In 1945 Orson Welles introduced two guests at actor Clifton Webb’s party. Through the legendary director, actresses Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo said hello, while Dietrich also complimented Garbo’s good looks. Then the famously private Garbo slipped away, and she and Dietrich never crossed paths again – perhaps for good reason, too.
Yet such a brief, terse meeting seemed odd, especially between two women who had come into the Hollywood spotlight at the same time. Surely the stars had encountered each other before? Well some people believe that there was more to the story. In particular, they claim that Garbo and Dietrich had actually known each other very well before being reacquainted at Webb’s party.
You see, it’s said that in 1925 Garbo and Dietrich had engaged in a passionate affair. And the then-liberal city of Berlin was the backdrop to the tryst – an exploratory one for the 19-year-old Garbo. Nonetheless, what allegedly happened after that explains precisely why she pretended not to know Dietrich for decades afterwards.
And as it happens, Garbo’s working life started thousands of miles from Los Angeles. She grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, and later found employment in the city as a barber shop’s lather girl. Then Garbo’s friends pushed her to apply for a job in the PUB department store, and the decision to do so would come to change her life.
You see, Garbo’s job at PUB had her working in the department store’s millinery department, and it didn’t take long for her colleagues to realize that she could effortlessly model the hats in the store’s catalog. From there, the future actress realized that she had the chops for a professional modeling career.
Then modeling gave way to commercials, with Garbo making her debut in a women’s clothing ad campaign in December 1920. And as it happens, this exposure would give the fledgling star her in as an actress. In 1922 director Erik Arthur Petschler noticed the model in the advertisements and chose to offer Garbo a role in his short movie Peter the Tramp.
A life on screen evidently appealed to Garbo, too, as she went on to study at the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s Acting School in Stockholm. Director Mauritz Stiller then cast her in a starring role for his film The Saga of Gösta Berling. But her biggest break of all came when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s then-vice president Louis B. Mayer had the chance to meet the young woman.
According to one account, Mayer had seen Garbo’s star turn in The Saga of Gösta Berling while at a screening with his daughter. And Mark Vieira’s book Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy relates that Mayer immediately knew he wanted to bring Garbo on board with MGM.
So, in 1925 Garbo sailed across the Atlantic on the SS Drottningholm, leaving her native Stockholm for New York City. But while her on-screen career would go from strength to strength from then on, that wouldn’t be the case for another European actress, Marlene Dietrich, who had started working in the arts before Garbo did.
Dietrich – a native of Berlin – had long fantasized of becoming a concert violinist, but a wrist injury ultimately stopped her from pursuing her dream. Instead, she ended up on stage as a chorus member or vaudevillian entertainer in various shows around the city. And while Dietrich auditioned to join director Max Reinhardt’s drama academy, she failed to earn a place there.
Yet even though Dietrich didn’t make it into Reinhardt’s school, the impresario started casting her in small parts. And while she received little fanfare to begin with, she continued acting and performing in musicals to increasing attention and praise. Then Dietrich made her way into silent films in the late 1920s – by which point Garbo’s ship had already dropped anchor in New York City.
And Garbo and Dietrich’s paths would eventually cross, although stories differ as to when and where that first meeting took place. Regardless, one thing appears to be sure about the two actresses who rose to fame in Hollywood’s Golden Age: they each had dalliances with both men and women. Rumors swirled that they weren’t alone, either.
Some think of Hollywood’s Golden Era as being one in which stars lived on the straight and narrow. And it’s easy to look back and glamorize the celebrities of this era, too. In reality, though, screen icons of the age had plenty of skeletons in their closets – from drug and alcohol abuse to affairs and scandals.
Dietrich, for one, had a finely curated public image, but those close to her knew that she was bisexual long before she came to Hollywood. In Berlin in the early 1920s, for instance, she regularly partook in the city’s buzzing gay and drag scene. Dietrich also defied gender roles by training as a boxer around that time, too.
And during her life, Dietrich embarked on relationships – and affairs – with both men and women. The actress reportedly counted a slew of Hollywood’s biggest names among her conquests, in fact, with John Wayne, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, John Gilbert and Jean Gabin all having reportedly fallen under her spell – and that just takes into account the male stars of the era.
In addition, Dietrich supposedly headed up a group that she described as “Marlene’s Sewing Circle.” But the women involved didn’t actually gather to work on their embroidery; instead, each woman allegedly secretly identified as either bisexual or as a lesbian. And, together, the members of the “Sewing Circle” are said to have engaged in secret affairs.
Those purported to have belonged to Marlene’s Sewing Circle include Errol Flynn’s wife Lili Damita and Ann Warner, whose husband, Jack, owned Warner Bros. Studios. Actresses Claudette Colbert and Dolores del Río may have also been in the loop, and it’s said that Dietrich thought del Río stood as Hollywood’s most beautiful woman.
Rumors have swirled about Garbo’s sexual preferences, too. During her lifetime, the actress fielded multiple proposals from the likes of Swedish publisher Lars Saxon and actor John Gilbert, with whom Dietrich also had a relationship. But Garbo never married, nor did she share any information about her personal life in the press.
In a handwritten letter kept in the Swedish Postmuseum, Garbo once wrote to Saxon, “I will probably remain a bachelor all my life. ‘Wife’ is such an ugly word.” Freeing herself from the conventions of marriage meant that Garbo could explore her sexuality, too, allowing her to allegedly have relationships with a number of Hollywood actresses.
Apparently, some proof exists of Garbo’s dalliances with one woman: Mercedes De Acosta. During the 1930s Garbo penned about 55 letters to the playwright that reportedly reveal a very passionate love affair between the two. Some timelines estimate that the women’s on-off relationship lasted from about 1931 to 1944.
