In the movie “Grand Hotel,” Greta Garbo uttered the line that came to define her: “I want to be alone.” But if that’s what she really wanted, she should have never come to Palm Beach, FL.
In the movie “Grand Hotel,” Greta Garbo uttered the line that came to define her: “I want to be alone.” But if that’s what she really wanted, she should have never come to Florida.
Eighty years ago this month, the enigmatic Garbo -- one of Hollywood’s most glamorous and mysterious stars -- arrived at Palm Beach accompanied by her diet guru and supposed love interest, Gayelord Hauser.
She planned a discreet sojourn at the height of see-and-be-seen Season. Naturally, it didn’t go so well.
The reserved, privacy-obsessed Garbo -- dubbed the Swedish Sphinx by a press that breathlessly tracked her every move -- checked into the Whitehall Hotel, which then was a 300-room, ten-story add-on at the back of Henry Flagler’s landmark mansion along Coconut Row. Being Garbo, she commanded the best room, a penthouse suite with spacious terraces and stunning waterfront views.
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But she fled the island fled four days later, apparently unable to stand all the attention from jewel-encrusted socialites, proving that even jaded Palm Beachers can gawk like the rest of us when a luminous star shoots across their horizon.
Garbo and Hauser were supposed to stay here for two weeks. It would have overlapped with the announcement that she had received an Oscar nomination -- her third --- for playing a Russian taskmaster softened up by a trip to Paris in Ernst Lubitsch’s exquisite comedy “Ninotchka.” (“Garbo Laughs!” went the ad campaign, one of the most famous in Hollywood history.)
Before arriving in Florida, gossip columnists were abuzz that Hauser, a Dr. Oz of his day but without any medical degree, had put Garbo on a vegetarian diet. And there was speculation that he would succeed where others had failed -- wooing the reluctant star to the altar.
Well, the first mistake Garbo made in her quest for a quiet vacation was lunching at the same place as a Palm Beach Post reporter.
Entertainment columnist Emelie C. Keyes was noshing with her hubby and friends at The Alibi restaurant on Worth Avenue (where a Tory Burch boutique now stands). They were enjoying an afternoon on the sun-drenched patio when a friend whispered in Keyes’ ear:
“Don’t look now, but there’s Greta Garbo!”
Keyes immediately dropped all pretense of journalistic objectivity. She definitely gawked.
“Almost nose-diving into my cold roast beef and turkey in my excitement,” Keyes wrote, “I murmured an excuse for exchanging places with my husband, who had a chair with a view, and trusted that (Garbo) couldn’t see me staring through my sunglasses.”
It was front page news the next day, Feb. 9, 1940, in The Palm Beach Post: “Greta Garbo Laughs, Diets As She Pays Palm Beach Her First Visit With Dr. Hauser.“ She shared top of the page space with reports of the widening war in Europe.
There’s no indication in the story that she actually laughed. It might have been hard to tell, since Garbo’s face, the subject of many a rapturous photo, was covered by an enormous sun-hat.
But she was adhering to Hauser’s eating regimen, which he had imposed on other famous clients, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
“The stories about the health diet that Dr. Hauser has put her on are NOT press agent fabrication,” Keyes wrote. “Sitting in a typical mid-winter Palm Beach setting, she drank her buttermilk, ate her vegetable salad and hot vegetables, (along) with fresh fruit for dessert.”
Hauser, whom Keyes described as strikingly handsome in a brown turtlenecked sweater, was very strict. “He personally made sure that the French dressing was made with lemon juice,” Keyes reported.
She also testified that Garbo did not exude Hollywood glamour. “She was just a tall, pale girl, with a tiny suspicion of sunburn, with long straight hair hanging from beneath the huge hat, who looked as thought she might have benefited by some of the roast beef rather than the vegetarian luncheon she was consuming.”
As Keyes put it, Garbo’s penchant for “intensive secrecy” extended to not signing the restaurant’s guest book. After lunch, her party slipped out a side entrance, jumped into a taxi for a block, got out and then sped off in a waiting car, Keyes reported.
But they were soon found at the Whitehall hotel, where Garbo was seen lunching with Hauser and business manager Frey Brown in the hotel’s Jardin Royal room. (She had a stalk of celery, leek soup, and a mixed green salad with avocados, tomatoes and lemon dressing.)
According to the Miami Herald, she also shopped on Worth Avenue, and only received two guests at her hotel suite: Antoine, hairdresser to the celebs, and A. Atwater Kent, an inventor whose company mass-produced radios.
