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Greta Garbo, my nextdoor neighbour – Patricia Highsmith

Blog | By Patricia Highsmith | Jan 09, 2021


The great American crime novelist Patricia Highsmith, who would have been 100 this month, remembers bumping into Greta Garbo on the streets of Manhattan

I hasten to say that I never met Greta Garbo.

But I came close to it several times in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when I had a flat at First Avenue and 56th Street, in a building on the north-west corner, to be exact.

Greta Garbo lived ‘somewhere’ in the East 50s, and three or four times a year I would glimpse her, striding along in dark clothes usually, head bent under a broad-brimmed hat that was usually black. Of course, I stopped and stared, if she was across the street or avenue, or even on the same pavement. Staring could not have bothered her, because she never looked round at anybody. Always she was in flat shoes, and usually a loose coat with collar turned up, as if to conceal more of her face than the hat did. Sometimes she carried a small sack, as if she had bought a sweater or a book, but not groceries. I never attempted to follow her, never saw her with anyone.

There was a time when I nearly met her in the sense of bumping into her. This was at the south-east corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, which had a sharp and windowless angle, because of a big office building there, so that anyone coming round it at normal speed and encountering someone coming from the opposite direction would collide with that person, and this I nearly did one windy afternoon, jumping back just in time. It was Greta Garbo, all in black, with the famous hat on, too. How thrilled I was – though I hadn’t touched her, or exchanged a glance, much less a smile. I remember turning and watching her clump off purposefully downtown on Fifth Avenue.

‘Do you know I almost bumped into Greta Garbo this afternoon?’ I remember telling someone that evening, smiling proudly.

‘Did you? How? Where?... What was she wearing?... How tall is she?’

‘A little taller than me.’

‘Did her feet look so big?’

‘Not for her height. I came within inches –! Sort of embarrassing,’ I went on, pleased as Punch.

How easy it would have been to embroider, to say that we had a collision, that Greta Garbo rubbed her nose, laughed quickly, and said with a heavy Swedish accent, ‘Ooo-ooh, my fault! Sor-ry!’

‘Oh, no, my fault,’ I would have insisted politely, and then we would have gone on our ways. This conversation would have been like a biblical episode in which a recently deceased person is wished to reappear, and so he or she does, and maybe even says a few words. The narrator knows he is stretching things, but after a few recountings comes to believe it absolutely himself.

However, there was no doubt that Garbo did exist in what I called my neighbourhood. I saw her also – but rarely of course – when I drifted along Third Avenue and gazed into the cluttered windows of antique shops. One could buy a charming egg-cup from England or France, for instance, for a dollar. For twenty dollars I acquired a Victorian stereopticon plus at least two hundred marvellous old photographs from the 1880s to about 1910 to go with it. If I saw Garbo on Third Avenue, I never saw her raptly gazing, as I did, but always hurrying along, looking at the pavement, only her nose visible under her hat, perhaps a hand clasping the coat closer about her rather lanky figure. Still, it was a day when I could say to myself and others, ‘Guess what, I saw Greta Garbo today!’

This was of course not the same as living with Garbo, merely to have a dwelling in her neighbourhood, as I had. Now, however, in a different sense (Garbo is dead, after all), I feel that I do live with her, because I have a delicately coloured drawing – watercolour, pen and ink, grey, yellow and sepia wash – from the Greta Garbo Collection, framed and hanging in my bedroom-workroom. This drawing was auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York a couple of years ago, bought and sent to me by an acquaintance now living in the United States. He enclosed no comment on the drawing.

It is some nine-and-a-half inches wide and twelve inches high, and shows a gentleman of the Louis XV period with long brown (sepia) wig, dark hat, long beige coat with buttons down the front, cane and slipper (only one is showing) with buckle and heel, about to get into his waiting carriage, the back half of which, with curtained window, is evidenced in the background. He is bidding adieu to, or being bidden adieu by, a most affectionate-looking figure in black wearing a brimmed black hat, who presses against him and rests a hand delicately upon the gentleman’s left forearm. This erect figure in black has blondish straight hair of more than shoulder length, and the question which arises almost instantly on looking at this composition is, is the figure in black a young woman or man? The hand of the young person (younger than the gentleman who has two creases down his cheek, partly caused by his faint smile) looks feminine, but so do the hands of the older gentleman, whose right hand rests upon the head of his cane, and the left just above his left thigh, as if he is in doubt whether to take the hand of the figure in black. They gaze closely at each other, and with knowing smiles.

In the background, greyish rooftops silhouette themselves against the sky, there are two steeples, the higher bearing a cross. Between the carriage and the rooftops, a few trees are indicated in pale wash. The two figures are hidden from any viewer on the church side by the tall body of the carriage. Some words are written in pencil below this composition, on a paper mat on which the drawing itself has been pasted:

‘and when he went from London, he said he believed he should never come to town more.’

The handwriting is quite legible and even simple.

Could Garbo have written those words herself, made them up or copied them from some favourite poem or story? Where did this drawing come from? Shall I make an effort to find out, or live with it as I do now (I’ve had it about two months), enjoying the wanderings of fancy?

That there is a sexual business between the two figures is in no doubt. The slender figure in black could be twenty or eighteen. The bewigged gentleman, elegantly slim though he is, is certainly forty. The pronouns in the pencilled statement are masculine. The real ambiguity is in the beautiful face of the blond figure, which except for a strong jaw appears female. The interesting question to me is, did Greta Garbo buy or acquire this drawing somehow, because the figure with the longish blond hair looked like herself?

