Gloria Swanson was an American actress most prominent during the silent film era as both an actress and a fashion icon, especially under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille. She successfully transitioned to talkies in 1929 with the film The Trespasser. Personal problems and changing tastes saw her popularity wane during the 1930s and today she is best known for her role as Norma Desmond in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. She does however, retain her title as fashion and style icon.
She was born Gloria Josephine May Swanson on March 27, 1899 in Chicago, Illinois. She attended Hawthorne Scholastic Academy. It was not her intention to enter show business. Her parents separated when she was still in school and 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.
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. 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 in to 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 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, 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 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 with Paramount to join the newly-created United Artists, where 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, opened the Roxy Theatre in New York City on March 11, 1927. 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. Swanson ultimately made talkies, even singing in The Trespasser, Indiscreet (1931), and Music in the Air (1934). Even though she managed to make the transition into talkies, her career began to decline. In 1938, Swanson relocated to New York City, where she began an inventions and patents company called Multiprizes which occupied her during the years of World War II. She made another film for RKO Radio Pictures in 1941, began appearing in theatre productions, and also had her own television show in 1948.
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. But it was not until 1950 when Sunset Boulevard was released (earning her another Academy award nomination), that she achieved mass recognition again.
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 Boulevard, 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. Her dreams of a comeback are subverted as she becomes delusional.
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 received her third Best Actress Oscar nomination, 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 Brigitte Bardot. Her final screen appearance was as herself in Airport 1975.
Though Swanson only made three films after Sunset Boulevard, she starred in numerous stage and television productions during her remaining years. She was active in various business ventures, travelled extensively, wrote articles, columns, and an autobiography, painted and sculpted, and became a passionate advocate of various health and nutrition topics. In 1966 The George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, honored Swanson with a career film retrospective titled "A Tribute to Gloria Swanson" that screened some of her films over a few days.
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 and broadcast live. Swanson also later hosted a television anthology series, Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson, in which she occasionally acted.
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Swanson appeared on various talk and variety shows such as The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show 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 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.
In early 1980, Swanson's 520-page autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, was published by Random House and became a national best-seller. It was translated into French, Italian and Swedish editions. That same year, she also designed a stamp cachet for the United Nations Postal Administration and chaired the New York chapter of "Seniors for Reagan-Bush".
Throughout her life and her many marriages, Swanson was always known as Miss Swanson. Though she legally took the names of her husbands, her own personality and fame always overshadowed them.
Swanson's first husband was Wallace Beery, whom she married on her 17th birthday. In her autobiography Swanson on Swanson, she wrote 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 concoction that induced an abortion. They divorced two years later.
She married Herbert K. Somborn, 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. During their divorce in 1923 Swanson adopted a baby boy, Sonny Smith whom she renamed Joseph Patrick Swanson.
Her third husband was French aristocrat Henry, 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 relationship was an open secret in Hollywood.
In August 1931, she married Michael Farmer. Her daughter Michelle Bridget Farmer was born in 1932. Swanson and Farmer divorced in 1934. In 1945, she married William N. Davey. 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 and left.
Swanson's final marriage was in 1976 and lasted until her death. Her sixth husband and widower, writer William Dufty, was the co-author of Billie Holiday's autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, the author of Sugar Blues, a 1975 best-selling health book. He was best-known as a book ghost-writer and as a newspaper man, working for many years at the New York Post, where he was assistant to the editor from 1951-1960.
On April 4, 1983, Swanson died from a heart ailment, aged 84. After Swanson's death, there were a series of auctions from August to September 1983 at William Doyle Gallery in New York of the star's furniture and decorations, jewelry, fashion collection, career and personal memorabilia.