Gloria Swanson (March 27, 1899 – April 4, 1983) was an American actress. She was most prominent during the silent film era as both an actress and a fashion icon, especially under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille. In 1929, Swanson successfully transitioned to talkies with The Trespasser. However, personal problems and changing tastes saw her popularity wane during the 1930s. Today she is best known for her role as Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Swanson was born Gloria Josephine May Swanson in a small house in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Adelaide (née Klanowski) and Joseph Theodore Swanson, a soldier. She attended Hawthorne Scholastic Academy. Her father, whose surname was originally "Svensson", was from a strict Lutheran Swedish American family, and her mother was of German, French and Polish ancestry. She grew up mainly in Chicago, Puerto Rico and Key West, Florida. It was not her intention to enter show business. Her parents separated when she was still in school. After her formal education ended, she went to a small film studio in Chicago for a visit and ended up being asked to come back to work as an extra.
She made her film debut in 1914 as an extra in The Song of Soul for Chicago's Essanay Studios. While on a tour of the studio, she asked to be in the movie just for fun. Essanay hired her to feature in several movies, including His New Job, directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin. Swanson auditioned for the leading female role in His New Job, but Chaplin did not see her as leading lady material and cast her in the brief role of a stenographer.
Swanson moved to California in 1916 to appear in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies opposite Bobby Vernon, and in 1919 she signed with Paramount Pictures and worked often with Cecil B. DeMille, who turned her into a romantic lead in such films as Don't Change Your Husband (1919), Male and Female (1919), with the famous scene in the lion cage, Why Change Your Wife? (1920), Something to Think About (1920) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921).
In the space of two years, Swanson rocketed to stardom and was one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood. Swanson later appeared in a series of films directed by Sam Wood. She starred in Beyond the Rocks (1922) with her long-time friend Rudolph Valentino. (This film had been believed lost but was rediscovered in 2004 in a private collection in The Netherlands and is available on DVD.) Swanson continued to make costume drama films for the next few years. So successful were her films for Paramount that the studio was afraid of losing her and gave in to many of her whims and wishes.
During her heyday, audiences went to her films not only for her performances, but also to see her wardrobe. Frequently ornamented with beads, jewels, peacock and ostrich feathers, haute couture of the day or extravagant period pieces, one would hardly suspect that she was barely five feet (1.52 m) tall. Her fashion, hair styles, and jewels were copied around the world. She was the screen's first clothes horse and was becoming one of the most famous and photographed women in the world.
In 1925, she starred in the first French-American co-production, Madame Sans-Gêne, directed by Léonce Perret. Filming was allowed for the first time at many of the historic sites relating to Napoleon. During the production of this film, she met her third husband Henry, Marquis de la Falaise, who was originally hired to be her translator during the film's production. After four years' residence in France, she returned to the United States as European nobility, now known as the Marquise. She got a huge welcome home with parades in both New York and Los Angeles. She appeared in a 1925 short produced by Lee DeForest in his Phonofilm sound-on-film process.
She made a number of films for Paramount, among them The Coast of Folly, Stage Struck and Fine Manners. In 1927, she decided to turn down a million dollar a year contract with Paramount to join the newly-created United Artists, where she was her own boss and could make the films she wanted, with whom she wanted and when.
Her first independent film, The Love of Sunya, in which she costarred with John Boles and Pauline Garon, opened the Roxy Theatre in New York City on March 11, 1927 (Swanson was pictured in the ruins of the Roxy on October 14, 1960, during the demolition of the theater in a famous photo taken by Time-Life photographer Eliot Elisofon). She was nominated for the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actress for her next film performance as the title character in the 1928 film Sadie Thompson, costarring and directed by Raoul Walsh, based on Somerset Maugham's short story "Miss Thompson", later called "Rain" (the story was re-filmed under this title in 1932, starring Joan Crawford and directed by Lewis Milestone). Swanson's unfinished film Queen Kelly (1929) was directed by Erich von Stroheim and produced by Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., father of the future President John F. Kennedy.
Swanson ultimately made talkies, even singing in The Trespasser (1929) directed by Edmund Goulding, Indiscreet (1931), and Music in the Air (1934). Even though she managed to make the transition into talkies, her career began to decline. In 1938, Swanson relocated to New York City, where she began an inventions and patents company called Multiprizes which occupied her during the years of World War II. She made another film for RKO Radio Pictures in 1941, began appearing in theatre productions, and also had her own television show in 1948.
Never one to dwell on the past, she threw herself into painting and sculpting, writing a syndicated column, touring in summer stock, political activism, radio and television work, clothing and accessories design and marketing, and sporadically making appearances on the big screen. But it was not until 1950 when Sunset Boulevard was released (earning her another Academy award nomination), that she achieved mass recognition again.
Joseph Kennedy ensured Swanson had the services of Hollywood's famous beauty therapist Sylvia of Hollywood. Swanson became a vegetarian around 1928 and was an early health food advocate who was known for bringing her own meals to public functions in a paper bag. Swanson told actor Dirk Benedict about macrobiotic diets when he was battling prostate cancer at a very young age. He had refused conventional therapies and credited this kind of diet and healthy eating with his recovery. Later Swanson traveled the United States and helped to promote the book Sugar Blues written by her husband, William Dufty.
In early 1980, Swanson's 520-page autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, was published by Random House and became a national best-seller. It was translated into French, Italian and Swedish editions. That same year, she also designed a stamp cachet for the United Nations Postal Administration and chaired the New York chapter of "Seniors for Reagan-Bush".
Shortly after returning to New York from her home in Portugal, on April 4, 1983, Swanson died in New York City in New York Hospital from a heart ailment, aged 84. She was cremated and her ashes interred at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue, in New York City, attended by only a small circle of family. Her death created world-wide headlines, with The New York Times echoing a line from Sunset Blvd calling her "The greatest star of them all."
After Swanson's death, there were a series of auctions from August to September 1983 at William Doyle Gallery in New York of the star's furniture and decorations, jewelry, fashion collection, career and personal memorabilia.
Gloria Swanson has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for motion pictures at 6748 Hollywood Boulevard and another for television at 6301 Hollywood Boulevard. Before her death, she sold her archives including photographs, copies of films and private papers to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The second largest collection of Swanson materials is held in the family archives of Timothy Rooks. In the last years of her life Swanson professed a desire to see Beyond the Rocks, but the film was unavailable and considered lost. The film was later rediscovered and screened in 2005.