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Dear Nella: What Did You See?


Dear Nella,

I was terribly disappointed that you didn’t get here last week. And I was furious with myself for mentioning the damned wedding to you because it turned out that I didn’t go. People kept coming in and then deciding not to go on to the wedding, so we were here until eight o’clock. Then we went out to dinner. It was very amusing too because the sandwiches kept getting fewer and fewer, and I kept rescuing them from hungry guests and saying firmly, “You’ll have to leave some for Nella Larsen Imes and Elmer.” Then when you didn’t appear they accused me of trying to save the food.

If only my words fell on living ears—or eyes. Were your eyes living, and not eaten by the Cypress Hill Cemetery worms in Brooklyn, you’d perhaps recognize my opening appeal as a reproduction, a plagiaristic mimicking of your opening lines to Edward Wasserman—“Eddie”—in the letter you wrote to him on April 16, 1928.[1]

You scolded Eddie for not coming over to the party you and your husband Elmer threw on the 9th of April at your apartment at 236 West 135th Street. The party was meant to provide a place for guests to “wet [their] whistle,” as you put it in your invitation letter of April 5, 1928, before they headed off to watch Countee Cullen and W. E. B. Du Bois’s daughter Yolande tie the knot.[2]

I started my letter pretending I’d invited you to a party you didn’t come to because I wish very deeply that you were alive and that you and I had that sort of relationship where I could playfully scold you for not coming to a party I’d planned and for making me seem cheap in front of our friends. If we had that sort of friendship, then I’d be able to ask you—over drinks, over sandwiches—a very specific question that has been needling at me for the past year or two. No, “needling” isn’t the right word at all; it’s been obsessing me. I’d ask you what you thought of George Cukor’s film Camille.

Poster for Camille (MGM, 1936), directed by George Cukor. Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 1. Poster for Camille (MGM, 1936), directed by George Cukor. Wikimedia Commons.

Remember? It was the movie that came out in 1936 starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. It was the one based on Alexandre Dumas fils’s own stage adaptation of his 1848 novel The Lady of the Camellias. The one about a young bourgeois who falls in love with a courtesan. When the courtesan learns that their love affair is endangering the bourgeois’s path to social arrival, she fools him into thinking that she doesn’t love him anymore. And in the film—though certainly not in the novel, as I’m convinced you must know—he comes back to her as she lies ill in her deathbed. He takes her in his arms, having realized what she’s done to protect him, and professes his love for her as she falls limp, dead but morally redeemed.

You apparently saw the film several times, at least twice at the Capitol Theater on Broadway and 51st Street with Mayme Frye Meyer, the mother of your friend Andrew, that young man who worked on Wall Street and studied literature at New York University. Both of your biographers say that Camille was one of your favorites.[3]

Capitol Theater, Broadway and 51st St., New York, January 12, 1960.
Fig. 2. Capitol Theater, Broadway and 51st St., New York, January 12, 1960. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, LC-G613-74952.
Capitol Theater, Broadway and 51st St., view to proscenium arch from balcony, August 30, 1959.
Fig. 3. Capitol Theater, Broadway and 51st St., view to proscenium arch from balcony, August 30, 1959. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, LC-G613-74442.

This anecdote has taken on enormous significance in my mind, as if it were the key to unlock your fiction. I’ve somehow come to believe that discovering a letter you wrote about Camille would be like finding a long-lost codex, the map to your hidden city. What did you see when you saw Garbo? What did you see when you sat in your velvet seat and looked up at her face on the big glossy screen—this lady of the camellias?

Marguerite (Greta Garbo) receives her camellias from the florist in Camille (MGM, 1936)
Fig. 4. Marguerite (Greta Garbo) receives her camellias from the florist in Camille (MGM, 1936), directed by George Cukor. Courtesy of the author.

