July 10th, 2012
Children: Gloria Somborn (father Herbert K. Somborn). 1920-2000, brain cancer, Joseph Swanson (adopted after divorce from Somborn, named for her father not Kennedy). 1922-1975. Died unexpectedly, Michelle Farmer (father Michael Farmer). Born April 5, 1932. Briefly pursued an acting career. Had children who have also pursued entertainment careers. Currently living in France.
@2009 Hala Pickford. Please do not use without permission.
Gloria Swanson was quite possibly one of the greatest actresses of all time. Sadly this has somehow been forgotten in recent years. The woman who fought to break the Hays Code and make “Sadie Thompson” is now just Norma Desmond, the crazed washed up silent film star of “Sunset Blvd“. It is perhaps the greatest injustice that many modern viewers believe Swanson went out in a Desmond like state…when in actuality she was busy till her dying day and never lost her sense of humor. She loved her family and one of her granddaughters noted she died with a stuffed animal of ET by her bedside.
The greatest insult is still how the world has forgotten Mary Pickford and her work. But Gloria is a close second. Gloria lived just slightly longer than Mary, but unlike her friend she was active during that entire time. She worked with Charlie Chaplin, Raoul Walsh, Cecil B DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, Billy Wilder, and even was interviewed sitting next to Janis Joplin! This woman was everywhere…why she has faded from our collective memory is quite a puzzling question. Not only was she everywhere but she was also one of the greatest actresses EVER. Her crazed scene in Sunset Blvd, her mental break down in Sadie Thompson, her catfight with BeBe Daniels in “Why Change Your Wife?” Gloria was amazing…she puts any modern actress to shame.
Gloria Swanson was born March 27th, 1899 (census records confirm the date) in Chicago, Illinois to Joseph and Addie Swanson. Born during the first day of a Christian holy week she was named Glory by her father. Her maternal grandparents were Alsatian and usually spoke German though they also spoke French. Her paternal Grandparents were Swedish Lutherans. Alcoholism ran in the family and eventually her father succumbed to the disease as well.
Growing up, Swanson loved playing with dolls and dressing up. Her mother, convinced she had big ears always slapped a huge bow on her head. Her mother spoiled her making her several fashionable outfits. Swanson enjoyed this and when other girls asked her where she got her outfits or hats she’d lie and say she didn’t know. Her mother thought highly of Swanson, enrolling her in drawing and singing lessons at a young age. Swanson would excel in both fields well into old age.
When Swanson was 8 her father took a job with the United States Army. The family relocated to Key West, Florida. Swanson was enamored with the new state and was ecstatic over a pet alligator her father gave her. She only had it a day before the maid made her give it up. In Key West Swanson fished with her father and discovered her love of singing. Her mother enrolled her in private lessons with a man name Frank Hayes soon after. Hayes insisted she perform in a revue he was putting on. Swanson made her stage debut singing “As the World Rolls On“. Despite the praise she received she didn’t think she was very good and wanted to stick with drawing instead.
When Swanson was 11 the family was sent to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Swanson enjoyed the move and on the advice of her friend changed from private school to public so she could perform in their production of “The American Girl“. The show took place at the old rococo opera house and billed Swanson as the lead. They placed a gold star on her mirror with the name ‘Gloria’. Swanson enjoyed the experience so much she decided to become an opera singer.
During a visit in Chicago one of Swanson’s Aunts asked if she had seen Quo Vadis? the feature length Italian film that had made its way to America. Swanson had never seen a flicker and her mother wasn’t interested in the idea. Her Aunt offered to take her to Essanay Studios to see what American filmmakers were up to. Swanson agreed.
There she seen several shorts being made, including her future husband Wallace Berry performing in a Sweedie short. After being given a tour of the studio the casting director spotted Swanson and asked if he could take her information. He called her the next and asked her to come be an extra. Swanson’s outfits so impressed the director she was given a bit part, handing flowers to a bride. She made $3.25 cents for her appearance, feeling it was a fortune. Though her mother wasn’t impressed Swanson was and when she received a call to appear in another film she quickly agreed. However she began to feel she was too plain for the movies and after being yelled at by a crazed director decided she had enough of flickers. She left for New York to visit a friend and her father who was stationed nearby.
There she learned the tango and experienced her first kiss. Her mother forwarded a letter from Essanay offering $13 a week. Upon her return Swanson dropped out of school and accepted the contract. She worked for several months at Essanay, not doing any work she considered important. For one of her final films for Essanay she was assigned to work on a newcomer’s film. The newcomer, Charlie Chaplin, had personally picked her and spent an afternoon trying to work out funny bits to perform with Swanson. Swanson said in her autobiography, “For the life of me I couldn’t get the feel of his frisky little skits.” Deciding she wanted no part of his ‘kick in the pants’ style of humor she acted difficult on purpose and was soon dismissed from the film. Swanson would later sign with UA which Chaplin helped found, she also narrated a documentary on his work and life in 1972. Swanson would later admire his work on “The Gold Rush” and humorously noted back at Essanay she hadn’t found him funny and he didn’t think she could act.
In 1915 her mother decided to travel to California, after Swanson’s grandfather died leaving the bulk of his estate to her mother. Swanson’s father was now stationed in Manila, Philippines; where she was told they would eventually be moving. Before leaving Chicago, Swanson’s mother took her to a famous vocal coach asking her a serious opinion of Swanson’s talent. The coach insisted she could be a great singer but would need more training. Despite letters of recommendation from Essanay, both Swanson and her mother decided she would not return to film but be a singer instead.
On the train ride to California, Swanson’s mother told her the story of her broken marriage, how her father had become a heavy drinker, and he had ran up several gambling debts. Her mother was seriously considering a divorce, while her father had begged for a reconciliation. The pair did eventually divorce, with Swanson hardly seeing her father in his final years. Though she had been close to her father as a child she soon became closer to her mother, whom she had spent much more time with. Swanson felt the divorce had shattered her notions of marriage and love as she had idolized her parents up until that moment.
When Swanson and her mother arrived in California, Wallace Berry arranged a place for them to stay on Cahuenga Blvd in Hollywood. Berry had tried to hit on Swanson during their time at Essanay in Chicago but Swanson had brushed him off. When he heard she would be moving to California he had sent a telegram offering to help.
