Gloria Swanson

Movie Star, Fashion Icon & Godmother of Spanx

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Gloria Swanson is one of the greatest actresses of Old Hollywood. She has seen the medium flourish from its beginnings on the East Coast, it’s transition to Los Angeles, been part of the studio system, got exploited by it, broke free, had immense successes and failures and a fulminant comeback at the age of 51. She was nominated at the first Academy Awards, she was nominated for her first talkie, she was nominated for her comeback role as Norma Desmond. But that – it seems – is not even half the story of this woman’s extraordinary life. 



Gloria Mae Josephine Swanson was born on March 27, 1899 in Chicago, Illinois – an Aries as she would often point out in her autobiography „Swanson on Swanson“. She was an only child to parents Adelaide and Joseph Theodore Swanson. Her father was in the US army, thus the family often moved from base to base.

Forming years and early ambitions

Her stay in Puerto Rico when she was 11 was the most impressing and forming for Swanson. There she learned about the Spanish culture, a vibrant way of living and made many connections and experiences that would last a lifetime. She also saw her first motion picture there – crude, flashed on a white sheet with not much action. Gloria was NOT impressed and decided to never watch another one actually. Gloria’s initial ambition was to become an opera singer, when she performed in Puerto Rico in the play „An American Girl“ at age 13. When she returned to the US after her elongated stay in Puerto Rico, she would often be called „Cuban Princess“ by the New Yorkers – and some believed her to actually be a princess. She was the centre of attention – often and always. She had clear blue eyes, light skin with a mole on her left chin and dark, almost black hair and she always wore clothes that were different. Her mother made them for her and Gloria stood out from the crowd from an early age onwards, because her mother wanted her to be different, to be unique. 

When Gloria was scheduled to meet her friend Medora Grimes in Staten Island, her mother would come up with the most distinctive, elegant wardrobe to make Gloria look like she fit in. Exactly during that time, her aunt Inga – well, actually, the sister-in-law of the brother of Gloria’s mother, so a very distant aunt – visited them. Inga was a trained nurse for wealthy families, made a good living, lived life, smoked and knew interesting people. One of them was Mr. Spoor, the owner of Essanay studios in Chicago, who had invited her to visit the studio lot. Inga invited Gloria to go there with her and 15 year old Gloria tagged along – lad in one of the Staten Island outfits. When they were shown around the studio, the casting director from Essanay asked her for her number and name because he was always interested in new faces. Gloria blamed it on the great outfit. And indeed – Gloria was called and reported for work at the studio and was an extra for being in a wedding scene, later an extra in the backdrop of a swanky restaurant scene, but watching the other extras Gloria decided to not pursue this career and let them know the next time they phoned. She did not want to be part of the craziness, the makeup, the easy girls and left as scheduled for Staten Island to meet Medora Grimes. 

But her mother sent her a letter, in which Essanay informed her that they would offer her up to 20$ per week if she acted full-time. In today’s money that would be around $600. For Gloria a lot of money and a way out of school, which she hated. As she had transferred so many times, she was academically behind and not interested anyways. The money would make it possible for her to finally take singing lessons to become an opera singer as she had always wanted. As WWI was erupting, everything was so uncertain that her mother did not keep her from it. So, Gloria went back home and became a full-time actress. 

First years as a real actress Hollywood

Gloria worked with many actors there who got famous – Charlie Chaplin, Francis X. Bushman, Wallace Beery and Gerda Holmes. 

It is reported that Gloria was accompanied by her mother when she went to California – but it was different: Gloria’s father was stationed in Manila and on their way there, mother Adelaide suggested a stop in California as her father had recently died and left quite some money to her. Essanay was sorry to hear Gloria would leave for California but she was given the number of Mack Sennett and a letter of introduction – and she wrote Wallace Beery who had located her to ask for. On travels to California, Gloria learned that her mother wanted to divorce her father.

