Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Gloria Swanson Saga, Part One

by Anne Helen Petersen

Gloria Swanson wasn’t here to make friends. She wasn’t “just like us.” She didn’t take out the garbage or “wear cotton” or go to the bathroom. Lady had a gold-plated bathtub. She married a Marquis. She was 4’11,” wore a 2 ½ in shoes, and had a waist approximately the size of my neck. She looked most beautiful when frowning. And for a period in the 1920s, she was the biggest star in the world. Swanson wasn’t evil, and she probably wasn’t even a bitch, but she just knew how to run that game. She was of a different set of stars — a different breed than Garbo, Dietrich, and other classic idols — that truly lived like demi-gods. And when Hollywood began to change the way it made and distributed films in the late ’20s, she was one of dozens destined to remain a relic of an earlier time.

Which is part of the reason she’s so unfathomably good in Sunset Boulevard, but we’ll get there soon enough. Swanson become synonymous with Norma Desmond, her character in that film, but she was much, much more — one of the first women to start her own production company, the first star to publicly become a “mother” in Hollywood, and a serious pioneer of the organic food movement. I am not even kidding. She bought and sold patents, ran her own household, and supported various husbands. She designed a dress line for middle-aged ladies in the 1950s using “glamour sizes” (read: size 12 and up) and made millions. Again: she knew how to run that game.

I also know a ton about her because she, like so many of our grandmothers, was a notorious packrat. When grandmothers pass away, the stuff goes to Goodwill or an estate sale or your basement. When Gloria Swanson passes away, as she did in 1983 at the age of 84, then they go to an archive. All your notes, telegraphs, thank you cards, scripts, and contracts become the “Gloria Swanson Collection,” housed, conveniently for me during my Ph.D., at the Harry Ransom Center for Awesome Older Stuff. (Note: Not the official name of the center, but when an archive has Scarlett O’Hara’s dresses, that’s what you’re wont to call it.)

Swanson was born in 1899. As in the 19th century. She was an army brat, born in Chicago, but spent most of her life in Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys. Unlike many of the stars of the silent age, she wasn’t marked by any particular ethnicity, nor was she an “exotic” import from Europe. She was an American mutt. Around age 14, an aunt took her, on a whim, to Essaney Studios in Chicago — this was before all the studios were centered in Hollywood — and she caught someone’s eye. She became a regular extra, making decent money, and dropped out of school like everyone else whose aunt takes them to the shopping mall for a modeling contract.

At the age of 17, Swanson up and moved to California to appear in a bunch of Mack Sennett comedies. Mack Sennett was best known for his “Bathing Beauties” — a group of young starlets who looked cute in bathing suits and whom Sennett placed in comedies for pure titillation.

I realize that you’re probably thinking that these girls are wearing more clothes than most high schoolers currently wear to prom. But at the time, this was the equivalent of Michael Bay’s use of Megan Fox/That Victoria’s Secret model in Transformers — they were blatant, unapologetic eye candy.

Swanson appeared in a Mack Sennett comedy. In her bathing suit. But for the rest of her life, she would insist that she was NOT a Bathing Beauty — those were a different type of girl. Carole Lombard was a bathing beauty. Dozens of other eager girls with supple legs were bathing beauties. But Gloria Swanson was no Megan Fox — she was a SERIOUS ACTRESS.


During this period, Swanson endured what can only be described as a horrible marriage to fellow Sennett star Wallace Beery. They married on her 17th birthday, he forced himself on her the night of the wedding, and when she later became pregnant, he tricked her into drinking a mixture that would abort the baby. Beery was a drunkard and an abuser, and while this all sounds like a bad Lifetime movie, Swanson knew what was what — she left him almost immediately after the abortion machinations, even though the divorce took three years to finalize.

But Swanson was undeterred in her professional life. Remember: girl knew how to play the game. She parlayed her popularity from the Sennett films into a contract with Paramount, where she made approximately a billion films, as all the silent stars did. She consistently worked with Cecil B. DeMille (remember that fact for later) and made a slew of what can only be called silent rom-com-drams: two people, sometimes of varying social class, sometimes not, love each other, can’t love each other, want to love each other, plus hijinks and resolution and ridiculously gorgeous clothes. Don’t Change Your Husband, Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife?, Something to Think About, The Affairs of Anatol — you can see what I’m talking about.

