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Susan KellyFor a film buff, this book is hard to put down.
— USA Today
Diana McLellan reveals the complex and intimate connections that roiled behind the public personae of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, and the women who loved them. Private correspondence, long-secret FBI files, and troves of unpublished documents reveal a chain of lesbian affairs that moved from the theater world of New York, through the heights of chic society, to embed itself in the power structure of the movie business. The Girls serves up a rich stew of film, politics, sexuality, psychology,...
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Diana McLellan reveals the complex and intimate connections that roiled behind the public personae of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, and the women who loved them. Private correspondence, long-secret FBI files, and troves of unpublished documents reveal a chain of lesbian affairs that moved from the theater world of New York, through the heights of chic society, to embed itself in the power structure of the movie business. The Girls serves up a rich stew of film, politics, sexuality, psychology, and stardom.
Greta Garbo called homosexual affairs "exciting secrets."
And if you were "one of the girls," as early Hollywood described Sapphic stars ranging from the great Nazimova to Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, and Garbo herself, exciting secrets lent both your life and your art its edge. Lesbian affairs, it was widely felt, were good for you. They expanded your emotional range, nurtured your amour propre, kept your skin clear and your eyes bright, burnished your acting skills, and even—as director Josef von Sternberg believed— exerted a powerful androgynous magnetism through the camera's lens, attracting the unwitting desires of both men and women in the audience through the dim, smoky air of the movie house.
Secrecy, of course, was key. In that unenlightened age, secrecy about affairs placated bluenoses, deflected jealousies, and protected reputations, as well as adding its own thrill. But secrecy meant lies. And when I began my long trek into the Sapphic Hollywood of the first half of this century, hoping to unveil a history long buried beneath the Victorianism "the girls" so boldly defied, I quickly discovered that lies—their lies—blocked my path at every turn.
Luckily, I had met lies before. And as a Washington journalist for thirty years—ten of them spent as a daily gossip columnist who received far more sensational information, true and false, than I could ever print—I had made a useful discovery: One big, proven lie reveals far more than dozens of widely reported "truths"—once you understand why it was told. This rule, in my experience, applies topolitics, sex, war, diplomacy, White House scandals, social invitations, funeral orations, almost everything in Washington.
Would it apply to Hollywood, too? I believed it would.
And so, over the five years I devoted to this book, I turned armchair detective. Whenever I could document a consistent unnecessary lie, I fished more intently in the waters around it than elsewhere, hooking in as many sources as possible, arranging events in the correct sequence to determine cause and effect, applying what I knew to areas I did not know, and slowly triangulating my way toward the truth. My hope was not to "out" my girls—of whom I became very fond— but to understand their minds, their lives, and the times and contexts in which they lived—social, sexual, theatrical, political, and even cinematic. Soon little gold nuggets began to glimmer at me from between the lines of letters, published and unpublished; they lurked embedded in thousands of pages of long-secret government documents that, after realizing their importance for my purposes, I slowly acquired. Occasionally, as my understanding grew, they jumped out of otherwise-predictable newspaper and magazine articles, and from films and photographs dating back more than ninety years.
Watching the wall of lies begin to crumble was an adventure as exciting for me as the opening of a pharaoh's tomb. Through the rubble, I glimpsed a never- before-reported affair between Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich (who lied for the rest of their lives, saying that they had never met). I found a hitherto- untracked husband-cum-consort of Dietrich (who lied about his existence)—and swirling about him, and the girls, I found some long-lied-about Hollywood skullduggery, which ultimately led to the Hollywood Ten trials of suspected Communists halfway through the century.
How did my system work? Let's take the Garbo-Dietrich affair, which I explore in Part 2. In my view, it was the turning point in Greta Garbo's life. Much of what defined the mysterious star—her obsession with privacy and secrecy, the bizarre rules she set up for those allowed to peep into her temple of solitude, even the premature ending of her film career—sprang from her reaction to this pivotal event, which occurred when she was nineteen.
When I began, like all biographers of those two superstars of the twenties, thirties, and forties, I subscribed to the conventional wisdom, emphasized so often by both Garbo and Dietrich: The two women had never met. Hollywood buffs usually cite the wonderful story of their "introduction" in 1945 by Orson Welles (see page 321).