During a dinner after they arrived Swanson mentioned her letter of recommendation. Beery insisted she follow up and try to contact Mack Sennett at Keystone. However Swanson said she didn’t care, but Beery eventually convinced her.
Swanson arrived at Keystone Studios but was unable to find anyone who would help her. Ironically Frank Hayes was working at Keystone and spotted her. She was introduced to Mack Sennett who declared her clothes were ugly and her make up was horrible. Despite the harsh assessment he told her to report back on Thursday. Swanson was furious at the comment and vowed she was done with film for good. On Friday a chauffeur arrived at her house to escort her to Keystone. She arrived to an enthusiastic reception and discovered she had been signed to play opposite Bobby Vernon, who was a short man. Swanson being about 5’4 would be a perfect match for him. When she hadn’t shown up, Sennett had a fit especially as no one had her address or information. Eventually Hayes was able to give her address. Swanson also discovered Sennett had not meant to insult her, he felt her makeup made her look 30, not 16.
Swanson signed with Keystone and worked opposite Vernon, as well as Teddy the Wonder Dog. Her starting salary was $100 a week. Swanson’s parents began their divorce around this time which devastated and confused her. She spent more and more time with Wallace Beery. Beery proposed and when Swanson didn’t answer he pressed her for one. She spent a week before accepting the proposal, though she felt her parents divorce had warped her views of love and marriage at the time. To celebrate Beery taught her to drive, something she loved to do well into old age. Several of her Keystone shorts would later feature her driving, something surprising at the time.
Swanson decided she wanted to elope and 2 weeks later on her 17th birthday they drove to Santa Barbara to marry. However Swanson did not have a birth certificate (she needed to be 18 to legally marry without permission) and the pair were unable to marry. Beery yelled at her but they eventually returned to Hollywood to pick up her mother. They then traveled to Pasadena where they were able to marry. Swanson wrote in her biography that in a drunken state Beery raped her on their wedding night. She immediately regretted the union.
Swanson did not announce her marriage, and threw herself into her work instead. However Beery decided to announce their union and began using Swanson to further his own career. Despite asking to end the marriage Beery convinced Swanson to stay, moving her into a home with his parents. Beery began collecting her checks and spending it on his own debts. Sennett fired Beery shortly before Swanson found out she was pregnant. She begged for his job back only to find out he had been cheating on her (and thus Sennett had fired him upon discovering his infidelities). Beery promised things would be different yet again and Swanson informed him of her pregnancy to which Beery feigned happiness.
Four days later Swanson woke up in great pain and Beery brought a bottle of pills from the pharmacist, telling her to take 5 pills. His mother stood in the doorway watching. Swanson became violently ill and woke up in the hospital, informed by a nurse that she had lost her baby. She checked herself out, recovered the bottle, and went to the druggist to find out what the pills were. The druggist informed her it was a drug to induce miscarriages.
Swanson returned to work on a film titled “Teddy at the Throttle“. Beery tried to act like a happy couple but she refused and ignored him. During one scene she is tied up by the villain (Beery) and placed on the railroad tracks. Beery shook her so hard and tied the rope so tight it left marks on her arms. They had been married 2 months before separating. Swanson would eventually divorce him in 1919.
During this time Swanson’s comedies with Vernon had done very well and Sennett intended to make her one of his biggest stars. She was soon remodeled as a Sennett Bathing Beauty and forced to take part in the slapstick she hated so. Many felt (including Swanson herself) that Sennett was trying to mold her as another Mabel Normand, a popular comedienne who had just ended her relationship with Sennett. After filming “A Pullman Bride” Swanson asked to be released from her contract, Sennett obliged.
3 months later Swanson decided to contact Clarence Badger who had directed her comedies with Vernon. Badger was now with Triangle Pictures and invited her to come act in a one reeler he was making. On her way to the studio she was spotted by a director named Jack Conway who insisted he had just the part for her. The film was titled “Smoke” and was a society story, different from her Keystone films. After performing her own diving stunt Swanson was told the studio heads would give her lead billing, and wanted to make her a star. As part of her contract she was given a bigger apartment, a new car, and help acquiring her divorce from Beery. Triangle put her in a rush of quickie pictures, which Swanson felt was damaging her career. Conway soon left Triangle, and was unable to help Swanson further as he was trying to obtain a divorce from his wife and felt his wife would try to create a scandal.
In 1918 Swanson received a call from Famous Players-Lasky. She met with Cecil B DeMille who wanted to work with her. Swanson had not signed a legal contract with Triangle and agreed to work with DeMille immediately. When Triangle called telling her to report for a new picture she informed them of her move and then received a call from DeMille. DeMille informed her that even though there wasn’t a contract the lawyers had a way of complicating things and the matter would be decided by arbitration. Unfortunately the arbitrators ruled against DeMille and Swanson was forced to continue working for Triangle. Swanson began cranking out films at a substantial rate, none of which she felt were of good quality. Triangle eventually went bankrupt and released Swanson from her contract. They informed her DeMille had tried to borrow her several times and still wanted her.
Swanson left immediately and began work on “Don’t Change Your Husband“. The film would set the tone for many of her films with DeMille which included comedy, bathing scenes, and glamorous over the top costumes. Swanson concluded she began refining her acting during this time, watching the daily rushes to see what she could improve. During this time she met wealthy playboy Craney Grantz who begged her to leave pictures and marry him. Swanson refused. She credited Grantz with starting her love affair with reading.
After filming had wrapped on “Don’t Change Your Husband” DeMille presented Swanson with a contract. She would start at $150 a week which promised to raise to $350 a week in 2 years. Swanson signed in December 1918. Soon after “Don’t Change Your Husband” was released to rave reviews and good box office, beating out the William Randolph Hearst backed “Cecila of the Pink Roses” which starred his mistress Marion Davies. The film launched Swanson into a solid star status, with women clamoring for her designer. Rumors spread that she and the married DeMille were having an affair. Swanson denied it in her autobiography stating the rumors shocked and hurt her.
Swanson’s third picture for DeMille, “Male and Female” was based on the popular play “The Admirable Crichton” which called class order into question. Filming took place on location with several mishaps occurring (including co-star Thomas Meighan almost drowning). Swanson herself was scratched up from climbing over rocks and had to pick broken beads out of her skin with tweezers. One night one of the assistant directors went missing. Swanson had a vision he was somewhere safe, sitting at a piano eating radishes. She thought it was crazy, and wrote off the experience. The next day the assistant returned and to everyone’s amazement Swanson’s vision had been accurate. Swanson felt it was a gift of hers that she began to use from then on.
