Greta Garbo would have turned 100 this year. No doubt there will be a spate of new books about the actress, reexamining her mystique, her films, and her reclusive personal life. I remember all the hoopla a few years ago when they finally unsealed the letters that Garbo had written to lesbian socialite Mercedes de Acosta (they weren’t allowed to open them until ten years after Garbo’s 1990 death). Everyone thought the correspondence would finally confirm or debunk the long-rumored affair between the two women but it didn’t do either. Who knows what made that woman tick. You have to admire someone who was arguably the most famous person in the world for being able to keep the feral presshounds at bay for so long. Garbo never married during her long life, although she did have intense relationships with several famous men including conductor Leopold Stokowski and poor John Gilbert (who she left standing at the altar in 1927). Garbo was so secretive about the details of her personal life that her lawyers had a hard time locating her relatives following her death.
Like Garbo, I place an enormous value in solitude. I love being with my family and friends, of course, but if I go too long without some serious alone time, I start to feel the poisonous Mr. Hyde bubbling up inside my Dr. Jekyl. I remember when Linda McCartney died in 1998, a huge deal was made about the fact that she and Paul McCartney never spent a single night apart in all the years they were married except for the 10 days he was in a Tokyo jail in the 1970s because of a pot arrest. Oy, if these fantastically busy people were able to spend that much time together, was there something wrong with me that I had absolutely no desire to be joined at the hip in that way with my significant other or anyone else?
Is this partly because of some lack of boundaries I have when I’m with other people? Do I end up exhausting myself to the point where I need to go into seclusion to recover? Is my need for solitude founded in some basic insecurities about myself? Does it come from my timidity or my constant fear of loss? Could it be because I spent far too many hours during my formative years holed up in my room alone watching “The Waltons” and old Andy Hardy movies on TV? It's a mixed bag—sometimes the dichotomy between wanting to be alone and the craving I feel to be with others makes me feel like I’m going insane. "Please ignore me." "How DARE you ignore me!"
A lot of people I know have views of relationships that do not allow for much time apart. If I tell my father, for example, that I’m going to a movie or to dinner or anywhere else by myself I am greeted with stunned silence on the phone. “Is Kendall sick?” he’ll finally ask. “No.” “Is she out of town?” “No.” And then, in a very serious voice, “Is everything okay between you two?” “YES!” You’d think by the ten-thousandth repeat of this exchange he’d grasp that we often do things on our own and this doesn’t signal our impending divorce. Au contraire—it’s preventing it!
In younger days, I used to frequently travel to Europe by myself. What heaven it was to be able to do just what I wanted when I wanted without ever having to worry about anyone else’s agenda. To this day, I can’t stand visiting museums with other people since I so enjoy wandering aimlessly at my own pace. I’ve always preferred seeing movies by myself, too. I loathe the pressure of having to quickly come up with my assessment of a film during the closing credits. And since I think anyone who talks during a film should be drawn and quartered, I prefer to view theatres as a solitary destination. (Kendall doesn't mind—she usually thanks me for sparing her from my cinematic diet of suicidal Scandinavians and aging Nazis.)
My job requires lots of solitude. While the relationship between editor and author can be quite intimate, most of these bonding exchanges take place when each party is alone in a room with a stack of paper. Writing in a blog is yet another solitary act that causes me to examine my simultaneous need for being alone and my hunger for human connection.
Pascal commented that “the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Picasso remarked that “without great solitude no serious work is possible.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, “What a commentary on our civilization, when being alone is considered suspect; when one has to apologize for it, make excuses, hide the fact that one practices it—like a secret vice!”
For the record, Greta Garbo always bemoaned how her line from “Grand Hotel” was misquoted over the years. She didn’t actually say “I vant to be alone,” she said, “I vant to be LEFT ALONE.” That's entirely different, isn't it?