I confess that is what I prefer to believe. The young blond-haired figure in black suggests to me the Garbo I saw so many times in Manhattan. The mouth certainly, close-lipped and slightly smiling, resembles Garbo’s. A curve of black trousers suggests a feminine hip, though this could be caused by a tight belt. The height of the two appears the same; the blond-haired figure looms slightly taller, because the older man is about to take a big step (with the aid of a walking stick) to a cement slab of some kind which will put him on a level to enter his carriage.

If one stands back from the drawing, the figure in black dominates the composition. Because of the pavement rise at the knee level of this figure, and the grey-stockinged lower left leg of the older gentleman, the dark trousers are partly obscured at ankle level, suggesting that the younger man has unusually long feet – but only from a distance. This is an intimate picture, however, asking for close examination.

Did a contemporary of Garbo – an artist friend or acquaintance – create this little picture for her as a spoof, a private joke? This is probably exactly what she would have liked and preferred. Something the public would never know about, private laughter, delight, pleasure. A thing of beauty, really, to glance at every day or every other day, as she entered her bedroom, for instance.

Towards the upper left corner of the drawing, printed by hand, vertically, are the letters INGRE but with no final S, and the N is written backward, in sepia wash against the greyish wash of the sky. The letters are as faint as a watermark. Is the amateur or the art historian to pay attention to INGRE, try to determine provenance? Is it another joke between the artist and Greta Garbo?

And since it was rumoured about Garbo that she preferred women – easy to rumour as she never married – the composition in question could be a double joke. If the figure in black is female, the tableau becomes quite proper. Yet this supposition is made dubious by the pencilled statement below, with its masculine pronouns.

The mind wanders, or mine does, to Garbo films, her often unsmiling and rather cold face lifted like a ship’s figurehead in a Catherine the Great poster, for instance. Garbo laughs – in Ninotchka – and the world heard it!

One of the wonders of the twentieth century. Anna Karenina demanded passion, duplicity, a burst of bliss, finally tragedy. Garbo made it – herself unique and untouchable somehow, even by the male lovers who embraced her.

I can never forget – and I can hear this too – Garbo’s voice saying, ‘I vant to be alone’ in a deep and earnest tone that meant to any hearer: Garbo speaks the truth. That statement may be the most certain thing anyone will ever be able to say about Garbo. Some of her contemporaries in Sweden may have known her well, fairly well, or only slightly. There was an altercation after her death about who inherited. The newspapers mentioned a nephew who was to have been the main inheritor, and I think he finally was.

One imagines Garbo living in Manhattan, seeing a very small circle of friends. When the telephone rang, it would have been one of this circle. She evidently preferred New York, with the anonymity afforded by its swarming eight million, to the more sparsely populated Sweden and Stockholm. I hope she had Swedish salmon flown in sometimes, pressed between ice slabs with salt and sugar and the herb called til, plucked from the highest mountain slopes. One can only imagine her telephone bills. How nice to imagine Garbo laughing – and lifting her lidded eyes to the drawing I’m describing, gazing at the mysterious androgyne in black with his delicate hand pressing the gentleman’s puffed silk sleeve with a light touch that implies the heaviest of passions.

Garbo laughs on the telephone! ‘Come for some champagne and a supper tonight. I don’t vant to be alone.’

Neither do the two in the drawing. And what have they been doing that afternoon, or the preceding night? The sky is rather clear, no indication of dusk. What time is it? Do lovers ever know? There is one thing definite about the words: they are a farewell, and a sad one, only mitigated by the tender smile on the lips of each.

Did Greta Garbo speculate in the same vein about these two?

‘This is our last evening – shouldn’t we make more of it?’

‘Why? – You know I’ll remember you forever – all my life – after I die –’

‘You make me die a little now.’

‘Your carriage – Dismiss that damned coachman!’

‘Not so loud.’

No, quieter. Both faces show

closed lips.

Did Garbo ever ask a friend – on seeing him or her gazing at the drawing, ‘What do you think? Is the figure in black a boy or a gir-rl?’

It is possible that the reply would be, ‘A girl – in disguise?’

This presents a new scenario: the older gentleman (though married) is enamoured of a beautiful young woman in London, whom he has to meet secretly. Perhaps the gentleman has rented an apartment especially for this purpose, and the young woman has to come to the apartment, and departs, in male attire for safety’s sake.

Or – the possibilities are many – the gentleman prefers his females in male attire, being in love with his own fantasies too.

Then we have, ‘and when he went from London, he said he believed he should never come to town more’, a statement made by the gentleman about himself, and the ‘should’ takes on prudence rather than being merely a subjunctive.

But there remains the height, the strong jaw of the figure in black to argue for its being a male form. Plus the clothing, of course.

Now the picture hangs in a corner of my room, over a low green-painted chest of drawers, and near a bookcase. The young man in black faces inward to the room. Soon I shall hang it in the living-room, where more people will see it. I long to hear the comments, even to remark the silences, the blank glances that have brought nothing to the viewer’s brain. Some people are blind to any kind of pictures – not usually my friends, but then all sorts of people come to my house. My friends usually notice everything, and they love to comment.

‘Garbo! – How interesting – that she owned it. Looks sort of like Garbo here, don’t you think?’

I would like to think that Garbo could hear such remarks from another world, from on high or wherever she is, but since I don’t believe in consciousness after death, I cannot indulge in that fantasy. I simply imagine, knowing I’m making it all up, that Garbo, having much liked this drawing, takes an interest now in what people say, and laughs at or troubles to consider an interpretation of ‘The Farewell at the Carriage’ – my title.

Thank you, Greta Garbo, wherever you are. Thank you for your films, your style, your beauty. Thank you for managing to stay alone, for the most part, not easy for people in your profession. After me, your picture will be passed on into good hands; with my request, keep passing it on into good hands.