DeMille himself believed in reincarnation and insisted including a glamorous Babylon scene to further the story. In the film Swanson’s character is a beautifully dressed slave ordered to death by the King (Meighan in their class reversals). She is thrown in a pit of lions. DeMille insisted on showing her laying dead, with a lions paw on her back. Real lions were brought in and at first DeMille using a trick shot or a double. However Swanson volunteered to do the stunt, allowing a real lion to place its paw on her back. Swanson cited this as the hardest thing she ever had to do in her career, even harder than the crazed scene in “Sunset Blvd”. Interestingly enough Swanson’s father had arrived for a visit on set right as the scene was being shot. He hadn’t seen her in 5 years. DeMille gave Swanson a jeweled purse for her bravery. Swanson would cite this film several times in her autobiography, always using it as a favorable comparison to other parts of her career.
Swanson’s father stayed with her for a few months. He had been severely affected by his experiences in World War 1 and Swanson did her best to help him. During his visit Swanson arranged to fly a plane for the first time. She enjoyed the experience tremendously but her father made her swear never to do it again. She wouldn’t fly in a plane again until the 1950s. On the last night of her father’s visit they went to The Alexandria for dinner. There Swanson met her future husband Herbert K. Somborn. Somborn worked as a distributor for Clara Kimball Young, and was a fan of Swanson’s. Somborn invited her to dinner and mentioned how she had to see Young’s latest picture “Eyes of Youth” which had a little unknown named Rudolph Valentino in it. Somborn was certain he would be a major star.
Young was extremely helpful towards Swanson and Swanson admired the way she could talk business. Somborn soon became infatuated with Swanson and asked her to marry him. Craney got news of the pending engagement and offered Swanson a trust fund for life if she would decline Somborn’s engagement. However Swanson refused and agreed to marry Somborn, who was nearing 40 years old, and was Jewish at a time when anti Semitism was rampant. The night she accepted his proposal she met director Marshall Neilan, who declared he was going to marry her the moment he met her. Swanson and Neilan would go on to have a long affair, though she still married Somborn. They were married at the Alexandria Hotel, where they honeymooned.
Somborn looked over Swanson’s contract and realized she had been given incredibly unfair terms. After DeMille realized he had a star on his hands they gave her a contract that was extremely favorable to the studio. Similar stars were making several thousand a week. Somborn found a lawyer for Swanson to try and arrange more favorable terms. Swanson was thrilled to have someone take care of her business affairs but was dismayed when she learned that Somborn was heavily in debt, and had been charging their extravagances (including gifts for her and their wedding stay at The Alexandria) in her name. As much as Swanson had hoped he would take care of her she came to realize he had envisioned the opposite, which is why he was so outraged over her contract.
Swanson found out she was pregnant, which Somborn decided might be a good bargaining ploy. She told Famous Players she could not return to work until January, when her contract would be void because of its illegal extensions. Famous Players offered to raise her salary from $350 to $2500 a week. She would also receive star billing, and due to that would not be allowed to work with DeMille despite her protests.
Her daughter Gloria Somborn was born on October 7th, 1920. Swanson had a Christian Scientist practitioner for a midwife but after several difficult hours of labor a doctor was brought in. DeMille came soon after with a gift for her daughter, asking Swanson to star in one last picture for him. Swanson agreed and work began on “The Affairs of Anatol”. Though Swanson had been eager to do the picture it soon became a disaster. She put off an important surgery so she could take part in the film, and was weirded out by leading man Wallace Reid who was in the final years of his unfortunate drug addiction. Gossip columnists wanted photos of Little Gloria but when Swanson refused they began to run stories that she was deformed or mentally handicap. The final straw was when Jeanie Macpherson, DeMille’s go to writer, observed one of Swanson’s fittings and declared that she looked ‘plump’ despite the fact she had just given birth.
After “The Affairs of Anatol” wrapped Swanson began her own contract negotiations, telling Somborn he was to have no part of her business dealings from now on. She would make $2,500 a week, which would raise to $7,000 a week in five years. Swanson asked for and received several special perks, including her own studio cars, her own designer, and musicians on set.
The eccentric British writer Elinor Glyn was brought in to write Swanson’s first film for her new contract. Swanson adored Glyn, though Glyn herself thought Swanson too ‘common’ looking. The film was “The Great Moment” which Glyn insisted had a scene where a snake bit Swanson’s breast. Censors were in an uproar over the idea but in the end a compromise was reached: her shoulder blade was used for the biting scene. The film was a success and established Glyn in Hollywood. She would go on to write “Beyond the Rocks” as well as Clara Bow‘s notorious “It“.
Swanson’s next film “Under the Lash” did poorly at the box office. In the film she had not worn glamorous gowns and as a result all her future films had lavish wardrobes as part of the plots. During this time she and Somborn separated. She had also become acquainted with Marshall Neilan again. He was still insisting that he loved her. Swanson asked the studio to help acquire her divorce from Somborn but the studio refused, citing the Fatty Arbuckle scandal which had just happened a week prior. Swanson continued her affair with Neilan none the less, but was concerned she too would fall to scandal.
Swanson’s next film was “Beyond the Rocks” which co-starred Rudolph Valentino. She had seen him in “Eyes of Youth” and had actually met him 9 months before filming began. The two were avid horse riders and had met at the stable. They went riding through the Hollywood hills almost every Sunday. Swanson noted he had a ‘delicious accent’. The two talked about their respective marriage troubles and became good friends. 2 months after they had met at “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse“ had premiered, launching Valentino into superstardom. Swanson assumed she wouldn’t see him again but a few weeks later, on her birthday he arrived with a gift for her, an engraved silver handled riding crop. She was surprised he even knew her birth date as she had not told him but he had read it in an interview.
