|Born||Gloria Mae Josephine Swanson
March 27, 1899
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||April 4, 1983 (aged 84)
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Years active||1914 – 1981|
|Spouse(s)||Wallace Beery (1916 – 1919)
Herbert K. Somborn (1919 – 1922)
Henri de la Falaise (1925 – 1931)
Michael Farmer (1931 – 1934)
George Davey (1945 – 1948)
William Dufty (1976 – 1983)
Gloria Swanson (March 27, 1899 – April 4, 1983) was an American actress. She was most prominent during the silent film era as both an actress and a fashion icon, especially under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille. She was also one of the first stars to challenge the Hays Code by producing the banned Sadie Thompson in 1928. In 1929 Swanson successfully transitioned to talkies with The Trespasser. However, personal problems and changing tastes saw her popularity wane during the 1930s. Today she is best known for her role as Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Swanson was born Gloria Josephine May Swanson in a small house in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Adelaide (née Klanowski) and Joseph Theodore Swanson, a soldier. She attended Hawthorne Scholastic Academy. Her father, whose surname was originally "Svensson", was from a strict Lutheran Swedish American family, and her mother was of German, French and Polish ancestry. Swanson grew up mainly in Chicago, Puerto Rico and Key West, Florida. It was not her intention to enter show business. Her parents separated when she was still in school. After her formal education ended, she went to a small film studio in Chicago for a visit and ended up being asked to come back to work as an extra.
She made her film debut in 1914 as an extra in The Song of Soul for Chicago's Essanay Studios. While on a tour of the studio, she asked to be in the movie just for fun. Essanay hired her to feature in several movies, including His New Job, directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin. Swanson auditioned for the leading female role in His New Job, but Chaplin did not see her as leading lady material and cast her in the brief role of a stenographer. She later admitted that she hated slapstick comedy and had been deliberately uncooperative.
Swanson moved to California in 1916 to appear in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies opposite Bobby Vernon, and in 1919 she signed with Paramount Pictures and worked often with Cecil B. DeMille, who turned her into a romantic lead in such films as Don't Change Your Husband, 1919, Male and Female, 1919, with the famous scene in the lion cage, Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, Something to Think About, 1920, and The Affairs of Anatol, 1921. In the space of two years, Swanson rocketed to stardom and was one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood. Swanson later appeared in a series of films directed by Sam Wood. She starred in Beyond the Rocks (1922) with her long-time friend Rudolph Valentino. (This film had been believed lost but was rediscovered in 2004 in a private collection in The Netherlands) and is available on DVD. Swanson continued to make costume drama films for the next few years. So successful were her films for Paramount that the studio was afraid of losing her and gave into many of her whims and wishes.
During her heyday, audiences went to her films not only for her performances, but also to see her wardrobe. Frequently ornamented with beads, jewels, peacock and ostrich feathers, haute couture of the day or extravagant period pieces, one would hardly suspect that she was barely five feet (1.52 m) tall. Her fashion, hair styles, and jewels were copied around the world. She was the screen's first clothes horse and was becoming one of the most famous and photographed women in the world. In 1925, she starred in the first French-American co-production, Madame Sans-Gêne, directed by Léonce Perret. Filming was allowed for the first time at many of the historic sites relating to Napoleon. During the production of this film, she met her third husband Henry de la Falaise, Marquis de la Falaise, who was originally hired to be her translator during the film's production. After four years' residence in France, she returned to the United States as European nobility, now known as the Marquise. She got a huge welcome home with parades in both New York and Los Angeles. She appeared in a 1925 short produced by Lee DeForest in his Phonofilm sound-on-film process, which was one of the earliest attempts to synchronize sound with a moving image.
She made a number of films for Paramount, among them The Coast of Folly, Stage Struck and Fine Manners. In 1927, she decided to turn down a million dollar a year contract to join the newly-created United Artists. There she was her own boss and could make the films she wanted, with whom she wanted and when.
