427px-Gloria Swanson-James Abbe 1921

Gloria Swanson in 1921

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. She was also one of the first stars to challenge the Hays Code by producing the banned Sadie Thompson in 1928. 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).

Early lifeEdit

Swanson was born Gloria Josephine May Swanson[1] 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.[2][3] Swanson grew up mainly in Chicago, Puerto Rico and Key West, Florida. It was not her intention to enter show business. After her formal education in the Chicago school system and elsewhere, she began work in a department store as a sales clerk.

Silent filmsEdit

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. She later admitted that she hated slapstick comedy and had been deliberately uncooperative.

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, Male and Female, The Affairs of Anatol, and Why Change Your Wife? Swanson later appeared in a series of films directed by Sam Wood. She starred in Beyond the Rocks (1922) with Rudolph Valentino. (This film had been believed lost but was rediscovered in 2004 in a private collection in The Netherlands).

Template:Hollywood1921 In her heyday, audiences went to her films not only for her performances, but 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. In 1925, she starred in the first French-American coproduction, Madame Sans-Gêne, directed by Léonce Perret. During the production of this film, she met her third husband Henry de la Falaise, Marquis de la Falaise, who was originally hired to be her translator during the film's production. She appeared in a 1925 short produced by Lee DeForest in his Phonofilm sound-on-film process, which was one of the earliest attempts to synchronize sound with a moving image.

She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her 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). Her first independent production 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.)

Swanson's unfinished film Queen Kelly (1929) was directed by Erich von Stroheim and produced by Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., father of future President John F. Kennedy. She was romantically linked to the elder Kennedy at the time.

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. 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, and making sporadic appearances on the big screen.

Sunset BoulevardEdit

After Mae West and several former silent screen actresses (including Mary Pickford and Pola Negri) all declined the role,[4] Swanson starred in 1950's Sunset Blvd., portraying Norma Desmond, a faded movie star. She was nominated for her third Best Actress Oscar but lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.[5]

She received several subsequent acting offers but turned most of them down, saying they tended to be pale imitations of Norma Desmond. Her last major Hollywood motion picture role was in Three for Bedroom "C" in 1952. With disappointing reviews and ticket sales, the failure ended Swanson's return as a movie actress.

Television rolesEdit

Swanson hosted a television anthology series, Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson, in which she occasionally acted.[6] She also appeared in the 1971 Broadway production of Butterflies are Free at the Booth Theatre. Her last acting role was in the made-for-TV horror film Killer Bees in 1974, though she also appeared as herself in the movie Airport 1975, the same year.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Swanson appeared on various talk and variety shows such as The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to recollect on her films and to lampoon them as well. Her most famous television appearance is a 1966 episode of The Beverly Hillbillies titled "The Gloria Swanson Story" in which she plays herself. In the episode, the Clampetts mistakenly believe Swanson is destitute and decide to finance a comeback movie for her - in a silent film.

Personal lifeEdit

Swanson was a long-time vegetarian and 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.

Marriages and relationshipsEdit

Swanson's first husband was Wallace Beery, whom she married on her 17th birthday. She wrote, in her autobiography Swanson on Swanson, that Beery raped her on their wedding night. Beery also impregnated Swanson in 1917. Not wanting her to have the child he tricked her into drinking a serum that induced an abortion. They divorced two years later.

She married Herbert K. Somborn (1881-1934), then president of Equity Pictures Corporation and later the owner of the Brown Derby restaurant, in 1919. Their daughter, Gloria Swanson Somborn, was born in 1920. Their divorce, finalized in January 1925, was sensational. Somborn accused her of adultery with 13 men including Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, and Marshall Neilan. During this divorce in 1923 Swanson adopted a baby boy named Sonny Smith (1922-1975) and renamed him Joseph Patrick Swanson.

Her third husband was French aristocrat Henry de la Falaise whom she married in 1925 after the Somborn divorce was finalized. He became a film executive representing Pathé (USA) in France. She conceived a child with him but had an abortion which, in her autobiography, she said she regretted. This marriage ended in divorce in 1931.

Swanson had an affair with married tycoon Joseph P. Kennedy for a number of years. He became her business partner and their affair was an open secret in Hollywood circles.