Socialites weren’t on her list. But islanders apparently started getting wind of Garbo’s presence and the Jardin Royal was “thronged with visitors” hoping to get a glimpse, the Post reported. This didn’t go over well with Garbo.
Four days after arriving at what the Herald described as “one of Palm Beach’s flossiest hotels,” she, Hauser and Brown suddenly decamped for Miami and the Keys.
“”Maybe Garbo’s Here to Escape Ogling,“ the Herald headline stated on Feb. 13.
“Ironically, it was...Palm Beach’s sophisticated socialites, who themselves go to great lengths to stay out of range of the curious, that caused La Garbo to cancel her plans for a considerable stay and skip,” the paper reported.
“The Great Garbo,” United Press added, was “fed up with the stares of Palm Beach’s socially prominent.”
By Feb. 15, Garbo and Hauser were spotted on a boat in the Keys and later in Nassau. When her yacht returned to Miami near the end of the month, some 300 fans and waiting press cooled their heels for hours hoping to meet Garbo. She stayed true to her solitary self, and escaped the boat cloaked in secrecy.
Surprisingly, considering Garbo’s quick exit from Palm Beach, the Post’s Keyes reported months later that she was looking on the island for a vacation villa.
As for her reputed romance with Hauser, it may or may not have happened, and, if true, he was probably seeking attention more than love. Life magazine reported that Hauser told press outlets before he came to Florida that he would marry Garbo while here. One Garbo biographer said Hauser’s relentless courting of publicity on that trip angered the star.
Also, there was the fact that he was gay. According to many accounts, Hauser and business manager Frey Brown were romantic partners. So Hauser was probably Garbo’s beard and she his. They remained lifelong friends, though, and she often stayed at his home during trips to Los Angeles.
Author Rebecca Harrington, in an article for the cut.com, speculated that Garbo and Hauser were really “bonded” not by romance, but “by their love of caloric restriction.”
Nevertheless, Garbo didn’t stick with his diet for long. One month after their visit to Palm Beach, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham wrote, “Garbo is completely off the Hauser diet of nuts and carrot juice (and) eats meat twice a day, but dissipates possible fat by exercising violently for an hour and a half every morning.”
Hauser is mostly forgotten today, but he’s one of those curious semi-celebrities that every century produces. He believed foods had “curative power,” according to the New York Times, claiming that a healthy diet had once helped rid him of tuberculosis of the hip. His diet plan, which came with unsupported promises of longer life, was heavy on so-called “wonder foods,” including wheat germ, yogurt and blackstrap molasses.
In his heyday, Hauser was popular on the lecture circuit, “a charismatic speaker with a Liberace-like flirtatiousness with his almost entirely female audience,” according to writer Shoshi Parks. Among his engagements was a three-day series of lectures in 1928 at the West Palm Beach Woman’s Club.
Hauser had a newspaper column and wrote many books, including the bestseller “Look Younger, Live Longer.” He counted not just Garbo, but Hollywood legends Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Gloria Swanson and Ingrid Bergman among his followers.
While some call him one of the earliest proponents of natural, healthy eating, much of the medical community discounted his theories, and the government required him to truthfully label his products and stop claiming to be a doctor or scientist. He was essentially accused of being a quack.
But he lived to 89 and proved to be smart in more than marketing -- according to the New York Times, he and Garbo owned and developed property on Beverly Hills’ pricey Rodeo Drive, making them landlords on one of America’s most upscale shopping streets. And to this day, Hauser, who died at age 89 in 1984 (six years before Garbo), has his name on a series of diet products.
Author Harrington once tried the Garbo-Hauser diet, later incorporating it into a book about celebrities’ fad eating habits. She skipped Garbo’s three-week, spinach-only fast, but dutifully downed other Hauser specialties: celery loaf, wild rice hamburgers, raw eggs mixed in orange juice, molasses with yeast, etc.
After 10 days, she lost four pounds -- and her mind.
No wonder Garbo “wanted” to be alone, Harrington concluded; it was the only way “she could bear the pain of such an insane eating regimen.”
This story was based on original reporting in The Palm Beach Post, The Miami Herald and The New York Times, as well as some information from Vanity Fair, thecut.com, timeline.com, Wikipedia and the books “Garbo,” by Antoni Gronowicz and “Antoine” by Antoine.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.