Beyond the Rocks was a decadent picture, complete with expensive costumes and a flashback scene with period outfits (Natacha Rambova designed Valentino’s for those scenes). The film was the first to suffer under the new Hays Censorship rules having to film all kissing scenes twice: once for the American market (10 feet per kiss) and once for the European market. The film was a success though some reviewers felt the sets were cheap in comparison to the costumes. It was lost until 2005 when it was rediscovered in the Netherlands Film Institute. Swanson noted in the 1980s she wished to see it again. Sadly Swanson would only see Valentino sparingly after filming. He married Natacha Rambova within the year and Swanson noted she seen him seldom after that. However she did see him just weeks before he died, when he was seeing his brother Alberto off in New York. She attended both funerals and her husband at the time, the Marquis, literally kicked a paparazzi out of the New York funeral breaking his camera.
Swanson took a trip to Europe after filming. She decided she couldn’t marry Neilan yet and encouraged him to marry Blanche Sweet. Neilan did as asked, though he and Sweet separated 2 months later. Swanson returned to Hollywood and began work on “The Impossible Mrs. Bellew” and “My American Wife“. She bought a home in Beverly Hills, with help from Neilan who she was once again considering marrying. Swanson decided to spend more time with her daughter and wanted to give her a sense of family. She decided to adopt in the summer of 1922, eventually choosing a baby boy she called ‘Brother’. She legally named him Joseph after her father (she had not yet met Joseph Kennedy). This was a radical move for a single mother at the time.
That fall the notorious ‘Negri vs. Swanson’ feud rumors began. Pola Negri, a fashionable vamp type who had worked in German films had just arrived in Hollywood was rumored to not get along with Swanson.. Both Negri and Swanson stated later in life the feud was mostly made up by the press. Both had played it up demanding bigger bungalows or perks. One rumor had it that Negri demanded no cats were on set when she filmed, while Swanson demanded that there was a cat on all her sets. Swanson noted in her autobiography that when Negri arrived she threw a welcoming dinner party for the new actresses, however the press was not informed. She called the supposed feud ‘total nonsense’.
As Swanson began adoption proceedings for Joseph, Somborn sued her for divorce alleging she had slept with 14 powerful men, everyone from Jesse Lasky to Sam Wood. Somborn had also conveniently waited until her salary doubled, demanding a settlement of $150,000 claiming he had negotiated her contract. DeMille asked Swanson to meet with him, producing a telegram supposedly from Will Hays and insisting she settle with Somborn to avoid scandal. After consulting with her father who insisted she protect her children Swanson agreed to the settlement. She would have to pay Somborn $700,000. The studio insisted she make an extra picture for them to pay off the sum and sign a new contract with a morality clause (something that did not exist before the Fatty Arbuckle scandal). Soon after while filming “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” Swanson met Hays at a banquet and was very frosty towards him for the threatening telegram. Hays was confused, admitting he was a big fan of hers, and had never sent any such telegram and was willing to prove it. Swanson later realized Lasky had forged it, and DeMille had played along.
Using this information she coerced them into letting her film with Allan Dwan in New York. The film would be “Zaza”. Swanson’s popularity was perhaps at her highest, with the movie magazines dubbing her the “Queen of the Screen“. She received 10,000 fan letters a week and was given a personal maid and secretary. After holistically healing herself to repair injuries caused by her daughter’s difficult birth, Swanson began work on “The Hummingbird” a film she hoped would help win her the extremely coveted role of Peter Pan.
Halfway through production Swanson’s father died. After returning from his burial in Chicago she met Sport Ward who she would date. During this time she bought her own home in New York, Croton-on-Hudson. Swanson loved living in New York, and intended to do as much of her work in the city as possible.
After realizing the Hays Code forbade portraying ‘Manhandling‘ Swanson decided to name her next picture just that. The company headed to Florida and later Cuba on a vacation disguised as a scouting trip. Swanson received several expensive jewels from a ‘Senor X’ who she later realized was a former Cuban President. After he tried to get her alone in a remote location Swanson immediately donated the jewels to charity and left for New York.
Swanson then began work on “A Society Sensation” with leading man Rod la Rocque. Swanson immediately fell in love with him, and within a week la Rocque proposed. Swanson was sincere in her wish to marry la Rocque but once he found she had many platonic male friends he became jealous, something neither of them could handle. The two broke the engagement, and surprisingly became good friends. La Rocque would go on to marry Vilma Banky who Swanson would also become friends with.
Hoping to secure the role of Peter Pan, Swanson traveled to England to speak with its author J. M Barrie. However once she arrived news broke that Betty Bronson had won the role, so on the advice of her friend and constant scenario writer Forrest Halsey, Swanson began work on her most notorious lost film Madame Sans Gene.
After speaking with Andre Daven (who had a small role in Monsieur Beaucaire) Swanson approached the French government about doing the film. After acquiring their permission and blessing Swanson traveled to France on a wave of publicity. Again on the advice of Daven she hired Henri who was the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye to be her translator. Despite the title (akin to a Duke in English nobility) the Marquis was not wealthy and ran an insurance company. Swanson found him indispensable. The Marquis eventually admitted he had never seen a Swanson film, but the two got along well and soon fell in love.
Filming took place on several authentic French sites including Napoleon’s own authentic library. The venture was extremely successful and Swanson lamented later in life the loss of the film. When the film was released in America Famous Players-Lasky had cut the film down 30 minutes to try and squeeze in extra showings. This caused several bad reviews and Swanson fought them on the matter.
To celebrate the end of filming Swanson held a costume party. In the middle of planning the party she realized she was pregnant. Her divorce from Somborn would not be finalized for another month and by that time it would be easy to prove she had been pregnant if she married the Marquis at that time. Fearing the morals clause in her contract, and what that could mean for her children, Swanson decided to have an abortion.
She quietly married the Marquis, the day before the scheduled abortion. Daven took her to the appointment, and brought her home. Swanson became seriously ill from blood poisoning, spending 2 weeks in and out of consciousness. Her hair had to be cut so towels could be easily wrapped around her head. A death watch had been kept in the press. Finally well enough again she and the Marquis headed to Paris, to promote the film. Swanson was severely depressed and considered retiring. At the end of her life she would cite the abortion as her biggest regret. On a trip to Japan in the 1970s she seen a cemetery for premature or stillborn children. Swanson was deeply moved by the guide’s words, “We all choose our parents. We choose everything. No blame.”
