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?
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.
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?’.
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.
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.
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.