These are also the films that made Swanson a tremendous star — along the lines of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. By 1922, she was all of 23 years old. She had become so popular, and brought so much money to Paramount, that they essentially gave her everything she wanted — the biggest clothing budgets, the most extravagant salary demands. Her star image, both on the screen and off, was that of the clothes horse: a woman whose outfits were just as important as the plot. Think Sarah Jessica Parker, only with more peacock feathers. Swanson set the trend in hairstyles, hat-styles, and skirt lengths, and encouraged millions worldwide to command the room like this:

If you recall the lessons of Fatty Arbuckle, then you know that the Arbuckle scandal precipitated a “reigning in” of the hedonistic Hollywood way. The movies would, ostensibly, be less scandalous, titillating, and religiously offensive, and the stars themselves would have to agree to morality clauses as part of their studio contracts. In other words: stars had to stop sleeping around, boozing it up, and crashing their cars. Or at least they needed to stop doing it in a way that the public could see.

Despite Swanson’s first divorce, she seemed to be playing by the rules — she married Herbert Somborn, movie company president, in 1919, and gave birth to a daughter, Gloria, the next year. But then Momma Gloria apparently got busy: when husband Herbert filed for divorce in 1922, he claimed that Swanson had engaged in “relations” with at least 13 other men, including co-stars Rudolph Valentino (hubba hubba, but that’s for another day) and director Cecil B. DeMille. Damn, girl.

But long before Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie figured out that adopting an adorable girl from Somalia would help detract from the fact that they were totally crushing the American Dream Girl Next Door, Swanson, amidst the divorce proceedings, adopts a baby boy, Joseph. Brilliant.

Swanson’s image was unironic in a way that we can’t quite understand. She didn’t appear glamorous and elegant, she embodied glamour and elegance. This embodiment was only compounded when, in 1925, she went to France to film Madame Sans-Gêne, where she just happened to run into the Marquis de la Falaise, grandson of the founder of Hennessey Cognac. Now, despite his Hennessey relations, this Marquis had to work for a living, and that’s where Swanson found him: translating on set. Imagine that: a European with a title! Nevermind that pesky lack-of-fortune business — it was time for some real Downton Abbey new-American-money European-title-hunting.

One French thing led to another, and she returned home to America as La Marquise de la Falaise, theretofore shortened to La Swanson. The stories of Swanson’s return are straight out of an embellished fairytale: “she was met at the depot by two bands, film dignitaries, ushers on horseback, and thousands of people. She was placed in a limousine with eight motorcycle police escorts preceding her up Sunset Boulevard. Thousands of school children lined the sidewalk and threw flowers at her.” (From a Hedda Hopper article called “Long-Time Star Says She Was the First to Take on Both Career and Family.”)

Swanson’s salary only continued to rise. At one point, she was making — and spending — $20,000 a week, which is a cool quarter million in today-dollars. These were the days of the gold bathtub, black marble bathroom, four personal secretaries, and an “Atlantic City boardwalk chair in which a manservant wheeled her around the [studio] lot.” Girl spent $10,000 a year ($125,000-ish in today-dollars) on LINGERIE. For a 300-person dinner party, she gave favors of solid-gold compacts (for women) and solid-gold cigarette cases (for men). Fur coats, diamonds, hundreds of dresses and shoes and stockings in a serious Clueless/Alicia-Silverstone overdose of sartorial luxury.

Swanson doubtlessly loved clothes, but so much of these expenditures were performative — pure image-making. At the height of the silent era and the opulent “Roaring ‘20s,” stars modeled conspicuous consumption: buying not to buy, but buying to show others how much money they had. All the stars engaged in conspicuous consumption (and continue to do so today, what’s up, Kanye); Swanson was merely its apotheosis. Sure, this all sounds very Gatsby New Money, and it’s true — the stars were New Money to the highest degree. They didn’t even LIVE IN NEW YORK. Lots (most) of them were Dirty Immigrants (Valentino) or declasse (Clara Bow). But Swanson, with her European title and high fashion, seemed to prove that Hollywood stars could be elegant, glamorous, and proper, and that the middle class could let their kids admire and aspire to be like them …

… even if they were cheating on their Marquises with Joe Kennedy. Now, few (outside of Hollywood’s inner circle) really knew this was happening. If the fan magazines knew, they didn’t tell anyone. Swanson redacted all records of the affair — save a few adorable thank you cards from little John F. Kennedy — from her archive.