So, once in California Gloria went to Keystone Studios, the studio of Mack Sennett. There, she started her first great success: Opposite Bobby Vernon and directed by Clarence G. Badger, she starred in a series of short comedies, which the audiences loved. When Sennett sold Keystone Studios to Triangle Pictures all actors were sold as well – except for Gloria, who was under personal contract to Sennett. He made her do comedies that she did not want to be a part of – she left the company, her contract ripped by Sennett himself. When director John Conway saw her in Culver City, when she went to see Clarence Badger to see whether Triangle might have a job for her, he hired her for a film. Gloria had learned a lot at Essanay and even more at Keystone Studios. But working with Conway made her a real actress – he challenged her and taught her all the details about acting and filmmaking. They did „Her Decision“ and „You can’t believe everything“ in 1918. Triangle had decided on making her a star and she was clad in the most fashionable couture gowns shot in close-ups.Although she never received a contract from Triangle, she received a raise to 15$/week, which sadly was legally interpreted as a legal contractual binding. Sadly because due to this legal situation. When Swanson was approached by Famous Players-Lasky to star in a Cecil B. DeMille movie, she was not allowed to accept the offer. One year later though, Triangle was in such financial distress that they released her from her contract and she was finally free to make „Don’t change your husband with Cecil B. DeMille. 

DeMille and Hollywood Stardom

Working with DeMille was a whole other world for Swanson. Because DeMille was a whole other world. He put attention to every single detail – flowers were real, violins were playing, the air was scented – and he made all the actresses pick out real jewelry themselves at the beginning of filming   so they would act as if they owned them. He taught her how to look at the rushes – meaning the raw footage from the day – how to objectively decide what was good and what was bad in her acting. She became a glamorous actress under his direction with expensive taste and, finally, got a contract with Famous Players Lasky at the end of 1918 – with a salary of 150$, which would automatically increase to 350$ a week within two years. Swanson made six movies with DeMille and he was one of the greatest influences on her artistic life – and he made her a star. As the „Lion’s Bride“ in „The Admirable Crichton“, Gloria Swanson filmed with real lions and one lion even put his paw on her bare back. And guess what – this silent movie is still available on YouTube if you want to watch it. After the immense success of „Male and Female“ by DeMille, Paramount or better Lasky looked for the perfect scriptwriter for Swanson and found it in England – Elinor Glyn. Glyn came to Hollywood and took Swanson under her wings. As I pointed out in the episode on her, Elinor Glyn had developed a whole persona for Hollywood – mystic with rugs and Buddhas and tiger skins all over her Hollywood Hotel suite. She wrote „The Great Moment“ for Swanson, which became huge – and Glyn and Swanson along with it. Next was „Beyond the rocks“ starring Swanson and Valentino, directed by Sam Wood with a script by Glyn. Swanson and Valentino actually had known each other for quite some time, had gotten to know each other from Sunday horse riding outings and had become friends, but never romantically linked. 

All Swanson movies followed a success formula which was „romantic comedies of marriage and intrigue laced with a series of handsome leading men and a never-ending parade of fabulous gowns. 

When 24 year old  Swanson was furious about how Paramount had handled her separation and divorce from husband #2, Herbert Somborn, she relocated to New York and filmed Zaza with Allen Dwan. 

Then, Swanson wanted to make a movie in Paris – „Madame Sans-Gene“. A collaborative production between the US and France, to be able to film the material at the original settings like Napoleon’s desk and the palaces. The Parisians were proud and welcomed her wildly and it proved to be a huge success in Europe, in the US, unfortunately, the film was cut very short and out of context.Swanson started to loathe the Hollywood studio system and being a star in it. Because the studio actually owned her – and also because they heavily interfered with her personal life (more on that later). That’s why she turned down a one-million-dollar-a-year contract with Paramount (as Famous Players-Lasky was renamed)  – that would be roughly $17m today. Instead, she joined United Artists. 

Producer at United Artists

United Artists was actually just a distribution company and each partner produced his or her own pictures through their own companies. United Artists loaned money for production via the Art Cinema Corporation, which then were calculated against what the movie made. Reasoning being – stars need to have more say and get more money. Not the middle men like the managers and directors at Paramount and the other studios. That’s why all the members as United Artists were actually high-profile – as was Gloria Swanson who was the most bankable star at the time. 

