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A silent screen legend and the epitome of early Hollywood glamour, actress Gloria Swanson rose to great heights in the 1920s, only to struggle like many of her day did once the age of talkie films took hold. But unlike her silent film contemporaries, Swanson had a trick or two up her sleeve and delivered a powerful, Oscar-nominated performance as the delusional Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), widely considered to be the greatest film noir ever made. Prior to that triumph, Swanson had reigned supreme during the silent era as a top actress whose elaborate feathered boas and bejeweled headdresses were the height of fashion. She first achieved stardom in several of Cecil B. DeMille's bedroom farces like "Don't Change Your Husband" (1919) and "Why Change Your Wife?" (1920) before making a series of dramas that propelled her to the top. Mid-decade, Swanson became one of the most famous stars in the world thanks to roles in "Zaza" (1923), "Madame Sans-Gene" (1925) and "The Untamed Lady" (1926). Prompted to break out and produce her movies independently, Swanson staggered a bit with the production-plagued "The Love of Sunya" (1927), but rebounded with "Sadie Thompson" (1928) - her last critical and financial hit until "Sunset Boulevard." Following the disaster that was "Queen Kelly" (1929), which was partially bankrolled by lover Joseph P. Kennedy, Swanson largely left the big screen in favor of Broadway and the small screen, where she stayed for the remainder of her career. Despite few hits for a large part of her career, Swanson remained until her death in 1983 a true Tinseltown legend.
Born on March 27, 1899 in Chicago, IL, Swanson was raised in a strict Lutheran home by her father, Joseph, an Army officer, and her mother, Adelaide, who took care of her only child by herself while Joseph was stationed overseas. She also moved around, living in such far flung places as Puerto Rico and Key West. Almost on a whim, Swanson entered into the entertainment industry by way of becoming an extra for a small production company in Chicago called Essanay Studios in 1913, where she worked alongside future comedy icon, Charlie Chaplin, in such silent shorts as "His New Job" (1915). After leaving school to focus on acting fulltime, Swanson married fellow Essanay actor Wallace Beery and moved to Hollywood, where they were both hired by Mack Sennett's Keystone Company. Her brief marriage to Beery was fraught with peril, however, when Swanson later revealed in her autobiography that her new husband had gotten drunk on their wedding night and raped her. When they later discovered that she had become pregnant, Beery tricked Swanson intro drinking a concoction that induced an abortion. Though separated after a few months of being married, the two continued to work together and were officially divorced in 1919.
After appearing in a series of Mack Sennett's romantic comedies at Triangle, Swanson moved to Paramount, only to find her way back to Triangle where she began starring in dramas like "Society for Sale" (1918), "Shifting Sands" (1918) and "The Secret Code" (1918). But she soon left Triangle to head back to Paramount again, only this time she joined Cecil B. DeMille's unit and achieved stardom in the director's snappy, sophisticated bedroom farces like "Male and Female" (1919), "Don't Change Your Husband" (1919), "Why Change Your Wife?" (1920) and "The Affairs of Anatol" (1921). In short order, Swanson had become a bona fide star and one of Hollywood's most in-demand actresses. Moving away from DeMille, Swanson made a series of films with director Sam Wood, including "Under the Lash" (1921), "Her Gilded Age" (1922) and "Beyond the Rocks" (1922), which also starred her long-time friend Rudolph Valentino. Meanwhile, her tumultuous personal life continued unabated when she married restaurateur, Herbert Somborn, in 1919, only to see him file for divorce a year into their marriage after he discovered her affair with director Marshall Neilan.
