Garbo and Dietrich: a lifetime of denial?


In the unenlightened age of early Hollywood, lesbianism and homosexuality was kept secret from movie-goers but was, in some cases, encouraged by forward-thinking directors such as Josef von Sternberg who believed that same sex (and particularly Sapphic) relationships lent emotional clarity, magnetic charm and androgonous connotations to performances. Greta Garbo – one of the original ‘girl’s girls’ – called homosexual affairs ‘exciting secrets’ but then, according to Diana McLellan, went to great lengths to conceal some (but not all of them). The relationship, whichMcLellan’s well-researched, borderline-sensationalist book The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, examines in-depth, is the much publicised, did-they-didn’t-they affair that Garbo allegedly had with Marlene Dietrich.

Hollywood legend has it that Orson Welles first introduced the two in 1945, at a party hosted by Clifton Webb. But according to McLellan, the two actually knew each other pre-Hollywood, and enjoyed a brief affair with lasting repercussions. Scandalous gossip mongering? Yes, but despite McLellan’s credentials as a snippy columnist, writing first for the Washington Star in the 1970s, and later The Washington Post, Girls is a well-written and well-researched tome that makes a solid case and certainly captures the complicated nuances of being gay in a pseudo-conservative society. Considering the village-like make-up of Hollywood in the early 1920s, it seems inevitable that Dietrich and Garbo must have met – or at least moved in the same circles, and possibly shared the same lovers, including Mercedes De Acosta (‘the Warren Beatty of her heyday‘) and Alla Nazimova (‘the most notorious Hollywood lesbian actress of all’). Consider: Garbo arrived in Hollywood in September 1925, aged 20. Dietrich arrived less than five years later, in early 1930. In the 15 years that passed before that famous first meet, surely the two would’ve crossed paths at some point. So why the secrecy?

Joyless Street Pabst
Garbo as Grete Rumfort in Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925)

According to McLellan, everything ties back to Joyless Street, the G.W.Pabst-directed film starring Garbo, Werner Krauss and Asta Nielsen. Released in 1925, the film was shot in Berlin in February and March of the same year. During her research, McLellan identified that one of the supporting characters was none other than Marlene Dietrich, sans blonde hair, and virtually unrecognisable to audiences used to viewing her through von Sternberg’s lens: ‘even though the film I was watching had been censored, edited, plundered… there was no question at all in my mind that the woman I was watching in several key scenes was Dietrich’. Not wanting to be too hasty in her assessment, she called in the Congressional film librarian, Madeline Matz. They watched it again, together, and Matz (equally astounded!) – agreed. Although the woman in the film had dyed black hair and a faintly drawn look , the eyes, the gestures and – most of all – the extraordinary, short-fingered hands were unmistakable. It had to be Dietrich! And most interesting, for McLellan and Matz, was that in one key scene, Garbo actually faints into Dietrich’s arms.

Proof that if you search for something hard enough you’re mind will find the truth? Or is it actually Dietrich? David Bret, the actresses’ long-time confidant says yes, confirms McLellan. Dietrich revealed ‘the truth’ to him not long before her death, and proved she had been in the film through some top-secret knowledge about a censored ending, viewed as ‘too grisly’ by German authorities. Let us not forget, however, that at some point Bret had his own ‘intimate biography’ of Dietrich to promote. His revelation seems… fortuitous.

Dietrich? Or Hertha von Walther?


Let’s assume McLellan is correct. But why the secrecy? Perhaps Dietrich might deny a role in a film she felt beneath her or a role she wasn’t proud of, but why the vehement disassociation with Garbo? It was one that Dietrich would maintain – with bitterness – into old age. Joyless Street was, writes McLellan, the catalyst for a short but unsuccessful affair that led to bitterness, anguish, denial and allegations of betrayal. It certainly goes some way to explaining Garbo’s aloof and controlling demeanour, which was present – and noted upon – from her earliest days in Hollywood.

McLellan suggests that, along with co-star Valeska Gurt, the older, more experienced Dietrich (then the ‘busiest and most passionate bisexual in theatrical Berlin’) introduced Garbo to a world of ‘uncensored sensuality and avant-garde theatrical and political excitement’. Did the relationship (if indeed it existed at all) sour when Dietrich discovered Garbo was narrow-minded and provincial? Or was Dietrich jealous of Garbo’s swift success, something she herself had been working towards for years? Either way, something must have occurred that prompted the decades-long, well-documented bitterness. Reportedly Garbo dismissed Dietrich as ‘another foreign import’ upon the release of her first Hollywood film and in 1930 asked: ‘who is Marlene Dietrich?’.

joyless street

joyless street 1
If you can identify any of these actresses as Dietrich, apply for a job with MI5.

Dietrich could give as good as she got though. When a reporter asked ‘Did you meet Greta Garbo?’ replied, ‘Not even once. She doesn’t go any place and I don’t go anywhere either. There is no possibility of our meeting.’ One thing is certain: the press loved the rivalry. Headlines amped up the ‘bitter feud’ and told stories of a tit-for-tat game, where each actress would try to emulate and outdo the other, acts that were themselves basis enough for a feud. Perhaps McLellan’s ‘relationship’ hypothesis is correct, but much is based on extrapolation and loosely associated events. Many other film scholars in fact believe that the Joyless Street actress was actually the German actress Hertha von Walther, and that Dietrich was resting at home having recently given birth to her daughter.