The first film she did was „The Love of Sunya“, which was not a great success. You could say it was what Swanson had to go through to learn what it meant to produce. Because, basically, everything went wrong during filming. The film was a success, but it only broke even on the costs. 

Her next movie was „Sadie Thompson“, which was based on W. Somerset Maugham’s „Miss Thompson“ as well as on the Broadway play „Rain“. This time she partnered with director Raoul Walsh. The problem with this movie? Rain, the Broadway play based on the original book was banned – the Hay’s Code had come into effect shortly before due to the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and some material was simply banned and all studios had agreed not to use them. Also, the book is about a prostitue and it depicts a clergyman in an unfavorable light (both something that the Hay’s Code forbids). Nevertheless, Swanson made it possible and outsmarted all the other studios who would have loved to film the material. First, she got a verbal agreement with Hays, second she changed the clergyman in the story to simply a faithful gentleman and the nature of Sadie Thompson being a prostitute was treated with good taste (which actually is allowed according to the Hays Code). So, the other studios urged United Artists and Hays to stop production because they know this would be a great film. And it was: Swanson was nominated for the first Annual Academy Award for her role in „Sadie Thompson“, but sadly did not win. She was only 28 years old at that time. 

Career Decline and Comeback

Unfortunately though, by the end of that year, Swanson was in financial distress with hardly any money back – because although „Sadie Thompson“ was a success, the revenue came back too slow to offset her loan from Art Cinema Corporation. This situation led Swanson to engage Joseph Kennedy Sr. as her financial advisor. He made clear to her that everybody had taken advantage of her and that he would take her affairs into his hands. So he did and changed it all. He dissolved her production company, let go of most of her staff, set up a dummy company in Delaware, sold all the rights of „Sunya“ and „Sadie Thompson“ to Paramount and made her husband  „European director of Pathé“ in Paris – a company Kennedy had already bought. From that point onwards, Kennedy was responsible for Swanson’s finances and took charge. He had offered to finance her next movie and looked for the perfect material. It was „The Swamp“, which was later renamed „Queen Kelly“ – and it was a thorough disaster. Kennedy, who badly wanted to make it big in Hollywood and had created RKO — wanted Erich von Strohheim as director and that proved fatal. Von Strohheim was difficult to work with and filming took too long. At the end he was fired and they tried with different directors to finish it, but it was not a good movie. 

With the advent of sound, new possibilities arose. Swanson made her first talkie, „The Trespasser“ in 1929. She came up with the original story together with director Edmund Goulding and Laura Hope Crews, who was a friend of his, and the script was finished within a month. Shooting was wrapped within 21 days. It was a tremendous success as she proved her singing, talking and acting skills all at once. As she had wanted to become an opera singer when she was a kid, her singing definitely was good. So good even that audiences doubted that it was really her and so she had to sing live in London to prove her singing abilities. The Trespasser was an enormous success, but Swanson’s financial situation was worse than ever – her financial advisor Kennedy had taken everything from her basically. 

Gloria Swanson relocated to Europe to be near her family and founded Glria Swanson British Productions, which only managed to produce one movie – Perfect Understanding with Laurence Olivier before it was shut down again. Actually, although her transition to sound was successful, her career started to decline. There was talk about her starring in an adaptation of Elinor Glyn’s „Three Weeks“ for MGM, but before that materialized, Irving Thalberg, who had initiated the deal, passed away. Before she could get another deal, she decided that she had enough of the studio system and the men controlling her life and moved to New York at age 39. It would take almost 12 years for her to return to the screen -in the meantime she focused on  Radio and stagework. 

Radio & Stage

During her career slump, Swanson pivoted and turned her energy and focus on radio and stage work. Actually, she never wanted to act on stage, but in 1941, writer-producer Harold Kennedy approached her and challenged her to play in summer stock and not on Broadway, to try out small and see whether she liked it. She liked it and appeared in several productions throughout the next four years. 

