Part 1 - About John Gilbert
From lowly beginnings to superstar
LYNN DOUGHERTY: About his childhood, which is still kind of murky for me, do you think that his horrific childhood might have anything to do with his later troubles, i.e., drinking, etc?
EVE GOLDEN: It’s hard to tell because you can have two people with similar childhoods and they turn out differently. He did have a tough childhood, but tough as it was, it’s hard to tell because he just romanticized and made things sound a lot worse than they were. He demonized his mother and I really wanted to give her an even break so I went back and found out that his mother actually had quite a good career and was a talented actress.
You have to look at things from her side and say that this is a single mother dragging a kid with her all over the country working as an actress; and that’s a tough life. I really tried to give her an even break.
He was probably a difficult kid as he was a difficult adult, but he was very lucky and he got into films at THE perfect time, with lots of connections and got work right away. He really had a charmed career.He was very thin skinned, took everything to heart, not only a perfectionist, but was very easily insulted and it’s hard to play armchair psychologist, but I’m guessing bipolar. I have a couple of bipolar friends who read the book and said, “Oh my God, that’s me.”
LD: I was going to ask you about his being bipolar because in the book on page 148, it’s mentioned and I was wondering how you felt about it.
EG: I think so, but I said in the book that I was only guessing and these are the reasons that I think he might have been and, since the book came out I've heard from some people who are bipolar who said he was, “absolute textbook,” even the drinking, because a lot of bipolar self medicate with alcohol.
LD: You said in the book, “he came from nothing and he was glad to be part of it and didn’t look down on it like theater people did and he was happy to be where he was. It’s such an example of what could have been and wasn’t.”
EG: He really had a good time when he could, even right up to the end. Thank goodness he was smart and kept his money, I mean could you imagine if he’d gone through all that and had been broke.
LD: How early do you think he got into this drinking heavily?
EG: It didn't really become a problem until his career started going downhill. He drank a lot; certainly from the early 20’s he was on all the bootlegger’s lists, but it didn't become a problem until about 1926. And it wasn't a health and career problem until after the talkies.
LD: And, so was alcohol a key player in his death?
EG: It’s probably what killed him. I spoke to a Forensic Pathologist, who said it might not actually have been a heart attack that killed him, but it might have instead been an aneurysm, or an ulcer from the drinking, but there was no autopsy done, so we’ll never know for sure.
LD: How long was he ill before he died?
EG: Really, he was ill for three or four years, but he was critically ill for about four months. His health had been going downhill for years from the drinking and malnutrition because he was always underweight and you can see in some of the photos from the early 30’s that he was dangerously underweight. Virginia Bruce said he had the bleeding ulcers and he was vomiting blood and so he was in poor health for about four years, but it was about four months of really serious illness before he died.
THE ATTRACTION OF JOHN GILBERT
LD: His women - which of his women was Gilbert’s ultimate love, Garbo or one of his wives?
EG: Oh, he would say all of them. The last woman he saw was the love of his life. I’m sure that nurse that was taking care of him at the end of his life was the love of his life. That’s what he was like. But, the Garbo thing, that only really lasted a couple of months and he was still in love with her. And, one thing I find really interesting is that out of all the women he was with, Garbo was the only one who ever badmouthed him. All of his ex-wives had nothing but lovely things to say about him. And, Garbo was the only one that was kind of embarrassed by the whole thing and bad mouthed him.
LD: Until recently most of his silent films were not really available to see. I had never seen Flesh and the Devil before, for example, and when I saw it, I immediately became interested in him because, I thought “Wow, that man has electricity plus” in this film and he was as gorgeous as Garbo was.
EG: Oh, he was amazing and, so good looking.
LD: Gilbert and Garbo - so many myths have been written about these two, but after reading your book it seems that the affair wasn’t as much as the press made of it. Is that a fair assessment? Was Garbo his true love?
EG: I think he just swept her off her feet. I don’t think she was ever in love with him. I think she was bowled over by him; swept along for a couple of months and then basically backed off like Hell. Gilbert fell in love at the drop of a hat; he would fall in love with the waitress who brought him his coffee in the morning and every woman he met was the love of his life. I really find the Dietrich/Gilbert relationship much more interesting than the Garbo/Gilbert relationship because they were both grownups and I think that was a much more adult relationship and she tried to help him as he tried to help her.
This interview with Eve is a long and a rewarding one that I have divided into four parts.
Click on the links below to read each section:
- Part 1 - About Gilbert - From lowly beginnings to superstar
- Part 2 - Gilbert's film career - Silent to Sound
- Part 3 - Gilbert’s demise - The perfect storm of awfulness
- Part 4 - About the author - Eve Golden