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Garbo: ubiquitous yet mysterious

An illuminating biography of screen icon and her time

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(Book cover image courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

‘Garbo′
By Robert Gottlieb
c.2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$40/448 pages

Few icons are more ubiquitous in the cultural landscape, yet more mysterious than queer icon Greta Garbo.

Even if you’ve never seen “Grand Hotel,” you likely know that in this 1932 film, Garbo famously said, “I want to be alone.”

Even the most fervent teetotaler would savor watching Garbo say, in the 1930 movie “Anna Christie,” “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!”

Decades before Cher, Garbo became known by just her last name. “Garbo Talks!” said the ads for her first talking picture “Anna Christie.” “Garbo Laughs!” shouted the ads for her 1939 comedy “Ninotchka.”

Yet, 31 years after her death in 1990, Garbo, remains, as she was during her life, enveloped in mystery.

“Garbo,” by Robert Gottlieb, a former editor of The New Yorker, is a fascinating biography of the movie legend. Gottlieb, a critic, understands that much of Garbo’s life (her sexuality, her inner thoughts) remains mysterious.

Yet Gottlieb, a former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and former head of Alfred A. Knopf, pens an illuminating portrait of Garbo and her time.

An extensive array of photos and movie stills add to the beauty of the book. A selection of articles by critics and contemporaries enhances our picture of Garbo.

Garbo was born (with the name Greta Lovisa Gustafsson) in 1905 in a poor neighborhood in Stockholm, Sweden.

Garbo was only in Hollywood for 16 years, and 24 movies, Gottlieb writes.

At just 36 years old, and still adored by her fans, Garbo suddenly retired from Hollywood. She didn’t give her public a very insightful reason for why she stopped making movies.

“I have made enough faces,” Garbo told actor David Niven when he asked her about it, Gottlieb reports.

After leaving Tinseltown, Garbo lived for nearly half a century, mainly in New York City, until she died in 1990.

Garbo wasn’t as popular as Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford, Gottlieb tells us in “Why Garbo,” his lively introduction to the bio, “yet the impact she had on the world was as great as theirs.”

The mystery of why Garbo lived in “self-imposed seclusion” after retiring from Hollywood was irresistible, but “almost a distraction,” Gottlieb writes.

Many of her movies were “cliched or worse,” Gottlieb points out. At first, MGM presented Garbo as a vamp, “luring men on with her vampish ways,” Gottlieb reports, “but she hated that.”

Eventually, Garbo became an icon. “But none of that goes to explain,” Gottlieb writes, “why more than any other star she invaded the subconscious of the audience:”

Wherever you look in the period between 1925 and 1941, Gottlieb adds, “Garbo is in people’s minds, hearts, and dreams.”

Garbo is referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and in the letters of poet Marianne Moore. More recently, allusions of Garbo have appeared in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” and even in “The Simpsons.”

Her Hollywood peers loved Garbo as much as movie audiences. “Other Hollywood stars … were as eager to meet her,” Gottlieb writes, “or just get a glimpse of her as your ordinary fan.”

Her work is “pure witchcraft,” Bette Davis said of Garbo. “I cannot analyze this woman’s acting.”

While Gottlieb is respectful of and fascinated by Garbo, his biography isn’t hagiography.

Garbo, who grew up in poverty as a child, could be cheap. In New York, she was known for being stingy with tips and salaries for people who worked for her and shopkeepers.

Perhaps, due to shyness or to her lack of education (she had to leave school at 14 to help support her family), she wasn’t a great conversationalist.

She had relationships with men and women – from actor John Gilbert to queer fashion photographer Cecil Beaton to writer Mercedes de Acosta. But the extent to which (or if) these relationships were sexual isn’t known, Gottlieb reports.

It is known that Garbo, offscreen, dressed in men’s pants, shirts, and shoes. “How ironic if ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ really would rather have been a man,” Gottlieb writes.

Reading “Garbo” is like sipping whiskey (or ginger ale) with the iconic star. Drink up!

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‘Fiona and Jane’ an enticing look at lifelong friendship

Two women bicker, fall distant – then meet again

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘Fiona and Jane’
By Jean Chen Ho
c. 2022, Viking
$26/275 pages

“Fiona and Jane,” a new short story collection by Jean Chen Ho is an enticing New Year’s present. The captivating volume features secrets, family conflict, queerness, astute cultural observations, and above all, friendship.

