hauser and all that. So I started in, and what could have been an unleavened few moments turned out to be magic—for me, at least. And she seemed to enjoy it, too. I told her of my disgust with people who gave in to arthritis when all they had to do was knead some bread and stay the pains with Nature's remedy, yeast. She laughed a lot but turned serious when we discussed the perfumes of baking bread. She allowed that she didn't like perfumes, especially the kind sprayed around rooms against house smells, and I agreed that they betokened public places, especially toilets. Another laugh—oh, that throat of a swan. Garbo had sung her swan song for public, but she was still singing to me, here, now, just to me—a great aria about baked bread!

I had almost exhausted the subject before dinner. Then I found, to my delight and horror, that I was seated next her. I mean, one can bake only so many loaves of bread over cocktails and dinner! I sat there, grinning stupidly, and she started it all up again. Had I ever had herb bread toast? Had I ever! Why, that very day I'd made a loaf and planned to let it sit overnight for toast in the morning. What herbs had I used? I recited them like a rosary, starting with rosemary. Did I grow my own herbs? Of course! What kind of baker would I be if I didn't? So I had an enchanting evening, and if I'm now asked if I knew Garbo, I can say, “Oh, yes, we've broken bread!”

Lap dissolve, as we say in movies. I am walking down Third Avenue about two weeks after having dined with Garbo, bemoaning the fact that the El is gone, and, with it, all the gloomy tackiness of that once treasure-laden street. If there is an antique store remaining, its junk has long since been converted into objects d'art. Garbo’s days of strolling in the shade of Third Avenue are gone; it is all offices and architectural sameness, glass and steel. The bricks of the old buildings are now the paths and walls of expensive gardens, from Turtle Bay to the terraces of Trump's latest towers.

I memorized this feeling of nostalgia for a city that may never have been as romantic as I remembered it, and turned west on Fifty-seventh Street. At the corner, one foot in the gutter, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Looking around with that forced smile one prepares in advance for taps on the shoulder, I saw it was Garbo.

“Wasn't that a lovely dinner at Bill and Jim’s?”

My practiced smile was instantly erased and, in its place, that look of wonder reserved to such special encounters. “Yes, I enjoyed myself,” I managed to say. “I hope I didn't bore you with bread talk?”

“No, I loved it. I hope we meet again!” And she was gone, swallowed up into a crowd which had no idea what treasure it bore.

Vincent Price was an actor, art collector, and author of books and articles on cuisine, travel, and art. He was a graduate of Yale College.
Originally published:
July 1, 1988


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