During the height of her fame, audiences were enthralled with Swanson's lavish wardrobe - which often entailed ostrich feathers, jeweled headdresses and the like - as much as they were with her performances. By the mid-1920s, the larger-than-life Swanson was at the peak of her popularity, starring in such lavish vehicles as "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" (1923), "Zaza" (1923), "Madame Sans-Gene" (1925), and "The Untamed Lady" (1926). She traveled to Paris to film "Madame Sans-Gene" and returned to the United States with her third husband, Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye. Married in 1925, she returned home to a royal reception that included parades in New York and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, she finished out her Paramount contract with "Stage Struck" (1925) and "Fine Manners" (1926), and turned down a million dollar to strike out on her own and have her films distributed by United Artists. The first was the production plagued drama "The Love of Sunya" (1927), which ran way over budget because of problems trying to secure competent cameramen. Following this failure, Swanson tackled more controversial material with "Sadie Thompson" (1928), playing a prostitute who encounters a zealous missionary (Lionel Barrymore) on the island of Pago Pago. Though she ran afoul with censors prior to the film's production, Swanson nonetheless had a critical and financial hit, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
It was through her investor and erstwhile lover, Joseph P. Kennedy, that Swanson was producing her own films, including "Sadie Thompson." She began the affair with the infamous tycoon while she was still married to the Marquis, who himself was engaged in a romance with his future wife, Constance Bennett. The married Kennedy assumed control of Swanson's personal and business affairs, which in the end proved detrimental to her career. Following the success of "Sadie Thompson," she embarked on her next independent project, "Queen Kelly" (1929), a disastrous production directed by Erich von Stroheim that failed to see theatrical release in the United States - it did play in Europe and South America after an alternate ending was shot in 1931 - and left Swanson financially in poor shape. Swanson and Kennedy ended their illicit affair, with the actress soon divorcing the Marquis in 1930. By this time, silent films were left behind in favor of talkies, and Swanson eagerly made the transition with "The Trespasser" (1929), in which she played a so-called kept woman able to maintain her lavish lifestyle through her domineering husband (Robert Ames). The film was a hit and earned her another Oscar nomination for Best Actress, though it would prove to be her last significant effort for nearly two decades.
Temporarily relieved from the failure of "Queen Kelly," Swanson hit hard times again when her next few talkies - "Indiscreet" (1931), "Tonight or Never" (1931), "Perfect Understanding" (1933) and "Music in the Air" (1934) - all failed at the box office. So she left Hollywood in 1938 and relocated to New York City, where she spent the war years operating a patents and inventions company that recruited Jewish scientist from all over Europe, helping them escape the Nazis while also benefiting from their inventions. Swanson did appear in the comedy "Father Takes a Wife" (1941) while performing in several stage productions. In 1948, she hosted the local television show "The Gloria Swanson Hour," which aired interviews she conducted with various guests. Swanson left New York to return to Hollywood when Billy Wilder cast her in "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), arguably the most important film in her career. Swanson played Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star living in seclusion with her stoic butler (Erich von Stroheim) who hires a struggling writer (William Holden) to pen her comeback picture, only to rapidly descend into delusion and keep him prisoner in her gloomy mansion, culminating in the classic line, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille." Widely hailed as a masterpiece of film noir, "Sunset Boulevard" briefly resurrected Swanson's career - which very much mirrored Norma Desmond's - and earned the actress her third Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Included inside the film were scenes from "Queen Kelly" that were presented as a movie from Desmond's, marking the first time American audiences saw any of the footage.
Following her acclaimed turn in "Sunset Boulevard," Swanson received scripts and offers for other roles, which she turned down because they largely felt like cheap caricatures of Norma Desmond. So instead she returned to Broadway, starring in a production of "Twentieth Century" (1951), while also appearing in the anthology series "Hollywood Opening Night" (CBS/NBC, 1950-53). Continuing to work on the small screen, Swanson hosted her own series, "Crow Theater with Gloria Swanson" (syndicated, 1953-54), also known as "The Gloria Swanson Show." Throughout the 1960s up to the early 1980s, Swanson appeared on numerous talk shows like "The Dick Cavett Show" (1968-1986) and "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992) while taking fewer guest starring turns on television. Following her last major stage role, playing the overprotective mother of a blind man in "Butterflies Are Free" (1971), she made her first television movie as an iron-willed matriarch in the thriller "Killer Bees" (ABC, 1974) and made her last film appearance in a cameo as herself in the disaster flick "Airport 75" (1975). After marrying her sixth and final husband, author William Duffy, in 1976, Swanson settled into a life of painting, sculpture and promoting macrobiotic diets - which she first began practicing in the mid-1920s. She released her autobiographySwanson on Swanson to great success in 1980. Upon returning home from Portugal, Swanson suffered a heart ailment and died on April 4, 1983, which triggered headlines the world over. She was 84.