Interview with Karen Swenson

by Claire E. White

Photograph of  Karen Swenson
Born in San Francisco, Karen Swenson spent most of her childhood in White Bear Lake, a suburb outside St. Paul, Minnesota. After a year of college, she moved to sunny Southern California determined to find a home in the land of entertainment and movies. After several jobs including stints at local studios, record companies, public relations and talent agencies, she landed a job as project coordinator on Barbra Streisand's multi-media collection, Just for the Record... while racking up some impressive writing credits. She wrote Barbra: The Second Decade (Citadel Press, 1986), co-wrote Judy and Liza with James Spada (Doubleday, 1983), and provided research assistance on several other projects including Streisand: The Woman and the Legend (James Spada, Doubleday, 1981), Preston Sturges: Between Flops (James Curtis, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), Brando: A Biography in Photographs (Christopher Nickens, Doubleday, 1987), and Rainbow's End: The Judy Garland Show (Coyne Steve Sanders, William Morrow, 1990). Known for her excellent research skills, Karen loves researching her books almost more than writing them. She talked with us about her new book Greta Garbo: A Life Apart (Scribner), her love of the research process and what it takes to be a celebrity biographer.

Did you watch a lot of movies growing up? What did you like?

I think I had a normal interest in movies as a kid. I liked all kinds of films: the musicals that my mother grew up on, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment as well as the experimental filmmakers of the time, from François Truffaut to Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman. (That should "date" me!)

How did you get from Minnesota to Los Angeles; what prompted the move?

My interest in Barbra Streisand as a teenager--I thought (and still think) she's one of the greatest--got me interested in the entertainment business in general, movies and music. I left college at the end of my first year expecting to pursue my studies in Southern California. I found work instead. That turned out to be my education.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I never planned to be a writer, I just "fell into" it -- and found that I not only could write, but that I liked it. I especially enjoy doing the research.

What was your first paying job as a writer?

I started out as a junior publicist, writing press releases and articles for industry trade magazines. In the meantime, I did some writing on the side for my own enjoyment.

How did you land the job as project coordinator for Barbra Streisand's multimedia collection, Just for the Record?

I got a contract from Citadel Press to write a book on Barbra Streisand. Barbra: The Second Decade was not a biography, it was a study of a specific phase of her career, but I did interviews and research as if it were a real biography -- and, because of a particularly bad experience she had been through recently, I decided to share my work with her. The "gamble" paid off. Although she had intended to keep a "hands-off" approach, I encouraged her (through an intermediary) to let me know about even the tiniest of errors; I wanted to get it right. The next thing I knew, I was working with her manager, Marty Erlichman. A year after the publication of my book, he offered me a job on Just for the Record... At the end of this project, they asked me to stay on as Ms. Streisand's personal archivist.

Let's talk about Greta Garbo: A Life Apart. After the biography written by Barry Paris, some people felt that the definitive biography of Garbo had been written. What inspired you to write your biography?

Cover of Greta Garbo: A Life Apart
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If you don't mind, I'd like to digress a little here. I did not know about the Barry Paris book in the beginning. You have to go back almost eight (!) years. As Just for the Record... was coming to an end, I began to ponder what I wanted to do next. Garbo had passed away a few months earlier and in the Fall of 1990 I went to some screenings at the L.A. County Museum which inspired me to reconsider her life and work. The film that was most influential was Queen Christina. I began to think about Garbo's life as reflected through the making of that film -- and the comparisons and contrasts with the screen Christina versus the real-life Kristina. I thought it would be an interesting book and mentioned it to a friend who's also a writer. He said that his editor had just asked him about Garbo, but that he didn't have a good "feel" for her and passed. I asked him if he would make the introductions, which he did. That editor was the highly-esteemed Lisa Drew. She liked my idea, but said she wanted a full-fledged biography. It took me a year to put together a proposal which not only satisfied her, but also the more demanding (and incredibly important) marketing department.

I found out I had a contract while I was on my first research trip. I had decided to turn a well-earned vacation into a full-scale European adventure geared towards gathering information about Garbo. I was standing in a phone book outside the Cinematheque Française when my agent told me we had a deal. It was dusk, and as I looked across the Seine the Eiffel Tower had just been illuminated with the golden evening lights. It was great!

