From the Archives: Gloria Swanson, Queen of Movies' Golden Years, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Gloria Swanson, the shy little girl from Chicago who began learning about the movies when the movies were still learning about themselves and went on to become a one-woman constellation in the Hollywood skies of the 1920s, died early Monday in her sleep in New York Hospital.

She had been admitted to the Manhattan hospital on March 20 for treatment of what friends said was a minor heart attack and was either 86 or 84 when she died; biographies list her birth date as both 1897 and 1899.

During the golden age of silent films, Miss Swanson—never out of the top three in the box office popularity—was an enchantress personified. She was married to a French nobleman, commanded a six-figure salary and moved between mansions and penthouses in America and Europe amid a retinue of servants and sycophants.

She wore feathers, beads, lavish gowns and real diamonds and emeralds on the screen. Every Swanson picture was a fashion show as she quickly became the silent screen's greatest clothes horse.

At the height of her career in 1926, and with Paramount Pictures offering her $1 million a year to stay, she went into independent production, a venture that proved artistically rewarding but financially disastrous.

A string of unsuccessful sound pictures, together with a violent quarrel with Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, virtually ended her career in the late 1930s. But she made one of Hollywood's most spectacular comebacks in 1949 as Norma Desmond, the faded, deranged silent star turned murderess in "Sunset Boulevard."

Already a veteran of radio and the still-new medium of television, Miss Swanson then turned to fashion design, journalism, promoting a line of cosmetics, painting and sculpture. In 1979, she designed a stamp for the U.N. Decade of Women observance.

But the public knew her best in her later years as a tireless advocate of simple, healthy natural foods free from chemicals.

Devoted to Good Nutrition

"I know people say I'm an obsessive crank about food and diet," she once remarked. "But your body is the direct result of what you eat as well as what you don't ear. Health is just everyday sensible care of your body."

She credited her regimen of diet and exercise, devised in 1927 after a serious illness, with keeping her in the sort of condition that still prompted people to describe her as youthful, slender and chic well into her 70s.

Miss Swanson maintained that she never had a face lift, although she said she had had her eyes done.

She once told a reporter that her career was too important to be tied down by marriage, and proved it by taking six husbands. Two of marriages combined last a mere five months. Her last husband was William Dufty, author of the book "Sugar Blue," with whom Miss Swanson waged a crusade against the use of sugar. There were married in 1976.

Outside of marriage, she had a tempestuous affair with Mary Pickford's dashing director, Marshall Neilan, and a quieter one with Joseph P. Kennedy, father of an American president and two senators.

Though her height was just below the proverbial "five foot two" and her weight about 100 pounds, Miss Swanson always appeared larger on the screen. Her striking profile with its pointed nose was accented with an ever-present beauty mark on the left chin, all set off with elaborate coiffures and clothes.

Gloria May Josephine Swanson was born in Chicago of Swedish and Polish ancestry, the daughter of Joe Swanson, an Army transportation office, and his darkly beautiful wife, Addie.

As a young girl, Miss Swanson studied voice and was determined to become an opera singer. She first faced the public as a 13-year-old in an ornate old opera house in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where her father was stationed at the time. "I was no longer shy little Gloria," Miss Swanson recalled of the event. "I was the lead and I was good."

Living again in Chicago, Miss Swanson in the summer of 1914 went to visit the Essanay Co. movie studios with her aunt, who was a friend of George Spoor, the "S" half of Essanay. The "A" was Bronco Billy Anderson, then a major cowboy star who made his movies in Hollywood.

Movies were still so young that the acting styles and technology was being invented as needed. Miss Swanson said she thought them "crude and silly," but she accepted an invitation to become a stock extra at $13.25 a week, and though only a teen-ager, she frequently played sophisticates of 30 smoking cigarettes at glamorous parties. Francis X. Bushman, Wallace Beery (who became Miss Swanson's first husband) and a newcomer from England by the name of Charles Chaplin were the Essanay stars.

