Nationality: American. Born: Gloria May Josephine Svensson in Chicago, Illinois, 27 March 1899. Education: Attended public schools in Chicago; Key West, Florida; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and elsewhere. Family: Married 1) the actor Wallace Beery, 1916 (divorced 1918); 2) William Somborn, 1919 (divorced), daughter: Gloria, adopted son: Joseph; 3) Marquis Henri de la Falaise, 1924 (divorced 1930); 4) Michael Farmer, 1931 (divorced 1934), daughter: Michelle; 5) William Davey, 1945 (divorced 1948); 6) the writer William Dufty, 1975 (divorced 1981). Career: 1915—film debut as extra in The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket, made in Chicago; 1916—leading roles in comedies for Keystone company; 1918—in dramatic roles for Triangle; 1919—contract with Cecil B. DeMille; 1926—formed Gloria Swanson Productions, with backing of producer Joseph Kennedy; 1938—formed Multiprises; 1940s—on stage in Reflected Glory, Let Us Be Gay, and A Goose for a Gander; 1951—on stage in Twentieth Century; also clothes designer and artist; founder, Essence of Nature Cosmetics. Died: In New York, 4 April 1983.
Films as Actress:
The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket (Baker); Sweedie Goes to College (Baker); The Romance of an American Duchess; The Broken Pledge; At the End of a Perfect Day (as extra, hands bouquet to Holmes); The Ambition of the Baron; His New Job (Charlie's New Job) (Chaplin) (as extra, stenographer)
A Dash of Courage (Chase); Hearts and Sparks (Parrott); A Social Club (Badger); The Danger Girl; Love on Skates; Haystacks and Steeples (Badger); The Nick of Time Baby (Whose Baby?) (Badger)
Teddy at the Throttle (Badger); Baseball Madness (Mason); Dangers of a Bride; The Sultan's Wife; A Pullman Bride (Badger)
Society for Sale (The Honorable Billy) (Borzage) (as Phyllis Cline); Her Decision (Conway) (as Phyllis Dunbar); You Can't Believe Everything (Conway) (as Patricia Reynolds); Everywoman's Husband (Hamilton) (as Edith Emerson); Shifting Sands (Albert Parker) (as Marcia Grey); Station Content (Hoyt); Secret Code (Albert Parker) (as Sally Carter Rand); Wife or Country (E. Mason Hopper) (as Sylvia Hamilton)
Don't Change Your Husband (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Leila Porter); For Better, for Worse (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Sylvia Norcross); Male and Female (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Lady Mary Lasenby)
Why Change Your Wife? (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Beth Gordon); Something to Think About (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Ruth Anderson); The Great Moment (Wood) (as Nada Pelham)
The Affairs of Anatole (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Vivian Spencer); Under the Lash (Wood) (as Deborah Krillet); Don't Tell Everything (Wood) (as Marion Westover)
Her Husband's Trademark (Wood) (as Lois Miller); Beyond the Rocks (Wood) (as Theodora Fitzgerald); Her Gilded Cage (Wood) (as Suzanne Ornoff); The Impossible Mrs. Bellew (Wood) (title role)
My American Wife (Wood) (as Natalie Chester); Prodigal Daughters (Wood) (as Elinor "Swiftie" Forbes); Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (Wood) (as Mona de Briac); Zaza (Dwan) (title role); Hollywood (Joligud) (Cruze and Vacariello) (guest appearance)
The Humming Bird (Olcott) (as Toinette); A Society Scandal (Dwan) (as Marjorie Colbert); Manhandled (Dwan) (as Tessie McGuire); Her Love Story (Dwan) (as Princess Maria); Wages of Virtue (Dwan) (as Carmelita)
Madame Sans-Gêne (Perret) (as Catherine Hubscher); The Coast of Folly (Dwan) (as Nadine/Joyce Gathway); Stage Struck (Dwan) (as Jennie Hagen)
Untamed Lady (Tuttle) (as St. Clair Van Tassel); Fine Manners (Rosson) (as Orchid Murphy)
The Love of Sunya (Albert Parker) (title role, + pr)
Sadie Thompson (Walsh) (title role, + pr); Queen Kelly (von Stroheim) (title role, + pr)
The Trespasser (Goulding) (as Marion Donnell)
What a Widow! (Dwan) (as Tamarind Brooks, + pr)
Indiscreet (McCarey) (as Geraldine "Jerry" Trent); Tonight or Never (LeRoy) (as Nella Vago)
Perfect Understanding (Gardner) (as Judy Rogers, + pr)
Music in the Air (Joe May) (as Frieda Hertefeld)
Father Takes a Wife (Hively) (as Leslie Collier)
Down Memory Lane (Karlson—compilation)
Sunset Boulevard (Wilder) (as Norma Desmond)
Three for Bedroom C (Bren) (as Ann Haven)
Mio figlio Nerone (Nero's Mistress; Nero's Weekend) (Steno) (as Agrippina)
When Comedy Was King (Youngson—compilation) (as herself)
Chaplinesque, My Life and Hard Times (Hurwitz—doc) (as narrator)
The Killer Bees (Harrington—for TV) (as Mme. Von Bohlen); Airport 1975 (Smight) (as herself)
By SWANSON: book—
Swanson on Swanson, New York, 1980.
By SWANSON: articles—
"Why I Am Going Back to the Screen," interview with Frederick Smith, in Motion Picture Classic (Brooklyn), February 1920.
"What Is Love?," in Photoplay (New York), November 1924.
"There Is No Formula for Success," in Photoplay (New York), April 1926.
"My Most Wonderful Experience," in Photoplay (New York), February 1951.
