Fate brings Greta Garbo closer to me


“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends.”

                                           – Shakespeare   

I had been trying for years to cross paths with the “divine .”  Well, destiny recently brought me pretty close to that dream.   

I had a cup of coffee with her great-niece at a Swedish café in Providence. 

This great-niece, Gray Horan, is writing a play about the legacy of her fabulous family relative, and this unnamed work in progress had its premiere right here in Olneyville, in the Wilbury Theatre. The small theater down a narrow alleyway was packed for the staged reading with a full house of Garbo admirers. 

And to make things even better,  the playwright pledged to visit my class at the Rhode Island School of Design, titled “With a Pen of Light,” at the start of our second semester to talk about the process of composing a script, casting the characters and interpreting the legacy of the influential career of her kith and kin.   

“She was the first ‘modern’ woman:  independent, self-reliant, forthright and free,”  Horan said of Garbo when we met at the café.

I went over the points I gleaned from that opening night:

• How the beauty of the actress was enhanced by the famed artist-photographer Ruth Harriet Louise, who “saw” with her camera the potential magic of that face.   

• How the words of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios’ publicist about Garbo’s extraordinary beauty caused audiences to pay very close attention to every close-up.

• How Garbo’s original director, Mauritz Stiller, recognized her potential and somehow separated theater from cinema in training her. •How the friendships in her life still left her to her own devices – a solitary soul, not unsocial, but nevertheless apart. 

This was all deep stuff to consider, and over our cups at Cafe Choklad we discussed the details.   

“Yes, she had friends, and she cherished her parents and siblings, her nieces and nephews, but her respect for the value of privacy, of inner resources, kept her from intimacy in the ordinary sense of the word. We had to respect her as she was,” Horan said of her famous great-aunt. There were a few surprises in our conversation. 

One of them really wowed me. Horan talked about her grandparents and mentioned a temple in New Jersey.  … I waited a few moments before pursuing that line.   

“Yes, that set of grandparents, the Reisfelds, were Jewish, but not particularly religious in the usual sense of the concept. They had come from the region of Odessa [in Ukraine], and wanted their children to attend colleges and universities and to achieve medical degrees at American institutions.”   

That was big news to me. And it helped explain why there was so much focus on the rabbi in the play. 

Garbo was, in a way, a Jewish dream! Her movies, maybe, can be seen as variations on a Purim play, even a Queen Esther ideal! The villain, though, was, of all people, MGM founder and movie producer Louis B. Mayer!   

I knew from my collection of books and documentaries about the great actress who moved from silent films to talkies – with MGM backing her but also frustrating her sometimes eccentric demands – that she did not get along with the production chief.  She found him crude and coarse.   

“But I think the actor overdid that part,” I told Horan. “Mayer was, after all, a physically small man, not an overbearing giant figure. Tough, yes, but also, even in his own unrefined way, creative too.”  

I offered this because in general I disapprove of crafting villains we can hiss at smugly. I see in Shakespeare, on the other hand, a balancing act in which an actor can make a character sympathetic or “evil” depending upon nuance, not loudmouth insistence.  (I mean, the Merchant of Venice can be seen as a sympathetic victim of hypocritical Christians or as the Elizabethan stereotype of the Jew of Malta, depending on the phrasing. See Jack Benny’s “To Be or Not to Be” for a dramatic alternative reading of the famous lines.)

Well, it turns out that Horan (whose mother was also named “Gray”) has been an East Side neighbor for more than a decade, “hiding in plain sight” until she made an appearance at Hamilton House. Then I got a call from a local theater enthusiast, Lois Blazer, asking if I wanted to join a group for a trek to Olneyville to hear the reading. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance.

After the reading, Horan and I arranged our meeting.

I had a camera in my coat pocket as I stood at the corner of Steeple, Thomas and North Main streets in Providence, but I did not take it out for a quick shot as evidence that Horan and I had indeed shared a mid-morning rendezvous at Choklad, even though I would have liked such a memento as proof of our magical meeting. 

I offer this quick glimpse in hopes of a happy fate for the play and for our fresh friendship.

MIKE FINK (mfink33@aol.com) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design. 

Fink, Garbo, Horan