'Sappho Goes to Hollywood': reveling in naughtiness, politics

September 24, 2000|By Norah Vincent | By Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

"The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood," by Diana McLellan. LA Weekly Books. 448 pages. $26.95.

Until recently, it was virtually impossible in intellectual circles to proclaim yourself anti-Communist, and yet distance yourself from the rantings of Senator Joseph McCarthy. To object to the infractions of civil liberty perpetrated by the HUAC, and yet to acknowledge that Hollywood was indeed full of active Reds in the 1920s, '30s, '40s and early '50s, was to risk being tarred a paranoid. After all, one had scant proof of sedition at one's disposal until only a few years ago, when the Venona File was published (a series of intercepted messages exchanged between Moscow and various American operatives) and the Soviet archives were at last opened to the gimlet eyes of a few chosen scholars.

Finally, Alger Hiss' guilt was proven beyond doubt, as was at least Julius Rosenberg's, if not Ethel's. Many others were implicated by Venona, including some of McCarthy's very suspects in Hollywood.

Now, you may say, what does all of this have to do with lesbians? Quite a lot, actually. Former nationally syndicated gossip columnist Diana McLellan's new and unsparing look at what is referred to among lesbian cognoscenti as "the sewing circle" -- the lesbian inner circle in Hollywood -- fairly bubbles with political intrigue. This is, largely, what distinguishes it from earlier tell-alls like the eponymously titled "The Sewing Circle" by Axel Madsen (Birch Lane, 1995).

Among other revelations, McLellan's book drops the as yet undisclosed bombshell that, in all likelihood, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich -- who for their entire careers in Hollywood professed never to have met -- actually had a lesbian affair. It probably happened while the two were making a film called Die freudlose Gasse ("The Joyless Street") in Berlin in 1925.

Dietrich's name never appeared in the credits, and she played only a minor role in the film. She is, according to McLellan, extremely hard to recognize on screen, partly because her hair is dyed black instead of the signature blond, and partly because her face is not accentuated by what McClellan calls the "face-modeling lighting techniques" that would make her so famous later on. But the mannerisms -- the brushing back of a stray lock of hair -- and the physical features -- the spread of her unusual hands are, apparently, all there.

So why did no one ever find out about the Garbo-Dietrich affair or Dietrich's role in "The Joyless Street?" Because Garbo was notoriously silent and remote about her personal life, and -- here's the juicy stuff -- Dietrich's silence was bought by Garbo's eminence grise Salka Viertel, who threatened to expose Dietrich's decidedly un-American activities if Dietrich ever breathed a word of having met, much less worked with and bedded Garbo.

McLellan uncovers startling indications that, through the machinations of Otto Katz, a Soviet spy to whom Dietrich was wed secretly in the early '20s, Dietrich "handed over enormous sums to help German Communists escape the Nazis and establish lives elsewhere." McLellan even goes so far as to speculate that through Katz, Stalin gave Dietrich some of the plundered Romanov family jewels -- emeralds the size of large marbles -- as a means of guaranteeing her cooperation.

McLellan writes like a gossip columnist, so don't be expecting Sovietology or literary biography. But do expect to revel in the naughtiness of which the above is only a small sampling, and do expect to be surprised by the connections McLellan is able to make between the Soviet colossus and Hollywood's best and brightest.

The rakish lothario Mercedes de Acosta (who seduced Garbo and Dietrich among many others) makes copious appearances, and, as McLellan so indelicately relates, is always putting the newest beauties on her "to do" list. The other usual Sapphic suspects -- Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck -- fill out McLellan's cast, all vying for each other's attention, and making a veritable mockery of their superfluous leading men and America's misplaced worship of their presumed archetypal heterosexuality.

You'll read of shockers like Dietrich's favored practices, and Bankhead's favorite trick of smearing "a streak of Marlene's famous hairdressing gold dust" onto specific parts of her body and announcing: "Guess what I've been doing."

You'll learn about how in turn-of-the-century New York City, the famous anarchist Emma Goldman (who, yes, you guessed it, was a tribade) ran a clinic in which she specialized in arcane massage for the relief of feminine stress.

Why, with such a catalogue of sexuo-political deviance, McLellan's "The Girls," is liable to make you into one of those flaming paleo-conservatives who are always grousing that they knew there were countless Commies under every bed in Hollywood. The only difference here will be that you'll know just exactly what they were doing under or on top of those beds.

Norah Vincent, who lives in New York City, is co-author of "The Instant Intellectual: The Quick and Easy Guide to Sounding Smart and Cultured" (Hyperion, 1998). Her work has appeared in the New Republic, the New York Times, Lingua Franca, and many other publications. She writes a regular column for the national gay and lesbian news magazine the Advocate.

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