"I Am Not Going to Write My Memoirs," interview with Rui Nogueira, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1969.
"Gloria! Miss Swanson in Excelsis," interview with Andy Warhol and John Kobal, in Inter/View (New York), September 1972.
"Gloria Swanson: 'Les Films d'aujourd'hui sont trop pornogra-phiques . . . ,"' interview with D. Rabourdin, in Cinéma (Paris), May 1974.
On SWANSON: books—
Hudson, Richard M., and Raymond Lee, Gloria Swanson, New York, 1970.
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus, New York, 1973.
Quirk, Lawrence J., The Films of Gloria Swanson, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1984.
Madsen, Axel, Gloria and Joe, New York, 1988.
On SWANSON: articles—
Smith, Frederick, "The Silken Gloria," in Motion Picture Classic (Brooklyn), February 1920.
St. Johns, Adela Rogers, "Gloria! An Impression," in Photoplay (New York), September 1923.
Harriman, H. C., "Gloria Swanson," in New Yorker, 18 Janu-ary 1930.
Parsons, Louella, "The Loves of Gloria Swanson," in Pictures and Picturegoer, 26 March-16 April 1932.
Current Biography 1950, New York, 1950.
"Forever Gloria," in Life (New York), 5 June 1950.
Brownlow, Kevin, "Gloria Swanson," in Film (London), Autumn 1964.
Bodeen, DeWitt, "Gloria Swanson," in Films in Review (New York), April 1965.
Taylor, John, "Swanson," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1968.
Drew, Bernard, "Gloria Swanson," in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Braun, Eric, "Swanson: A Star for All Seasons," in Films (London), June 1981.
Obituary in New York Times, 5 April 1983.
Rodrig, A., and E. Decaux, obituary in Cinématographe (Paris), May 1983.
Oderman, Stuart, "Gloria Swanson," in Films in Review (New York), March 1988.
Frank, Michael, "Gloria Swanson: The Queen of Sunset Boulevard," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1990.
Hommel, Michel, "Gloria Swanson en Queen Kelly," in Skrien (Amsterdam), April-May 1991.
Seville, John, "Gloria," in Classic Images (Muscatine), Septem-ber 1993.
* * *
To a generation of filmgoers, Gloria Swanson will only be the half-mad movie queen of Sunset Boulevard who traps screenwriter William Holden in a bizarre world behind the walls of her 1920s mansion. But there is much more to Swanson's career than just this image indelibly etched in film history.
Swanson was one of the biggest stars of the silent era. No personality was more vital, more visible, more passionately alive in Hollywood. Cecil B. DeMille changed her from a routine Mack Sennett comedienne into an elegant, vivacious, and narcissistic clotheshorse. He seldom required his teenage star to act, merely pose, flirt, tyrannize servants, and discreetly reveal portions of her slim, perfectly proportioned body. She became noted for the bathing rituals DeMille incessantly constructed for her. Precisely reflecting the Paramount taste for European manners, lush lighting, and sexual innuendo, DeMille created, in his drawing room sex comedies such as Don't Change Your Husband, Why Change Your Wife?, and The Affairs of Anatol, a style that persisted into Swanson's life outside the studio; her best performances were usually for the papers.
Swanson capitalized on her provocative glance and perpetual slouch to epitomize the emancipated female predator. She collected only the most prestigious male trophies who guaranteed her continued presence in the headlines. Her third husband, an impoverished French marquis, made her one of Hollywood's first legitimate aristocrats. In the mid-1920s she snared as a lover and financier Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy backed her in the doomed production of Eric von Stroheim's Queen Kelly. Ironically, she watches a scene from Queen Kelly projected by her butler played by von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard.
Swanson was only 30 years old when sound came. She had no stage training, but a clear, almost piercing voice that suited the primitive systems of the time. She even learned to sing for the 1934 musical Music in the Air. But nobody was making films in her intense, sultry style. Clutching at William Holden the way her creator, Gloria Swanson, dug her manicured nails into her stardom, Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond was as deluded in her quest for immortality as Swanson was practical in hers. If operettas could not revive her luster in the 1930s, then maybe a screwball comedy such as Father Takes a Wife would do the trick in the 1940s. Ultimately, Swanson realized that her legend was not genre or trend dependent. The designer clothes diva remained a media magnet for decades because Swanson elegantly embodied the entire bygone era of the silent cinema; her gift for adaptability prevented her from becoming a dinosaur like Norma Desmond.
Still, it could not have been easy for a grandiloquent symbol to find roles in keeping with her eminence. Incredibly, her follow-up to Sunset Boulevard—the greatest comeback of all time—was a tepid farce, Three for Bedroom C. In addition to triumphing on Broadway in a revival of Twentieth Century, Swanson toured with comedic élan in such plays as Butterflies Are Free. That she acted her roles to the hilt seemed of less consequence than her providing living proof of one of Sunset Boulevard's most famous lines: "Stars are ageless. No one ever leaves a star." Her fans never did.
Whether she slummed in the gimmicky horror of a literal B movie, The Killer Bees, or sashayed haughtily through the all-star peril of Airport 1975 in variations of her aristocratic screen image, she remained Swanson: Hallowed Defeater of Crow's Feet and Nutritional Warrior against Junk Food. She defeated Time. However confining it must have been to never sink her teeth into another juicy role, it must have been comforting to know that the public did not make the same demands of her that they did of other silent-era survivors such as Crawford and Gish. As always, her private life was her most effective performance. Even in a silly guest spot on The Beverly Hillbillies, Swanson maintained her dignity so thoroughly that even the Clampetts behaved with propriety. Whereas other stars curried admiration, Swanson commanded respect without really trying.
—John Baxter, updated by Robert Pardi