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Gloria Swanson (1899-1983)

Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson


Gloria Swanson was a talented and charismatic stage and movie actress who became one of the first legendary stars of Hollywood. After beginning her career in the early silent movie era, she achieved international fame under the guidance of the flamboyant director, Cecil B. DeMille, and became renowned as a fashion icon and as the epitome of movie star glamour with an interesting and spectacularly complicated personal life.

She was also one of the first stars to challenge the Hays Code by producing the banned 'Sadie Thompson' in 1928. She was the first major Hollywood star to marry European royalty and, after her movie career appeared to have faded she made a remarkable comeback in an Oscar-nominated performance as Norma Desmond in the classic 'Sunset Boulevard' in 1950. For the latter part of her career Gloria remained in the public eye with successful appearances on Broadway and television.

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Biography

She was born Gloria Josephine Mae Svensson in Chicago, Illinois on March 27, 1899. Her father was in the US army and the family moved frequently during Gloria's childhood, spending most time in Puerto Rico and in Key West, Florida. In 1914 her parents separated and Gloria and her mother returned to live in Chicago whilst her father remained stationed overseas.

School and Early Acting Career

Gloria attended the Chicago Public School, Hawthorne Scholastic Academy and began acting in school plays. Her first ambition was to become an opera singer but she entered the entertainment business almost by accident. Whilst still at school, aged 16, and already a great beauty, she went with her aunt to the Essanay movie studio in Chicago. This led to her being selected as an extra in a number of early silent films such as 'The Fable of Elvira' and 'At the End of a Perfect Day' and working with the up and coming Charles Chaplin in 'His New Job'. She left school to concentrate on acting as a career and continued to appear in bit parts.

Hollywood 1916

In 1916 she married fellow Essenay actor Wallace Beery and the two moved to Los Angeles to the new film colony of Hollywood. Beery signed with the Mack Sennett Keystone company, on the condition that Swanson also be given a contract.

Gloria began to make a name for herself in a series of Sennett's slapstick comedies such as 'Haystacks and Steeples' in 1916, and then in a series of successful movies for Triangle Films, such as 'Everywoman's Husband' and 'Society for Sale' in 1918.

Cecil B. DeMille 1919

She had ambitions to be more than a comedienne and her career took a sharp upward turn in 1919 when she she signed with Paramount Pictures and began a long association with top director, Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille brought out her full acting potential as a romantic leading lady in sophisticated sex comedies such as 'Don't Change Your Husband' and 'Male and Female' in 1919, 'Why Change Your Wife?' in 1920, and 'The Affairs of Anatol' the following year. These DeMille movies depicted "modern" women drinking and smoking and taking the initiative in their relationships

Hollywood Star

By the early 1920's, helped by DeMille, Gloria Swanson had become a major Hollywood star and she began to extend her fame, not just with her performances, which were excellent, but with her lavish off screen lifestyle. She starred in extravagant and successful movies such as 'Bluebeard's Eighth Wife' in 1923, 'Madame Sans-Gene' in 1925, and 'The Untamed Lady' in 1926 and audiences became as transfixed by her outfits, which often included ostrich feathers and jewelled headdresses, as much as they were with her acting.

Her position as Hollywood's number one star was sealed when, in 1925, she married her third husband, Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, a French nobleman and part time interpreter and film director. When she returned from filming '"Madame Sans-Gene' in Paris with her husband, as a new member of European nobility, she received quasi-royal acclaim in parades through New York and Los Angeles.

After her last two films for Paramount, 'Stage Struck' in 1925 and 'Fine Manners' the following year, Gloria was at the peak of her popularity and she was offered a contract extension by Paramount reputed to be worth a million dollars. Ever the independent, Gloria turned it down in favour of having her films distributed by the newly-formed United Artists where she would have more artistic freedom.

Independent Artist 1927

Her first movie as an independent was 'The Love of Sunya' in 1927, which ran way over budget and was not a commercial success. In her second production, 'Sadie Thompson', in 1928, Gloria played a prostitute and had censorship problems with the Hays Office but the film was a box office and critical success and Gloria gained her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, (in the first year the awards were presented.)

