Swanson, Gloria (1897–1983)

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Swanson, Gloria (1897–1983)

Silent film star whose lasting legacy was her outsized performance as the ex-movie queen in the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard. Born Gloria May Josephine Swenson on March 27, 1897 (though her autobiography claims 1899), in Chicago, Illinois; died on April 4, 1983; daughter of Adelaide (Klanowski) Swenson and Joseph Theodore Swenson; married Wallace Beery (an actor), in 1916 (divorced 1919); married Herbert K. Somborn, in 1920 (divorced 1925); married Henri, Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, in 1925 (divorced 1930); married Michael Farmer (an Irish sportsman), on August 16, 1931 (divorced 1934); married William N. Davey (an investment broker), in 1945 (divorced 1945); married William Dufty, in 1976; children: (second marriage) Gloria Somborn Anderson (b. 1920); (fourth marriage) Michele Farmer (b. 1932); (adopted) Joseph Swanson.

Made first film (1914); made first film in which she was billed by name, The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket (1915); gave other notable performances in The Danger Girl (1916), in which she drove a racing car and did her own stunts, Teddy at the Throttle (1917), in which she was tied to a railroad track and slipped into a hole between the rails at the last moment while a steam train rolled over her, Shifting Sands (1918), an anti-German propaganda film during World War I, Don't Change Your Husband (1919), the first of her films directed by Cecil B. De Mille, Beyond the Rocks, which co-starred Rudolph Valentino, Madame Sans-Gêne (1925), the first American feature film shot abroad on location (in France), The Love of Sunya (1927), the first film she produced, Sadie Thompson (1928), source of one of her many run-ins with the censorious Hays Office but also of her first Oscar nomination, The Trespasser (1929), her first talkie, in which she also sang songs, and source of her second Oscar nomination, Father Takes a Wife (1941), her only film between 1934 and 1950—a commercial failure, Sunset Boulevard (1950), her masterpiece, which unwittingly traced her own fall from silent star; published her autobiography Swanson on Swanson (1980).

Selected filmography:

appeared in many film shorts (1915–17); made at least 70 films, including Society for Sale (1918); Her Decision (1918); You Can't Believe Everything (1918); Everywoman's Husband (1918); Shifting Sands (1918); Station Content (1918); Secret Code (1918); Wife or Country (1918); Don't Change Your Husband (1919); For Better for Worse (1919); Male and Female (1919); Why Change Your Wife? (1920); Something to Think About (1920); The Great Moment (1921); The Affairs of Anatol (1921); Under the Lash (1921); Don't Tell Everything (1921); Her Husband's Trademark (1922); Beyond the Rocks (1922); Her Gilded Cage (1922); The Impossible Mrs. Bellew (1922); My American Wife (1923); (cameo) Hollywood (1923); Prodigal Daughters (1923); Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1923); Zaza (1923); The Humming Bird (1924); A Society Scandal (1924); Manhandled (1924); Her Love Story (1924); Wages of Virtue (1924); Madame Sans-Gêne (1925); The Coast of Folly (1925); Stage Struck (1925); The Untamed Lady (1926); Fine Manners (1926); The Love of Sunya (1927); Sadie Thompson(1928); Queen Kelly (1928); The Trespasser (1929); What a Widow! (UA, 1930); Indiscreet (UA, 1931); Tonight or Never (UA, 1931); Perfect Understanding (UA, 1933); Music in the Air (Fox, 1934); Father Takes a Wife (RKO, 1941); Sunset Boulevard (Par., 1950); Three for Bedroom C (WB, 1952); Mio Figlio Nerone (Nero's Mistress, 1956); Airport 1975 (1974).

Gloria Swanson was one of the most successful silent film actresses and an early Hollywood millionaire. Married six times and linked romantically (or rather, erotically) with dozens of other men, she brought an electric charge of sexy glamour to the screen and helped create the public image of the passionate movie star's larger-than-life existence. Cranky and eccentric in her private life, eating a salt-free vegetarian diet of lentils and seaweed, she consummated her acting life in Billy Wilder's classic film Sunset Boulevard (1950), which showed the sad, mad decline of a star like herself.