Her first independent film, The Love of Sunya, in which she costarred with John Boles and Pauline Garon, opened the Roxy Theatre in New York City on March 11, 1927 (Swanson was pictured in the ruins of the Roxy on October 14, 1960 during the demolition of the theater in a famous photo taken by Time-Life photographer Eliot Elisofon). She was nominated for the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actress for her next film performance as the title character in the 1928 film Sadie Thompson, costarring and directed by Raoul Walsh, based on Somerset Maugham's short story "Miss Thompson", later called "Rain" (the story was re-filmed under this title in 1932, starring Joan Crawford and directed by Lewis Milestone). The Swanson original version is one of the greatest silent film classics.
Swanson's unfinished film Queen Kelly (1929) was directed by Erich von Stroheim and produced by Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., father of the future President John F. Kennedy. She was romantically linked to the elder Kennedy at the time and numerous books have been written about the affair.
Swanson ultimately made talkies, even singing in The Trespasser (1929) directed by Edmund Goulding, Indiscreet (1931), and Music in the Air (1934). Even though she managed to make the transition into talkies, her career began to decline. Never one to dwell on the past, she threw herself into painting and sculpting, writing a syndicated column, touring in summer stock, political activism, radio and television work, clothing and accessories design and marketing, and sporadically making appearances on the big screen.
After Mae West and several former silent screen actresses (including Mary Pickford and Pola Negri) all declined the role, in 1950 Swanson starred in Sunset Blvd., portraying Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star who falls in love with the younger screenwriter Joe Gillis, played by William Holden. Norma Desmond lives in the past assisted by her butler Max, played by Erich von Stroheim. She dreams of a comeback and in the process goes mad. There are guest cameos from actors of the silent era in the film including Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson. Cecil B. DeMille plays himself in a pivotal scene.
This has since been called the greatest film about Hollywood. Many of the lines from the film have entered the language and are often used to describe Swanson herself: "The Greatest Star of them all", "I am big, it's the pictures that got small", "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces" and "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." She was nominated for her third Best Actress Oscar but lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.
She received several subsequent acting offers but turned most of them down, saying they tended to be pale imitations of Norma Desmond. Her last major Hollywood motion picture role was poorly received Three for Bedroom "C" in 1952. In 1956, Swanson made Nero's Mistress which also starred Vittorio de Sica and Brigitte Bardot. Her final screen appearance was as herself in the thriller Airport 1975.
Swanson hosted one of the first television series in 1948, The Gloria Swanson Hour, in which she invited friends and guests. The show was filmed live and broadcast. Swanson also later hosted a television anthology series, Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson, in which she occasionally acted. Her last acting role was in the made-for-TV horror film Killer Bees in 1974, though she also appeared as herself in the movie Airport 1975, the same year.
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Swanson appeared on various talk and variety shows such as The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to recollect on her films and to lampoon them as well. She was twice the "mystery guest on What's My Line. Her most famous television appearance is a 1966 episode of The Beverly Hillbillies titled "The Gloria Swanson Story" in which she plays herself. In the episode, the Clampetts mistakenly believe Swanson is destitute and decide to finance a comeback movie for her - in a silent film.
Swanson appeared in many plays through her later career starting in the 1940s. She toured with "A Goose for the Gander", "Reflected Glory" and "Let Us be Gay". After her success with Sunset Blvd. she starred on Broadway in a revival of Twentieth Century(1951) with Jose Ferrer and in "Nina" with David Niven. Her last big stage performance was in the 1971 Broadway production of Butterflies are Free at the Booth Theatre.
Swanson became a vegetarian around 1928 and was an early health food advocate who was known for bringing her own meals to public functions in a paper bag. Swanson told actor Dirk Benedict about macrobiotic diets when he was battling prostate cancer at a very young age. He had refused conventional therapies and credited this kind of diet and healthy eating with his recovery. Later Swanson traveled the United States and helped to promote the book Sugar Blues written by her husband, William Dufty.