Annoyed with herself she finally snapped out of the depression, accepted dinner at Pickfair, and began production on The Coast of Folly. United Artists began heavily courting Swanson around this time. Famous Players offered to double her salary to $14,000 a week, and possibly $22,000. Swanson however was tired of making 4 formula pictures a year, and the tactics used by Famous Players. Dismayed to find her new husband again was no good with business she signed with United Artists in July 1925.
Swanson left for New York where she created Gloria Swanson Productions with the help of fellow UA member Joseph Schenck. Figuring a safe picture would be the way to go, Swanson bought the rights to “Eyes of Youth”, the film which exposed Rudolph Valentino to June Mathis. The film was remade with Swanson in Clara Kimball Young’s role, seeing 3 possible futures for herself. During production Swanson saw her husband off on a ship to France, where she ran into Valentino for the last time. He died soon after. Swanson said of the following affair, “His death enraged me and his funeral sickened me.” Swanson attended his New York funeral where her husband literally kicked out paparazzi who had snuck in.
The Love of Sunya was a disaster, running over budget and behind schedule. Swanson felt the film could be better and it opened to mediocre reviews and business. Schenck advised Swanson to pick a safe picture such as “The Last of Mrs. Cheney” which was a Broadway hit at the time. He also urged Swanson to relocate to California where it would be cheaper and easier to film.
Swanson craving complete artistic and independent control agreed. She wanted to make her own “Gold Rush” as Charlie Chaplin had a few years prior. Swanson sought out director Raoul Walsh who suggested she film the 1923 play Rain. Rain was on the secret blacklist of films never to be made, for its portrayal of prostitution and religious themes. Swanson had seen Jeanne Eagels perform the role twice and enjoyed it.
Swanson invited Will Hays over and spoke of the film without mentioning the title or play. She asked if she could make such a film and Hays gave her his blessing. Swanson quietly acquired the rights to the play shortly before Lindbergh had made his historic flight. However Lindbergh’s news had not fully buried her notice and UA received a threatening telegram from the MPAA signed by all its members including Walsh’s studio FOX and an unknown new member, Joseph Kennedy. Swanson had never heard his name before, and would not meet him until filming on Sadie Thompson had wrapped.
Swanson was angered by the response especially because each and every one of those studios had released a morally questionable film of their own. She appealed to the MPAA and receiving no response went to the papers. Receiving only silence Swanson figured the matter had blown over and began production.
Swanson and Walsh had written the script. Walsh would direct and co-star in the film. Lionel Barrymore was selected to play the hypocritical Reverend Davidson. Filming was plagued with several problems and again ran over budget. Swanson sold her home in New York to help finance the film. During production Swanson took ill, and after consulting a doctor she began macrobiotic diets, something she would promote for the rest of her life.
After filming she met Kennedy for dinner. Impressed by his opinions Swanson agreed to let him finance her next film. On Kennedy’s advice she sold her share of Sadie Thompson’s profits to Schenck. The film had cost $600,000 and would go on to make $1 million during its first run. Previews had been positive and reviews were glowing. It made the top 10 best film list of the year and Swanson was nominated for an Oscar for her role. Swanson lost and would never win an Oscar in her lifetime. The film still exists today though it is missing the last reel.
On Kennedy’s advice Swanson agreed to take part in “The Swamp” directed by the notoriously difficult Eric von Stroheim. With Kennedy, Swanson created a new production company letting Kennedy take full control of her career and finances. She admired him for his take charge attitude, something she had wished to see in her husbands. Kennedy offered the Marquis a role for Pathé. It would help keep him out of the way and give him a real job, as he had basically been on salary, an employee of Swanson’s.
After forming the new production company Swanson and Kennedy left for Florida. On the train Kennedy kissed Swanson, the start of their notorious romantic affair. On Kennedy’s urging Swanson had her son baptized. Kennedy insisted on mixing their families on several occasions, and told Swanson he planned on having a child with her. Swanson refused.
A year after agreeing to the film production began on “The Swamp” which would become “Queen Kelly“. The filming went smoothly until Swanson noticed von Stroheim was inserting several subtle and disgusting things that would repulse audiences and never make it past the censors. After a tobacco dribbling scene she called Kennedy who had a fit, claiming this was his first failure in his life. Production was put on hold.
Swanson had seen a talkie for the first time before she began work on Sadie Thompson. Swanson had not been impressed, feeling they sounded awful and tinny. Needing something to salvage her wasted time and money from Queen Kelly, Swanson decided to make a talkie on the advice of Edmund Goulding who insisted talkies had advanced technologically since she had seen one. Ironically at the same time Kennedy was toying with the idea of adding sound to try and salvage Queen Kelly. Though rumors of a talkie version would swirl for years Queen Kelly never became a talkie.
With Goulding, Swanson began work on an original script for her first talkie. The script was finished within a month. Looking for a way to transition the mood of the film, Goulding decided to add a song, which he wrote himself. The song was titled, “Love, Your Magic Spell” and would become a major hit, as would the talkie, titled “The Trespasser“.
Swanson brought in the best technical crew possible. She found filming talkies easy as she had always used scripts with her more elaborate films. She did however find the touchiness of the new technology intrusive. The film was shot in 21 days which was quite fast for a talkie at the time. Ironically The Trespasser was one of her cheapest films during her starring years.
The Trespasser debuted in England, with the press wondering if Gloria’s voice had been dubbed. She performed live at one of the screenings winning over the press. Swanson had traveled to England with Kennedy and his wife, as well as her husband. The trip was a turning point in both relationships. Kennedy became more infatuated than ever with her, sure Queen Kelly could be salvaged into a major hit. While in England, Swanson suggested the Marquis contact Constance Bennett for a project, who he had met only once before. Constance would become his second wife.
The stock market crashed shortly before Swanson returned to New York, starting the Great Depression. Still “The Trespasser” as well as “Love, Your Magic Spell” were both hits in the US. Kennedy became resentful, as he had passed up a chance to produce it feeling it not as worthy as “Queen Kelly”. Having already spent $800,000 ($8 million in 2009) Kennedy finally abandoned the project. Trying to prove himself still dominant Kennedy proudly commissioned a script titled “What a Widow!” which he presented to Swanson in a bound copy. Swanson found the script dreadful as did Allan Dwan. Hoping to salvage her relationship with Kennedy, Swanson pleaded with Dwan to direct it as a favor. As Swanson reluctantly began production she received a letter from the Marquis, asking for a divorce.
