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The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood.

Secret sirens

Fresh dirt on the lesbian amours of Garbo, Dietrich, and Hollywood's golden girls

The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood * Diana McLellan * L.A. Weekly Books * $25.95

If you have genealogy software, you might want to use it while reading this entertaining chronicle of lesbian interconnection in Hollywood. First, plug in these names: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes de Acosta, Alla Nazimova, and Tallulah Bankhead. Then add a laundry list of their lovers, female and male, which will include a number of repeats. Pretty soon, you'll have an unimaginably gnarly sapphic family tree.

To McLellan's credit, she's somehow been able to both unearth and untangle all these liaisons. Rather than considering one woman at a time, she tells their stories together as an interwoven Hollywood history, beginning in the silent era with actresses Nazimova and Natacha Rambova (who married Rudolph Valentino) and ending rather pitifully with the deaths of Dietrich and Garbo in the early 1990s.

Along the way, there are famous lesbians and bisexuals galore, including actress Eva Le Gallienne, dancer Isadora Duncan, and comic Patsy Kelly. The first two were among the conquests of the suave poet-playwright De Acosta, a lesbian gladiator of the first magnitude; the latter was Bankhead's all-purpose companion. As Kelly reportedly once told author Boze Hadleigh, "Tallu didn't just enjoy stimulatin' conversations.... And whatever milady desired, I was glad to provide--in quantity!"

One of the less glamorous but more fascinating appearances is by anarchist Emma Goldman, briefly a lover of Nazimova. McLellan speculates that Goldman, who had been trained as a nurse and midwife in Vienna, must have specialized in "vulvular massage," a then-respectable treatment for soothing women's "hysteria." McLellan suggests that Goldman's "massage" was, in effect, Nazimova's "Sapphic initiation." The heart of the book is the long-held secret of Garbo and Dietrich's own love affair, which McLellan says occurred while they were filming G.W. Pabst's 1925 film The Joyless Street in Berlin. For the next 60 years, even though they shared other lovers, the two women would pretend they had never even met. Only some cinematic sleuthing combined with certain revelations from Dietrich herself convinced McLellan otherwise.

Although a bit flowery and repetitive, the book's a hoot and a compelling read. A few of today's Hollywood lesbians may be out and loudly proud, but they'll probably never seem as sexy as the ones who kept their "dirty" secrets so well and so long.

Kort is working on a biography of Laura Nyro for St. Martin's Press.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Kort, Michele
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 5, 2000
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