In 1948, Gloria was interviewed by Jimmy Jemail for the launch of The Daily News’ television station, WPIX and was offered her own weekly television show which she did for six months. After that she was offered an audition – the only one in her life – for the role of Norma Desmond in „Sunset Boulevard“. 

Sunset Boulevard and life after Hollywood

„Sunset Boulevard“ had been written with Mae West in mind and offered to other actresses like Mary Pickford and Norma Shearer before George Cukor suggested Gloria Swanson for the role. It became a smash hit and „Sunset Boulevard“ has been included along with 24 other films „to be preserved in the permanent collection of the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as culturally, historically and aesthetically pleasing“.

 After that movie, Swanson was offered many roles, but most of them were Norma Desmond duplicates and she simply refused them. She focused on her art. Gloria was an avid artist, painter and sculptor. She did bronze sculptures after working on movies in the evenings of her kids, and painted throughout her lifetime. When she was done with her career in Hollywood, she focused on her art. In 1978, Brian Degas asked Gloria to have a show of her sculptures, which was a raving success. Based on this, she was commissioned to design the UN Stamp honoring the UN Decade for Women, 1976-1985. She also worked as.a roving journalist for United Press and covered, amongst other things, the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. 

Back in the States, she hosted many radio and television shows just like the one she had hosted earlier and became host to „Crown Theater“ by Bing Crosby’s production company. She also appeared in many talk shows, as well as in TV drama and comedy series as well as on Broadway again in several plays. 

Her last role was Airport 1975 and she basically played herself in it. 

Swanson died on April 4, 1983 from a heart ailment. 

Style and Fashion

In her autobiography Swanson writes: „By the time I was fifteen, my mother had turned me into a real clotheshorse.“ As lined out before, Swanson was used to having unique clothes. Her mother had designed and sewn her clothes, DeMille and Paramount had made sure that she always had the most lavish and grandest outfits and Swanson had worked intimately with the likes of Edith Head and René Hubert. And after that she usually designed her own outfits and got them made. She was voted #1 on the list of Best dressed Women and Best Dressed Women Fashion Professionals in 1950 and 1951, when she was already 50 years old. 

She was always the trendsetter with her movies and got awarded the Neiman-Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion in 1950. Just for this occasion, Swanson had designed a whole new wardrobe and got complimented for it by Edward Marcus. The fashion show that was taking place during the award show showed also Gloria Swanson designs without her knowing because Marcus had been so impressed. After that Gloria Swanson signed with Puritan Fashions, which was not a house of haute couture, but catered toward stout women. She worked with them for over twenty years and when she left she had a contract that guaranteed her yearly payments until her death. 

Health Advocate

It was during the time that Gloria Swanson filmed „Sadie Thompson“ that she had serious stomach pains and went to see Doctor Henry G. Bieler in Pasadena. His approach to health according to Swanson herself: „There are not thousands of physical disorders, only one – toxemia“ and „If we eat simple natural food in modest amounts, our wonderful bodies will heal themselves naturally.“ So, at age 28, Swanson subscribed to this and never wavered. 

In 1944, she became a fanatic about healthy food, when spraying crops with insecticides in the US became common practice. 

When, in 1947, she had a tumor diagnosed in her uterus, she was urged to have a complete hysterectomy. But instead she went to Dr. Bieler and he advised her to starve the tumor of proteins. She did so successfully and the tumor went away.

Her love for health and nutrition is also what she shared with husband #6.

Love and Relationships

Wallace Beery (husband #1) – Gloria and Wallace met in the earliest days at Essanay, even before she worked for them. But nothing happened – except for Wallace trying. Gloria was not particularly fond of him. But, when they met again in California, Wallace, or Wally, seemed a changed man. Easy, talented, well-acquainted, smooth, and proposing his love for Gloria, then only 16. They married within two weeks of the proposal, on Gloria Swanson’s 17th birthday – with the wedding night being one of the worst moments of Glorias’s life. He basically raped her, forcing himself on her. Important notice: Gloria had no clue about reproduction and sex – as most girls growing up during that time and age. If you have watched Bridgerton season 1 – then you know what I mean (although that was some decades earlier). After about a month Gloria became pregnant. But when Wally found out about the pregnancy, he got her abortion pills from the pharmacy and gave them to her – unbeknowns to Gloria. The last thing she remembers after the pills was Wallace’s mother staring at her taking the pills, she passed out, awoke at the hospital and found out that she lost the baby. She left him then and there. 

