I have been in a love affair with Greta Garbo since I was a young college student. When I became interested in film studies, I saw in Garbo an image that seemed to capture my heart and soul. I started writing poems about her that, in retrospect, probably creeped out the others in my poetry class. She was everything I was not—elegant, romantic, cultured, famously beautiful yet coolly aloof. I didn’t just want to love Garbo; I wanted to be Garbo.
Research into her personal life humanized her in a way that resonated with me almost painfully. For all the glitz and glamor of her Hollywood star, she was deeply uncomfortable with herself, at times angry or afraid, often depressed and reclusive. Her name wasn’t her own; Greta Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson. Nor did Garbo look like Garbo. When she first arrived in the US to launch her Hollywood career, she bore almost no resemblance to the solemn starlet whose image has even entranced cultural theorists. Instead, she was a frizzy-haired, sleepy-eyed girl with uneven teeth and an uncertain smile. Despite her iconic slender figure, she was deemed overweight by studio executives in her native Sweden and in Hollywood.
What hit me hardest was learning that Garbo was into women. Her unsuccessful relationships with men were marked by dissatisfaction, often with her own feelings toward such relationships. She was known to have had affairs with several prominent women in the arts but still returned emotionally to her high school sweetheart, Mimi Pollak. It was a story that I, despite being an inexperienced girl from a small rural town nowhere near Hollywood, somehow related to.
Today we are fortunate to have openly lesbian and bi figures to inspire us or show us we aren’t alone in our experiences. My Garbo fandom, however, has taught me the importance of the stories of women whose sexuality could not be publicly revealed and are perhaps taken for granted now.
Rumored or confirmed affairs between early leading ladies in the arts reads something like The L Word’s infamous chart. One central figure in lesbian history is the writer Mercedes de Acosta, who reportedly engaged in affairs with stage actresses Alla Nazimova (romantically linked to the prolific but oft-neglected lesbian director Dorothy Arzner) and Eva Le Galliene (also romantically linked to Nazimova), iconic bisexual dancer Isadora Duncan, and Ona Munson (who was also linked to Arzner).
Out of Hollywood’s Golden Age starlets, de Acosta had relationships with Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead, the latter of whom has also been linked to Nazimova, Le Galliene, Dietrich, Lilyan Tashman, and Hattie McDaniel, among many others. Bankhead rivals de Acosta in the number of Hollywood starlets she is rumored to have loved. Garbo’s love life, in turn, included a well-known relationship with de Acosta, Bankhead, Tashman, and Dietrich, though some reports have it that her association with Dietrich was plagued by animosity.
These are only a few of the Golden Age women known for their same-sex relationships in Hollywood’s celebrity circles. Rumors of other same-sex affairs amongst these women abound with varying degrees of supporting evidence. They and their lovers are described alternately as bisexual and lesbian in various biographies; the frequency of “lavender marriages” (such as Tashman’s) further complicate attempts to nail down specific sexual categories for those who wish to do so. Descendants of Garbo’s family have contested her same-sex relationships. Garbo herself tried to avoid leaving clues (except in her letters to Mimi Pollak, which I recommend to any lesbian or bi woman in the mood to read a tragic romance), reportedly requesting that de Acosta did not name her in their correspondence.
While we are finally seeing major stars portraying openly gay characters, Garbo had no such opportunity—which is a bummer for fans hoping to see her bring her sexual identity to a role. Nor did her contemporaries. Dietrich’s ability to rock a tuxedo and charm pretty girls is featured in some of her films, but, as a leading lady, she is often positioned as ultimately in need of a man.
For young, uncertain queer me, it was Garbo and Queen Christina (1933) that did it. I loved her before, but it was this film that made me feel like I finally got Garbo (well, as much as anyone could get the elusive Garbo). Based on the real-life 17th Swedish queen, the film depicts Christina negotiating both war and marriage, ultimately refusing the latter. The film does not openly explore rumors of the actual Queen Christina’s same-sex relationships (a more recent film, however, does) but markers are certainly there. Garbo, like the real-life ruler, dresses in men’s clothing as she performs her duties. She refers to herself in masculine terms in one telling scene in which, after lamenting the burden of tradition, she wittily proclaims, “I shall die a bachelor!” (Garbo previously described herself as “your old bachelor” in a letter to Mimi.)
Most telling, however, is her intimacy with the countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) in a cinematic translation of the close relationship between the real-life Christina and the woman whom she called her “bedfellow.” Garbo’s sexual chemistry with male co-stars often seems inconsistent, but as Christina, her hardness and remove disappears with Ebba, whom she touches and kisses with a soft warmth missing from her other interactions.
When I watch Queen Christina, I feel like I’m sharing a secret with Garbo and her contemporaries. It is difficult to read her emotional remove from strictly heterosexual affairs as simply the character. In some ways, I find her performance in the film more relatable than many contemporary gay characters, specifically because it is Garbo.While Garbo struggled in her relationships with women as well and would go on to be a recluse, she was the bi icon who seemed to appear onscreen in front of me at a time when I needed one.
The Golden Age of Hollywood isn’t ideal. Those working in mainstream cinema today are still battling the legacy of misogyny and racism left in its wake. Yet what we can positively take from the era is what some critics call the “foundation of lesbian film culture.” Despite contradictions in their relationships with each other as they are publicly understood, icons such as Garbo helped pave the way for the more visible representations of lesbian and bisexual women we now hope to see.