We long to fall in love. So we lose our hearts to our lovers and go to pieces when our relationships break up.

Yet, especially, if we’re women and/or queer, we want a best friend as much, maybe more, than we do a lover.

Fiona and Jane, Asian Americans, grew up in Los Angeles. They’ve been best friends since they met in LA in second grade. Jane’s family emigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan. Fiona, with her mother, came to LA from Taiwan when she was a young child.

In “Fiona and Jane,” Ho’s debut collection, the two friends over 30 years grow from second-graders to 30-somethings. Ho’s linked stories draw us into Fiona and Jane’s friendship as they become, at different times, incredibly close, then distant (both geographically and emotionally) from each other.

Ho, 41, has more writing chops than you can imagine. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California where she is a Dornsife Fellow in fiction. Ho has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her writing has been published in The Georgia Review, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeney’s, and other publications.

Ho was born in Taiwan, grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. But, “none of the things that happen to Fiona and Jane are autobiographical,” she said on the podcast “All of It with Alison Stewart,” “I didn’t mine my particular life experiences and put them in the book out of respect to my oldest and dearest friends.”

Fiona is hetero, smart  and attractive. As a teen, she earns enough money to buy a secondhand car (named Shamu, Ho writes, “after the Sea World killer whale because of the corroding white patches all over the black paint.”).

While Fiona’s mother isn’t religious, Jane’s Mom is devoutly Christian. Jane is bisexual. When she and Fiona are teens, they kiss  “to practice” – what kissing’s like. Though she doesn’t tell her Mom, Jane, when a teenager, has a romantic relationship with her female piano teacher.

When she’s young, Jane often does what Fiona does. Because Jane’s tall, she’s often thought of as “Fiona’s bodyguard.” As she grows older, Jane begins to rely more on herself.

Fiona is eager to leave LA. She goes to college, then moves to New York City with her first boyfriend. She enters law school, then drops out.

Jane stays in Los Angeles. She opts to take a gap year between high school and college. The gap year morphs into a couple of years. Jane has relationships with women as well as with Julian, a vet who has PTSD.

Though Fiona and Jane are quite different from one another, they keep circling back to each other. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they both have lost their fathers.

In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “The Night Market,” Jane speaks of her visit before she graduated high school to Taiwan where she has come to see her Dad. Her Dad has gone from LA to Taiwan for a temporary job. Jane learns that he’s going to stay in Taiwan because he’s fallen in love with a man there. Her Dad asks her to keep this a secret. But, in her pain at his revelation, she outs him. Jane blames herself for his suicide.

Fiona discovers as a child that she’s never known her father. Her mother raises her on her own.

Over the years, Fiona and Jane bicker, fall distant – then meet again. As teens, they help each other get fake IDs so they can drink. As adults, they help each other through moving apartments, love affairs and mourning.

 “Sixteen years since my father died, and I was still alive,” Jane thinks, “I got up, every morning. I lived, day by day. I had my best friend, Fiona Lin.”

Check out “Fiona and Jane.” Then, text your best friend.

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Books

Seeking love and community in Nicaragua

‘High-Risk Homosexual’ explores author’s youth, coming out

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(Book cover image courtesy of Soft Skill Press)

High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir
By Edgar Gomez
c.2022, Soft Skull Press
$16.95/304 pages

Here. Try this.

It fits you, but the color isn’t flattering. It’s too long, too short, too tight, too loose. That’s not your style, so try something else until you find the thing that looks like you. The perfect thing is out there. As in the new book “High-Risk Homosexual” by Edgar Gomez, when something’s right, it’s right.

He was 13 when he figured out that he was a problem to be solved.

Edgar Gomez’ mother had left him in her native Nicaragua with his tíos, just for a while because she had to return to Florida to work. He wasn’t there without her for long, but it took years for him to understand that his time with his uncles was meant to make him more masculine.

In retrospect, he says, nobody wanted him to be a man more than he did. He wanted to be liked by other kids and so he told lies in school to make himself stand out. He wanted his mother to see his love of pretty things and say that it was OK. He wanted his brother to acknowledge that Gomez was gay, and to tell him that he loved him.