All we have are your letters. Those damned letters—so few of them. But they brim with your humor, your warmth, your anxiety about the quality of your work. You hated, with especial intensity, it seems, your first novel Quicksand. You wrote to Carl Van Vechten that it was “pretty rotten—in more ways than one” and “heaven forbid that [you] should ever be bitten by the desire to write another novel!”[4] Why did you hate your novel so, and why did you love Camille?

There’s a gap in the letters between 1935 and 1937, so I’m left to wonder. Jean-Christophe Cloutier says that gaps—archival “shadows”—are the definitive, hidden signature of twentieth-century black literature. Allyson Nadia Field says that the shadows in black cultural archives should stimulate rather than stifle critical speculation. And Alix Beeston says that where there are shadows there is a woman, a female figure we must scoop from the textual fissures where she thrives but also threatens to disappear.

But I’ll confess to you that when I see your epistolary gap, I am devoid of such conviction, the conviction of speculation and critique. I wish that my seeing could transform into reading, Nella, as Mohammad’s did on Mount Hira. I wish you would appear to me as the archangel Jibril appeared to him, telling him to “Read” the word of God. Illiterate and terrified, Mohammad told Jibril, “I cannot read!” I wish that you would embrace me as Jibril then embraced Mohammad, telling him again to “Read,” a divine order whose third reiteration unleashed in Mohammad the miraculous power to decipher. Mohammad went to the priest Warqah ibn Nawfal, who asked him, “Oh my nephew, what have you seen?” And when Mohammad, shaken and uncomprehending, explained the vision, Ibn Nawfal assured him that this was the same angel who had appeared to Moses; he, Mohammad, was the selected one, the Messenger of God.

I, Nella, am not the selected one. I have had no revelation, I am no prophet. I can only ask, with none of the joyful and confident curiosity of Ibn Nawfal, but with the terrible hope and anguish of an apostrophic appeal: what have you seen? What did you see?

Fig. 5. Publicity still, the bourgeois Armand (Robert Taylor) confronting Marguerite (Greta Garbo) when he thinks she has betrayed him, from Camille (MGM, 1936).
Fig. 5. Publicity still, the bourgeois Armand (Robert Taylor) confronting Marguerite (Greta Garbo) when he thinks she has betrayed him, from Camille (MGM, 1936), directed by George Cukor. Wikimedia Commons.

Were it up to Bertolt Brecht or Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, you might have seen the workings of the Hollywood trick, the trap of narrative immersion and the sinful temptations of identification. For Adorno, the imperative of modernist looking was to fight; to look is to change, to reject, to reconfigure, to negate. For a modernist, to look is to critique. To see is to see through. For Miriam Hansen, it was to engage in a disjunctive reconfiguring of patriarchal codes. And for Anna Everett, black film criticism in the ‘30s was marked alternatively by an “integrationist strategy” or a “radical political” impulse to reorient black spectators away from Hollywood escapism.[5]

Lobby Card for Camille (MGM, 1936), directed by George Cukor.
Fig. 6. Lobby Card for Camille (MGM, 1936), directed by George Cukor. Wikimedia Commons.

But what if you saw something else, Nella? What if your looking didn’t have the assurance of either apology or critique, but the uncertainty and inconsistency of the biographical—not the conviction of a political position, but the delicate waywardness of intimacy and experience? What if, looking up at Greta flashing on the screen, you saw something other than just a thing to hate or a thing to resist, or a way of life to reject and reconfigure? What if when you watched the film, nestled in the dark room of the movie theater, enfolded in your own thoughts, yours was a spectatorship not of critique but of desire?