The production was stilted, with both Lew Cody and Owen Moore not being well (both would pass on a few years later). The only notable thing was that a newcomer name Joel McCrea had a small role. It was another Kennedy handled flop, with depression era audiences not up for a middling romantic comedy. It was also the first officially released flop of Swanson’s since, “The Love of Sunya” . It would take her almost 2 decades to recover. Perhaps the only silver lining is Swanson would soon be nominated for an Academy award for her work in “The Trespasser”.
Not only did What a Widow stall her career but it became the final nail in the coffin for her relationship with Kennedy. Having trouble coming up with a title for the film, Kennedy offered to buy a Cadillac for whoever could come up with something catchy. After the film was released Swanson’s accountant asked her why she had paid for the car out of her personal account and not the budget of the film. Swanson asked Kennedy about it casually over dinner. Kennedy became irate and abruptly left Swanson, leaving for New York without saying a word. Soon Swanson received a letter that Kennedy’s handlers would no longer handle any of her business affairs. Swanson would not hear from him for a few years.
Once Kennedy had left, Swanson’s accountant discovered many other discrepancies. Kennedy had claimed to have made her financially independent, but in reality he was bleeding her dry. Much like her other lovers things had been charged in her name without her knowing. Swanson’s career and finances were in shambles.
Knowing Louis B Mayer hated Kennedy, she approached him asking for a 4 picture deal for $250,000 a picture. However UA objected (mostly because of Joe Schenck) and Swanson was unable to take the deal. On the advice of Schenck she signed a $1 million dollar contract with UA which she felt was more beneficial than the MGM deal would have been.
Her first film for UA “Indiscreet” was dismal despite sincere attempts by everyone involved. Swanson almost backed out until Ben Lyon was offered as her leading man. She felt the script was weak and the songs wrong for her voice. With a premiere held in London, Swanson decided to abandon Hollywood while another flop premiered. Leaving her children with a nanny she left for Paris to having fittings with Coco Chanel for her next film, “Tonight or Never” which Schenck promised to make a major production.
After her first fittings, Swanson was introduced to Michael Farmer. Soon after she found a lump in her breast which turned out to be benign. The doctor informed her she was pregnant. Her divorce to Henri would not be final for 2 months, and Swanson was sure the studio would raise hell. Desperate she planned to have her friends marry and pretend to have the child so she could adopt it. Brought back to reality, Swanson decided to keep the child, and marry Farmer. Farmer was madly in love with her, but Swanson felt indifferent.
Farmer and Swanson returned to California where she began filming “Tonight or Never”. They had married in August 1931 upon their arrival in New York. Though this was technically bigamy under the laws of the time the news was overshadowed by the Marquis’ marriage to Constance. Swanson did not approve of the marriage and would not renew her friendship with the Marquis until the marriage ended. She would happily note only she and Henri’s third wife Emmita held the title of Marquise, as under French law she and Henri were not divorced when he married Constance.
They quickly remarried when the final month had passed. Hoping to avoid scandal Swanson took her family and returned to France. After receiving threats from Schenck’s lawyers she began sending coded telegrams hoping they could not be intercepted. While in France she visited Sylvia Ashley to recommended a doctor. Swanson was stunned to find photos of Douglas Fairbanks plastered all over her room, Ashley and Fairbanks were deep into an affair at the time. Douglas had been married to America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford since 1920 in what was one of the first and biggest celebrity marriages. Swanson had introduced Doug and Sylvia a few years before. Though many have assumed there was a rivalry between Swanson and Pickford, Swanson actually wrote fondly of Pickford saying they were friends.
Swanson became fearful of Farmer, who had become possessive and abusive with her. They returned to his native England for the final months of her pregnancy. On the advice of Doug and Sylvia she decided to make a film in England. Production plans were completed by the time she went into labor. After giving birth to her daughter Michelle, Swanson began work again on a film to be titled “A Perfect Understanding“. However things became worse with Farmer, who forbade her to speak to certain men and threatened her with a revolver. Swanson told him to knock it off, but felt the marriage was like play acting.
Laurence Olivier was set to play opposite Swanson in the film. However he was in a car accident shortly before filming was to begin. In addition the director’s father had passed on just days before, leaving him an emotional wreck. The final straw came when the film lab set on fire. Some of it was thrown out of the window as an attempt to save it but it would have to be shipped to America at an enormous cost. UA finally shut down the project.
More disaster followed as gossip began to spread that Mary Pickford blamed Swanson for the break up of her marriage, and Swanson found another lump on her breast. A Perfect Understanding opened in Britain and flopped hard, costing Swanson much of her own money and UA stock.
Swanson became depressed and inactive for 2 years. In 1934 she divorced Farmer on the advice of her lawyer. Somborn was dying of cancer at the time and the two reconciled as friends though they had not spoke in many years. With her finances and career at a standstill Swanson was lost. On the advice of friends she decided to return to film. MGM and FOX both courted her. Swanson eventually accepted a role in “Music in the Air“. It would be the first time she worked with Billy Wilder. Despite a stellar cast and crew, and several catchy songs, the film flopped. Swanson noted audiences ignored it for a Shirley Temple film instead.
Thalberg began looking for another film for Swanson. Swanson soon fell for Herbert Marshall, a separated yet still married actor. Swanson and Marshall carried on an affair which left them ostracized for some time. Vilma Banky and Rod la Rocque were some of the few friends to still socialize with Swanson.
Thalberg did not mind the affair and continued plans for a grand film. Frances Marion was chosen to write an adaptation of Glyn’s “Three Weeks“. Clark Gable would possibly be her leading man. Plans dragged on well into 1935 and then tragedy struck. Marion’s husband died in a car crash which reportedly might have been a suicide. Thalberg was said to not be in the best health. Marshall’s drinking deepened and Swanson reluctantly ended the relationship despite her hopes of marrying him. In 1936 Thalberg died and “Three Weeks” died with him. Marion was set to adapt “Maisie Kenyon” for Swanson but Marion had a dispute with the studio killing the project. She told Swanson it was for the best anyways as the story was lousy.
