×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood

Diana McLellan's juicy chronicle of sexual and political intrigue within Golden Age Hollywood's not-very-closeted lesbian crowd is a camp classic as outrageous as anything Marlene Dietrich ever filmed. Beautiful women wearing tuxedos, drugs ingested through various orifices, fabulous jewels of mysterious provenance, Communist spies secretly married to movie stars -- all these and more are the gaudy raw materials from which McLellan's tale is fabricated.

Diana McLellan’s juicy chronicle of sexual and political intrigue within Golden Age Hollywood’s not-very-closeted lesbian crowd is a camp classic as outrageous as anything Marlene Dietrich ever filmed. Beautiful women wearing tuxedos, drugs ingested through various orifices, fabulous jewels of mysterious provenance, Communist spies secretly married to movie stars — all these and more are the gaudy raw materials from which McLellan’s tale is fabricated.

And “fabricated” is an apt word for an author whose dubiously reliable primary sources include show-biz memoirs and FBI files, and whose deductive reasoning, by her own account, runs like this: “One big proven lie reveals far more than dozens of widely reported ‘truths.’ ”

Actually, McLellan believes she’s exposed two big lies: that Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo had never met before Orson Welles introduced them in 1945, and that Dietrich was never married before she wed Rudi Sieber in 1923 or ’24. On the contrary, McLellan asserts, Dietrich’s first husband was a suave Communist named Otto Katz who was the father of her daughter, Maria.

Popular on Variety

A few months after Maria was born on Dec. 12, 1924, Dietrich played an unbilled supporting role in “The Joyless Street,” a silent movie starring Greta Garbo. While filming in Berlin, McLellan writes, the new mom and the 19-year-old Swede had a torrid affair that ended so painfully Garbo was still holding a grudge about it when Dietrich arrived in Hollywood five years later.

From these two shakily established cornerstones — we’ll get into McLellan’s documentation in a moment — the author constructs a whole city of castles in the air. Why did Garbo and Dietrich claim they’d never met? Gun-shy after a few coy gossip-column hints about her amorous preferences, Greta wanted no connection with the flamboyantly bisexual Marlene. (Almost all the women portrayed here, including Garbo, slept with men as well, though McLellan implies that they liked girls better.)

In McLellan’s reconstruction of events, The Swedish star’s best buddy, the more discreetly bisexual screenwriter Salka Viertel, ensured Dietrich’s cooperation by threatening to reveal her connection to Otto Katz. The author goes on to claim that when they met again in Europe in the mid-1930s, Katz, now a full-time Soviet agent, gave Dietrich a magnificent set of emeralds that had once belonged to Russia’s czarina. “Over the years … very slowly and discreetly, she sold them off” to benefit Otto’s comrades.

During World War II, panicky to establish her loyalty to Uncle Sam, German-born Dietrich confided her political problems to well-connected former lover Tallulah Bankhead, who picked up the phone and called her pal “Jack” Hoover, who had Marlene’s FBI file closed and enlisted her as an informant.

No, I’m not making this up, but McLellan might as well be. Much of her material about Otto Katz is based on highly speculative inferences drawn from FBI documents of the sort that prompt long, boring exchanges between former Stalinists in the Letters column of The Nation.

When it comes to her subjects’ sex lives, McLellan shares celebrity biographer Donald Spoto’s gift for footnoting absolutely everything except the most lurid and improbable details. She also has his habit of reprinting as verbatim conversations that prove, when you consult the notes, to have been quoted by a third party who wasn’t there in a memoir written 40 years after the fact.

“Plainly,” “obviously,” “there’s little question,” “evidently,” “doubtless,” and “must have” to quote from a single passage hardly more than a page long are her preferred phrases for introducing assertions about which there is scant plainness, no obviousness, many questions, little evidence, and lots of doubt.

Mind you, McLellan’s lip-smacking narrative of Hollywood’s Sapphic underground is loads of fun to read, and a lot of it is probably true. Predominantly lesbian stars like Alla Nazimova and Eva Le Gallienne were fairly open about their sexuality even in the early decades of the 20th century, and the rumors about less candid (or more ambivalent) performers like Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and torch singer Libby Holman have been floating around for so long you can hardly fault McLellan for repeating them one more time.

Her more outlandish flights of narrative fancy arose, one comes to suspect, from the author’s covert realization that slinging together a lot of 70- and 80-year-old anecdotes, however dishy, might not provide quite enough substance for a whole book.

Contrasting these worldly, elegant stars, who traded in ambiguity and mystery, with their more earnest, more affirmatively lesbian counterparts of today, we can see that what’s been gained in honesty has been lost in glamour.

“The Girls” may be slipshod in its methodology and breathless in its prose, but McLellan does give readers a nice sense of a gossipy, inbred world in which homosexual affairs were “exciting secrets” to be relished in private, not just another piece of unduly intimate personal information to be laid out before a public so jaded it can no longer be scandalized.

More Reviews

  • Mob Town

    'Mob Town': Film Review

    “Who doesn’t love spaghetti?” asks New York State Trooper Ed Croswell (David Arquette) while on a date with single mother Natalie (Jennifer Esposito) in “Mob Town,” and the answer, according to Danny A. Abeckaser’s film, is no one. The traditional Italian dish figures prominently in this low-rent Mafia tale, which — based on an infamous [...]

  • Code 8

    'Code 8': Film Review

    Essentially a humbler, grungier indie “X-Men” without the same dependence on splashy effects, “Code 8” is a solid genre effort from director Jeff Chan. Spun off from his prior short of the same name, the crowdfunded effort is resourceful and polished on a tight budget. Its fast-paced progress has enough appeal to suggest a possible [...]

  • Harry Styles Fine Line Album

    Harry Styles' 'Fine Line': Album Review

    Harry Styles has chosen to use his superpowers for good and not evil. These powers were vested in him by the superstar status of One Direction, which with each passing month sets new records for longest hiatus ever, even as its members meander in multiple directions. The most satisfying of these detours has been Styles’ [...]

  • The Great War

    'The Great War': Film Review

    Coming to theaters across the nation soon, there is a powerful World War I picture, shot with the respectable ambition of simulating a single unbroken take. The bad news is, Steven Luke’s cliché-ladling combat picture is not that refined movie (called “1917”). What we have instead is “The Great War,” a start-to-finish inept battleground film [...]

  • 6 Underground

    Michael Bay's '6 Underground': Film Review

    If you’re planning to see “6 Underground” in theaters, be sure to get there on time. Within the first six minutes, Michael Bay destroys a plane, a motorcycle, three cars, countless pedestrians and the dignity of three Italian nuns. I’m fairly certain that Ryan Reynolds — who heads up the film’s off-the-grid vigilante squad, for [...]

  • Bellbird review

    'Bellbird': Film Review

    Mild, mellow, and as life-affirming as a soft fall of springtime New Zealand rain, Hamish Bennett’s charming if overfamiliar debut feature “Bellbird” is a fondly bittersweet tribute to the rural Northland of the director’s childhood. A portrait of a taciturn farmer father and his dutiful but indecisive son as they try to find a means [...]

  • Wisdom Tooth

    'Wisdom Tooth': Film Review

    Slippery and surprising, full of odd details and insights, and leaching significant visual and thematic texture from its unusual setting, Liang Ming’s “Wisdom Tooth” must be one of the year’s most remarkable debuts. Set in a depressed Chinese fishing town close to the Korean border during the first snow flurries of winter, the film is [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content