She was born in 1897 to an army family, the daughter of Adelaide Swenson and Joseph Swenson. Her father's work meant that her parents were often separated, and eventually divorced. She lived with her mother but kept in touch with her father when he was stationed nearby, growing up chiefly in Chicago but also for periods in Key West, Florida, and Puerto Rico. She took voice and art lessons at the urging of her ambitious mother, and since she lived near the Essanay Film Company, she began to visit the film lot as a teenager where filmmakers noticed her striking dark looks. Gloria got several bit parts in early silent comedies before the First World War and was hired as a regular actor in 1914 for $3.25 per week. Most of her initial films no longer exist; early directors, who often knocked them off in a day or two, saw them as short-term money-spinners and failed to anticipate the day when film historians would seek out remaining copies.

While working on one of her earliest films, Sweedie Goes to College, Swanson met Wallace Beery, soon to be her first husband. They both went to Hollywood, which was quickly becoming the center of the rapidly growing film industry, and starred together in several silent melodramas at Mack Sennett's Keystone studio. In Teddy at the Throttle, they enacted the classic scene of the villain tying the young innocent across the railroad tracks before an onrushing express train. Swanson married Beery when he was about 30 and she was 17, but almost at once regretted it. He beat her severely. In her autobiography, she described their wedding night as a rape, adding that when he found she was pregnant he made her drink an abortifacient medicine.

Another early Hollywood companion was Charlie Chaplin, who told her, after doing some experimental scenes, that she lacked the temperament and style for slapstick comedy, that she was immune to custard pies. She specialized, rather, in playing the lofty and aloof young woman who could be moved to pity or admiration by an honorable gesture. As film historian Molly Haskell noted, however:

Alternating with her woman-of-the-world roles, she often played unspoiled ingenues. In Allan Dwan's Stage Struck she played a goofy, gracefully incompetent waitress in a greasy spoon who makes halfhearted attempts to efface herself while her boyfriend moons over the visiting actress—the posturing, arrogant prima donna, the whirlwind of conceited womanhood she herself would be playing some years later.

Leaving Sennett, Swanson moved in 1919 to another growing studio, Paramount, and made a favorable impression on the director Cecil B. De Mille. He turned her into a major star over the next few years in such domestic dramas as Don't Change Your Husband and The Affairs of Anatol. "She was usually the wife in these films and her gowns were sensational," writes Lawrence Quirk. "She made the boudoir and even the bathroom matters of breathless concern to millions of female fans who couldn't get enough of her clothes, her man problems, and her resolutions of assorted on-screen marital dilemmas." In one of these Paramount films, Beyond the Rocks (1922), her leading man was Rudolph Valentino. The script, by Elinor Glyn, a popular British romantic novelist, squeezed the maximum of sentimental drama out of the situation, in which Swanson was unhappily married to an old bore but was in love with a handsome lord (Valentino). She nobly renounced him but then her husband conveniently died while exploring Arabia, leaving her free to fall swooning into Valentino's embrace.

With a second husband, Herbert Somborn, who was a movie promoter and owner of a chain of "Brown Derby" restaurants, she gave birth to a child, Gloria, in 1920, but this marriage foundered almost as rapidly as her first. Already renowned for extramarital escapades and now suing for a second divorce, Swanson posed a problem for Paramount Studios. Hollywood had suffered bad publicity from the Fatty J. Arbuckle scandal, when the comedy star allegedly raped a movie fan with a bottle, which led to her death from internal injuries. The studios were

eager to allay charges that movies encouraged licentious behavior and that the stars themselves were immoral. The owners and directors foresaw that if they did not police themselves they would suffer intrusive censorship from state or federal government agencies. Eventually, Hollywood wrote a formal "Production Code" and established a clearinghouse, the "Hays Office," to monitor all new productions, showing them to the Catholic Legion of Decency before sending them out on general release. The Code kept some sex out of the films but hardly out of the stars' lives, though after Swanson's second divorce her contract did include a "morals clause" which terminated her salary if her extramarital affairs became public. Swanson, despite escalating threats and embarrassments, ultimately went through six husbands and dozens of affairs but benefited from an indulgent publicity press which hyped her virtues and suppressed most news of her vices.