After traveling to England, Swanson received a cable informing her Marion had found the perfect project, “The Second Mrs. Draper“. Swanson was put on salary at Columbia while some filler projects could be drawn up for her. Swanson wished to adapt a play Tallulah Bankhead had starred in. Harry Cohn told her no because if David Selznick wanted it, it could be no good. Swanson had an outburst and cancelled her contract and sold her house within the month. Swanson’s instinct’s had been right as Bette Davis would become a great success adapting that very story, “Dark Victory“. Swanson had not made a film in 4 years.
By 1938 Swanson had spent or lost much of her fortune, not helped by her marriages. Despite proposals by wealthy men she turned them down, certain she couldn’t marry without love. Trying to find a new source of income Swanson once again became fascinated with science inspired by her friend George de Bothezat. Reading of the troubles of Jewish Scientists in Nazi Germany, Swanson created a company called ‘G. Swanson Multiprises‘ to bring scientists over to work and invent for her company.
With the idea of bringing the inventor of long lasting illuminated paint to America, Swanson traveled to France to assist bringing him and 4 other inventors to America. Swanson had assistance from several friends and acquaintances, including her ex husband the Marquis. In the end she was able to save 4 scientists, but not the man she had originally intended. The 4 scientists returned to New York to work for Multiprises, all being granted a chance to stay in the US after World War 2 broke out.
Swanson campaigned heavily for Wendell Willkie during the 1939 Presidential election. She feared if Roosevelt was elected into office war would occur, and her son being of draft age she did not want to see war no matter how horrible she found Hitler. In the meantime she and Kennedy worked hard to bring the Marquis and his fiancée Emmita back to the US by pretending he was the head of a French office for her company. Swanson and Kennedy would write telegrams and make call to each other, but were never on close terms again.
In 1941, Swanson was offered the lead in a musical comedy “Father Takes a Wife“, she hadn’t been on the screen in 7 years. Swanson was hesitant, but liked the idea of working with her friend Adolphe Menjou. Swanson took the role for $35,000 a lot less than her earlier salaries.
RKO set about a major publicity campaign for the film. It was promoted as Swanson’s comeback. However the film opened shortly after December 7th, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed and America officially went to war. The most notable thing about the film is a small role by Desi Arnaz. Swanson considered it some additional money, and happily returned to her film retirement.
Despite some successes with her invention company the War soon interrupted it as well since the inventors were needed for the war effort. Swanson soon turned to the stage which she had always avoided, fearing her style of acting would not translate well on the stage. In 1942 she performed in a revival of another Tallulah Bankhead play, “Reflected Glory“. Swanson found the stage thrilling and soon performed in several plays.
Swanson married William Davey in 1945, mostly because he was wealthy and Michelle had been after her to have a more traditional family. While touring with “A Goose for a Gander” soon after the wedding, Swanson found Davey in a drunken stupor. She had been unaware he was an alcoholic. Swanson and Michelle tried to put AA literature around the apartment but to no avail, one day Davey packed his bags and left…the marriage lasted just a little more than a month.
In 1948 WPIX asked Swanson to do a weekly television show “The Gloria Swanson Hour“. A major promotional push began and a photo of Swanson landed on the first cover of a new magazine called ‘TV Guide‘. The show filmed every Thursday and took place on a set supposed to be Swanson’s apartment. First it featured a maid and later a butler for fodder. Along with Eric Rhodes, Swanson wrote the scripts and programmed the interviews. There were usually 8-12 guests per episode. The show was eventually split in to four, 15 minute segments, “Glamour on a Budget”, “Chef’s Holiday”, “Design for a Living”, and “Trend”. She made $350 a week for the program.
The show was a hit and WPIX wanted to sign Swanson to a 3 year contract. Before Swanson could sign she became ill and required surgery. While recovering one of the networks sent a TV set to her hospital room. Swanson had been doing her show for 6 months yet had never actually watched television. Swanson found it awful and too crude in its technology. Soon after she sent in a resignation letter to WPIX.
While still recovering, Swanson received a call from Paramount asking for a screen test. She feared screen tests and used her health as an excuse. Producer Charles Brackett kept calling and offered a free stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel and the possibility of a salary of $50,000 for the film. On the advice of several friends including George Cukor, Swanson agreed to the test.
Swanson was chosen for the role of an aging and slightly insane movie Queen “Norma Desmond” in “Sunset Blvd“. Ironically she had to make another screen test after signing because the leading man had changed. Swanson enjoyed the role and together with Edith Head designed some of her costumes. For her scene with Cecil B DeMille she designed a hat with a white peacock feather, as an homage to the superstitions the wardrobe department held during Male and Female.
At a preview screening of “Sunset Blvd” Barbara Stanwyck kissed the hem of Swanson’s skirt. The film struck a chord with many of the former silent film actors in the crowd. Swanson asked for Mary Pickford but Pickford had left with someone explaining, “She can’t show herself Gloria, she’s overcome. We all are.” Pickford was one of the first stars to be offered the role but had wanted too much control of the production.
For a few other silent film stars the story hit too close to home. Swanson has often been mistakenly cited as ‘turning into a Norma Desmond’ when in fact she was very active in several fields until the end of her life. Despite many years of lovers she also married again in the 1970s to a man near her own age. Nothing about Norma’s story was similar to Swanson’s.
After a media blitz to promote Sunset Blvd Swanson returned to New York to do a radio show. Swanson also made her debut on Broadway with her critically acclaimed performance in “Twentieth Century“. Soon after she received an Academy Award nomination for “Sunset Blvd”. Despite being nominated she would not win. Swanson was fine with losing, but was disenchanted that the reporters at the event seemed to expect a Norma Desmond tantrum out of her for losing. All the roles she was being offered at the time seemed to be a poor variation of Norma. Swanson decided to quit her radio show, film one more non Desmond styled role in Los Angeles, finish her run on Broadway, then try something new.
In 1950 after shutting down Multiprises, Swanson received the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion. Despite never publicizing the fact Swanson had designed many of her costumes and outfits herself over the years. Swanson designed 5 days worth of outfits for the award ceremony. One of the Marcus brothers was impressed with her ‘tri cloche hat’ and asked to make a copy of it for displays. On the final day of the ceremony a fashion show was held showcasing designs from all the big fashion house names such as Dior. Swanson was surprised to find her self designed white evening dress closing the show. She cited it as one of the happiest moments in her life.