When I learned about Barry Paris' book, it didn't deter me because, although I expected his book to be good, I knew I was finding things that he hadn't. I also hoped that my viewpoint as a Swedish-American and as a woman would be an advantage. Finally, the very existence of his book (and a couple of unexpected delays) bought me more time to work on mine!

What do you feel is new about your Garbo biography? What do you feel your book brings to the subject that others have missed?

There's so much new information in A Life Apart. Some of it is more subtle, correcting factual errors and re-positioning popular myths; some of it is more obvious. I think I have more background on Sweden, Garbo's relationship with director Mauritz Stiller and her friendships with people like Mimi Pollak, Hörke Wachtmeister and Max Gumpel. There's more information on the aborted film in Constantinople, Garbo's early years in Hollywood, her relationships with John Gilbert, Mercedes de Acosta and many others, the truth about whether or not she was a spy during World War II, and the poignant tale of her comeback attempt in 1949. I think it's a more human story.

What was the most surprising fact you learned when working on the Garbo book?

There weren't many at first. I felt I knew Garbo pretty well and that it was mostly a matter of fleshing out her story and, as I mentioned, deconstructing myths. As work on the book evolved, however, the major surprise was that, with the exception of Mercedes de Acosta, I could not find one woman who claimed to have slept with Garbo. I knew about some who reportedly did -- but when I confronted one in particular, she was the one to offer (before I even asked) that she knew many people thought she and Garbo were lovers, but they weren't. She couldn't say for sure that Garbo wasn't attracted to her (this woman was much younger), but she said that "Miss G" was long past worrying about sexual conquests, and was glad to be rid of those entanglements. However, I did find several new male lovers, including actor Gilbert Roland and author Erich Maria Remarque.

You are known for your exhaustive research and attention to detail in your books. How do you organize your research projects? Do you use the Internet for research at all?

Can I talk about the research a bit? This is my favorite part of it, so forgive me if I go on. In the beginning, I wanted to travel as much like Garbo would have in the '20s and '30s as my finances would allow. On my first trip, I took the train to New York via Chicago -- everyone who has been pressed for time should be forced to slow down for once and take such a trip. This phase of the journey got me thinking about Garbo's feelings as she first crossed the United States in 1925 and how strange it must have been to be completely dependent on the one person who could translate the language for her.

"There's always room for those who have the spirit and determination. Cable and the Internet have certainly expanded the possibilities. It's just a matter of finding your own niche."
From New York, I flew to London, caught a connecting train to the coast and boarded a cruise ship bound for Sweden. My first view of Göteborg was much like Garbo's must have been decades earlier, with the ship making its way up the Danish coast into the blue-green waters of Göteborg harbor. Walking around town, I immediately felt a connection with the country and its people; it was almost as if I could feel the roots growing. It was magical. From Göteborg I took the train to Stockholm -- and clearly saw why so many Swedes end up in Minnesota! The countryside was very reminiscent of the area where I grew up. For the next six weeks, I traveled throughout Europe, conducting research in London, Paris, Monaco, Rome, Capri, Klosters (Switzerland) and Berlin. Sweden spoiled me because everyone seems to know English. Travelling in Germany, I was reminded again of Garbo's situation when she first went to Hollywood and, when there weren't any Swedes around, how much she must have lived in her head. I felt a lot of empathy for how isolated she was -- and how people confused that with her willingness to socialize. No doubt, once she began to speak English, people in Hollywood forgot that she was thinking in another language. I found her letters from this period profound in their sense of isolation and confusion and longing for something she would never be able to recapture: the Sweden of her youth.

I made many other research trips: to New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Rochester (NY), Madison (Wisconsin), Santa Fe (New Mexico). Inevitably, I always seemed to be drawn back to Sweden. Thank God for the PowerBook! With all the filing and cross-filing, I never would have been able to get the work done without taking my computer with me.

To be honest, I was afraid to get on the Internet for this project. Once you've had a few scares and get everything working again, you don't want to "jinx" everything by adding something new. I started writing in 1994, right as the Net was starting to become popular, and I feared that it would be a major distraction for me. So I waited until I had a final manuscript before I starting surfing.

For my new book, however, it's a different story. A smaller advance and shorter time-line inspired me to turn to the Internet for help -- and that effort has paid off in spades. I don't want to give away any secrets, but this new book will have a lot of new information which was largely made possible through research on the Net.

How did you track down the people sources for your books?