Instead, after his brother left for college, Gomez got his first boyfriend, a boy he came out to but who couldn’t come out to himself. He was called names in school. He came out to his mother, who freaked out about it. He befriended a drag queen, but “Princess” used him.

Things he wanted: a real boyfriend. Love. A ban on the stereotype of a macho Latinx man.

Things he still had, while in college: his mother and older brother. A tormentor-turned-mentor. A part-time job. His weirdness. His virginity.

Things he wanted to lose, while in college: his room at his mother’s house. His virginity, but that wouldn’t happen until later, during a painful one-afternoon-stand with a hot man who said he had a girlfriend. That hurt, both physically and emotionally but like so many things at so many times, Gomez tried not to think about it.

If he never considered what he didn’t have, he says, “I wouldn’t miss it.”

In a way, you could say that “High-Risk Homosexual” is a book in search of a point. It’s really quite random and told (mostly) linearly, but not quite. It has its peaks, but also low valleys. And you won’t care about any of this, because you’ll be enjoying every bit of it.

Yeah, this memoir is good: author Edgar Gomez’s literary wandering makes it feel much like an honest conversation with readers. There are wince-worthy moments that allow empathy here, and experiences that are unique but oddly ubiquitous, that leave space for a sense of sympatico. There are passages that are so wistfully uncomfortable that you might squirm, or start “snort-laughing,” or want to stop a moment and just think.

And there’s room for that, too, so take your time. “High-Risk Homosexual” is an affable book with just enough seriousness to make it worth a try.

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Books

A lesbian Baby Boomer’s relatable story

‘Audacity of a Kiss’ a warm, familiar biography

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The Audacity of a Kiss: A Memoir
By Leslie Cohen
c.2021, Rutgers University Press
$24.95/235 pages

Don’t move.

Stay entirely still, don’t even breathe. You’re about to become a symbol of something that’s bigger than you are, something you’ll be proud of for the rest of your days. Don’t flinch, scratch, or sneeze, just don’t do anything. Don’t. Move. Unless it’s to turn the pages of “The Audacity of a Kiss” by Leslie Cohen.

Behind every statue is a story, and the one behind those representing four people in Christopher Park in New York’s Greenwich Village is no different. But to explain how this monument came about means also telling a long love story and a tale about a nightclub.

Leslie Cohen’s mother was her very best friend, although there were misunderstandings in the relationship. Seven-year-old Leslie couldn’t see why she received pink girly things for her birthday. In later years, she couldn’t understand why her mother deferred to Leslie’s father and endured his abuse.

The one thing Cohen did understand was that once puberty hit, the boys in her neighborhood were no longer pals to roughhouse with. She was supposed to want to date them and it didn’t entirely make sense, but Cohen went along with it even after she left home for college. She went out with boys and lost her virginity to one, but meeting Beth was the most remarkable thing about higher learning. She was sure she was in love with Beth, but Beth was obsessed with a boy and so Cohen moved on.

She moved on to other men and then women, at a time when women loving women was unthinkable, and the Summer of Love. Cohen embraced her lesbianism, fell in and out of love, and went into a partnership with three other women to open New York’s first lesbian club, where lesbians and straight feminists were welcome to dance and drink.

To be sure, it was a heady time. Cohen worked nonstop, gained confidence and learned to run a bar business. She was busy, but happy.

And then Beth came back into her life.

Let’s face it: author Leslie Cohen’s life story is basically like that of a lot of lesbians born at the beginning of the Baby Boom. A solid childhood, confusion, self-awareness, entrepreneurship all make a somewhat familiar story set apart by one abundant thing: warmth.

Indeed, “The Audacity of a Kiss” is an easy tale. It’s comfortable, like a crackling fireplace and a glass of wine on a cushy sofa.There are accomplishments here, told so that you really share the pride in them. Readers are shown the struggle that Cohen had, too, but experiences are well-framed by explanations of the times in which they occurred, with nothing overly dramatic – just the unabashed truth, and more warmth. Opening this book, in a way, then, is like accepting an invitation to own the recliner for an evening, and you won’t want anything else.

Younger lesbians will get a lot from this book, but anyone who’s been there will relish it. Get “The Audacity of a Kiss,” then sit down and don’t move.

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