She fell in with Kennedy somewhat innocently. In 1927, Paramount offered Swanson a staggering $1 million a year. But Swanson was sick of the repetitive genre films she had been cast in over the last decade and understandably wanted more control of her “product.” It just happened that her star cohort, as it were, had decided the same back in 1919, when Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and director D.W. Griffith (he of Birth of a Nation fame/infamy) formed United Artists. United Artists was no traditional studio — each of the four original founders held 20% of the company, and had ultimate control over their own work. The patients, it was said, were taking over the asylum.

But as anyone who works with artists understands, a modicum of oversight often encourages the best work. When Griffith left United Artists, everything could very well have gone to shit. But the studio took on a veteran producer, Joseph Schneck, who just happened to be married to Norma Talmadge (major silent star), who just happened to be the sister of Natalie Talmadge (even more major silent star), who just happened to be married to Buster Keaton (most major silent star), who he could rope into United Artists productions. United Artists was never a blockbuster operation, but it offered the sort of freedom that Swanson craved.

Her first independent production, The Love of Sunya, was a bit of a clusterfuck. Swanson starred and produced, but had no real idea of how to produce, which led to various problems with management, script, and someone who could do a convincing double exposure (a camera trick of the silent era to “layer” film on itself; it makes stuff like body doubles and ghosts possible). That’s what people never think about when you say the word “producer” — executive producers just provide the money; actual producers have to supervise every part of the production. It’s heady work, and Swanson was unprepared. The film was way over budget and performed way below expectations. On the advice of Schneck, Swanson returned to Hollywood, tail between her well-dressed legs, to work on something more mainstream and tenable.

But Swanson wanted her “own Goldrush” — Chaplin’s masterpiece independent production from 1925. She recruited Raoul Walsh, who would eventually become one of the most important directors of classic Hollywood, to direct her next picture. Walsh was into risque stuff, and immediately told Swanson that he wanted to adapt the play 1922 Rain, which told the story of a “smoking, drinking, jazz-loving” lady of the night who travels to Samoa, where she interacts with a bunch of Jesus-loving missionaries intent on converting the natives and side-eying ladies of the night.

In order to avoid the wrath of Will Hays (head of the censorship body put together by the studio), Walsh and Swanson decided to cut all the swearing, and turn the reverend missionary who starts getting funny feelings for Miss Thompson into a regular old normal-sexual-urge-having “moralist.” Walsh and Swanson meet with Hays, who apparently tells them they’re good to go, and they proceed with production. But when the rest of the studios hear about it, they get super pissed — everyone knew about the scandalous undertones of the play, and the studios and Hays send Walsh a furious TWO-PAGE telegraph. La la la DON’T MIX WHORES AND MORALISTS la la la YOU’RE BRINGING DOWN THE ENTIRE INDUSTRY la la la.

Swanson’s reply: you’re just jealous you don’t get to pull a Samoan seduction yourself. PLUS all of you studio bosses have made films that are just as flagrantly sexual, if not more so. In other words: go fuck yourselves.

Swanson cast Lionel Barrymore as the male moralist, but Drew’s Great Uncle pulled a total sophomore-in-college move and refused to change his clothes for a week. Swanson was not amused. Walsh himself would play the supporting role of Sergeant O’Hara, a total hottie of a non-moralist who wants to take her away to Australia.

I mean seriously, why was this guy hiding behind the camera? He is clearly smokin’. [SIDENOTE: This was Walsh’s last appearance on camera, because he soon lost an eye in an accident. He wore a literal patch for the rest of his directing career. Naturally this makes me love him even more.]

Despite Walsh’s help, the production ran into all matter of roadblocks. Swanson got sick, and their prize cameraman was yanked away, running up the budget. But the film was a huge success — in part, of course, due to all the hoopla over the telegram, the whoreiness, the fact that the moralizer is driven to suicide due to his conflicted feelings for Sultry Sadie, etc. etc. What’s more, if you look really closely, you can see that the characters are totally using a swear word or two — you just can’t hear them, since, duh, it’s a silent film. (New nerd game: learn to read lips in all silent films, especially those starring dirty-mouthed Joan Crawford.)

Swanson was nominated for an Academy Award, the film grossed a million dollars, and Swanson had proven her point: a woman could control the production, the film could still make money, and the furious telegram-sending-studios were, indeed, just totally jealous.

But the success of Sadie Thompson marked the beginning of the disastrous end to (the first act) of Swanson’s career. At this point, Swanson had been sneaking around with Joseph P. Kennedy for some time.

(I love that this hokey, tinted, mashed together photo is all that you can find of Swanson and Kennedy together in the same frame. K-Stew would’ve had it so much easier if she chose to hook up with her director in the late ‘20s.)