Miss Swanson's parents separated and she and her mother went to Hollywood, where Miss Swanson began to see a good deal of Beery and signed on with Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios.

At 17 or 19 and knowing little of love or of men, she eloped with Beery, although the elopement included her mother as witness. The marriage was over within two months.

Tiring of custard comedies, Miss Swanson in 1917 went to the Triangle Co., where she once again found herself portraying the well-dressed, affluent women who were to become the Swanson pattern. The clothes horse was emerging from the barn.

Two years later, she went to work for Cecil B. DeMille at Famous Players-Lasky, which later became Paramount, where she was to stay for several years, becoming "Queen of the Screen" in the words of one fan magazine. By 1925 she was receiving 10,000 fan letters a week and a salary of $1,000 a day.

DeMille thought fake gems looked fake on the screen, so authentic jewels were brought to the set each day by Pinkerton detectives. There was violin music to set the mood. In "Male and Female," she wore peacock feathers and lay on the floor as a lion put his paw on her bare back.

Miss Swanson married again in 1919, this time to Herbert K. Somborn, a film distributor old enough to be her father and whom she nicknamed "Daddy." The marriage failed, but it gave Miss Swanson her first daughter, Gloria, who was born in 1920. Somborn later opened the original Brown Derby Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard.

Her star was high enough in 1923 that she could move with her children (by then she had adopted a son, Joseph, who died in 1975) to a New York penthouse and make her films at Paramount's Astoria studio, defying pressure from executives to return to Hollywood. She considered New York home for the rest of her life.

Miss Swanson went to France in 1924 to star in an extraordinary film for its time—an American-French co-production entitled "Madame Sans-Gene," filmed at Napoleon's Fontainebleau palace and using may of the emperor's personal treasures. But more significantly for Miss Swanson, the film brought the handsome Henri, Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, into her life.

The impoverished aristocrat and the international film star who spent thousands on a single party fell in love and were married in a Paris suburb on Jan. 28, 1925. Though the marriage lasted only a few years, it was the marriage, and the love affair, of Miss Swanson's life.

In her autobiography, Miss Swanson said that on her wedding day, she thought she had never been happier. The world worshiped her, the money flowed and she had married her marquis, becoming the first movie star to have a title. But the next day the new marquise went secretly to have an abortion.

Miss Swanson already was pregnant with Henri's child and there was a morals clause in her contract.

Serious Illness

Miss Swanson feared that if she had the baby, it would destroy her career. But the operation nearly destroyed her instead. She developed peritonitis and lay gravely ill for days.

Miss Swanson recovered in time to return to American for the premiere of "San-Gene." En route to New York by ship, she wired the studio: "Am arriving with marquis tomorrow. Please arrange an ovation."

Crowds jammed the New York premiere, and the later train trip to California was a procession with speeches at every stop. In Los Angeles, there was a parade from the train station to Miss Swanson's Beverly Hills mansion, and that evening crowds gathered for the West Coast premiere of "Sans-Gene" at Sid Grauman's Million Dollar Theater on Broadway, then a major movie palace.

Miss Swanson was celebrated, idolized, envied and emulated, but—true to the poor little rich girl cliche—she was uneasy and frustrated, convinced that the public would tire of the sort of repetitious society pictures she was doing at Paramount.

United Artists had been formed by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith so they could produce and distribute their own films. Seeing her chance at freedom, and with Paramount dangling a $1 million-a-year contract in her face, she left the studio in 1926 and signed for six pictures with UA.

Any illusion that life at UA would be a congregation of stars discussing business over coffee at Pickfair was smashed as Miss Swanson found herself confronting lawyers, accountants, bankers and Joseph Schenck, head of UA, who expected her to stay on schedule, remain within her budget and turn a profit.

She decided to play it safe with her first independent venture, filming a romance called "The Love of Sunya," which opened in ancient Egypt and gave her a chance to be appropriately exotic in lovely costumes.

