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Garbo: A Veil Lifts : Now That She’s Dead, Details of Her Reclusive Life Are Emerging

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the best of times, she played “damn good” tennis, snacked on brown beans and Triscuits, owned Renoirs and pricey real estate on Rodeo Drive and spent a day running the elevators in her Manhattan apartment building when the staff went out on strike.

During the worst of times, she was a brooding old woman beset with health problems, living a ghostly existence, shuttling between her home and the hospital and bidding farewell to close friends as she neared death.

But only now, one week after her cremation, is the 50-year cloak of mystery that shrouded Greta Garbo in reclusion being lifted for a curious world.

So good at keeping her secrets while she was alive, Garbo’s friends now feel somewhat freer to talk about the woman they loved.

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Mimi Pollack, an 87-year-old Swedish actress who had a 70-year correspondence with Garbo, says she received a despondent goodby letter from “The Devine” two years ago. “She told me she wouldn’t write any more because she was ill,” Pollack recalls sadly.

Just two weeks before Garbo died on April 15 at age 84, her one-time friend and walking companion Raymond Daum said he stopped by her apartment during a trip to Manhattan. Daum, curator of the Gloria Swanson Archives at the University of Texas in Austin, hadn’t seen her in some time because she had been “retreating more and more,” he says. “She didn’t see many people, and I was worried about her.”

Garbo’s doorman recognized Daum and told him the star wasn’t well enough to receive him. Disappointed, Daum scribbled a chatty note to Garbo.

“Let me take it up to her right away,” Daum says the doorman told him. “She’s had a bad day.”

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It’s difficult to search below the surface of the sensational headlines of the tabloid press and the relentless fawning by film reviewers to find the truth about this star who had a knack for public solitude.

Publishers are racing to the presses with unauthorized biographies and previously unknown interviews of the late star, including one memoir--purported to be told in her own words--that sat in a locked vault for 14 years and was disparaged by Garbo as a hoax.

In Sweden, a previously unknown Garbo heir has suddenly surfaced. And, strangest of all, are the flurry of close encounters with Garbo suddenly being disclosed, some from the most unlikeliest of sources such as political commentator Daniel Schorr and newspaper columnist William Safire.

“It’s as if, with her death, a veil has been lifted,” explains Bengt Forslund, artistic director of the Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm. “The problem now will be to separate the fact from the fiction.”

Even now, details about her final resting place are still sketchy, though a spokesman for the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan, where private funeral services were held a week ago, disclosed that Garbo’s ashes might be buried in a family grave in Stockholm. Swedish journalist Sven Broman, who interviewed the actress and wrote a book about her, quotes Garbo’s niece, Grae Reisfeld, as saying it was her aunt’s wish to be buried in Sweden.

Garbo’s friends say Reisfeld, the wife of a Passaic, N.J., gynecologist and daughter of Garbo’s brother Sven Gustafsson, is the heir to the actress’ immense estate, valued by insiders at $50 million in stocks, real estate, art and antiques. Also expected to receive a bequest is Garbo’s aide of 31 years, Claire Koger, who has denied tabloid reports that Garbo adopted her. “Never, never, it is silly talking,” the New York Post quoted her as saying.

Garbo friends dismiss rumors that she left her fortune to Sweden’s 13-year-old Princess Victoria, eldest child of King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia and first in line to the Swedish throne.

“That was written up in the scandal press two years ago, and denied at the time. I’ve heard nothing about it now,” says Forslund. “My understanding is that she left it to her relative in the United States.”

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Reisfeld had been staying in Manhattan for months to be near her sick aunt, insiders say, and was at Garbo’s bedside when she died.

On Friday, however, the respected Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported that Gustafsson also had an illegitimate son who no one knew about, not even Garbo. The man, identified as 64-year-old Oalken Frederickson living in the small town of Oxelosund, has not yet indicated whether he plans to lay claim to any part of Garbo’s fortune.

Garbo’s death from heart and kidney failure caught many by surprise. Only Garbo’s closest friends knew she was receiving dialysis treatments for six hours three times a week--Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays--at New York Hospital’s Rogosin Institute.

Daum says that Garbo also suffered from gastrointestinal and periodontal ailments. One photograph showed Garbo on her way to the hospital walking with a sturdy cane and holding Koger’s arm. Pollack explains that Garbo had blood circulation problems that prevented her from walking by herself.

“She smoked too much,” says Pollack, who sent Garbo a letter last month in which “I told her she mustn’t smoke anymore. But I’m very sorry to say that I was the one who taught her to smoke when we were young girls. I thought it was a wonderful thing to smoke. I didn’t know about the dangers then.”

Insiders vehemently deny published reports that Garbo had become a heavy drinker in the months preceding her death. (The New York Daily News, in a story headlined, “Garbo’s Booze, Butts, Hazy Nights,” quoted unnamed sources as saying she required one bottle of Stolichnaya and two bottles of Cutty Sark each week during the final months of her life.)

“She absolutely has not been a drinker,” Forslund states.

Daum notes that after one of their long walks, he and Garbo would sit down together and have a drink. “She would drink Scotch or vodka, but she could check herself. She knew when to stop,” he insists.

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And Pollack, asked whether Garbo had a drinking problem, responds angrily, “That’s not true. She wasn’t drinking much. She was drinking like you and me.”

Before her illness, Garbo spent four decades on the streets of New York in the most ordinary of pursuits--walking up to 11 miles a day, window shopping in neighborhood stores and patronizing Madison Avenue art galleries and Manhattan’s many museums, friends say.

She always took in the city sights with a brisk stride, athletic air and erect posture, wrapped in mannish pants and unadorned cloth coats, shod in flat loafers, and hidden by a fedora and sunglasses.

Mostly, New Yorkers left her alone, except for the occasional prying photographer or startled tourist or “kook,” as she put it. When strangers would ask, “Are you who I think you are,” she would reply simply, “No,” or put her index finger to her mouth and say, “Shhh.”

And around her unprepossessing apartment building at 450 E. 52nd St., where she occupied the entire fifth floor (her seven-room home overlooked the United Nations and East River), an unwritten rule developed whereby neighbors would avert their eyes whenever they encountered “The Face.”

The only people able to bring her out of her self-imposed hiding were her friends and her former countrymen (Garbo became an U. S. citizen in 1951). Though she would refuse invitations to the White House, she agreed in 1983 to receive the Swedish Order of the North Star in a ceremony at the New York home of a friend. But every time Sweden’s Consul General in New York tried to throw her a birthday party, she refused. Instead, the diplomats always sent flowers.

But for her friends, she seemed to make time. Daum met her in 1963 while working as a film and television producer for the United Nations. Invited to a New Year’s Day party at actor Zachary Scott’s apartment, Daum spotted Garbo sitting alone on an ottoman and talking to George Schlee, a millionaire investor and Garbo’s business manager. Schlee was reputed to be Garbo’s lover (Schlee’s wife, Valentina, was a famous society fashion designer who dressed Garbo).

“The theater crowd was scared to death to approach her and say hello, but I asked Schlee to make introductions,” Daum recalls. “For some reason we hit it off perfectly. She asked ‘Schleeski’ to fetch her a glass of vodka and we talked until late in the evening.”

The pair discovered that they were neighbors, and soon they became walking partners. The result is “Walking With Garbo,” a collections of conversations “recorded” by Daum (he scribbled down notes after their conversations, he says), which was sold to Harper & Row for a six-figure advance.

One publishing house editor who chose not to bid on the book criticized Daum’s material on Garbo as full of “the most inane little things. She didn’t come off well. She sounded like a ditz.”

But Richard Kot, senior editor at Harper & Row, defends the project. “We felt completely opposite. It’s an affectionate portrait of a friend by a friend.”

Daum stayed friendly with Garbo until the early 1970s when he decided to leave Manhattan after being mugged. “She was on the phone to me in the hospital every day. She couldn’t have been sweeter,” Daum recalls. After he left town, he saw her only infrequently. “She always said that when people moved out of her neighborhood, it was as if they had died,” Daum recalls.

Despite their friendship, Daum says Garbo was impossible to get to know well. “She told you what she wanted to tell you. She kept us all in compartments.”

And when Daum would urge her to socialize more, he says she would tell him, “I want to do more with people, but I can’t. I can’t help it. I was born that way.”

Daum believes Garbo’s ways stemmed from her need for quiet. “Noise bothered her. She didn’t like loudness or excitement. She liked things quiet,” he says. Even the sounds of a person humming or the traffic from nearby FDR Drive wafting up to her apartment were noxious to her.

During their time together, Daum says, Garbo “could outwalk me” and play strenuous tennis at the home of a friend in Greenwich, Conn. She was “damn good,” Daum recalls.

But she also worried that “the human beings” in New York were getting killed off by air pollution because they were “looking so pale and putty.” She often said how she felt sorry for the “poor little people.”

Hopeless at cooking--she made coffee in a casserole dish--Garbo preferred to buy delicacies from gourmet groceries. She was especially fond of take-out food from the Swedish deli Nyborg & Nelson in her neighborhood--cheese, Triscuits and brown beans. “We would often have these little meals on tray tables in her apartment,” Daum recalls. But for most of her life, she followed the diet advice of her former lover, the late California nutritionist Gayelord Hauser.

Daum maintains that Garbo knew he was writing a book about her (the manuscript will be delivered to the publisher this summer and excerpts were published last year in Life magazine). “I sent her pages. She read them and she did not protest.”

But Garbo did protest an alleged “authorized biography” that Simon & Schuster has just announced will be released in a matter of weeks.

The biography, titled “Garbo” and written by the late Polish emigre author Antoni Gronowicz, had been held back from publication and kept in a locked vault after being acquired in 1976 on the understanding that it would not be published during the actress’ lifetime.

Gronowicz, who died in 1985, claimed to have met Garbo in Geneva in 1938 and been an intimate friend more than 20 years. But in 1978, Garbo emerged from her reclusion to issue a sworn affidavit through her lawyer saying that “I have never at any time entertained any type of human relationship whether of friendship, acquaintance or otherwise” with Gronowicz,” or authorized or collaborated with Gronowicz on the account of her life.

At the time, Gronowicz maintained that she didn’t want the book published out of fear it would damage her reputation because it contained details of her sexual encounters with some of the world’s most famous personalities. “She is trying to destroy me,” the writer declared.

Besides describing her affairs with her discoverer Mauritz Stiller, co-star John Gilbert and conductor Leopold Stokowski, “Gronowicz also recalls Miss Garbo talking about the often-rumored fact that ‘women pursued (her) more often and more persistently’ than did men,” Simon & Schuster announced Friday.

Alfred A. Knopf also is readying what it calls a “full-scale” biography by Barry Paris who wrote about silent screen star and author Louise Brooks last year. The book won’t reach bookstores for another year and a half.

One memoir that won’t be released, however, is Mimi Pollack’s, Garbo’s classmate at the Royal Dramatic Theater school in Stockholm. Pollack was 18 and Garbo 17 when they met. When Garbo moved to Hollywood, the two women began their correspondence. Garbo was godmother to Pollack’s son.

Still working in the Stockholm theater, Pollack pledges she will never publish her letters from Garbo. “She didn’t even know that I kept all the letters.”

Garbo’s friends also helped her amass her immense wealth.

Garbo became a millionaire by age 26 by asking for an unprecedented $350,000 a picture, and Schlee put together a “fabulous” portfolio of stocks for her over the years. Hauser invested in property on Rodeo Drive before it became one of the most sought-after streets in the nation with Garbo as his silent partner, according to Daum.

Daum also recalls seeing at least one Renoir in Garbo’s apartment. “She loved Impressionists and 18th-Century French furniture,” Daum recalls. “She was always on the lookout for art and antiques. I remember her secretary would scold her, ‘My God, you’re spending that much,’ or ‘We’re spending a lot of money this week.’ And Garbo would look sheepish.”

Baroness Cecile de Rothschild, whom Garbo “adored because she was a lot of fun and full of life,” helped Garbo assemble her art collection. International art dealer Richard Feigen recalls a time in 1966 when Rothschild brought Garbo to his offices to look at some paintings by Soviet artist Alexei Jawlensky. “I don’t know who’s idea that was. Garbo just sat there and had a cup of tea and didn’t say anything,” Feigen says. “I didn’t sell them anything that day.”

Garbo also traveled with Rothschild to Paris, Athens and even the Manhattan restaurant Mortimer’s, a haunt of New York society, where Garbo would insist on one of the “worst” tables in the rear room near the kitchen door.

And it was through Rothschild that Garbo found her beloved second home in Klosters, Switzerland (which she traveled to under aliases such as Harriet Brown, an homage to her favorite director Clarence Brown).

But Garbo never let wealth affect her, Daum says. Indeed, she remained a paradox to the very end. Every Christmas she gave a $25 tip to the doormen at her apartment building--cheap by anyone’s standards. Even Garbo’s.


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