Garbo walks The legendary recluse's walking companion recalls 20 years with 'GG'

November 07, 1991|By Lisa Anderson | Lisa Anderson,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- A windless day, sunny and mild, like those rare ones in October when Manhattan sheds its pollution and shines with an autumn brilliance, would be the perfect cue. The call would come. The summons would be simple: "Let's trot."

The summoner was the legendary Greta Garbo, phoning from her fifth-floor riverview apartment at 450 E. 52nd St. The summoned was Raymond Daum, her friend and neighbor around the corner on Beekman Place.

And for 20 years, three times a week, "Miss G," the reclusive

former actress, and "Mr. Daum," the gregarious film scholar and TV producer for the United Nations, walked and talked around Manhattan.

"As a starstruck kid from Hollywood, it was the ultimate," says Daum, sitting in his room at the Omni Berkshire hotel at Madison Avenue and 52nd Street, just blocks away from the apartment Miss G lived in from 1953 until her death, reportedly from kidney complications, at age 84 on April 15, 1990.

Daum met Garbo, or "GG" as he also called her, on New Year's Day 1963 at a party given in the Manhattan home of actors Zachary Scott and Ruth Ford.

MA In 1983, when Daum left New York to become curator of the Glo

ria Swanson Archives at the Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, where he remains a consultant, their walks finally ended.

However, Daum's fascination with Garbo continued and he has recaptured many of their perambulatory conversations in his just-published book, edited and annotated by Vance Muse, "Walking With Garbo" (HarperCollins, $25).

The quotes from Garbo, which range from endearingly quotidian details of life to philosophical reflections, aren't all merely recollections. So thrilled was Daum to be in the presence of this woman, whom he considered the "epitome of what a star was," that he actually taped some of her phone calls on his answering machine and --ed home from their walks to jot down their conversations, with particular care to record her charmingly eccentric usage accurately.

Recalling Garbo's penchant for non sequiturs, combined with a love of American slang and often charmingly garbled attempts to use it, Daum says she often would phone him with the salutation, " 'lo, you've come a long way, baby," or sing, "It's got to be you," laughing at his insistence that the correct lyric was "It had to be you."

"I recorded it all. I just let the tape run," says Daum, without a trace of self-consciousness. A tall, slim 68-year-old, given to tinted, horn-rimmed glasses and polished penny loafers, he looks appalled when it is suggested that this behavior might be construed as an invasion of privacy, if not a betrayal of one who made such a point of her silence and her solitude.

"Oh, no," he says, shaking his head. "I cherished her conversations. She expressed herself so uniquely and so well. It was a natural thing.

"It was only for my own joy," he says, adding that his recordings and notes were made without any thought of future publication.

"No," he repeats. "It was as if the president called you. You'd say, 'Oh, gee, I want this to remember.' "

Daum kept his recordings locked in his bank vault and never shared them or their contents with anyone until 1985, when he wrote an article, based on their conversations, in honor of Garbo's 80th birthday for the New York Daily News.

Daum says he informed Garbo of his plans to write that article and of his intentions to publish some excerpts of their conversations in a special issue of Life magazine in 1989. He also apprised her of his plans to write this book, sending her the preface and chapter outlines.

"I leveled with her. I relished that friendship. I wasn't going to betray it," he says. "My story was only one of tribute."

But, as Daum expected, Garbo never responded to his letters. However, he says, word came to him through friends that she was not displeased with the idea of the book.

Daum had to contact Garbo in writing because she never, despite the years of their friendship and his entreaties, gave him her phone number. "She said, 'No, I don't answer the telephone anyway.' " He admits he was hurt until some of her closest friends confirmed that this was true and that there really was no way of reaching her in a hurry short of coming and banging on her door.

Since Garbo had not granted an in-depth interview since 1928, Daum's transcriptions and recollections may constitute one of the only known records remaining of Garbo's thoughts expressed in her own words. Certainly, they offer a rare window into her private life.

The lingering image of "La Divina," as the Italians called her, a haughty yet smoldering screen goddess, mysteriously given to wearing men's trousers and fedoras and impetuously disappearing from the movie set for months at a time, is at pleasantly surprising odds with Daum's images of a woman who liked to scramble eggs, plopped great blobs of sour cream on her vegetables and made coffee by throwing it into boiling water in a casserole dish and then straining it.

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