Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo after she retreated from fame


She arrived somewhat out of breath, dressed entirely in darkest blue, looking pale but even more incandescent than before. A crowd of bobbysox autograph-hunters had run after her on her way to my hotel, and they were cruel and ruthless and upset her very much. But now she would enjoy a cigarette – calmly. We sat side by side on a long red sofa. She had not telephoned before because she had been ill: she had caught cold – doubtless by going on to that roof-top. I felt great guilt. But she explained she is an easy victim of colds, and it was foolish of her to be tempted out into the icy night winds. “But if you had not come out on the roof with me you wouldn’t be here this afternoon.” She smoked more Old Golds and drank a cup of tea remarking that cows’ milk tastes so much better if it is not pasteurized, and when she pronounced a biscuit to be “deliciosa” I remarked: “Then this is a festival”, to which she chirped: “Is zat so?” She talked with the excited vivacity of a child just home for the holidays, and did not look around her at my room, or show surprise or curiosity at what might be considered its somewhat startling decoration. But she did compliment me on keeping the rooms at a reasonable temperature: in fact, the steam heat was never turned on. “Ah, fresh air!” then saluting, she cried: “British Empire!” This was funny and somehow made sense, and I suppose was flattered by, even in fantasy, personifying the Empire. Garbo employed many “service” terms and, in reply to my question as to where she lived most of the year, said: “Oh, I follow the Fleet.” She elaborated: “I don’t quite know what that means, but I often say things like that, that only signify if you scratch beneath the surface.” But I discovered quickly that it displeased her to be asked any direct question, and she would invariably answer with some evasion.

The whole conversation had a rather whacky, inconsequential quality, but because the creature sitting by my side was so ineffably strange and beautiful one automatically and willingly accepted the idiom imposed by her. This wackiness took the place of wit and would change erratically from gay to sad. “A doctor once looked at me very carefully and asked: ‘Why are you unhappy? Is it because you imagine you’re ill?’ Another doctor asked: ‘Are you bored?’ I don’t know why he used so violent a word!”

Cecil Beaton’s diaries, April – 1946

He reports that during this conversation, perhaps their third or fourth meeting in ten years he asked her to marry him. Comments?

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  1. George Kaplan
    May 26, 2013

    Deliciosa, indeed! And “ineffably strange and beautiful” too. I love that passage, I love her being described as even more incandescent than before, and I love Mr Beaton’s description of her conversational drift! (“follow the fleet” :)). Thank you.
    I’m not surprised Cecil asked her to marry him, her startling weird charm and charisma, (and ethereality) were such that I think they overpowered his usual inclinations 😉
    Fame is hungry, and fame is a hunger; it’s so impressive that Greta could *walk away*. A True Star.

    • May 26, 2013

      Reading Mr. Beaton’s diaries (and they are fascinating) I am struck by what a strong personality Garbo was, and how intrusive fame can be…

  2. May 26, 2013

    I don`t think I would be a fan of Garbo if I knew her personally, although I am a fan of her film work.
    I do, however, love the coat she`s wearing. I don`t think it`s possible for any piece of clothing to look bad on her.

    • May 26, 2013

      The most touching thing about Garbo in his diaries is how she would garden very early in the morning, doing the hard labor of clearing and digging, so people wouldn’t see her and stare.

    • October 18, 2014

      Sorry, but those grammaw shoes are atrocious!!

  3. May 26, 2013

    She seems sad and whimsically defiant. This is a beautiful passage and a wonderful companion to your recent Patti Smith post. Few stars seem to just walk away from fame, so this makes Garbo particularly intriguing.Was it self-preservation? Or something else?
    I haven’t seen many Garbo films, though I have fond memories of Ninotchka. Do you have a very favorite that you recommend?

    • May 27, 2013

      I could watch Ninotchka on a continuous loop… The silents she did for Clarence Brown like Flesh and the Devil (1928) are mesmerizing (and so over the top) but still…

      • May 27, 2013

        Thanks! I love silent and over the top. I’ll check those out.

  4. May 27, 2013

    I think he was possibly attracted to the evasive quality (coping) she possessed? I see that as a more masculine trait. Certain men find that intriguing. I love the idea that she would garden in the wee hours and do all the heavy cleaning work so she could be free from stares and lenses. What a life… Sad how intrusive fame can be. Good thing she was strong. 😉

    • May 27, 2013

      I think you nailed it – he was completely smitten in the beginning, and she was alternately fragile and masculine – but always evasive. I haven’t finished the diaries but I think their friendship lasted their entire lives.

  5. May 27, 2013

    here’s what we think (forgive if it contradicts the general accepted view of this relationship 😉

    there is a certain type of englishman – brought up in an era where it was not only forbidden but beyond the pale to admit or discuss their true desires – and so they became damaged and desperate (actually not just men, women too – the love that dare not speak its name and all that) – many married (women) – because they had to – for safety, to become part of Society, to avoid death (slow death remaining outside of their Class or actual death after an encounter off Piccadilly Circus), and (perhaps still) that Class considered women property so it was less about love and a lot more about One’s Name.


    this depresses us a great deal. Poor Cecil. as Noel said in the song.

    we shall return to the Light Programme soon *giggles* #rawNerve

    • May 28, 2013

      Sadly, this is too true. It makes me think that even in the early 1960s sexual identity was a source of scandal and pain. For some reason I have The Beatles on my mind this early morning and I’m thinking of Brian Epstein and that he committed suicide months before homosexuality was decriminalized – even sadder is that the attitudes of condemnation, hypocrisy, and fear still drive society in many instances.

      And now I will return to the Light Programme with you, with a stout hug.

      • May 28, 2013

        must have been the Full Moon – we felt awfully deep yesterday 😉

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