But what about Garbo and Dietrich? Well, it would make sense that their paths would have crossed, though many say that the actresses didn’t meet each other until 1945 – four years after Garbo had retired from Hollywood. After making 28 films, she had quit the business when 1941’s Two-Faced Woman proved a bust with critics.
Still, Garbo attended actor Clifton Webb’s party four years after that, and there she allegedly met Dietrich. Welles apparently introduced the two, and Dietrich had some kind words for Garbo into the bargain. She is said, in fact, to have called her new acquaintance “a goddess” – a compliment that Garbo seemingly had a hard time accepting.
Instead, according to U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph, Garbo merely mumbled “Thank you” to Dietrich before making her exit from the conversation. At that point, she had already decided to avoid the public eye, having concluded that her life in the spotlight had finished. And it seems that Garbo and Dietrich went on with their lives separately after that.
Yet some people believe that this version of events doesn’t tell the whole story. As Garbo and Dietrich had both risen to Hollywood’s A-list, after all, it would’ve been hard for them to have not met until 1945. Both had had rumored relationships with women, too, which could have put them into the same social circle.
And author Diana McLellan has alleged that the two women not only knew each other previously, but that they had also engaged in an affair long before they made it big. McLellan revealed her theory in the 2000 book The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, and in the work she claims that Garbo and Dietrich’s story started a whole two decades before Welles’ party.
A movie apparently links the two as well, according to McLellan. In 1925 director G.W. Pabst arranged a shoot in Berlin for his film The Joyless Street. The silent work stars Garbo as Grete – a woman living in post-World War I Austria who is trying to make ends meet. And while Grete almost becomes a prostitute in order to survive, someone ultimately saves her from going down that route.
Of course, it’s plain as day that a 19-year-old Garbo starred in The Joyless Street. But what hasn’t ever been fully confirmed is the rumor that Dietrich also had an uncredited role in the movie. And while the star denied taking part in the flick, McLellan found information to the contrary.
According to her story, McLellan went to the Library of Congress to watch the clips that remain from The Joyless Street, as no full-length copy of the picture exists today. And while the writer revealed that she had just intended to see footage of one of Garbo’s early films, she ended up noticing something rather curious on screen.
McLellan told The Daily Telegraph, “Suddenly, my heart jumped. I stiffened, I stopped the film, then I rolled it back. I rolled it again and again and again.” The author did this to be sure that she had recognized one of the background actresses in The Joyless Street.
McLellan went on, “Over the past several months, I had examined very closely scores of photographs of [Dietrich] in Berlin and Vienna in the 1920s. There was no question at all in my mind that the woman I was watching in several key scenes [of The Joyless Street] was Marlene Dietrich.”
To confirm her theory, though, McLellan wanted a second set of eyes. So, she called in Madeline Matz, the film librarian at the Library of Congress. And when the pair re-watched the movie clip together, Matz couldn’t believe it; she, too, thought that the background actress must be Dietrich.
This was all despite the fact that Dietrich had blonde hair at the time she rose to prominence in Hollywood. By contrast, the actress in The Joyless Street appears to have her locks dyed black. Still, Dietrich’s signature gestures, eyes, and hands with notably small fingers are all present and correct. At one point, Garbo’s character even faints into the woman who appears to be Dietrich’s arms.
McLellan has also claimed that Dietrich had admitted her part in The Joyless Street to her assistant David Bret. Supposedly, she even knew the flick’s ending, which had been slashed by censors. But such an admission begged a question as to why Dietrich would lie about her involvement in the first place, although McLellan had a simple answer for that.
You see, McLellan wrote in her book that Dietrich had denied being in the film because it had set the backdrop for a passionate but failed affair with Garbo. And, McLellan alleged, that liaison had ended with such bitterness that it was the supposed reason why Garbo had gone on to live her life out of the spotlight.
McLellan wrote in The Girls, “At the time of The Joyless Street, Marlene was perhaps the busiest and most passionate bisexual in theatrical Berlin. And although she was only 23, Dietrich had cultivated a notorious and compulsive appetite for the sexual seduction of other beautiful women.”
Garbo, by contrast, had come onto set with much less experience. Instead, the actress felt both self-conscious and confused about her sexuality. And as she and Dietrich engaged in their alleged affair, the Berliner apparently approached it much more casually. She is even said to have made comments about Garbo to others, and these words reportedly angered the teenage actress.
Such disclosures weren’t a big deal to Dietrich, as she had openly embraced her sexuality in liberal Berlin. They hurt Garbo, though, as did Dietrich’s way of describing her new flame. McLellan said that the German actress sometimes referred to Garbo as “the Scandinavian child” or “a peasant” – epithets that purportedly cut the Swedish star to the quick.
McLellan wrote, “Garbo felt betrayed by a monster who spoke of her secrets, mocked her roots and sneered at her sex. She was wounded, shamed and traumatized.” And by the time both women made their way to Hollywood after The Joyless Street, Garbo had no desire to speak to Dietrich again.
So, when Welles introduced Dietrich and Garbo at his party in 1945, the pair supposedly knew one another long before that moment. Dietrich then complimented Garbo, and the famously secretive younger woman slipped away shortly thereafter. As William Langley of The Daily Telegraph put it, “The niceties dispensed with, both women returned to the serious business of ignoring each other’s existence.”
Of course, only Garbo and Dietrich knew the truth about their history, and neither woman confirmed it during her lifetime. Garbo died in 1990, maintaining her reclusive streak until the very end. Dietrich, meanwhile, passed away in Paris two years later – far from the Hollywood streets where she had stirred up such intrigue.