Gloria Swanson may not have been the world's best actress, but she was certainly one of the screen's greatest personalities. The daughter of a peripatetic army officer, she was educated in public schools from Chicago to Puerto Rico. While visiting Chicago's Essanay studios in 1913, the 15-year-old Swanson was hired as an extra and it was in this capacity that she met her first husband, Wallace Beery, then starred in the studio's Sweedie comedies. Not long after making a brief appearance in Charlie Chaplin's first Essanay starrer His New Job (1915), she accompanied her husband to Hollywood, where he'd been signed by Mack Sennett's Keystone studios. Often teamed with diminutive leading man Bobby Vernon, Swanson earned a measure of fame as the deadpan heroine of such comedies as Teddy at the Throttle (1916) and The Pullman Bride (1916) (she later claimed that she had no sense of humor at the time and thus played her roles seriously, which made them all the funnier to the audience). Divorced from Beery in 1917, Swanson also left Keystone that same year to accept an offer to appear in dramatic roles for Triangle Pictures. She then went to work for Cecil B. DeMille, who admired her courage and tenacity and cast her as the glamorously (and provocatively) garbed heroines of such lavish productions as Don't Change Your Husband (1918), Male and Female (1919), and The Affairs of Anatol (1920). A full-fledged superstar by the early '20s, Swanson carefully controlled every aspect of her career, from choosing her leading men and directors to approving her publicity layouts. She also remained in the public eye via her succession of high-profile husbands, including the Marquis de la Falaise de Coudray. Though at her best in tear-stained romantic dramas, she could still deliver a top-notch comedy performance, as witness her portrayal of a dowdy, gum-chewing working girl in Allan Dwan's Manhandled (1924). In the late '20s she set up her own production company with the sponsorship of her then-lover, financier Joseph P. Kennedy. After a successful start with 1928's Miss Sadie Thompson, Swanson's company went bankrupt as a result of her benighted association with the Erich Von Stroheim-directed fiasco Queen Kelly (1929). Contrary to popular belief, she made a successful transition to sound, displaying her fine singing voice in films like Tonight or Never (1931) and Music in the Air (1934). But the public had adopted new favorites and no longer flocked to Swanson's films as they once had. She retired in the mid-'30s, briefly returning in 1941 to star with Adolphe Menjou in the undistinguished comedy Father Takes a Wife. Her next film appearance in 1949 turned out to be one of the finest achievements in anybody's career: Her Oscar-nominated virtuoso performance as faded, self-delusional silent screen star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's vitriolic Hollywood melodrama Sunset Boulevard. So convincing was Swanson in this role that many of her fans believed that she was Norma Desmond, though nothing could have been further from the truth. Unfortunately, her attempts to follow up this triumph proved unsuccessful, prompting her to turn her back on filmmaking for the third time in her career. She did rather better on television in the 1950s, emceeing her own local New York TV talk show and hosting the syndicated anthology Crown Theatre Starring Gloria Swanson (1954). She also dabbled in scores of business enterprises, with mixed but generally satisfying results. Her most successful business venture was a line of organic cosmetics, "Essence of Nature;" she was also very active in the burgeoning health food movement of the 1960s, her ageless beauty and boundless energy serving as the best arguments in favor of proper nutrition. In the 1970s, she appeared on Broadway and on tour in Butterflies Are Free, and made her final screen appearance in Airport 74 (1974), more or less playing herself. Still active right up to her death, Gloria Swanson was survived by her sixth husband and several grandchildren.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Began film career in the silent era and by the 1920s was an established actress.
- Started her own production company in the late 1920s.
- Closely controlled every aspect of her career.
- Displayed a fine singing voice as she began to appear in films that featured sound.
- Was married six times.
- Nominated three times for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category. Twice in the 1920s, then again in 1950 for her portrayal of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
- Her performance in Sunset Boulevard was so convincing that many of her fans believed that there was a real Norma Desmond and that Swanson was actually her.
- Hosted two television shows in the 1950s.