Kenneth Tynan once wrote that Marlene Dietrich was “sex without gender.” If you believe everything Diana McLellan writes in her dishy The Girls, you might want to amend that description to read “non-stop sex, without regard to gender.” If there was a famous man or woman McLellan doesn’t have Marlene making a play for at some point in this book, I must have missed it. The actress apparently even had the temerity to go after Mae West, who turned down Dietrich’s offer to wash her hair for the simple reason that “I was afraid she didn’t mean the hair on my head.”
Marlene may be generous with her favors in McClellan’s book, but she was by no means sui generis. For years, people have been whispering and wondering about the lesbian affairs of early 20th-century Hollywood. Indeed, if we are to believe The Girls, Dietrich was just one link in an intercontinental daisy chain of dyke alleycats legendary actresses whose amours ranged from “turn-of-the-century ‘romantic friendships’ and un-self-conscious sexual experiments to the riotously promiscuous ‘lesbian chic’ of the 1920s and the closeted post-Freudian amours of the 1930s.” I had always been told and believed that lesbians were intrinsically monogamous, but that was before I got a load of McClellan’s bed-hoppers. With all their wife-swapping and shuttle-cocking and long-distance manipulation, it’s hard to believe that these women actresses like Nazimova, Eva le Gallienne, Katharine Cornell, and Tallulah Bankhead had either the time or energy to deliver some of the greatest performances of their day.
But somehow, McLellan writes, they did, and somehow they made room in their circle for women who were less famous or beautiful. Mercedes de Acosta, for example, was a rather bad writer with a “white face, thin red lips and brilliantined coif,” who was variously compared to Dracula and “a mouse in a topcoat.” She was also a starfucker par excellence, and over the course of several decades seduced everyone from Isadora Duncan to Eleanora Duse to the enigmatic (or just plain phlegmatic) Greta Garbo, whom de Acosta, in a rare felicitous moment, called “a Swedish servant girl with a face touched by God.”
It wasn’t just God who got to touch Garbo, and McLellan doesn’t waste a moment telling us who came a-courting. Her most breathless “revelation” is that Garbo, early in her career, enjoyed a brief and, of course, torrid affair with a pansexual German minx named Marlene Dietrich. Her evidence for this remarkable claim? Well, let’s see. The two actresses appeared together in the same movie G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925) and afterwards pretended they didn’t know each other. Garbo, of course, was famous for not acknowledging anybody’s existence, and as for Dietrich, it seems more than likely she didn’t want to admit having played an unbilled subordinate role to Garbo. McLellan, though, is convinced not only that the affair happened but that it was its traumatic finish that sent Garbo spiraling into her infamous life of secrecy and permanent isolation later in life.
Quite a large inductive leap to make in the absence of documentary evidence, and it was right around here that I began wondering how closely the author was hewing to the historical record. I don’t doubt that many of these actresses had lesbian affairs in abundance; the problem is McLellan doesn’t always feel obliged to corroborate them, and many of her most questionable assertions an affair between Dietrich and Cornell, for example come with no footnotes whatsoever. In general, the more dubious the claim, the more avidly McLellan makes it. After a while, I began to dread any sentence that began with “plainly” or “clearly” or “doubtless” or “almost certainly,” because I was sure a whopper would follow. It’s an approach that McLellan herself unwittingly condemns when she repeats this assessment of a Dietrich boyfriend: “Otto belonged to the ‘it-might-have-happened’ school of journalism. It did not matter whether anything [he wrote about] was true; it was enough that it could or should have been true.”
Not that gossip need be true, necessarily, but it should carry a spark of plausibility and, when spun out to a length of 448 pages, a hint of enlightenment. McLellan is attentive, no question, to naming all the players and laying out the scorecards, but she’s rather lazy when it comes to actually thinking about her subject. Why were so many stage and screen stars of the day lesbian or bisexual? How did their private lives shape and color their public work? What did they get from girls they couldn’t get from boys?
And maybe more to the point, why do we still care about them? I think it’s partly because they were American goddesses and partly because they stood on unstable pedestals. Garbo may have commanded unheard-of salaries in her prime, but the men who held the purse strings were studio chieftains like Harry Cohn, who, “when interviewing starlets, often poked his letter opener into their mouths so he could inspect their teeth, then quickly flicked it down to lift their skirts for a peep at their thighs.” So perhaps it’s enticing to think that women brutalized in this fashion might have ducked into a closet at someone’s party and given each other the pleasure that Cohn and others like him had no interest in giving.
And in fact, it’s the sub rosa nature of those relationships that make them so titillating for a modern reader. Today, of course, a TV star like Megan Mullally (Karen on Will and Grace) can talk casually about her bisexual predilictions in Us Weekly, but in those days, women had to sneak behind closed doors to reclaim the power and potency that the industry had taken from them. And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, in some cases, they ended up aping the behavior of the men they despised. Take Garbo, a gal who would flirt with you for an evening and then refuse to speak to you for twenty years, an emotional pauper who deliberately missed dates, broke off relationships via U.S. mail, shunned long-term commitments and cut into ex-lovers in public. When she lay dying, alone, in a New York hospital in 1990, did she realize she had been as heartless a misogynist as any of the studio chieftains she worked for?
Louis Bayard and Nerve.com, Inc.