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.

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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.

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