But their lifelong claim to be strangers was a lie. This reality struck home as I sat alone one day in a tiny film booth at the Library of Congress's Motion Picture Division, with Garbo's 1925 silent film The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse) humming through the track before me. Suddenly, my heart jumped. I stiffened. I stopped the film, then rolled it back. I rolled it again, and again, and again. Over the past several months, I had examined, very closely, scores of photographs of Marlene in Berlin and Vienna in the 1920s. For much of that time, she dyed her hair black for roles in cabarets, on stage, and in films. (She found black-haired women sexier than blondes. She also painted her brows black, shadowed her eyes, and rouged her lips into a Cupid's bow.) With no distinctively Dietrich voice, no blond hair, and without the face-modeling lighting techniques she would learn five years later from von Sternberg, she would not be recognizable to most fans in this small but by no means insignificant role—particularly if she swore she wasn't in the film. (I might not have recognized her myself, had not four years of youthful art training taught me how light molds form.) I sat there for hours. I stopped the film often, ran it back, watched over and over wherever Dietrich appeared. I compared every feature of the face, the makeup, the hair, the legs, the hands and arms with the Marlene I knew from her early photographs. I looked for the gestures Marlene made in later films. And there they were—the brushing aside of a stray lock of hair, the characteristic spread of her most unusual hands, with their long, meaty, muscular palms and short, tapered violinist's fingers, the lift of her shoulders, the defiant puff of her cigarette smoke. Even though the Garbo film I was watching had been censored, edited, plundered by unprincipled researchers, and otherwise cut to shreds over the years,there was no question at all in my mind that the woman I was watching in several key scenes, unbilled in the credits, was Marlene Dietrich. I called in the film librarian, Madeline Matz. At first she was incredulous. And then she agreed: Yes, I was right. That was Marlene, with her mouth open, caught in close-up on my little silver screen. So, to paraphrase the husband caught by his wife in bed with his secretary, who are you going to believe? Marlene and Greta, or your lying eyes? Examine the photographs of Marlene and the stills from The Joyless Street I have presented, then judge for yourself.
Most biographers have swallowed whole Marlene's vigorous denial of being in this film, which was shot in her hometown of Berlin in February and March of 1925, even though a film encyclopedia or two touches upon it. She was home having her baby, she claimed. Not so. Her daughter, Maria, was born on December 12, 1924. Marlene, in fact, was thinner than usual from nursing her infant during the filming of The Joyless Street, another factor that enabled her to lie. Not only was she in the film, in a sizable supporting role, but the scene in which Garbo actually faints into Dietrich's arms proves that Marlene and Greta knew each other, touched each other, and trusted each other completely—at least for a while, in their youth.
And finally, in her old age, Marlene confirmed that, yes, she was indeed in The Joyless Street with Garbo. She admitted it to her British late-life friend and biographer David Bret, an expert on the Berlin nightlife of her era. During one of our long talks, David told me that she had even described a scene she had acted in: "Yes, and in the end, I killed the butcher," she said to him with a small chuckle. This was puzzling. I had seen her character storm crazily into the butcher shop, and, a little later, the dead butcher, with his bloody head lolling against a window. But no actual murder! Combing literature about the film's director, G.W. Pabst, I finally learned this: The ax murder perpetrated by the woman known to filmographers for years only as "Maria's friend" had been so bloody that it was cut by the German censors. In other words, Marlene had to have been there to know about it. That unbilled black-haired young woman in Pabst's film, to whom others later gave other names, is Marlene Dietrich.
So why that particular lie? Why six decades of secrecy? The question paralyzed me for days. I decided, like Hercule Poirot, to drop it, and allow my little gray cells to stew on their own.
