An Orange Full of Dreams
How She Died
Betrayed by Rita Hayworth
Leaf Storm and Other Stories
“Nothing intrudes between her and the observer except the observer’s neurosis,” Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Greta Garbo’s films. And Rouben Mamoulian, the director of Queen Christina, was even more explicit: “I want your face to be a blank sheet of paper, the writing to be done by every member of the audience….” I’m not sure that this is really true of Garbo’s face in films, but certainly her famous seclusion works in this way. We people her life with everything we would like to see there: troubled memories, guilt, shyness, hasty meetings with millionaires, a secret, lifelong romance. We respect not her privacy but the dreams it permits.
This makes a new movie by Garbo impossible, because her role in it would have to accommodate all the fantasies that have been encircling her since she made her last movie in 1941. But in Gronowicz’s An Orange Full of Dreams, which has a Foreword by Garbo, she is to make her comeback by proxy. We are to imagine her in the movie that might be made from this novel, or perhaps more simply we are to follow her in fantasy back to the nineteenth century where the novel is set. “I had a sort of secret, unexpressed quarrel with God,” she writes. “Why couldn’t he have allowed me to be born in the middle of the nineteenth century, to be a contemporary of Rehan, Davenport, Duse, Bernhardt….” The faces of those actresses now appear in the wizened oranges which Garbo tells us have come to haunt her sleep, and which give Gronowicz his title. “Today,” Garbo concludes, “I would give anything for the chance to see myself, if only for a moment, as a face among those faces, in an orange full of dreams.”
Kindly Mr. Gronowicz (if we assume this Foreword to be genuine) is implementing her longings by associating her with Helena Modjeska, the famous Polish Shakespearean actress. Certainly the role is rich enough, a biography hammed up on the model of Sunset Boulevard, and dragging in Longfellow, Sienkiewicz, Edwin Booth, the Barrymores, and Henry James for brief guest appearances. It ends with Modjeska (here called Greta Galingala) lost in lonely madness, dogged by memories of her only true love, who drowned himself in the Vistula when she married a second time for the sake of her ambition. “The words dripped with romanticism,” Gronowicz writes at one point, and they do. They drip a lot too thickly for me, and although the book is harmless enough, I am baffled by the blurb which quotes Maxwell Geismar and Emile Capouya as attributing genius to Gronowicz.
Unless they are thinking of a genius for fraud. In 1956 Gronowicz published a biography of Modjeska (dedicated, incidentally, to Greta Garbo), and I assumed, until I had a look at this book, that he had used his previous materials as the basis for a novel, and had perhaps worked themes from Garbo’s life into that of …