Craney Gartz – In the early days at Triangle, when Gloria Swanson had just finished „Don’t Change you Husband“ with DeMille, she got to know Pasadena millionaire Craney Gartz, heir to the Crane Plumbing millions. Sidenote: Gartz Court is one of the oldest remaining in Pasadena and had been commissioned by his mother Kate Crane Gartz. Gartz was a dashing, handsome, witty young man – knowing full well that he could have any woman in the world. When Gloria rejected his advances, he got even more interested in her. They had an on-again off-again romance that kept gossip magazines and the audiences guessing. Gloria enjoyed It because Gartz was fun. But she had made it clear that she wanted to be married to sleep with him and he did not want to. They did not trust each other – Craney believed deep down that she just wanted to marry him for the money, and she wanted to be married to avoid scandal in order to not ruin her career if it did not work out with them. So they parted ways. 

Herbert Somborn (husband #2) – They met when Gloria was dining out with her roommate Bea La Plante and her father. Somborn was in pictures and had his own studio, Equity Pictures Corporation, which also distributed films by Clara Kimball Young, another great star of Old Hollywood. He seemed calm, collected and business-savvy, advising her on her contracts with Paramount. But, living with him at the expensive Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles, Gloria soon learned that he was not rich and paid the bills. Gloria got pregnant, birthed a healthy girl and named her Gloria as well. She had never felt passion for Herbert, never really loved him, but felt safe and secure with him. But when she learned about the extent of his financial problems, she felt more unsafe and insecure than ever at his side and became indifferent to him. She had married him without knowing him and more in the search of a father figure than as a partner in life. Herbert left Gloria. Although she was entitled to a divorce due to abandoment, Lasky did not let her. It was amidst the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and Hollywood wanted to prove that they were clean and happy and just not scandalous. So, quite some time later, she received divorce papers from Herbert on the grounds of adultery on her side (which did not happen) – and he blackmailed her. The worst: She was not allowed to fight in court and had to pay him money, because Lasky and DeMille demanded her to do so with the help of lying and deceiving. Also, her new contract included a morals clause that wanted to ensure that nothing scandalous would happen. 

Mickey Neilan – Gloria met Mickey the night she said yes to Herbert Somborn’s proposal. He introduced himself with the words „I’m going to marry you. I want to get my name on your list.“ He was fun and he was Mary Pickford’s director, the one who had made all her best movies, one of the most sought after directors of the time. He became Gloria’s first real love affair after she and Herbert parted ways – and she was having great fun and loved him like she had never loved anyone before. But, when his career slipped she got to see the real Mickey – desperate and drinking too much. Aware that she would still be a year married to Hebert, she convinced him to marry his former girlfriend Blanche Sweet – he did and left her again. When Gloria bought the Crescent Drive mansion King Gillette had built for his sister it was with the thought that she and Mickey would marry and live there together. During that time she also adopted a boy, Sonny, who she renamed Joseph after her father, and actually just called „Brother“  

Rod La Rocque – They starred together in „A Society Scandal“, played lovers in front of the camera and fell for each other. After one week, Rod proposed to her. But they fell out of love quickly as Gloria loved to be around people and get to know things about the world. But Rod did not want to share his wife with other men – even if it was only for conversation and knowledge. So, they became really great friends, like brother and sister. 

Henri de la Falaise de la Coudraye (husband #3) – Henri was Gloria’s interpreter during her filming of Madame Sans-Gene in Paris as Gloria did not speak French. Gloria was absolutely happy with him – and unfortunately got pregnant. With the morals clause in her contract and Henri being an impoverished nobleman, Gloria had no other option but to have an abortion, which was the one thing she did regret throughout her life. She did not tell Henri about it and had it done the day after the marriage. The abortion went wrong, she got blood poisoning and needed four months of recovery. They went back to the US and were quite happy. But life happened and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. happened. 