Swanson's first husband was Wallace Beery, whom she married on her 17th birthday. She wrote, in her autobiography Swanson on Swanson, that Beery raped her on their wedding night. Beery also impregnated Swanson in 1917. Not wanting her to have the child he tricked her into drinking a serum that induced an abortion. They divorced two years later.
She married Herbert K. Somborn (1881-1934), then president of Equity Pictures Corporation and later the owner of the Brown Derby restaurant, in 1919. Their daughter, Gloria Swanson Somborn, was born in 1920. Their divorce, finalized in January 1925, was sensational. Somborn accused her of adultery with 13 men including Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, and Marshall Neilan. During this divorce in 1923 Swanson adopted a baby boy named Sonny Smith (1922-1975) and renamed him Joseph Patrick Swanson.
Her third husband was French aristocrat Henry de la Falaise, Marquis de la Falaise whom she married in 1925 after the Somborn divorce was finalized. He became a film executive representing Pathé (USA) in France. She conceived a child with him but had an abortion which, in her autobiography, she said she regretted. This marriage ended in divorce in 1931.
Swanson had an affair with married tycoon Joseph P. Kennedy for a number of years. He became her business partner and their affair was an open secret in Hollywood circles.
In August 1931, Swanson married Michael Farmer (1902-1975). Swanson's divorce from La Falaise had not been finalized at the time, making the actress technically a bigamist. She was forced to remarry Farmer the following November, by which time she was four months pregnant with Michelle Bridget Farmer, who was born in 1932. The Farmers were divorced in 1934.
In 1945, Swanson married William N. Davey and they divorced in 1948. According to Swanson, after discovering Davey in a drunken stupor, she and daughter Michelle, believing they were being helpful, left a trail of Alcoholics Anonymous literature around their apartment. Davey quickly packed up, butler and all, ending a cohabitation of 45 days.
Swanson joined the ranks of celebrities to be stalked. In the early 1950s she was pursued by a World War II veteran, Samuel Golden, who claimed that the two were destined to be married and would give her 2/3 of his children as well as divulge secrets about the Navy's computer systems if she would run away with him. Recent declassified FBI documents disclose J. Edgar Hoover's obsession with seeing Golden tried for treason, but Golden disappeared somewhere in the Boston area.
Swanson's final marriage was in 1976 and lasted until her death. Her sixth husband and widower, writer William Dufty (1916-2002), was the co-author of Billie Holiday's autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, the author of Sugar Blues, a 1975 best-selling health book still in print, and the author of the English version of Georges Ohsawa's You Are All Sanpaku. He was mostly known though as a good ghost-writer. In this he wrote Swanson's autobiography, "Swanson on Swanson" for her with her help. Swanson shared her husband's enthusiasm for macrobiotic diets and traveled widely together.
In her honor, The New York Times wrote a special editorial on April 6, 1983, titled "THE GREATEST STAR OF THEM ALL" which is one of the most laudatory obituaries ever published by the Times and attests to Swanson's enduring fame and the power of the films she starred in and the industry she helped create.
She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for motion pictures at 6748 Hollywood Boulevard and another for television at 6301 Hollywood Boulevard. Before her death, she sold her archives including photographs, copies of films and private papers to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. The second largest collection of Swanson material is held in the archives of Timothy Rooks. In the last years of her life Swanson professed a desire to see Beyond the Rocks, but the film was unavailable and considered lost. The film was later rediscovered and screened in 2005.
|Year||Award||Result||Category||Film or series|
|1929||Academy Award||Nominated||Best Actress in a Leading Role||Sadie Thompson|
|1951||Golden Globe Award||Won||Best Motion Picture Actress - Drama||Sunset Boulevard|
|1964||Nominated||Best TV Star - Female||Burke's Law|
|1951||Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists||Won||Best Actress - Foreign Film (Migliore Attrice Straniera)||Sunset Boulevard|
|1951||Jussi Award||Won||Foreign Actress||Sunset Boulevard|
|1950||National Board of Review of Motion Pictures||Won||Best Actress||Sunset Boulevard|
|1980||Career Achievement Award||
|1975||Saturn Award||Won||Special Award||