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Gloria Swanson- From Vamp to Flapper and Sunset Boulevard

Updated on June 19, 2013

A Young Gloria Swanson

Wallace Beery

Gloria Swanson's Autobiography

Gloria and Wallace Beery

Long before Hollywood made stars there were stars who made Hollywood.

Gloria Swanson was one of the few stars who survived the initial transition from silent to sound films. Modern audiences probably know her best for her role as the aging movie queen Norma Desmond with William Holden as her co-star in Sunset Boulevard in 1950.

She was born in Chicago on March 27, 1897, we think. In 1913 a chance visit to the Essanay Studios in Chicago led to work as an extra and some minor parts. While there, Swanson met actor Wallace Beery and appeared with him in a number of shorts. They married in 1916. Swanson claimed in her autobiography that Beery raped her on their wedding night and she began to have second thoughts shortly after their wedding. Wallace told her that many new brides feel that way until they get used t it.

Gloria tried to make the marriage work and was thrilled to discover she was pregnant. When she broke the news to her husband he was not exactly thrilled, for he had ideas of building their careers, and this was definitely going to put a damper on things.

He gave her some medication for nausea and within no time at all Gloria became violently ill and miscarried. Confused, and angry Swanson brought the remainder of what her husband had given her for her cramps to a chemist, stating that a friend had given her this for nausea. The flustered chemist informed her that whoever had given her that medication was no friend, and Gloria filed for divorce.

Beery was not an easy man to divorce. He hounded Gloria and regularly made scenes. One time spotting her walking with a male friend after filming, Beery raced up the street in his roadster, pulled up next to Gloria and her friend and without warning he punched the man knocking him down. Beery then glared at Gloria and mumbled some threats before taking off.

Swanson married for the second time the same year as the divorce, 1919. Film company executive Herbert Somborn was twice her age and though she had wanted security there was no excitement in the marriage. When it broke up she commented; " I not only believe in divorce, I sometimes think I don't believe in marriage at all."

Swanson rose to fame under the wing of director of Cecil B. DeMille, making six films for him and becoming the highest paid star at Paramount. Her yearly clothes bill was estimated at $125,000 and everything she wore from shoes to hairstyle was lavishly copied by thousands of adoring fans.

She had a shrewd recognition of the value of publicity and no time for false modesty, declaring; "I have decided that when I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment the star!

Everybody from the studio gate man to the highest executive will know it."

Swanson spent the next several years working with the biggest stars in Hollywood including Rudolph Valentino, the sexiest actor of all time.


Gloria Swanson & Rudolph Valentino

Gloria Swanson the Ultimate Clothes Horse

Swanson's Fame

When she returned to the United States from making Madame Sans-Gene 1925 in France, she was given a royal welcome complete with motorcade, a brass band, her name up in lights in Times Square and 10 000 ecstatic fans, And she brought a new husband back with her - French nobleman Henri Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, thus achieving the ultimate Hollywood fantasy- marriage to an aristocrat and a royal title.

Summing up that era later, Swanson explained: ... the public wanted us to live like kings and queens. So we did-and why not?

When her Paramount contract expired, she refused the $1 million the studio offered her to renew it. Instead, in 1926, she joined United Artists as an owner-member, producing her own films. Joseph P Kennedy, father of John, Robert, and Edward, provided the financial backing, and more. He arrived on her doorstep one day and, according to Swanson's account, seduced her, and the Swanson / Kennedy affair was on.

After, a couple of minor successes as producer-star, she chose the eccentric Erich Von Stroheim to make Queen Kelly in 1928 with herself in the title role, but fired him when production costs soared and backers withdrew.

Rumors had been rife about just how realistic the sex scenes were, and the whole exercise was sheer extravagance, most of the original material would not have passed the censor. Swanson tried to salvage the project by pouring in her own money, but the final version was never released commercially in America. Her three year affair with Kennedy came to an end mostly because she discovered that Joe Kennedy had been swindling her. All the expensive gifts that Joe had been giving her were purchased through her own company.

Her first talkie, The Trespasser in 1929 was a smash hit, and initially she appeared to be one of the few silent stars to transfer successfully to the new medium. Unfortunately, her frivolous image did not appeal to Depression audiences.

The Marquis was also disillusioned and having an affair with Constance Bennett, and they were divorced in 1930. Swanson then met Irish "man about town" Michael Farmer while yachting off the coast of France but, after reluctantly agreeing to marry, she lasted only three years with her fourth husband.

Meanwhile her fame was fading. Swanson worked for various studios on projects which were abandoned, and she decided to retire from the screen in 1934.

In 1945 she married the wealthy William Davey but this time it lasted only one month. Swanson discovered that he was an alcoholic and he resented her attempts to reform him.


Swanson's Triumphant Comeback- Sunset Boulevard

Then came Swanson's outstanding comeback in Sunset Boulevard in 1950. Billy Wilder's dreary and cynical look at Hollywood. Gloria was at her best. She, Erich Von Stroheim and William Holden were a sensation, as the bizarre main characters. For the third time Swanson was nominated for, and failed to get an Oscar. She made only three more films, her final appearance being in Airport 1975. Gloria remained remarkably youthful all her life. She had become a health food freak in the late 20's when she gave up sugar, and junk food all together, Preferring steamed vegetables and fruits. She passed away on April 4, 1983.

Perhaps it was inevitable that she never rekindled the adulation her silent screen appearances inspired. Opulence of that kind was sure to burn itself out and, anyway in the words she utters as Norma Desmond: "I am big-it's the pictures that got smaller."

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    • carter06 profile image

      Mary 4 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      This is a really good review of Ms Swansons life...I've never really known a lot about her but thoroughly enjoyed her story in your well written hub...up & shared...cheers

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas

      Gloria Swanson is one of my favorite really old time stars and Sunset Boulevard was magnificent. I found her performance extraordinarily intense. Your research for this piece is commendable as I certainly didn't have much background on her as I'm sure many others don't -- thanks for a wonderful read! Best/Sis

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Thank you, Skarlet for a very well-researched and thoughtfully written min-bio on Gloria. Her name alone screams Hollywood Legend! The story on Beery is quite disturbing. Gloria was surely well-rid of him, regardless of how difficult it was to shake him!! UP++

    • profile image

      Tayshia 4 years ago

      Wonderful.... I love Old Hollywood! Fantastic pictures too. Thank you for sharing this story.

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