Joseph P Kennedy Sr. – They met as already mentioned when Gloria desperately needed someone to bring order to her finances and back her movies. He fell in love quickly although married with kids (one of them the future president of the US, JFK) and they started an affair while Gloria was still married to Henri and he was away in Paris. Gloria led a double life during this time – this is how she puts it in her autobiography. Joseph’s wife even sent Cardinal O’Connell of Boston to Swanson to make it stop, which infuriated Swanson. Henri, sent to Paris as the European Director for Pathé by Kennedy asked for a divorce from Swanson. The moment Swanson got the letter with the request she realized that she actually really loved him. Kennedy on the other hand left Swanson as soon as he realized she was onto him. Henri and Swanson on the other hand stayed close friends and Swanson got Henri and his fiancée Emmita out of Nazi-beleaguered France to America. 

Michael Farmer (Husband #4) – She met him in Paris when being fitted for a movie by none other than Coco Chanel. They had an affair, she became pregnant and they married. Baby Michelle was the result of this liaison. The marriage did last for two and a half years – with most of them unhappy as Michael had serious bouts of jealousy and rage. 

Herbert „Bart“ Marshall – Gloria met him when he was married to wife Edna Best, the mother of his only daughter, and they had a relationship that led to them being osctracised from Hollywood society. Nobody wanted to touch them, invite them, be associated with them. They lived across from each other in Hollywood and were quite happy – but Bart started to drink heavily, suffering from the separation from his daughter, who lived with Edna Best in London. Gloria sent him there to make peace with the situation and he did not return – instead he reconciled with his wife. 

William Davey (husband #5) – He was „affable, well-groomed, rich“ and they got married on very short notice. But, Davey was a severe alcoholic and the marriage lasted only a month. 

William Dufty (husband #6) – They got to know each other during a conference in New York relating to an anti-cancer agent. They met again in 1965, when Gloria was already 66 and bonded over their love for healthy food. Ten years later they got married, when he was sixty and Gloria was seventy-seven. He wrote the book „Sugar Blues“, which Gloria helped publicize on a tour throughout the US. 


Gloria Swanson was clairvoyant sometimes – She was so during the filming of „The Admirable Crichton“, when a set-worker was missing and she had a vision where he was and what he did. When he finally got back it had been exactly like she had seen it, he even ate the radishes that she had seen. As this was with happening in company, there is prove for it. Also, an avid rider as she was, she had just as clear a premonition as with the set worker about not ever to ride again as that would be her death. And she never did it again. The third time was during the filming of „Queen Kelly“ with Strohheim, when she checked her makeup in a mirror and involuntarily said „I can’t see this picture finished“. And it never was by Stroheim. 

Rivalry with Pola Negri – The gossip magazines invented a rivalry between Swanson and Negri that never existed, actually, they had never met. At one point, Gloria was so fed up with the stories that she invited Negri over for a dinner party along with Charlie Chaplin, Aileen Pringle, Mickey Neilan, Sam Wood and Lois Wilson. And they had a wonderful time together. 

Multiprises – Gloria had a knack for inventing things. She actually was thinking about the functionality of a pager when this was not yet invented and wanted to register a patent for it when it was just shortly before that someone else had filed one for it. When she moved to New York after saying Goodbye to Hollywood she actively searched for great ideas and wanted to sell luminous paint in America. The inventor was in Nazi Germany though. So, she found a way and got five German engineer-inventors to America – also with the help of former husband Henri de la Malaise. One of the engineers invented the process of making buttons out of plastic, which was perfect for the war economy. 

Shapewear – Gloria Swanson might be the inventor of early shapewear. When she was in the early days of her pregnancy with baby Michelle, Swanson asked the house of Chanel to sew surgical elastic into her underpants  to make her look slim enough for the shooting of the movie.“ A rubberized undergarment to the knees“ how she described it. 

With all my love!




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