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Gloria May Josephine Swanson was born in Chicago on March 27, 1899. Her father was in the US army, and the family moved frequently during her childhood. After an aunt took her to visit Essanay Studios in Chicago, she left school to work as an extra. She made an uncredited debut in The Song of Soul, and acted alongside Charlie Chaplin in His New Job (1915.)

When her parents separated, Gloria moved to California with her mother, Adelaide. She was teamed with Bobby Vernon in a series of Keystone comedies for producer Mack Sennett, including The Danger Girl (1916) and The Sultan’s Wife (1917.) While working for Sennett, she was briefly married to actor Wallace Beery.

Gloria was glad to escape stunts and slapstick when she signed to Paramount in 1919. That year, she married Herbert K. Somborn, president of Equity Pictures. Their daughter, Gloria Swanson Somborn, was born in 1920. Under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille, Swanson starred in Don’t Change Your Husband and Male and Female (1919); Why Change Your Wife? and Something to Think About (1920); and The Affairs of Anatol (1921.)

Barely five feet tall, and often bedecked in jewels and feathers, Gloria Swanson was Hollywood’s original fashion plate. In 1921, she began another fruitful partnership with director Sam Wood, starring in The Great Moment, from a story by Elinor Glyn; Beyond the Rocks (1922), with Rudolph Valentino; Zaza (1923), and The Humming Bird (1924.)

Gloria adopted a son, Joseph Patrick Swanson, in 1923. Her divorce from Somborn, finalised in 1925, was embroiled in scandal as he accused her of affairs with thirteen men. As a result, Paramount added a morals clause to her contract. Husbands and lovers came and went, but to her legion of fans she was always ‘Miss Swanson’.

She travelled to France for Madame Sans-Gene (1925.) For the first time, she and director Léonce Perret were allowed to film scenes in historic sites associated with Napoleon. Unfortunately, the film is now considered lost. During production, Gloria began a new romance with her interpreter, Henri, Marquis de la Falaise, becoming the first Hollywood star to marry into minor European nobility.

Later that year, she appeared in a short film with sound, and re-enacted Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils in a technicolour sequence for the hit comedy, Stage Struck. Her last film for Paramount was Fine Manners (1926.) She joined United Artists, founded in 1919 by Chaplin and other stars. But her first independent film, The Love of Sunya (1927), failed to recoup its budget.

Gloria Swanson in 'Sadie Thompson' (1928)

Gloria Swanson in ‘Sadie Thompson’ (1928)

“Gloria Swanson is to film ‘Sadie Thompson’ as her next part,” Louella Parsons announced in her syndicated column on May 27, 1927. “I think I should make the distinction that Sadie Thompson and Rain are not one and the same,” she added, “although they are both based on Maugham’s famous character. Rain which Jeanne Eagels made such a hit on the stage is a dramatisation of Sadie Thompson, but it is decidedly censurable. Sadie Thompson in the movies will stick closely to the text of the original story.”

One can imagine the sound of breaking glass and furniture being tossed around the dressing room of the Empire Theatre, where Eagels was starring in Her Cardboard Lover. There had been plans to film Rain since 1923, though as Helen Klumph predicted in the Los Angeles Times, “It looks as though very little could ever really reach the screen. Of course everyone familiar with this great story of S. Maugham’s realized that when the film version came about Sadie Thompson would have been washed white as the driven snow.”

Swanson met with director Raoul Walsh, and the duo came up with the idea of her playing Sadie Thompson. Having seen Eagels in the role at least twice, Swanson thought it perfect for her next project, but there was one problem—the stage play had been added to the list of “immoral” shows banned from screen adaptation by the Hays Office in 1923.

Swanson with co-star and director Raoul Walsh

Swanson with co-star and director Raoul Walsh

Swanson and Walsh’s solution was to erase all profanity and change Reverend Davidson to Reformer Atkinson to appease the clergy and censors, but the film was still a risky proposition. The pair worked with United Artists partner, Joseph M. Schenck, who purchased the film rights to John Colton and Clemence Randolph’s play, so that no other studio could produce it. Next, the rights for W. Somerset Maugham’s original story were purchased from his agent. As well as directing, Walsh would play her lover, Sergeant O’Hara, with Lionel Barrymore cast as Atkinson.

Gloria then invited Will Hays to lunch and briefly outlined her project, framing it as a contemporary moral fable. However, a backlash swiftly arose among those who believed the film would irreparably damage American morals. To quell this rising storm, Swanson braved the press, insisting that her motives were honourable. Gossip columns and entertainment sections of newspaper across America were filled with stories from the set of Sadie Thompson. Meanwhile, Jeanne Eagels arrived in Hollywood to star opposite John Gilbert in MGM’s Man, Woman and Sin.

Poster - Sadie Thompson_04

“I know it is an idle dream, but I would be very happy if I could continue playing Sadie Thompson indefinitely,” Swanson told reporters, “for she is a character that will live long in the memories of all who become familiar with her story.” Though this must have infuriated Jeanne, she could take some satisfaction from the fact that Sadie Thompson was now wildly over-budget.

Swanson was forced to sell her Croton-on-Hudson country home and was contemplating the same fate for her Manhattan apartment until Joe Schenck stepped in with the needed funds. Sadie Thompson would become one of Gloria Swanson’s greatest successes, commercially and critically. Unwisely, she had taken advice from her new lover, Joseph P. Kennedy, to sell the rights to Schenck.


Kennedy would also produce her next film, Queen Kelly (1929.) After firing director Eric Von Stroheim, Gloria pieced together the costly footage and hurriedly shot a different ending. Never released in the US, Queen Kelly was shown in Europe and South America. Swanson’s first talking picture, The Trespasser (1929), was more successful.

She divorced Falaise in 1930, marrying an Irish playboy, Michael Farmer, a year later. They had a daughter, Michelle, before divorcing in 1934. Gloria then had a three-year affair with married British actor Herbert Marshall, who had co-starred with Jeanne Eagels in her first talkie, The Letter, shortly before her death in 1929.

Swanson left Hollywood for New York in 1938, and set up an inventions and patents company, enabling Jewish scientists to make a living after fleeing Europe during World War II. She dabbled in fashion design, wrote a syndicated column, performed in summer stock and the occasional movie, and enjoyed painting and sculpting.

Swanson as Norma Desmond in 'Sunset Boulevard' (1950)

Swanson as Norma Desmond in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950)

Her fifth marriage, to insurance broker William H. Davey in 1945, lasted less than three months. In 1948, she hosted one of the first live television shows, The Gloria Swanson Hour. Then in 1950, she made a spectacular comeback in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. The role of Norma Desmond, a reclusive former silent movie star, was offered to Swanson after being rejected by Mary Pickford, Pola Negri and Mae West. Filmed at Paramount, the studio where Gloria had once reigned supreme, Sunset Boulevard was hailed as a masterpiece.

A lifelong Lutheran and staunch Republican, Swanson petitioned Congress to maintain school prayer in 1964, and was later a prominent advocate of Ronald Reagan during his first presidential campaign. However, Gloria would also support ex-Beatle John Lennon when he applied for US residency, despite his well-known radicalism.

She continued to work in television and theatre, and appeared as herself in the all-star disaster movie, Airport 1975. She married her long-term companion, journalist and ghostwriter William T. Dufty, with whom she collaborated on a bestselling health book, Sugar Blues, in which she extolled the benefits of a macrobiotic diet. An autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, followed in 1980. The couple travelled widely, enjoying the high life and maintaining several lavish homes.

Gloria Swanson died of a heart ailment at New York Hospital on April 4, 1983.