During my long immersion in dozens of biographies, I had tried with all my might to slip under the skins of both Greta and Marlene. Hundreds of small details of how they handled their hidden lives, both before and long after their 1925 meeting, had unfolded for me. And eventually, as more evidence trickled in, a new conviction seeped into place among the little gray cells: The worldly twenty-three-year-old Marlene—a bohemian young mama with a notorious and compulsive appetite for the sexual seduction of other beautiful women, particularly backstage—had conquered the simple, sensitive nineteen-year-old Swede during their 1925 filming together. Their affair had ended with such a deeply hurtful betrayal that Garbo flatly refused to acknowledge Dietrich's existence for the rest of their lives—even when the two simultaneously shared lovers in Hollywood, including the writers Mercedes de Acosta and Erich Maria Remarque. What's more, the affair's denouement, evidently a cruel and vulgar revelation to mutual friends by Dietrich, which she repeated decades later, quite clearly lay at the root of Garbo's lifelong obsession with privacy.
When all the chips were in, I was certain that I had hit upon the truth. But there was a catch. What could possibly have guaranteed Marlene's silence about the Greta affair once both European stars were ensconced in Hollywood? How could the two stars have faked being strangers when they shared friends, lovers, directors, co stars? I returned to this question repeatedly as my frame of reference grew. I tried on every angle.
Finally—and this was more than two years into working on the book full time—only one answer remained. It was another proven lie. This particular lie, I had thought, and (a little lazily) hoped, was irrelevant to my tale. Instead, it turned out to be absolutely central to it. It was the key that unlocked an otherwise-inexplicable four-way Hollywood connection—that among Garbo and Dietrich and Garbo's two rival screenwriter lovers, Mercedes de Acosta and Salka Viertel.
Incredible as it seems, I had found traces of a man who appeared to be a secret early husband of Marlene Dietrich. Clearly, Marlene continued to deal with this man throughout her Hollywood years. In itself, this was no great discovery. After all, Marlene hid many secrets, juggled many lovers, told many lies. As her daughter reported, she slept with practically everyone. Her bland official "husband" Rudi, who lived with his mistress, didn't mind. Why should I? This unwelcome intruder simply got in the way of the story I wished to tell. I tried to ignore him, as a tourist might ignore an eyesore shack on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
But Otto Katz was no ordinary first husband. He was, in fact, a flamboyant Soviet-trained spy and Stalinist provocateur, a subtle and slippery man of many secrets, many names, many identities. I wondered why no biographer of Marlene had ever discussed him before. He was well known in his own shadowy world. He had confided to his closest Party associates his early ties to the young Marlene. And long after their connection in the Berlin of the twenties was supposedly over, the two were together in the thirties and forties in both Paris and Hollywood. Some sophisticated people even knew that it was Otto, under the alias Rudolph Breda, who had come to Hollywood in March of 1935 to found the Stalinist- backed Anti-Nazi League—an early link in the long chain of events that led to the notorious Hollywood Ten trials of suspected Communists in 1947.
Why was I the first to connect them? As I pieced together this disturbing jigsaw from government documents (which included intercepted private correspondence), from obscure memoirs, and from some most unusual interviews, the answer became plain. Not only were Marlene and her intimates amazingly good at keeping secrets—and for very good reasons—but she herself, as well as her friends and her early and late political allies, powerful covert figures (surprisingly, on both sides of the Cold War, and, as I found, including people in the FBI, the State Department, and the CIA and its forerunners), took immense pains to blur the footprints of the man she had loved.
And what had Otto to do with my glamorous "sewing circle" of lesbian lovers? Ah. Here the key figure was another of the girls. She was the actress-writer Salka Viertel, Greta Garbo's most trusted Hollywood confidante. Salka had known both Dietrich and Otto intimately in Berlin in the early 1920s. They were part of the same fashionable, freewheeling Communist theatrical circle. Marlene and Salka had acted together in Max Reinhardt's famous troupe. They moved with the same smart, fast, daring, hungrily bisexual crowd. They had clearly been, at least fleetingly, lovers. Salka knew every detail of Marlene's Berlin past. She knew all her sexual and political secrets, the story of both her marriages. If—as is possible—Marlene remained married to Otto, and simply used "husband" Rudi as a lifelong beard, or cover, Salka knew that, too. Both Salka and her husband, Berthold, had remained close to Otto, as we'll see—so close that he even begged the couple to join him in Moscow during his training for the apparat. If she had chosen to, Salka could have publicly blown the whistle on several extremely interesting aspects of Marlene's secret life, in a Hollywood paralyzed by fear of gossip. (At this very time, the newly rigorous Motion Picture Production Code demanded more than ever both public and private morality in its stars.)
