Normally, I'm not a kiss-and-tell guy. (Ask anybody, I'm strictly a "tell" guy.) But somebody has to set the record straight about Greta Garbo. Since her death, everyone and his dog has written melancholy, self-serving reminiscences about Garbo: Daniel Schorr met Garbo for 10 minutes over lunch 33 years ago and complains on the op-ed page that he found her supremely uninteresting -- probably because she didn't ask him about Daniel Schorr; the actor who was Jimmy Olson on TV's "Superman" proves why he was never promoted above cub reporter at the Daily Planet by writing in Outlook, aimlessly recalling meetings with Garbo in Switzerland; finally, on the letters page, some guy from Bethesda breathlessly moons over the highlight of his life: Forty years back Greta Garbo smiled at him, he claims.
Garbo thought they were all dopes.
She told me.
"Especially Schorr," she said. "What an ego! He wasn't in the door two seconds, and already he's telling me he's much smarter than John Foster Dulles. We were eating soup. I said, 'So, Mr. Foreign Policy Expert, if you're so smart, how come your tie is lying in the vichyssoise?' "
Garbo was a hoot.
She could chug her beer too. I mean, she could really pound some Budweiser. Hell of a broad. I miss her like crazy.
"Dearie," she used to say to me, "dearie, you and me, we could sell a few papers with what's under my hat, couldn't we?"
The first time I met her was at Madison Square Garden, Rangers vs. Bruins, 1973. Garbo was sitting in her usual seat, behind the penalty box, banging her fist against the glass, and screaming at the referee to correct the injustices being committed against her beloved Rangers. "Gif him a penalty, baby, and doan be stingy with the minutes! Gif him a 10-minute misconduct! Keep him in the box so long he grows new teeth."
Garbo was a big hockey fan. A Swedish thing, I guess.
I was a sportswriter working on a feature on hockey crowds. Something about Garbo looked familiar. It was her big floppy hat -- I'd thrown one just like it into the dumpster the week before.
She saw me staring, and pulled out a $5 bill.
"Get me a couple of brewskis, dearie," she commanded. Then, with a wink of her eye, she threw her head back and sang, "What'll ya haf, Pabst Blue Ribbon!"
I was stunned. I didn't move.
"You heard Miss Garbo," a fat guy in a Mets cap hollered at me. "Bring her a couple of beers."
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. She had me over for dinner after every Rangers game. She borrowed my clothes. (It was my hat, by the way. It turned out she passed that dumpster on her daily walk.) She lent some of my suits to Katharine Hepburn. "Kate likes a high rise," Garbo told me. "Not me. I tell my tailor, 'Gif me a lot of room in the seat, and doan be stingy.' "
We used to watch TV together for hours at a time. Mostly reruns of cartoon shows. Whatever we were doing had to stop at 6:30 when "The Flintstones" came on Channel 5. She would sit on her couch, her legs tucked up under her like a barn swallow, and howl "Yabba-dabba-doo!" along with Fred. Barney was her favorite character, though; Garbo said he "had the eyes of a poet." She loved cartoons. Garbo confessed that her torrid love affair with Mel Blanc began "because he made me swoon when he talked like Daffy Duck."Garbo's favorite non-animated show was "The Hollywood Squares." She told me Paul Lynde was "the funniest man I've seen since August Strindberg." She acknowledged her taste on the tube was rather lowbrow. "I watch the dreck," she said unashamedly. "Gif me the schmutz, and doan be stingy." Just a few days before she died, Garbo called to tell me how much she liked "Capital News."
I was fascinated by Garbo's comments about some of her contemporaries. She didn't like either Bette Davis, "a cheap slut with a Camel," or Gloria Swanson, "the Deborah Norville of the '20s." But Garbo was extremely close with Zsa Zsa Gabor -- so close she simply called her "Zsa." Garbo thought Zsa Zsa was the most underrated actress of them all. "She'd have knocked their socks off in 'Driving Miss Daisy,' " Garbo insisted. "Zsa was heartbroken when they gave the part to that scrawny Jessica Tandy. I told her, 'Zsa, you should've lost some weight. They want you riding in the back of a Cadillac, not on a forklift.' " (Garbo was loyal to the Gabor family. She never forgave CBS for canceling "Green Acres.")
Over the years people sent Garbo unsolicited scripts, but she turned them all down. The only parts she ever expressed interest in to me were Rocky's wife, Adrian -- "I could have done much more with her in 'Rocky III,' I could have given her flight" -- and the Melanie Griffith part in "Working Girl," which she declined to pursue, "because I doan take the Staten Island ferry."
After I moved to Washington we still visited each other occasionally -- it's a shame she didn't hold on a few weeks longer, I would have gotten her tickets to the Rangers-Capitals playoff at Capital Centre. She called often, and she never forgot my birthday; last year she sent a videotape of her singing her favorite song, "M-M-M My Sharona," which she began by telling the band, "Gif me a little bit of bass from those 88s, and doan be stingy with the backbeat, baby."
Garbo was always amused that so many people made a fuss about spotting her. A few years ago we were on our way to an ABBA concert and she said to me, "I'm an 80-year-old woman dressed like a bag lady walking the streets of Manhattan. There's 10,000 just like me between 51st and 57th streets. Tell me dearie, what's the big deal?"
This is excerpted from Tony Kornheiser's new book, "Garbo & Me," which will be published in July.