Of course, womanizing is a subject only mentioned in the highly unofficial version of Garbo’s life. If you read the New York Times biography on Garbo, you will learn only of her cancelled wedding to Gilbert, and that “the actress would have other romantic involvements, but would never marry.”
It’s typical of the Garbo party line.
In most mainstream publications, Garbo’s sexual orientation is alluded to only vaguely, with code words like “androgynous” and with references to her penchant for “masculine” clothing. One might even find a list of her paramours that includes actors Gilbert and John Barrymore, as well as gay photographer Cecil Beaton (self-described as a “terrible, terrible homosexualist.")
Garbo in Queen Christina (1933)
But you will need to seek out McLellan’s The Girls for the details on Garbo’s affairs with women.
In fact, The Girls holds a wealth of information about the known (and rumored) lesbian loves of many of the stars of the Golden Era of Hollywood, including Alla Nazimova, Isadora Duncan, Tallulah Bankhead, Hattie McDaniel, Patsy Kelly, Lizabeth Scott, and notorious heartbreaker Marlene Dietrich.
The book is excellent fodder for a documentary, or — better yet — a feature film.
In the meantime, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) debuted this month a comprehensive new documentary about Garbo by director and film historian Kevin Brownlow. Narrated by Julie Christie, the film offers rare input from family and friends and depicts an earthy, funny Garbo that her legend belies.
It even touches on the taboo subject of Garbo’s sexuality.
Brownlow told The Orlando Sentinel last week, "The family wanted us to put in that she wasn’t lesbian, but nobody we spoke to was that definitive. … It’s one of those things you can’t be definitive about. All you can do is touch on it."
As a result, The Sentinel reports, "The family doesn’t like the film’s take on the actress’ sexuality. Friends say Garbo enjoyed describing herself in masculine terms and amusing people with the gender confusion.”
But some of the biggest hints about her true sexuality were dropped by Garbo herself.
Quotes like, “Being feminine is a lovely quality which I may not have enough of” and, “You don’t have to be married to have a good friend as your partner for life,” were simply not the standard sound bytes for women seeking fame in her era.
Garbo in Anna Christie (1930)
Whatever secrets she kept, she lived out loud as an original, independent spirit who attained international success without ever being defined by her relationship with a man.
It’s a feat still rare for actresses in the 21st century.