George Hutchinson is probably right to think that you liked the film because Marguerite Gautier’s trajectory into and out of Parisian high society mimicked your own relationship to the Harlem cultural elite.[6] You, like Marguerite, drifted into the spotlight and back out again, into the shadows. But what Hutchinson doesn’t mention is that your drifting was more like a yanking, and it wasn’t accompanied by swells of cinematic score, nor cast in the warmth of Hollywood lighting. Your fate had more in common with the fate of the Marguerite of Dumas fils’s novel than the one of Cukor’s film. In the novel, Marguerite dies alone, a rotting, consumptive corpse buried only temporarily in the bourgeois part of the cemetery before she is disinterred and thrust into a mass grave. Cukor’s film erased that darkness; it restored Marguerite, cradling her in the arms of her beloved as she drifts off into nothingness, wrapped in the tender folds of her death chamber. The film presents a version of you that doesn’t have to deal with divorce, with alcoholism, depression, poverty, the humiliation and insufficiency of alimony, the disgrace of plagiarism charges. A version of you that doesn’t have to deal with white people falling out of lust with black culture after the New Negro vogue had ended. What if you just saw yourself in her, but a version of yourself that gets saved?

They tell us that this is not a modernist way of looking. But what if you didn’t want to reject and reconfigure Greta as Adorno would have you do, but instead wanted to be seduced by the sin of identification?

Final shot of Camille (MGM, 1936), directed by George Cukor).
Fig. 7. Final shot of Camille (MGM, 1936), directed by George Cukor). Courtesy of the author.

Garbo was so white. She was Swedish, to be exact, and you were half Danish. Sisters of Scandinavia. But it turns out that Greta’s face wasn’t real. Maybe you saw that, too. Maybe you saw that she didn’t used to be so white, that MGM had made her whiter through the studio’s surgeons, dentists, and vocal coaches: narrowing her nose, capping her stained, crooked teeth, sloping her lips, changing her hairline, starving her, training her tongue to move in her mouth so that she no longer spat “Gustaffson,” her surname at birth, but instead crooned “Garbo.”[7]

MGM made Greta pass. Not exactly like you and your characters—and not exactly like Alexandre Dumas fils, whose great-grandmother was an African slave. But not entirely unlike that, either.

I pass, too, Nella. I don’t mean I pass on purpose; I mean I get mistaken for white. Until there are white people in the room. Then I don’t pass at all; I grow fur, dirt collects under my fingernails, and my shoulders hulk. Only no one sees this but me. Sometimes I wish they did; sometimes I wish they saw it till their eyes bled. But when I’m around those darker than I, my olive and light brown drains out through my pores and my skin glows white, burns and sears white, harsh and fluorescent.

My paternal grandfather Khodadad was dark. He looked so much like Richard Roundtree, the “first black action hero,” that when bad things happened to the private detective John Shaft on screen, my grandmother Zahra—herself white as snow—would cry. Khodadad, whose name meant “God given,” was gentle, far gentler than I.

I’m the rabid one. Were you rabid like me? Was it you, who in that yawning space at the end of Passing, your second book—that void where it becomes unclear where Irene Redfield’s consciousness ends and Clare Kendry’s body begins—pushed Clare out the window? And was it the ghost of Clare that you saw in Greta? Did you want, as I want, to push Greta right out of the frame—and, at once, to take her into your arms? To kill her and to become her?

In the absence of your voice, in the absence of your letters, I can only guess. I can only say, as you said to Eddie in your hopeful letter of April 5, 1928, inviting him over for drinks and sandwiches: “We haven’t seen you for years. Not since your grand birthday party. Do you still look the same?”



[1] See Nella Larsen Imes to Edward Wasserman, April 16, 1928. Nella Larsen letters, Sc MG 407, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. Hereafter abbreviated as NLL/SCRBC/NYPL.

[2] Nella Larsen Imes to Edward Wasserman, April 5, 1928. NLL/SCRBC/NYPL.

[3] See Thadious Davis, Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 423; and George Hutchinson, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006), 445.

[4] Nella Larsen Imes to Carl Van Vechten, March 7, 1927. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

[5] Anna Everett, Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism, 1909-1949 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 180.

[6] See Hutchinson, In Search of Nella Larsen, 445.

[7] See Michaela Krützen, The Most Beautiful Woman on the Screen: The Fabrication of the Star Greta Garbo (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1992), 69; and Arne Olave Lunde, Nordic Exposures: Scandinavian Identities in Classical Hollywood Cinema (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 93–94.