He couldn’t get her to the queen’s, but Green succeeded in getting Garbo to make a far more difficult visit—to Cecil Beaton. Their last and most serious falling-out was then several years old, caused by the publication of Beaton’s diaries—with many intimate Garbo passages—in 1972 and 1973. In her view, publishing the diaries (and their sensational serialization in the London newspapers) was an atomic bomb of betrayal. When Sam asked why he did it, Beaton told him that he had written Garbo to ask permission and, after a year with no reply, phoned her in new York but that she hung up on him. At that point, Beaton said he decided it would be dishonest to eliminate a major part of his life “because of this woman’s neurosis.” He felt insulted. Naively or disingenuously, he thought she would listen to his explanation and was crushed when she would not. Cécile was among many who later confronted him, asking how much money he’d made from Garbo over the years, then adding, “Even Stokowski didn’t sell his story to the papers!” Sam Green recalls: “Diana Cooper wouldn’t speak to him again. Diana Vreeland told him he was a horrible person. Truman Capote went on TV and criticized him—the pot calling the kettle black. Everybody attacked. He was humbled and embarrassed and riddled with guilt about it.” Even the sweet-tempered Deborah Kerr says, “I cut Beaton off dead when he published that.”
Green’s loyalty to Beaton—who was partially paralyzed from a 1974 stroke and very depressed—predated his friendship with Garbo by many years, and he was determined to reconcile the irreconcilable. Gently but relentlessly, he worked on her, emphasizing Cecil’s pathetic condition and equally pathetic desire to see her one last time: “In London that trip, I had her on a short leash. She really couldn’t move without me. I said, ‘You have to finish this up with Cecil. He’s very diminished. He’s had a stroke. You have to go and see him.’ She didn’t like the idea at all, but she really didn’t have any choice. It was a kind of blackmail, and when she weakened enough to say, ‘Well, maybe I should go,’ I made the arrangements fast.”
Garbo was so nervous that Green thought to the last minute she would back out—and she tried. “What happens if we arrive at the train station in Salisbury and he has photographers hiding in the trees?” she fretted on the train ride. Against all odds, in October 1975, Sam delivered her to Reddish House, Beaton’s home near Salisbury in the village of Broadchalke. They arrived just before dark and were led by Eileen Hose, his secretary, upstairs to Beaton’s drawing room, where he was seated by the fire in a fawn-colored suit, bright pink cravat, and trademark broad-brimmed hat. On seeing Garbo—her longish gray hair tied back with a shoelace—he began to weep. “Beatie,” she said, “I’m back,” leaning over and cupping his face in her hands, then looking straight into his eyes before kissing both checks. “Greta,” he said. “I’m so happy…”
It was the first time Sam had heard him get a name right since the stroke. She sat on his knee and snuggled against him like a child, to his great delight. Sam left them alone but returned just before dinner and helped pull Cecil to his feet. Now for the first time, Garbo saw how incapacitated he truly was. It took twenty minutes to shuffle to the dining room. At dinner, he had to have his food cut and he cried often, pointing to his paralyzed body and apologizing. His dignity was shattered. “Everyone went to bed right after dinner,” says Green, “and I’m positive the sandman didn’t visit her that night.”
The departure next afternoon was no easier. In the middle of his tearful farewell embrace, which seemed to be lasting an eternity, Garbo—over Beaton’s shoulder—spotted a guest book by the front door and used it as a polite way to disengage. She had never been so willing or eager to sign her name, says Sam.
Hugo Vickers, Beaton’s biographer, called Garbo’s visit of forgiveness the most important moment of Beaton’s life. Green says it was a brilliant, bittersweet performance and the most generous act of her life.
Garbo by Barry Paris