Greta and Cecil by Diana Souhami

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Greta and Cecil by Diana Souhami

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The strange, protracted on-off affair between film star Greta Garbo and photographer Cecil Beaton
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 326 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Quercus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781780878867

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The story of the notoriously reclusive film star from Sweden and the noted British photographer is a curious one. Neither ever married, both were androgynous and bisexual, plucked their eyebrows, and had numerous short-term relationships. They were like chalk and cheese; Beaton was a compulsive writer and diarist, while Garbo was reluctant to pick up a pen even to sign her own name. He adored parties, publicity, dressing up in frocks and photographing himself or posing for others behind the lens (he couldn’t look more feminine in two pictures of him in frocks by Dorothy Wilding from 1925 if he tried), while she was very much an early bed at night person, preferred to wear unfussy men’s clothes, and was reluctant to be photographed at all if she could help it. It is significant that the one picture of them together in the book, taken in London in 1951, shows her deliberately hiding her face behind what looks like a handbag.

An inveterate social climber, Beaton cheated his way into Harrow and Cambridge. Not long afterwards he became obsessed with the Garbo legend, and was desperate to meet her. While in Hollywood in 1932 on an assignment to photograph the likes of Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich, he achieved his ambition, as he later chronicled in minute detail in his diary. She was very friendly towards him, told him he was beautiful, kissed a rose and handed it to him. He took it home, framed it in silver and hung it above his bed. Many years later an obsessive collector of memorabilia bought it for £750.

Despite that, they did not meet again for another fourteen years. Their third meeting, in New York in 1947, became the prelude to an affair which lasted for a few months. Souhami is fairly discreet on the matter, but it seems to have been unconsummated. With Garbo still determined to preserve a certain detachment to the point of forbidding one of the world’s most famous photographers to take any pictures of her, and her devoted admirer seemingly more obsessed with the ideal of being in her company if no closer than that (and constantly writing about her in his diary), it was always going to be a strange business. She gave almost nothing away to posterity, beyond acknowledging that they just fooled around, and that going to bed with him was like going to bed with a sailor.

During the years in between, both had had numerous affairs with others, all very shortlived. Despite the book’s title, it is inevitably more about him than her. As she rarely gave interviews and left no paper trail of her own, much of the material about her is based on the recollections of others and doubtless a little on hearsay. Obsessed as he was with his own image, his diary entries about her are not necessarily that accurate. How much was he writing about what really went on between them, and how much was fantasy? We shall never know. What we are told is that he was a persistent social climber, naturally eager to advance his own career, and a snob, but a very successful one. Anybody whose portfolio included iconic photographs of the cream of Hollywood stars, British royalty and Mick Jagger clearly had it made.

Yet as he was the one who left the diaries, he inevitably has to be the prime source of material for this dual biography, and inevitably it is more about him, and the relationship according to him, than about her. It’s an odd story, and neither character emerges as particularly likeable. I did find relief of a sort in one piece of black humour when he said he wanted them to have a child, and she replied that if they did she would cut its head off.

He continued to be utterly obsessed by her, perhaps seeing in her a mirror image of himself, and noting every detail of their encounters in his diary. She seems to have found him moderately amusing in small doses, but the impression is that she was so bored that he was at least a bit of a diversion if nothing else. Yet even when they were in the same city, she would often refuse or decline to see him.

Towards the end of his life, he published a book which contained details about their affair, probably containing a fair proportion of fantasy, and some of his photographs of her. She was angry and what in effect amounted to betrayal, although she seems to have forgiven him in the end. In 1975, shortly after he had a stroke which affected his speech and left him partly paralysed, she visited him for a final time and signed her name in his visitors’ book.

On a psychological level this is a fascinating book. But on another, it is hard to regard it as much more than the documentation of one highly flawed man’s infatuation with a similarly flawed woman. Moreover, I was a little frustrated in the author’s failure to tie up loose ends. The last chapter ends with both still alive, though ageing, one very ill, the other increasingly bored. A few lines to tell the reader how long they still had to live after their final sad meeting would have wrapped the saga up more conclusively. It is an interesting but somewhat less than satisfying read.

You might also like to try Natalie and Romaine, also by Diana Souhami.

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