During this time Gloria, who was still married to the Marquis, emabarked on a less than private affair with Joe Kennedy, also married and father of seven children (including the future President Kennedy), with more children still to come. Kennedy became her business partner and film producer and his effect on her life was almost wholly negative. He was the producer of her next film in 1929, 'Queen Kelly', which became one of Hollywood's most infamous unfinished movies. The director, Erich von Stroheim, was notorious for his focus on detail and endless retakes and the movie production fell well behind schedule. Gloria eventually halted the production and the movie was never released in America although it was shown in Europe after an alternate ending was made in 1931. Ironically, it is now regarded as a masterpiece.

After the near disaster of 'Queen Kelly', Gloria embraced the new medium of Talking Pictures and began work on her first sound film called 'The Trespasser' in 1929. It was a great success and secured her a contract with MGM and her second Academy Best Actress nomination. She made four more Talkies in quick succession, ' What a Widow!' in 1930, 'Indiscreet' the following year, 'Perfect Understanding' in 1933, and 'Music in the Air' in 1934 but they all flopped. In the age of the Great Depression audiences were no longer flocking to her films and as the Swanson career went into decline, Gloria went into semi-retirement.

Disilluioned with Hollywood she moved to New York in 1938 and for ten years she operated a company called G. Swanson Multiprises, which assisted and relocated scientists fleeing the European war. She did not ignore her acting background entirely, appearing in several stage productions and in 1941, after 7 years off screen, she appeared in another movie, the musical comedy 'Father Takes A Wife'. It was heavily promoted as her comeback film but did not do well at the box office. Gloria returned to movie retirement but continued to appear on stage and also began to try the new medium of television.

'Sunset Boulevard' 1950

Just when it appeared that her career was finally over, Gloria made a stunning comeback in 'Sunset Boulevard' in 1950. The film is widely considered to be one of the greatest movies ever and was placed by the American Film Institute at number 12 in its list of the top 100 films of all time. Gloria gave a powerful and convincing performance as the self deluded, faded screen star, Norma Desmond in the Hollywood insider melodrama written and directed by Billy Wilder. It is the role for which she is best remembered today and for which she received a third Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

Gloria was not able to maintain her new movie career and after just two more films during the 1950's, both disappointing, she retired from film making. She continued to appear, successfully, on television during the 1950's and 1960's in programmes such as 'Four Star Revue', 'Dr. Kildare' and 'Ben Casey' as well as hosting her own syndicated anthology show, 'Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson' in 1954. She also showed keen business acumen in numerous ventures, particularly in marketing a line of natural cosmetics, "Essence of Nature". During this time she became fascinated with healthy eating and was very active in the rapidly developing health food movement.

In 1971 Gloria played her last stage role playing an over-protective mother in 'Butterflies Are Free' both on tour and on Broadway and three years later she made her first appearance in a made-for-TV movie in the highly successful 'Killer Bees'. Her very last appearance on the big screen was a cameo role as herself in the disaster movie 'Airport 75' in 1975.