Garbo Dietrich feud
From the Spokane Daily Chronicle, 1 December 1933
Garbo Dietrich feud 1
From the Ottawa Citizen , 4 November 4 1933

Of course, no Sapphic scandal ever reached the headlines. The so-called ‘Sewing Circle’ – overbilled as ‘Hollywood’s Greatest Secret’ – was a Sapphic group of women that ran for three decades and included Mercedes de Acosta and Alla Nazimova, Garbo and Dietrich among others. Later, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Salka Viertel hosted many salons. But as the studio system gained more control over actresses and, by extension, the public perception of them, women (and indeed men) faced with the economic depression were forced to play ball and encouraged into platonic relationships or lavender marriages with men. The appearance of heterosexuality was the only thing that mattered. The ground shifted post WWII, but not in a favourable way. After Communists, homosexuals were the favoured target of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and gossip magazines soon followed suit, printing articles that openly identified homosexual stars. Salka Viertel was blacklisted, although whether that was a result of her sexual preferences or her politics is hard to say.

Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich, photographs taken by Mercedes de Acosta

The truth is that the were-they-weren’t-they gossip rhetoric is exactly that – speculation. Fuelled by easy-read books such as McLellan’s (see also: Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood by William J. Mann) the rumour mill includes everyone from Barbara Stanwyck to Cary Grant, Cole Porter, Lilyan Tashman and Katharine Hepburn…. But what’s apparent is that sexual preferences are actually irrelevant, what’s important is that ‘normative’ behavioural codes were enforced on both women and men, setting ideas about desirability that would continue to influence for decades. In fact it took until the 1990s for high profile female actresses to openly admit to being gay – Amanda Bearse (mostly known for her TV show Married with Children) was first in 1993, followed by Ellen DeGeneres in 1997.

Further reading: The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood by Diana McLellan / The Exquisite Garbo / A Woman at War: Marlene Dietrich Remembered by J. David Riva

This post is my contribution to the annual Dueling Divas blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Backlots. Be sure to check out all the posts for catfights and hissy fits galore!


10 thoughts on “Garbo and Dietrich: a lifetime of denial?

  1. Usually, I wish biographers would stop focusing so much on stars’ personal lives, and spend more time on the acting and making of the films. But in this case, I AM curious, as the truth–and even the speculation about it–helps shed light on what women in this period endured just to be who they were–a very interesting take on the debate. Thank you!

    1. You know, I dithered quite a lot about this post as McLellan’s book is pretty sensationalist (tabloid-esque!) but a train of thought similar to yours persuaded me that it was worth the gossip angle for the chance to make a broader point about concealed sexuality – in particularly lesbianism – within the context of Hollywood. Thanks for reading Leah 🙂

  2. Y’know, I’m just not that nosy. Considering the man-style suits that both Garbo and Dietrich often wore (AND how good they looked in them), I don’t need some investigative biographer to convince me that this duo were lesbians or that they had an affair. But, as with all gay relationships…is it any of my business? They entertained millions of people. Leave their private lives behind the door.

    1. Well, just my $0.02, but given how much of history and society focuses on heterosexual relationships, some of us are interested in hearing about those who aren’t straight 🙂
      I kind of agree with you, in that I think that McLellan pulled a lot out of the air. But, the theory is out there and so now it is part of the lore of these two stars. And both women were queer, which is relevant in considering their lives and careers, and I would say their star personas, too.

  3. Quite a few of the prominent women of that era liked the ladies, didn’t they? 🙂 I’ve read a lot about the queer and possibly-queer ladies of Classic Hollywood in the past; very fun to read your recap!

    Much as I enjoyed Diana McLelland’s book, I am a bit more judgemental of her research and writing … personally, I wouldn’t call it quality journalism. She probably did do a lot of research and there is quite a bit of legit info in there, but I thought that it was all presented in such a gossipy way, and large chunks of the book are highly speculative … I loved it as escapism, but I would take it with a pretty large grain of salt! I personally don’t buy into the idea that Garbo & Dietrich had an affair … but it is fun to think about. 🙂

    I thought it was generally accepted now that the actress in Die freudlose Gasse is Hertha von Walther, but she really does resemble Dietrich in that scene. Maybe I’ll have to dust off my DVD copy soon 🙂 As for David Bret, I have to say, I wouldn’t put any stock in his words at all. Wasn’t he the one that bullied that blogger a few years ago? But anyway, both Garbo and Dietrich are quite fascinating people to me. Very opposite in personality it seems, which adds an interesting edge to their professional rivalry.

  4. I guess we will never know for sure, but these 2 were surely divas. It seems Marlene did everyone, so why not Garbo (in between Valentino and Hitler, I guess). She was a busy gal! Thanks for a good, gossipy post. Very intriguing idea that it was Dietrich in Joyless Street.

  5. Interesting article for the point of illustrating the societal norms of the early twentieth century and the denial of sexuality. I don’t care that they were lesbians, but I do feel empathy for anyone who has to hide and conceal their true selves. No wonder they were reclusive.

  6. The two newspaper headlines you posted were interesting, and they kind of made me laugh. Here we are, decades later, and we’re still pitching actresses against each other (e.g. Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston). I don’t notice male actors getting these kinds of headlines…?

  7. I agree so much with the last paragraph! Someone’s personal life can’t be judged by the public. The problem is how so many people can’t live the way they want because of society’s pressure. Haven’t you heard that Oscar buzz forced Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne to find wives (not that I buy it)?
    And, yeah, it’s definetely not Dietrich in Joyless Street. We need to destroy this myth.
    Thanks for the always kind comments!

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