With Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo, the boundaries merge between image and reality, fact and fantasy, male and female and art and life. Garbo first met Beaton in Hollywood in March 1932. She flirted and danced with him, told him he was pretty, and at dawn, drove away in her black Packard and brushed aside his pleas to let him see her again. At the time of this meeting, they were both involved in turbulent same-sex affairs: Greta with Mercedes de Acosta, among whose lovers were Eva Le Gallienne and Marlene Dietrich, and Cecil with Peter Watson, a wealthy dilettante. When the pair met again, 15 years later, she asked him to go to bed. For her, it was an idle flirtation, for him it fuelled his ambition to photograph her, to be like her and to marry her.
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Think Garbo, think aloofness, eyelashes, huskiness, natural, "the smell of freshly mown hay". Think Beaton, think camp foppery, narcissism, extravagance, artifice, "a snotty peacock". They met once in 1932, then waited 14 years until they met again, after which they became embroiled in a thrillingly uneven relationship marked by projection, mismatched desire and masochism.
So what was the "terrible homosexualist" society photographer doing with "the divine" actress? Amateur psychologists, sharpen your pencils. Diana Souhami wisely does not allow herself to extemporise too wildly despite the understandable allure of such an alliance. Along with the Scandinavian shoulders and paddle feet, Garbo also possessed a Nordic cold melancholy, rendering her screen portrayals attractively distant and her own self frustratingly absent. The truth was that she did not possess a character to match her undoubted grace and beauty, however hard one tried to impose one and, boy, people did. Beaton, on the other hand, was instinctively bright and bursting with desire to be adored, matching her indolence with bustling industry, like an early sketch for Jeffrey Archer. At times, particularly in the recounting of his early days, his obnoxiousness borders on the unbearable and Souhami barely conceals her disgusted glee, but she is a superb at reining in such characters, as she showed in Gertrude and Alice, and thrives on the challenge of eliciting respect for the sheer indomitable life force of such individuals.
Beaton pursued the artificial throughout his life and nothing could be more superficial than the hollow idealised self he saw in Garbo through the lens of a camera and pursued in the flesh. Yet all the while, as the years passed, and the notion, absurd yet not quite ridiculous, of marriage to Garbo faded, his mother, the early subject of his obsessive imagination, grew old, drunken and demented at his home in England, his picture of Dorian Gray by proxy.
Absence pervades every quality of this book, physically, emotionally and sexually, and it is a quality which Souhami seems to intuitively understand and allows to provide its own chastening commentary on those it envelops. Her sympathetic and shrewd attentions coax a tragic and complicatedly familiar story from two masters of illusion who are united, then estranged, by their lonely natures, uncomfortable in their own skins, but ultimately unable to live in each other's. --David VincentReview:
“ Full of glorious details and tongue-in-cheek irreverence” -- New Statesman and Society
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Book Description Flamingo, 1996. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0006550355