In August 1931, Swanson married Michael Farmer (1902-1975). Swanson's divorce from La Falaise had not been finalized at the time, making the actress technically a bigamist. She was forced to remarry Farmer the following November, by which time she was four months pregnant with Michelle Bridget Farmer, who was born in 1932. The Farmers were divorced in 1934.

In 1945 Swanson married William N. Davey and they divorced in 1948. According to Swanson, after discovering Davey in a drunken stupor, she and daughter Michelle, believing they were being helpful, left a trail of Alcoholics Anonymous literature around their apartment. Davey quickly packed up, butler and all, ending a cohabitation of 45 days.

Swanson joined the ranks of celebrities to be stalked. In the early 1950s she was pursued by a World War II veteran, Samuel Golden, who claimed that the two were destined to be married and would give her 2/3 of his children as well as divulge secrets about the Navy's computer systems if she would run away with him. Recent declassified FBI documents disclose J. Edgar Hoover's obsession with seeing Golden tried for treason, but Golden disappeared somewhere in the Boston area.Template:Fact

Swanson's final marriage was in 1976 and lasted until her death. Her sixth husband was the writer William Dufty (1916-2002). Swanson shared her husband's enthusiasm for macrobiotic diets.

Swanson's papers are held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.


On April 4, 1983, Swanson died in New York City from a heart ailment, aged 84; she was cremated and her ashes interred at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Ave in New York City.[7]


She 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 in Austin. The second largest collection of Swanson material is held in the 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, the first time it had been seen since the early 1920s.



  • The Humming Bird (1924)
  • A Society Scandal (1924)
  • Manhandled (1924)
  • Her Love Story (1924)
  • Wages of Virtue (1924)
  • Madame Sans-Gêne (1924)
  • The Coast of Folly (1925)
  • Stage Struck (1925)
  • The Untamed Lady (1926)
  • Fine Manners (1926)
  • The Love of Sunya (1927)
  • Sadie Thompson (1928)
  • Queen Kelly (1929)
  • The Trespasser (1929)
  • What a Widow! (1930)
  • Indiscreet (1931)
  • Tonight or Never (1931)
  • Perfect Understanding (1933)
  • Music in the Air (1934)
  • Father Takes a Wife (1941)
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  • Three for Bedroom "C" (1952)
  • Nero's Mistress (1956)
  • Chaplinesque, My Life and Hard Times (1972) (documentary) (narrator)
  • Airport 1975 (1974)

Short subjectsEdit

  • The Song of the Soul (1914)
  • At the End of a Perfect Day (1915)
  • The Ambition of the Baron (1915)
  • The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket (1915)
  • His New Job (1915)
  • Sweedie Goes to College (1915)
  • The Romance of an American Duchess (1915)
  • The Broken Pledge (1915)
  • The Nick of Time Baby (1916)
  • A Dash of Courage (1916)
  • Hearts and Sparks (1916)
  • A Social Cub (1916)
  • The Danger Girl (1916)
  • Haystacks and Steeples (1916)
  • Teddy at the Throttle (1917)
  • Baseball Madness (1917)
  • Dangers of a Bride (1917)
  • Whose Baby? (1917)
  • The Sultan's Wife (1917)
  • The Pullman Bride (1917)
  • Wife or Country (1918)
  • A Trip to Paramountown (1922)
  • Gloria Swanson Dialogue (1925)



Awards and nominationsEdit

Year Award Result Category Film or series
1929 Academy Award Nominated Best Actress in a Leading Role Sadie Thompson
1930 The Trespasser
1951 Sunset Boulevard
1951 Golden Globe Award Won Best Motion Picture Actress - Drama Sunset Boulevard
1964 Nominated Best TV Star - Female Burke's Law
1951 Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Won Best Actress - Foreign Film (Migliore Attrice Straniera) Sunset Boulevard
1951 Jussi Award Won Foreign Actress Sunset Boulevard
1950 National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Won Best Actress Sunset Boulevard
1980 Career Achievement Award
1975 Saturn Award Won Special Award

Further readingEdit



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  • 1900 United States Federal Census, Chicago Ward 25, Town of Lakeview, Cook County, Illinois, Enumeration District 760, p.8A (J.T. Swanson)

External linksEdit