Personal

'# Gloria was a beautiful woman and a strong personality. During her life she had many lovers and she married six times:
Wallace Beery, actor, 1916-1919
Gloria met Beery when both were working at the Essanay studios in Chicago. When Beery moved to California Gloria followed and the two got married when she was 17. Beery was a boorish man, unpopular in Hollywood, and according to Gloria's biography, he got drunk on their wedding night and raped her. Later, he apparently gave her an abortion-inducing drug when he discovered she was pregnant. They separated after a few months, although they continued to appear in movies together, and they divorced in 1919.
Herbert Somborn 1919-25
Gloria entered a relationship with a playboy millionaire named Craney Gratz but he was not interested in marriage and she accepted the proposal of Herbert Somborn, a businessman 18 years her senior. The two married in 1919 and had a daughter, Gloria, a year later, but Somborn was more of a father figure than husband and the couple separated after one year. Gloria began to date film director Marshall Neilan. Somborn was an opportunist and he served Gloria with divorce papers on the basis of an extramarital affair with 14 men including Neilan. Most of the accusations were patently ridiculous but Gloria was advised to settle out of court, to avoid a career threatening scandal. They divorced in 1925 and Somborn later opened the famous Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood.
Marquis Le Bailly de la Falaise de la Coudraye 1925-30
Gloria met her third husband in 1924 when he was hired as her interpreter during filming of 'Madame Sans-Gêne' in Paris. They married in 1925 and returned to America to be feted as a Royal couple. Henri became a film executive for Pathé in France through the influence of Joseph P. Kennedy. As Kennedy was having an affair with Gloria, it is assumed that he was given the position to simply keep him out of the way. The marriage ended in divorce in 1930 after which Henri married for a second time to film actress Constance Bennett.
Michael Farmer 1931-34
Gloria was introduced to actor, Michael Farmer, by Noel Coward and married him in 1931 when she discovered she was pregnant. They had one child, a daughter, Michelle. Farmer could not get used to having a celebrity wife and flew into wild jealous rages. The couple divorced after 3 years of marriage.
William N. Davey 1945-46
Swanson met Davey while touring with a stage play in 1945. Within a few days she discovered that he was an incorrigible alcoholic. The marriage lasted just 45 days and was not the happiest part of her life.
William Dufty 1976-83
Gloria had a lifelong interest in foods and nutrition and her sixth and last husband, writer William Dufty, shared this passion. They met in 1965 and within 3 years were living together as a couple. He was originally known as a ghost-writer of books as well as working as editorial assistant at the New York Post from 1951 to 1960. In 1975 wrote a book called "Sugar Blues" about the dangers of sugar in the diet. He and Gloria were married in 1976 and the marriage lasted until her death in 1983. It was Gloria's only marriage to last longer than 5 years.
In addition to her six marriages, Gloria had many love affairs, most notably with Joseph P. Kennedy between 1927 and 1930. As well as her lover Kennedy became her business partner but it appears he spent her money rather than invested it and for this reason the couple split in 1930. Gloria remained alert and active throughout her long life. In 1980, she published her well written and well received autobiography titled "Swanson On Swanson". She died from a heart attack, aged 84, on April 4, 1983.

Gloria Swanson Academy Awards

No Wins:
Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Sadie Thompson (1928)
Best Actress ... The Trespasser (1929)
Best Actress ... Sunset Boulevard (1950)


Gloria Swanson Filmography

1914
The Song of the Soul (short) (unconfirmed)
1915
The Misjudged Mr. Hartley (short)
At the End of a Perfect Day (short) (uncredited)
The Ambition of the Baron (short)
His New Job (short) (uncredited)
The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket (short) (as Gloria Mae)
Sweedie Goes to College (short)
The Romance of an American Duchess (short) The Broken Pledge (short)
1916
Sunshine (short)
A Dash of Courage (short)
Hearts and Sparks (short)
A Social Cub (short)
The Danger Girl (short)
Haystacks and Steeples (short)
The Nick of Time Baby (short)
1917
Teddy at the Throttle (short)
Baseball Madness (short)
Dangers of a Bride (short)
Whose Baby? (short)
The Sultan's Wife (short)
The Pullman Bride (short)
1918
Society for Sale
Her Decision
Station Content
You Can't Believe Everything
Everywoman's Husband
Shifting Sands
The Secret Code
Wife or Country (short)
1919
Don't Change Your Husband
For Better, for Worse
Male and Female
1920
Why Change Your Wife?
Something to Think About
1921
The Great Moment
A Prodigal Knight
Under the Lash
Don't Tell Everything
1922
Her Husband's Trademark
Her Gilded Cage
Beyond the Rocks
The Impossible Mrs. Bellew
My American Wife
1923
Prodigal Daughters
Bluebeard's Eighth Wife
Zaza
1924
The Humming Bird
A Society Scandal
Manhandled
Her Love Story
Wages of Virtue
Madame Sans-Gêne
1925
The Coast of Folly
Stage Struck
1926
The Untamed Lady
Fine Manners
1927
The Love of Sunya
1928
Sadie Thompson
1929
Queen Kelly
The Trespasser