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An Introvert as Famous Recluse (I)
An actress who was world famous for her luminous talent and who hated being recognized? The case of Greta Garbo makes more sense when you appreciate her introvert personality.
More than once praised as “the world’s most beautiful woman,” Greta Garbo appeared in more than two dozen films. She stopped acting in 1941 and did her best to stay out of the public eye until her death in 1990. Plenty of famous people fade into obscurity, but then and now Garbo’s behavior has seemed inexplicable, contradictory and perhaps even pathological to most commentators. In the words of fellow actress Lilli Palmer, “Her whole life was devoted to finding some way to spend her days unrecognized and anonymous, as other people do. The harder she tried, the more persistently the press and the general public pursued her.”
Garbo’s fascination with the theater and acting began during her childhood in Stockholm. She organized her siblings and neighborhood pals to put on little plays, directing them, and collected postcards of actors that she obtained by running errands for the owner of a newsstand. Too poor to afford tickets, she would spend evenings waiting by the stage doors of theaters to get a glimpse of the actors. At the same time, she shrank from speaking with strangers and felt most herself when she was alone. As Robert Gottlieb’s biography Garbo quotes her: “I hated crowds of people, and used to sit in a corner by myself, just thinking. I did not want to play very much. I did some skating and played with snowballs, but most of all I wanted to be alone with myself.”
This does seem paradoxical. Of course young Greta realized that becoming a famous actress would involve people – hordes of people – looking at her. But the apparent inconsistency dissolves when you understand that Garbo felt drawn to the art of acting itself, not to a thrill of being watched, admired and celebrated by the public. I believe this is true for all introverted performers – and Garbo existed at the relatively extreme end of the extrovert/introvert personality continuum. When I once saw Yo-Yo Ma, also an introvert, present a concert of Bach’s suites for solo cello, my instant impression when he sat down and drew his bow across his instrument with his eyes gently shut was that we were watching him profoundly alone on stage with the music. Introverts usually become famous not because they crave adulation but as a byproduct of honing a talent or skill.
Garbo had a fierce need for privacy and solitude. Even during her Hollywood career she would commandeer the right to disappear at odd times without explaining herself to anyone. At the end of a day of filming, she often declared herself exhausted, but I suspect this was an introvert’s characteristic response to social overload more than physical fatigue. According to Gottlieb, she kept her friends in compartments – another common trait of introverts – in contrast to hanging out with even a small gang. And most telling to me, she became furious when longtime confidantes gave interviews or wrote a tell-all memoir about her. Each time Gottlieb related an incident where Garbo cut off someone who had done this, he put the word “betrayal” in quotation marks, indicating that he thought Garbo was ridiculous to regard the situation that way. Yet to an introvert it’s axiomatic that trusted friends or caretakers should not talk about them to others.
Most interesting to me in Gottlieb’s biography is his casual revelation that during her last 50 years in New York City, Garbo was not actually a recluse, pathetically stuck at home. “She was, in fact, all over the place: going to dinner parties, going to the movies, going out of town to stay with friends, and of course walking. And when she was out walking on her own, she would drop in on this or that person as the mood struck her,” Gottlieb says. Garbo simply did not want to be waylaid on the street or photographed as she walked around for exercise or as she did errands, wearing slouchy, nondescript clothing. To the media and the public, this pattern didn’t fit their image of her as a glamorous movie star, and they therefore construed this as “a secret life,” “a disappearing act” or her being a “hermit” or a “sphinx.”
Let me interject that famously camera-shy novelist Thomas Pynchon has commented, “‘Recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists meaning, ‘doesn't like to talk to reporters.’” On that note, I should probably have put “recluse” in the title of this post in quotation marks.
So on the one hand we have a prodigiously talented, once famous person combining solitude and small-scale socializing the way many introverts who follow their natural instincts do. And on the other hand we have a society that insists on viewing that lifestyle as bizarre, unfair to others who wanted a piece of the former star, and pitiable. Sigh.
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