Swanson was offered several designing contracts, yet turned them down to design for a company called “Puritan” that designed off the rack clothes. Swanson was asked to design for their line “Forever Yours” which was for plus sized women. Swanson took the job thinking of women like her own plus sized mother. Swanson designed for the company for almost 20 years, making their profits jump from under $10 million a year to $100 million. Swanson left the company with a contract with yearly payments for the rest of her life. To this day many Ebayers seem confused by this line, associating Swanson’s name with glamorous couture yet selling size 16 frocks meant for 50 year old housewives.
Soon after starting for Puritan, Swanson also had her own Cosmetics company, “Essence of Nature“. Swanson took on the line wanting more women to use healthful ingredients in their makeup. However once the line became a success the company changed manufacturers without telling her and Swanson soon retired from that industry. She was quite possibly ahead of her time as the lines ideas were very similar to Bare Essentials now.
In 1952 Swanson had been offered one non Norma type film, “Three for Bedroom C“. Swanson designed her own costumes and discovered the leading man James Warren. The film was not a success, with Swanson feeling it was because critics were expecting another Norma Desmond picture. In 1953 Swanson appeared on the first televised broadcast of the Academy Awards, accepting an award on behalf of Joe Schenck.
Swanson soon made another picture, “Nero’s Mistress” which featured Brigitte Bardot. Swanson noted it was so dreadful it took 6 years between shooting in Italy and a release in the US. While filming in Europe, Swanson acted as a reporter for the United Press, writing hundreds of humorous short articles on various subjects and events.
Returning to New York, Swanson focused on a television and radio career, now certain television was something worthwhile. In 1953, Swanson hosted “Crown Theater with Gloria Swanson“. In addition to hosting she acted in 4 out of the 26 episodes. It was one of her first nationwide series.
Through the 1960s and 1970s Swanson appeared on many talk shows and made many guest appearances on popular television series such as “The Beverly Hillbillies“. Through this she won over a new generation of fans. Perhaps one of the oddest such appearances was on the Dick Cavett show while chatting with fellow guest, Hippy Icon and singer Janis Joplin. One of Swanson’s most celebrate appearances was a guest spot on the Carol Burnett show in 1972.
In 1971 Swanson returned to Broadway in a comedy called “Butterflies are Free“. In 1974 she made her first ‘made for TV’ movie “Killer Bees“. Swanson was proud of the film, noting it was rerun several times well into the 1980s.
Swanson’s last theatrical film was Airport 1975. Originally offered the role of an aging alcoholic actress, Swanson immediately turned it down. However the producer, director, and Edith Head all turned up at her apartment, and offered to change anything to get her to sign up. Swanson agreed turning the character into a parody of herself: a health food addict writing her memoirs. Swanson was given star treatment, with her bungalow becoming a tourist attraction. The film is mostly remembered as a kitsch classic today.
Swanson noted in her autobiography she wished to see her lost film before her death, including “Madame Sans Gene“, a complete “Sadie Thompson“, and “Beyond the Rocks“. Beyond the Rocks would be discovered almost 20 years after her death.
Swanson was noted for her youthful looks and vivid health well into old age. She credited her appearance with being a health nut for many years. She did admit in her autobiography to an eye tuck after filming “Nero’s Mistress” which she felt had been done well yet she had guilt over.
In 1952, Swanson was key to having the Delaney Amendment. Swanson was a major advocate for not using pesticides or hormones in food (organic). Swanson was also a huge fan of holistic healing citing several moments in her life where she seemed to heal herself through natural treatments. She hated sugar and would refuse to eat it. Ironically despite her health nut status she still smoked for much of her life.
Swanson’s enthusiasm towards good eating inspired William Dufty to translate a Japanese book titled “You are all Sanpaku” and later write “Sugar Blues“. Dufty was still married but by 1968 the pair had started a relationship. They married in 1976 and were married until Swanson’s death. Dufty would help her write her memoirs.
In the 1970s Swanson began to paint and sculpt more, something she had done as a child. Swanson had never shown her work, until asked by the Actors Fund of America to donate something. In 1978 many of her pieces were shown in Britain. The show led to her commission by the UN in 1980.
For the UN, Swanson created a painting for the ‘Decade of Women 1976-1985‘. The painting was of a planet with a fetus inside of it. Swanson wrote underneath it, “Woman, Like the Mother Earth, Have an Eternal Rendezvous with Spring.” A run of 1,250 signed serigraphs were made. Swanson opened the exhibit and received the UN Decade for Women silver medal.
After her successful work as an artist Swanson began work on her memoirs “Swanson on Swanson” which were released in 1981 to much acclaim.
Swanson was active well into the final months of her life. She suffered a heart attack and was taken to New York Hospital on March 20th, 1983, a week before her birthday. Swanson died shortly before 5am in her sleep the morning of April 4th from her heart ailment. She had just turned 84.
Swanson requested no grand public funeral. A private ceremony was held soon after her death with the family asking the public for privacy. She was cremated and interred at Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Ave in New York City. When she died The New York Times called her “THE GREATEST STAR OF ALL!”
Swanson has two stars on the Walk of Fame, one for television and one for radio. Her personal archives were sold to The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin.
Swanson died at a time when the bigger names of silent film were passing on. Luckily for her she had kept her name in the spotlights right up into her final years. Despite this the image of Norma Desmond has come to overshadow her, especially in recent years. Thankfully many of her films still exist and have been released on DVD.
Swanson had many surviving descendants unlike a lot of silent film stars. Baby Gloria went to Stanford, married a man named Robert Anderson in 1939. In the 1980s she was married to Wilfred Daley. She had children and at least two grandchildren. She died in 2000 of brain cancer.
Michelle briefly tried a career in acting during the 1950s after seeing Swanson perform on stage. She studied theatre in London. Michelle gave up her career to marry a man and live in Paris, where she still was in the 1980s.
Joseph attended Antioch college and fought in WW2 after being drafted. He admired Joe Kennedy according to Swanson though he was not named after him. He became an electrical engineer and consultant to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He died in a hotel room at the age of 51 in July 1975 from internal hemorrhaging. No foul play was suspected though his death was sudden. Swanson found the incident too upsetting to write about in her memoirs. Joseph had no children.
By the time of her death Swanson had 6 grandchildren and 2 great grand children. One newspaper account said she had ‘great great grandchildren’.