You start out with what you know and who you know. First, I wrote the federal agencies because I knew they would take the longest to respond. Then I wrote what I felt was a strong pitch letter and began writing the few people I did have addresses on. Then I wrote the authors of previous Garbo books (or related subjects). Establishing a network of friends with a common goal is incredibly important. We share information, addresses, leads, etc. Hopefully, by then the momentum of your work takes over and you start getting referrals through the interviews you do and the people you meet.

How do you get your sources to talk to you for the Garbo book? Was it difficult getting people to open up to you?

Finding people who knew Garbo and were willing to talk was incredibly difficult. Plus I had the disadvantage of having another writer going before me in many cases. Sometimes I was lucky and found people he didn't (or vice versa). Most important to me was the research. I decided to tackle this
"I never planned to be a writer, I just 'fell into' it -- and found that I not only could write, but that I liked it. I especially enjoy doing the research."
book as if Garbo had died 200 years ago and there was no one around to talk to. Okay, where do you begin when you're doing a biography of a historical figure? You find a paper trail; you begin with the libraries and archives. I wrote every one I could think of that might have something. I looked for letters in unusual places -- the auction houses were an unexpected help here. I went through magazines and newspapers day by day and month by month. You'd be surprised at the information you can find that hasn't been filtered through other people's memories. Knowing what I was talking about certainly helped to move some people to talk. The second most important thing is persistence. If the first letter doesn't get a response, don't give up: try another, then (if the subject is important) another. Find a phone number and follow through! (That's the hardest part for me because I'm normally shy.)

How long do you usually spend on research before actually writing the book?

This is more the publisher's decision than mine. If I had my way, I'd still be researching! And, indeed, I've found a few things since the book came out that I'd love to put in the book. But the writing took so long (over two years) that I continued to research during the day and write at night -- my favorite time.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in writing A Life Apart?

Meeting deadlines! Other than that, as far as the book itself was concerned, I would say it was that Garbo is the one person I know of who never seemed to feel compelled to share herself, her ambition, her fears, with even the closest of friends. She was skilled at charming her friends and deflecting the conversation into inconsequential territory. And she was pretty consistent about this. Friends did not press her. Then she would surprise you be confessing something intimate to a total stranger -- often a journalist -- which made her friends suspect these stories later.

If you could talk to Greta Garbo right now what would you ask her?

You know, I can't think of any one thing I would ask her. It would be fun to converse with her, but I think I would prefer to listen!

What do you enjoy most about writing celebrity biographies?

Well, I guess that's pretty obvious; I love doing the research. This book was six years in the making (five research; two writing). And, as I said, I still clip out items and put them in the file. Not to mention the fact that my Garbo research has helped enormously on my next book regarding Joan Crawford.

When you're not researching or writing, what do you like to do to relax?

I'm addicted to films. However, if you can get me out of the house, I love driving to the beach and watching the sunset. There are a lot of terrific places to get away in California -- I prefer ones that allow me to bring my dog. But I also dearly love to travel (although I hate flying). Right now, I'm planning an excursion into the Land of the Midnight Sun -- as soon as I'm done with Crawford.

Tell us about the Joan Crawford biography -- after Mommie Dearest, do you feel there is a different story to tell about Joan Crawford?

I just felt it was time to humanize her from that Saturday Night Live caricature. Mommie Dearest, the film, was like kabuki theater -- not based in reality. The book is another matter. It's the story of what goes wrong in a family, told from the children's point of view. It's an important book because it opened up the national dialogue on child abuse. But it is not a biography of Joan Crawford. Factually, there are a lot of inaccuracies in Mommie Dearest -- and nothing to tell us about the woman who befriended so many co-workers. The child saw a monster, but her friends saw someone else. That's what I want to write about. No excuses, no denials, just a fuller portrait.

For many years, the inner workings of Hollywood were largely kept secret. Has the Internet helped to change that?

I can't say the Internet has really helped me in terms of Hollywood. After all, I live and work here -- but it certainly opened up the rest of the country (and world) to me!

Do you see the market for entertainment reporters and writers expanding?

There's always room for those who have the spirit and determination. Cable and the Internet have certainly expanded the possibilities. It's just a matter of finding your own niche.

What is your advice to the novice writer hoping to break into entertainment writing?

Never give up. Keep writing, keep reading. Try to focus on the things you know about, the things that you love.

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