Among Greta Garbo’s belongings: a monkey in a yellow vest and red striped pants, cymbals poised.
A huge, inflatable snowman, a distressed copy of Edna Ferber’s Giant, a Gucci purse, a lamp shaped like a pineapple, a pale blue paper mache cat, an assortment of flatware.
These are just some of the items to be auctioned off on Dec. 14 and 15, it was announced last week, by Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles.
If the last item on the list sounded particularly odd, consider that her long-time companion Sam Green told Vanity Fair that Garbo had said that “People in the building come in when I’m gone. Last year, they stole all my silver. I had to borrow a knife, fork and spoon.”
This is ultimately the flotsam of Greta Garbo’s once-magnificent, art and antique-filled apartment, the contents of which were sold after her death in 1990 – of pneumonia and renal failure – for millions of dollars.
“Death,” Shakespeare once informed his “poor soul,” “once dead, there’s no more dying then.”
How could he have foreseen a future in which, through the imagery and ephemera attendant secular hagiography, people – stars of every stripe – would die again and again, only to live forever.
Recall that there is so little tangible evidence of Shakespeare’s time on Earth that conspiracy theories exist about his not being the author of his plays. Yet, there is, indisputably, his will, which famously leaves his “second-best bed” to his wife.
Even this little detail has caused modern writers (James Joyce casts lewd aspersions on Anne Hathaway throughout Ulysses) and obsessive conspirators to attempt to pry more deeply into the otherwise inscrutable life of the artist.
With the dreadful advent of the “biographical fallacy” (a term coined by the New Critics) that is biographical criticism, scholars began to look at works of art through the lens of the artist him-or-herself.
This sort of scholarship mainstreamed, and became what it remains today, a powerful idea among us about celebrity conduct, honesty, and authenticity.
We seek authenticity through autographs, primarily, but the Garbo auction, this auction of such racking, whimsical objects, reflects a certain desire to scavenge for fetish-objects, or tangible proof of the great actress’s existence.
More unsettling is another desire or motive: to explode, utterly, the privacy Garbo held onto so fiercely; to pillage, and rake through her final remains.
When Garbo turned 36, she walked away from an already-legendary film career (which included the gorgeous, wrenching Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, Ninotchka, and Camille): She moved from Los Angeles to New York, and she never went back.
Revered for her great beauty, her face became – like the curves of Marilyn Monroe, who killed herself at 36 – an icon-object, best described by critical theorist Roland Barthes who writes the following of her “deified face ... : the essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more that formal. The Essence became gradually obscured, progressively veiled with dark glasses, broad hats and exiles: but it never deteriorated.”
What was “the Essence”?
It was, it is, of course what made her so beautiful: a combination of shocking physical beauty in profoundest retreat.
In a short memoir, her friend , the producer William Frye, has described taking walks with her, walks that were more like a “forced march,” he laments. Unless she spotted a wild rose. She would then stop and stare at it with a “wonder” he calls “childlike.” Was that what it was like to see Garbo’s face?
And, if so, will owning a plastic snowman return to us this Essence?
Curiously absent in the auction are Garbo’s trolls.
While Green was visiting his friend one day, she left the room and he bent down to retrieve an errant peanut.
To his amazement, a phalanx of crazy-haired troll dolls stood beneath the sofa.
Each time he visited, from that day on, he would check, and they were always in different positions. When asked what he thought she was doing, he cited her insomnia, and suggested she may have visited them late at night, and “staged famous folk-tales from Scandinavia or ageless scenes from her films.”
“Maybe by moonlight, she would entertain herself this way,” Green speculated.
Is it not beautiful enough, to imagine that face, lit by the moon, manipulating little trolls around, holding them by their orange or yellow or pink hair, then letting them go?
Her waffle iron and glassware; her smoking paraphernalia, Gillette razor, mascara wands, pencil case and button collection will be seized and boxed and backlit by the fans she astutely called “consumers.”
No one, one presumes, will remove the “Jolly Chimp” from its box, and late at night, wind it up to hear it crash its tiny cymbals.
A sound that passed through the sculpturally-perfect ears, the very atmosphere of cinema’s greatest beauty; of celebrity’s most ferocious opponent.