Greta Garbo was a life-long obsession for Patricia Highsmith, and Pat knew, through lesbian circles in New York and Paris, Garbo’s former lover, the flamboyant playwright Mercedes de Acosta. De Acosta’s romantic hats, stylish slacks, autocratic demeanor and striking Cuban looks made her a standout in the 1920’s. (At ten, she had been Dorothy Parker’s classmate at a convent school in Manhattan.) De Acosta also had the distinction of having slept with, as Alice B. Toklas put it, “three of the most important women of the twentieth century.” Two of those women were Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. (Eva LeGallienne and Isadora Duncan are candidates for the third.)
Pat herself, when young and lovely, sometimes brought out Garbo-like comparisons from her friends, and her admiring English professor, Ethel Sturtevant, once invited her to “Be the Greta Garb o of the novel!” Pat tried her best. After Garbo’s death in 1990, Pat wrote an entirely worshipful article about the reclusive star, “My Life With Greta Garbo,” published finally in The Oldie on 3 April 1992. The piece is aglow with love, admiration, and incomprehension. And it is as quirky as anything Pat ever put on paper; dappled and stippled with all her perverse little interests. Pat’s fiction, despite its vaunted “neutrality,” was almost always intensely personal.
In this article, Pat fondly remembers stalking Garbo on the streets of Upper East Side Manhattan (Pat was not unique, all New Yorkers did this) while keeping a respectful distance. She recollects almost colliding with Garbo on a corner; the experience “made” her day. And although Pat loved to imagine Garbo alone, so alone, she also liked to imagine the enormous telephone bills — the size of them had a near-pornographic excitement for Pat — that Garbo must be racking up by talking to her many admirers all over the world.
JOAN SCHENKAR has been called “America’s most original female contemporary playwright.” TRULY WILDE, her biography of Oscar’s interesting niece Dolly Wilde, was hailed as “a revelation, the great story of a life and of the creation of modern culture.” The Talented Miss Highsmith has already been acclaimed as the “definitive” Highsmith biography. To learn more about the author and the book, click here.
IMAGE:Pat in her early twenties: lovely, secretive, desired by many. (Swiss Literary Archives)