Swanson, like Joan Crawford after her, was one of those emblematic (and aggressively adaptable) figures in whom we see reflected the changing tastes of a decade. Her image altered considerably until it became frozen for posterity as the imperious prima-donna-past-her-prime of Sunset Boulevard. In her earliest films she was just the opposite: a dippy, halfwitted trouper who would rather hover in the wings than steal the spotlight.

—Molly Haskell

Her third husband was the Marquis Henri de la Falaise, a French hero of World War I whom she met in Paris while filming Madame Sans-Gêne and married in 1925 in Passy town hall. Finding herself pregnant and knowing that giving birth seven months after marriage would put another severe dent in her image, she had another abortion. The doctor bungled the operation, and she almost died from the blood-poisoning it caused. Fans waited anxiously for the outcome and gave her a hero's welcome when she got back to America, not knowing the cause of her sudden postnuptial illness. In her autobiography, she wrote that after her triumphal return to Hollywood, stage managed for maximum drama by the studios, she told her mother, "It's the saddest night of my life. I'm just twenty six. Where do I go from here?"

Since 1923, enjoying an income of $7,000 per week, she had worked less in Hollywood than at the Astoria studios in New York. Her contract with Paramount ended in 1926, and although the studio's owners, Jesse Lasky and Adolf Zukor, offered her a million dollars per year to renew it, she decided to join United Artists and try making films over which she had more artistic control. After some early failures, which quickly ate into the fortune she had made as a studio actress, she made a hit with Sadie Thompson, adapted from the Somerset Maugham short story "Rain." In it, she plays a prostitute trying to escape from her past. She is raped by a hypocritical evangelical minister who has pretended to be reforming her morals. The story required intricate negotiations with the censors but finally appeared to glowing reviews. (The film would spawn a succession of remakes, including Rain [1932] starring Joan Crawford and Miss Sadie Thompson [1953] with Rita Hayworth .)

Swanson's business partner in the late 1920s was Joseph P. Kennedy, later America's ambassador to England and father of the future president. Himself a notorious womanizer, he and Swanson began a torrid love affair which caused more trouble among Hollywood's moral guardians. In her breathlessly melodramatic autobiography, Swanson described their first tryst:

He moved so quickly that neither of us could speak. With one hand he held the back of my head, with the other he stroked my body and pulled at my kimono. He kept insisting in a drawn out moan, "No longer, no longer. Now." He was like a roped horse, rough, arduous, racing to be free. After a hasty climax he lay beside me, stroking my hair. Apart from his guilty, passionate mutterings he had still said nothing cogent.

William O'Connell, archbishop of Boston, at one point asked Swanson to leave Kennedy, who was a prominent member of his flock, but Swanson retorted that the archbishop should be berating Kennedy, not her, since she wasn't even a Catholic. The affair lasted from 1927 to 1930 when Kennedy left both Swanson and Hollywood, apparently having made far more money from the partnership than she.

These years of the late 1920s brought the first talking films to the public, which led to the fall of some stars and the rise of others. An unsuitable voice did not matter in the silents but could now be a disabling factor. Swanson, however, made a smooth transition from silents to talkies and said that claims of a traumatic change in the business were a fuss about nothing. Trained as a singer in childhood, she sang several songs in The Trespasser, her first film with a soundtrack. It was an immense commercial success and won her an Oscar nomination.