And by now, the subtle Salka was far more than Greta's best girlfriend. After the star suffered a few brushes with scandals of the Sapphic variety, she had turned exclusively to Salka as her protector. Salka would be her intimate, her co star (in Anna Christie, Garbo's first talkie), her scriptwriter, her worldly, charming, discreet, and utterly trustworthy adviser. With Marlene's arrival in Hollywood just five years after her own, naturally Garbo dreaded a new outpouring of seamy revelations. Already, fearful of Dietrich-style exposures, she had set up her private Hollywood Garbo code: If you tattle even the smallest detail about Garbo, she will cut you dead ever after. And so now, her darling "lilla Salka" (little Salka) helped Garbo frame the rules by which she, Marlene, Salka, and Salka's entire coterie would live for years, the rules that explain so much that had puzzled me: If Marlene wanted Salka's silence about her many, many secrets, she had to swear never to mention Garbo's name, nor to imply that she had ever met her. Salka's friends, including even Garbo's and Dietrich's shared lovers, like Mercedes de Acosta, had to swear never to mention Marlene's name around Garbo, or vice versa. Often they used code names to get around the bar. Garbo was "the Scandinavian child," "the Viking," or "that other woman." Dietrich was "Mary," "our mutual friend," "Dushka."
This ban was so outright that Garbo could successfully pretend to the entire outside world that she had never met Marlene: "But who is this Marlene Dietrich?" she asked a reporter six years after her film and fling with the German star. Marlene even persuaded distributors to suppress miles of celluloid showing her in her early films as she looked in The Joyless Street, so no one would make the connection. (For public consumption, she generally pretended that her first film was 1930's The Blue Angel.)
Most important, to ensure the ploy's success and spare Greta's blushes, Salka guaranteed that Garbo would never encounter Marlene at Salka's house. This last forced a terrible hardship on Dietrich. After all, virtually all her former German friends were members of Salka's salon. She found herself now exiled not only from her country but, most painfully, from her own kind. Unquestionably, this was a contributing factor in her determined pursuit of Mercedes when their affair began.
Salka now held all the cards. She developed and exploited her knowledge of both stars with great skill. She used Garbo to further her own career, first as an actress and then as a scriptwriter. She pushed Marlene toward her affair with Mercedes, hoping to banish Mercedes from Greta's landscape. And then, very quietly, she squeezed Marlene for financial support of their shared strongly held political views—views, as I'll show, that eventually, and prematurely, helped destroy Greta Garbo's film career.
Complicated, yes. But by the time I had grasped the reality of this most peculiar arrangement, I had already seen the ghost of Marlene's marriage to Otto turning up, like Waldo, in some of the most surprising places.
As I rambled through Marlene's love letters to the writer Mercedes de Acosta, examined her amazingly voluminous FBI files (very heavily redacted—blacked out—pruned, and, by the admission of the Bureau, partially destroyed), fished for clues in her daughter Maria Riva's revealing (but not too revealing) biography and many, many others, and mined the lode of writings, fanzines, and films at the Library of Congress and other repositories,wherever a lapse of logic, an unanswerable question, a development that beggared common sense, or an unnecessary voyage or sojourn in an unlikely place arose, Otto was the missing link.
Why did Marlene consistently lie about those Berlin years, her early films, her early career? Why had she undertaken that weird chaste marriage to the nonentity Rudi Sieber? Who was her daughter's real father? Why had she taken that untimely trip to Europe in 1933—when everyone else was running the other way to avoid the Hitler terror—just as (as her letters show) she fell madly in love with Mercedes de Acosta in Hollywood? Whom was she seeing in that secret hideaway suite in the Ansonia Hotel in Paris—the one she kept along with her much-publicized one at the Trianon Palace? Where in the name of God did she get that glorious parure of emeralds that she lied about so often—the set of jewels worthy of a Russian empress that she mysteriously acquired shortly before Otto arrived in Hollywood? Why did she spread tales to the press of threats to kidnap her daughter—and then deny them to the FBI—just before Otto's arrival? What was she really afraid of? Why did she (as I discovered) secretly finance La Silhouette, a Parisian lesbian nightclub for her lover Frede to run, buy a yacht— the Arkel—and acquire a secret beach-house retreat on heiress Joe Carstairs's Caribbean island of Whale Cay—just 150 miles off Miami—in 1938, at the height of Otto's international lying-and-spying career? What was the story of that curious collection of pendants shaped like clenched fists—the Communist Party salute— auctioned with other belongings from her New York apartment in 1997?Where did those enormous sums of money that she claimed to the FBI were "forged" from her accounts really go? Why did some of her later roles—in which she had considerable input, both in film and on radio—so clearly reflect aspects of Otto? Why did the FBI destroy a complete file on her in 1980? And why does it still keep at least one top-secret, unviewable "internal security" file on her today? What lay beneath the enmity between her and the great director Fritz Lang? What were the dynamics of her most intimate relationship with Tallulah Bankhead (whose close friendship with J. Edgar Hoover would, as we'll see, play a pivotal part in Marlene's life)? Why did she—as FBI documents I acquired show—spy for Hoover during the war, as she worked her heart out for our boys in the U.S. military? What could be the subject of the "very secret" book she said she had written and left with her English agent—now vanished?
Otto's name, as I found, must feature in every answer. As Sherlock Holmes said, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
And so the truth emerged.
Hollywood's girls have had a little exposure recently. The actress Alla Nazimova's affairs with the passionate poetess-writer Mercedes de Acosta and the dancer- designer Natacha Rambova were both touched upon lightly in some recent fine books. Cognoscenti know of Mercedes de Acosta's grand amour with the brilliant actress Eva Le Gallienne, whose copious private correspondence with Mercedes I combed in search of insights into a long affair reflecting their specific class and era. Some aspects of Mercedes's lifelong affairs with both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich have been splendidly documented by such writers as Hugo Vickers.
But I was still surprised by some of the realities that emerged during my long seance with my glamorous ghosts. I had not expected them to be so intimately linked—sexually, emotionally, psychologically, through their network of necessary lies, professionally, socially, and, in some cases, politically. It struck me, too, how very consistently—predictably, even—their affairs reflected the high-end sexual mores of their times, ranging from turn-of-the century "romantic friendships" and unself-conscious sexual experiments, to the riotously promiscuous "lesbian chic" of the 1920s and the closeted post-Freudian amours of the 1930s, to the abrupt changes wrought by World War II (when "manly" women worked in the national interest) and its reactionary aftermath. The influence of the theater and of filmdom itself on their behavior was stronger than I had realized. The Code, that constantly evolving set of on-screen and off-screen rules developed to protect innocent American moviegoers from the vices and vagaries of film and "theater people," each new edict subtly altering the climate in which our stars pursued their exciting secrets, thumps like a heartbeat throughout my saga.
Because the amorous chain I follow was anchored in early-twentieth-century theater, I begin my tale in New York. There—as I concluded after reconstructing a pretty straightforward series of events—the anarchist Emma Goldman initiated a liaison with Alla Nazimova, the exotic actress who became the founding mother of Sapphic Hollywood. Alla, in turn, leads us into the slender arms of the dark- eyed New York socialite-poetess-writer Mercedes de Acosta, and of their shared lover, Eva Le Gallienne. We'll follow Mercedes from Eva's embrace as she pursues, and catches, many of Broadway's then most glittering denizens. And, as I'll show, she moved to Hollywood that summer of 1931 with the connivance of her friends in New York's chic lesbian theatrical circle, and with the sole and specific intention of seducing her idol (and her old lover Tallulah Bankhead's idol), Greta Garbo.
The Broadway-Hollywood chain of exciting secrets in which Mercedes forged so strong a link stretched across the continent, and occasionally across the ocean. It undergirds this entire story, swaying widely with the prevailing sexual winds, although remaining in place until the blast of public exposure that finally snapped it in the mid-1950s.
Following it, I learned more than I had dreamed possible about a world that has now vanished.
The only place to begin, now, is at the beginning of that chain.