Book Review: The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood

The Girls Sappho Goes to HollywoodWhen one reads a lot of biographies, one is always on watch for signs of sloppy scholarship. Also beware of biographies that have a thesis, because then no matter how well-documented the book, the writing will drive you up the wall. (See: All That Jazz, the Bob Fosse bio, and Female Brando, the Kim Stanley bio.) As it happens, The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollwyood, Diana McLellan’s look at lesbians in Old Hollywood suffers from both.

Based on… something? Redacted FBI files, mostly. McLellan makes the somewhat astonishing claim that Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, who spent their lives denying they knew one another, were lovers in Weimar Berlin. Scarred by Dietrich’s alleged big mouth about her big box, Garbo refused to allow any of her friends to mention Dietrich’s name around her. And Dietrich’s silence was bought because—allegedly!—she was involved with spy Otto Katz. One of McLellan’s big proofs for this is that she swears Dietrich is in Pabst’s The Joyless Street. This has been somewhat disproved, and Dietrich’s clear-eyed daughter, Maria Riva (who write a stellar biography of her mother, warts and all) disavows it as well. McLellan also quotes extensively from the works of a prolific biographer whose veracity is always called into question—and who is so rude and vicious that I won’t even mention his name here, because who has the time for that? And McLellan works in the long-disproved allegation that Errol Flynn was a Nazi spy, which biographer Charles Higham first introduced in a 1980 Flynn bio and then repeated in every subsequent biography he wrote. (Turns out the FBI files from which Higham quoted were less quoted verbatim than rewritten.)

There is plenty of deep-dish gossip to be had in The Girls, like Lilyan Tashman’s aggressive maneuvers, but so much of it is spent on Greta Garbo’s competing girlfriends Salka Viertel and Mercedes de Acosta, fighting over the glum, self-absorbed Swede, that the reader’s interest flags before the midway point is reached. Garbo seems to never have had anything remotely interesting to say; the constant tug-of-war for her affections saps the book of its energy. There’s plenty of interest to be had, but McLellan’s breathless prose, heavy hand, insistence on repeating her thesis, and attributing questionable motives to bare facts probably does more of a disservice to the women profiled than not. At least Tallulah Bankhead emerges mostly unscathed

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