She could not follow up on the success of The Trespasser, however, and several subsequent films flopped. She spent much of 1931 and 1932 in London, where she met and married an Irish adventurer, Michael Farmer. They had a daughter, Michele, in 1932 and Swanson even put Farmer into a film which she financed and directed, A Perfect Understanding. The other male lead was Laurence Olivier, but he was not yet a major star and this film also led to financial losses. By 1934, divorced for the fourth time and involved in another love affair with a married man, this time the actor Herbert Marshall, she began to find parts difficult to obtain, and many prominent Hollywood figures now ostracized her for her public adultery. She was 35, had been in a series of financial fiascos, and seemed to cause more trouble than the studios could recoup in profits. As a result, she spent the next seven years out of films, watching a new generation of younger actors and actresses rise to stardom. In one of the few understated passages of her autobiography, she observed: "In many ways I had not been fortunate in my choice of men, particularly in the area of money. In all four marriages I had footed all the bills and now most of the money I had made was gone."

To recover some of her losses, she now began a business, helping to finance inventors. Named Multiprises, it had offices in Rockefeller Center, New York, and began to trade in eccentric possibilities like durable luminous paint. Some of the inventors she met were refugees from Nazi Germany, and by pulling the right strings she was able to expedite their exit visas from Germany and establish them in America. In the factory she bought in the New York borough of Queens, one of the inventors, Leopold Karniol, created a process for making plastic buttons; another, Anton Kratky, improved on carbide-steel cutting tools, both of which inventions proved useful to the American economy as it geared up for the Second World War. A brief return to films in 1941 led only to another flop, and at the start of the war it seemed unlikely that Swanson had any future in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, she was busy working as a stage actress, raising her three children (two daughters and an adopted son), and making radio appearances. She campaigned for Wendell Willkie during the 1940 election and worked in theater through most of the war years. Her fifth husband, William Davey, was an alcoholic who went through a complete personality transformation between his sober and drunken periods. Within a month that marriage too was over. Swanson was embarrassed to have a fifth divorce to her credit but in the late 1940s she adapted to the newest entertainment medium by

starring in a television show, "The Gloria Swanson Hour." Though it ran successfully for six months, she decided that at $350 a week the pay was too poor and the work too exhausting.

In 1950, her spectacular return in Sunset Boulevard was all the more striking because of her steady decline from stardom in the previous 16 years. The story of a former Hollywood star who has aged, turned ugly, and gone slightly crazy (Molly Haskell describes her as "a gargoyle of vanity and manipulation" with "all the grace and dignity of a weasel in heat"), and her inability to come to terms with her fall from greatness, carried at least an element of biographical truth. Directed by Billy Wilder and co-starring William Holden as a scriptwriter whom the Swanson character murders in a jealous rage when she thinks he is about to desert her, Sunset Boulevard secured her an Oscar nomination. Wrote James Agee, a leading critic of the 1940s and 1950s, "Miss Swanson, required to play a hundred percent grotesque, plays it not just to the hilt but right up to the armpit, by which I mean magnificently."

Swanson reappeared on television in the 1950s and 1960s but spent more time on the stage in New York where she remained a popular draw. After Sunset Boulevard, other directors wanted to recast her as the faded former star going steadily crazy, but she had an understandable reluctance to fall in with their plans. Her last film was the shabby sensation Airport 1975 by which time the simple fact that she was in a film at all drew more press notice than any quality to her acting. She wrote her "kiss-and-tell" autobiography, Swanson on Swanson (1980), and lived to see it sell tens of thousands of copies before dying in her sleep at the age of 84 in 1983.


Agee, James. Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments. Boston, MA: 1958.

Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. NY: 1974.

Quirk, Lawrence J. The Films of Gloria Swanson. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1984.

Swanson, Gloria. Swanson on Swanson. NY: Random House, 1980.

suggested reading:

Brownlow, Kevin. Behind the Mask of Innocence. NY: 1990.

Hirsch, Foster. Acting Hollywood Style. NY: 1991.

Walker, Alexander. The Shattered Silents. London: 1978.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia