WHERE have all the sphinxes gone? There’s not a person on this planet today who could make my heart stop as it did when I saw Greta Garbo on Madison Avenue. It was the last day of 1985, on an afternoon steeped in that merciless brightness you associate with early winter in the city, and, suddenly, there she was: a bulky fur coat, a knitted watch cap and an unpainted face, as closed as a fist, behind big sunglasses that had no aspiration to trendiness.
Jacqueline Kennedy had an air of the unknowable.
If you didn’t know who she was, she was nothing special. She didn’t look chic, not even rich, amid the well-buffed, well-tailored women with big shopping bags and little dogs. But Miss Garbo had on something none of those ladies could afford: She was wearing six decades’ worth of well-documented silence. And that made her the most glamorous creature I had ever set eyes on.
From the moment she moved full time to the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan in the early 1950s, Greta Garbo was stalked, with unusual care and gentleness, by all sorts of people (some of them famous themselves) as a genuine rara avis, the choicest of all specimens of a soon-to-be extinct species.
Which she was. The Swedish-born actress, who retired from film before I was even born, became an international star as an enigmatic love goddess in silent movies, and she carried with her ever after an awareness that saying nothing is what becomes a legend most. And because she rarely spoke — aside from what her 10 years in talking pictures demanded of her — we were free to hear her whispering to us in our dreams.
Garbo couldn’t exist in the 21st century. I mean Garbo the lady of mystery, not the rather dull, stingy woman who is reported to have resided behind the persona. And it’s not just because she was the product of an ancient Hollywood studio system that insisted on keeping its stars fixed in a distant firmament. (A photographic publicity image from the 1920s grafted Garbo’s head, I swear, onto the body of a sphinx.)
Today’s democracy of technology would, of course, conspire to put a fast and brutal end to the tantalizing demi-invisibility that Garbo sustained so well. Everyone who possesses a cellphone now is a potential member of the paparazzi. Let a latter-day Garbo poke her head into a cheese shop, or slip out to pick up a toothbrush at the drugstore, and you can bet her image will be all over the Internet in a matter of minutes.
The romance of people discussing their Garbo sightings in hushed voices, as if they had seen a ghost or an indigo bunting out of season, would be replaced by the diminishing boasting of trophy hunters comparing shots. Disgruntled friends of Garbo’s, whom she’d stuck with the check perhaps or cut out of her life, would start anonymously posting unflattering tidbits on the Web about the size of her feet and her infantile sense of humor.
“Oh, her again,” you’d say, when her face popped up on Gawker or TMZ.com. And were the divine Greta (oh, perish the thought) reduced to posting desperately, “I vant to be alone,” we would all snicker in knowing contempt. “Yeah,” we’d snarl, “you and Lindsay Lohan, baby.”
The world, you see, no longer has any tolerance for — let alone fascination with — people who aren’t willing to publicize themselves. Figures swathed in shadows are démodé in a culture in which the watchword is transparency.
Increasingly, the perception is that everyone is knowable, everyone is accessible and that everyone is potentially a star. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, blogs, personal Web sites with open-door chat rooms, the endlessly proliferating television reality shows are now commonplace forums for the famous who want to seem like ordinary people and for ordinary people who want to seem famous. Us magazine’s rubric “Stars, they’re just like us!” has now been inverted to “Us, we’re just like stars.”
THE theory appears to be that if you never shut up, no one can forget you. And that to shut up is to withdraw from life. I was seated not long ago next to a magazine editor, discussing a former glamour girl who had disappeared to a farm in South America. “I think it’s cool she was able to go cold turkey on being a celebrity,” I said. The editor answered sadly: “Really? I see it as giving up.”
Fame has become an existential condition: If your image isn’t reflected back at you, then how do you know you’re alive? The problem is that, people being people, 24-hour visibility will ultimately breed if not contempt, then weary familiarity. That’s why the tabloids need a new generation of cover girls and boys every year or so, a breeding process facilitated by reality television. Jake, Vienna, Heidi, Spencer: blink and you’ll miss them, though you can bet they’ll keep using Twitter until they die.
Transparency, of course, is itself an illusion. To keep up with Gwyneth Paltrow’s dietary habits or Ashton Kutcher’s up-close views of his wife’s body isn’t really to know them. All that such informational minutiae do is make its dispensers more prosaic and monotonous, in the manner of friends you cannot get off the phone. I can’t pick up a magazine without seeing Ms. Paltrow promoting some fragrance or fashion product. When a new Paltrow movie opens I now find myself thinking, “I’ve spent quite enough time with you already, thank you.”
It’s not easy for the famous to hold out against the pressures of nonstop self-promotion and self-revelation. Jacqueline Onassis, a master of staying famous and unknowable, possessed a sort of self-feeding mega-celebrity that shows up only a few times in a century; Diana, Princess of Wales, had it, too, and weren’t we lucky that the royal family kept her from talking for as long as it did?
My heart sank when I saw that Julia Roberts had become the face of some cosmetics company. Ms. Roberts had been one of the few contemporary stars to keep her public at a seductive remove, a posture that did wonders for her image and, I imagine, her sanity. And, oh, the horror seeing Robert De Niro — he who once turned his broad back on the fans who begged to know him — plugging a film on a talk show.
Give credit to Tiger Woods for being about as sphinxlike as a superstar athlete can be these days — until, of course, the great fall came, with its choruses of chanting bimbos. Because Mr. Woods had such a great and singular talent, we were collectively willing not to poke into his life off the putting green.
A hunger abides in us to see mere mortals approaching perfection and I, for one, would just as soon not be asked to separate the dancer from the dance, or for that matter the beauty from the beauty. (Imagine Garbo visiting “America’s Next Top Model” to give tips on eyebrow plucking.) Artists of any kind — and that includes pop stars — are almost never as interesting as their art. And those with a superstitious resistance to describing what they do professionally are not wrong. (Note to Lady Gaga: Keep the masks on and the interviews to a minimum.)
When we first fall in love with people, they always seem remote, unattainable. Holding on to love after you’ve crossed the divide between you and the object of your desire is a chapter in achieving maturity; it’s what marriage is supposed to be. But there’s a part of us that needs to keep falling in love with the girl in the mists in the distance or the boy riding away on a horse. You’ve been there, I’m sure, and you know what happens when these dream girls and boys open their mouths or scratch themselves. The mystery dissolves like fog at sunrise.
So to honor a nearly forgotten time when there was romance in the unspoken, and human mystery wasn’t something that could be solved by the end of a television episode, might we now have a moment of silence?
No? I didn’t think so.