"Sadie Thompson," her next UA project, was based on the Somerset Maugham story and play about a prostitute and a lecherous clergyman. It was filmed over the objections of Will Hays, Hollywood's director of morals, and every major movie producer because it defied "The Formula," as the film decency code was called.

Attempted Sabotage

The amassed moguls tried to sabotage the picture, among other things making it difficult for director Raoul Walsh to keep a good cameraman. Miss Swanson ran out of money and decided to sell whatever she had to, starting with her Hudson River home in New York, to finish the picture, which she believed was the best thing she had done after 52 movies and a career of nearly 15 years.

And just as "Sans-Gene" had brought an important man into her life, so did "Sadie," in the person of Joseph P. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the father of the assassinated John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, and of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Joseph Kennedy at the time was a 40-year-old banking consultant interested in investing in motion pictures and, when they met over lunch in New York, Miss Swanson thought he looked "like any average working-class person's uncle."

Kennedy looked over the structure of her production company, found it in a shambles and reorganized it completely, putting his own people in key positions.

Henri, always in Miss Swanson's shadow and technically her employee, was made European director of Kennedy's own film enterprise, which soon became RKO Pictures, and began spending long periods of time in France.

Miss Swanson found herself living two lives in Beverly Hills—one with Henri when he was in California and the other with Kennedy, who maintained a home and office on Rodeo Drive.

Long separations from Henri, and the Kennedy affair, finally led the marquis to ask for a divorce in 1930, although Miss Swanson said they were still in love with each other.

After losing $800,000 on a picture that was never completed, "Queen Kelly," Miss Swanson determined that the rest of 1930 would be bright, but her film for that year, a comedy with music called "What a Widow," was a flop. And at the end of the year, Kennedy abruptly left her and Hollywood.

There was a new $1-million deal with Schenck for four pictures, but it was as if the golden girl of the '20s had turned to pot metal in the '30s. Schenck canceled the contract after the second film when Miss Swanson again bolted Hollywood, this time for England to give birth to another daughter, Michelle, in 1932.

By that time, she was Mrs. Michael Farmer and the marriage could have been plot for a Swanson movie. Farmer was a good-looking playboy who could be charming but had a violent temper. Miss Swanson had become pregnant by Farmer and had married him before her divorce from Henri was final, thus making the papers as Hollywood's most celebrated bigamist. The marriage ended in divorce after 2 1/2 years.

Nearing 40, and with independent production behind her as a kind of bad dream, Miss Swanson signed for a salary at Columbia, which Harry Cohn had elevated from a cheap "Poverty Row" operation to a major studio. Miss Swanson wanted to do a Broadway play to which David O. Selznick owned the movie rights and staged an emotional, 25-minute reading of the story to persuade Cohn to buy it. But he said no, uttering one Hollywood's more memorable lines" If Selznick wants to sell it, it means it can't be very good."

Bette Davis later did the picture at Warner Bros. It was called 'Dark Victory."

The incident sent Miss Swanson packing to New York, where she surveyed her assets and came up with $250,000, which had once been her price for a single film. Convinced that she would never make another movie, Miss Swanson in 1938 set about figuring out what to do with herself.

New Enterprises

She set up a business developing and marketing inventions by scientists fleeing the Nazi advance in Europe, launched a new career for herself as a stage actress—hitting Broadway for the last time in "Butterflies Are Free" in 1971—did radio and television, and was in another flop movie in 1941. She also tried marriage again in 1945, but her union with wealthy William Davey lasted just three months, "scarcely long enough to order new towels and stationary," as Miss Swanson commented.

When "Sunset Boulevard" came along, Miss Swanson had not had a successful movie in 20 years. Paramount insisted on testing her for Norma, which she resented, and she was paid only $50,000, hardly her price in the old days.

Much like Norma herself, who visits DeMille in the film and believes he is about to star her in a new picture, Miss Swanson felt she was back on top again while making "Sunset Boulevard."

Miss Swanson's last picture was "Airport 1975" and it was a case of perfect typecasting. She played Gloria Swanson dictating her memoirs into a tape recorder.

news.obits@latimes.com

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