Kennedy had arrived in Hollywood in the late ’20s, a wealthy “American” banker eager to buy himself into a business dominated by Jewish immigrants. He was cocky and rich: as he told friends, “Look at that bunch of pants pressers in Hollywood making themselves millionaires. I could take the whole business away from them.”

And so he did. He bought a place at the head of three studios. He told everyone in Hollywood that they were doing movie-making wrong — specifically, they were always on the verge of bankruptcy, and needed a new model of production and distribution — and then implemented it. He was the type of dude who invited all of the studio heads to his alma mater, Harvard, had them give lectures, collected those lectures in a book called The Story of Films, and then EMBOSSED THE COVER WITH HIS NAME IN GOLD. And gave it to all his friends. Joe Kennedy Sr., ladies and gentlemen.

Kennedy, riding a wave of Hollywood success, met Swanson in NYC, gave her a copy of the book, talked shop, and persuaded her to come to his place in California. This time, and this time only, the Marquis was invited as well. And here’s where it gets SO SO SO GOOD: Kennedy has an underling take the Marquis out deep-sea fishing. All-day deep-sea fishing. Kennedy appears at Swanson’s bedroom door and cries “No longer, no longer. Now.” According to Swanson, “he was like a roped horse, rough, arduous, racing to be free.” The encounter ended with a “hasty climax.”

OMG GLORIA! By the time she left, “Joseph Kennedy had taken over my entire life,” she said. She was in debt (too much underwear-buying) and her dedication to independent production was simply not paying the way her studio contracts had. She needed financial reorganization, and Kennedy promised to provide it. Most importantly, he arranged for United Artists to own both The Love of Sunya and Sadie Thompson — a good short-term fix that would ultimately lose Swanson money after the latter became a big hit.

Kennedy took the Marquis out of the picture, sending him to France to supervise production at Pathé, where Kennedy was a “special consultant,” a.k.a. running the entire show. But this was no three-week assignment: the Marquis was out of the picture for TEN MONTHS. (For what it’s worth, Kennedy’s own wife was back in Massachusetts, recovering from the birth of their eighth child.)

Swanson didn’t allow Kennedy to come to her house, didn’t allow pictures, and spoke only in code over the telephone and telegram. She was circumspect. Except for that time when Kennedy, discovering that Swanson’s adopted son hadn’t been baptized (or named — they referred to him as ‘Brother’), arranged for a christening. Swanson names him Joseph (for her own father) Patrick (at Kennedy’s own Irish insistence). But wait one second: GUESS WHO ELSE IS NAMED JOSEPH PATRICK?

Way to be discreet, guys.

Kennedy decides he’s going to prove to his “ultimate trophy mistress” (as Swanson’s final husband later described it) that he’s the most awesome producer in the universe. He takes the reins on her next picture and hires the infamous Erich von Stroheim to direct.

Now, hiring Von Stroheim as director in the early ’30s was akin to hiring Terrence Malick today: if you do it, you’re asking for it. You’re asking for huge production delays, obsessive editing (and re-editing), secrecy, grand vision, and, if you’re patient enough, brilliance.

I imagine that Kennedy thought he could rein Von Stroheim in. He was wrong. Von Stroheim convinces Kennedy and Swanson that the picture should follow a Prince, engaged to a “mad queen,” who falls for a poor convent girl (Swanson, naturally). He then KIDNAPS the convent girl and takes advantage of her, which obviously pisses off the evil Queen, who whips the convent girl and banishes her. She somehow ends up in East Africa, where she marries a big-time loser and and becomes the “queen” of a brothel. Hence: Queen Kelly. I’m not kidding; this is the plot.

The makings of an instant classic.

Three months into production, and Von Stroheim has a six hour cut that covers only half of the script. Even better, Swanson only appears in half of the footage, as Von Stroheim was much more interested in the evil queen and the put-upon rapist-kidnapper prince.

Kennedy tried to get other directors to take over the disaster, but none would touch it. One just opts to cast Swanson in a quick-release talkie-picture, The Trespasser, which wins Swanson a nomination for Best Actress. (Swanson, like the rest of the silent stars, had “appeared” on national radio when “talking” pictures first gained traction to show that she could, indeed, weather the transition to sound. Her task, like the other silent stars: show that her voice wasn’t annoying.)

Meanwhile, Queen Kelly begins to fester. Kennedy tries to turn it into a opera. I can seriously not think of a worse idea. The budget is soaring towards $700,000, and it’s still only halfway finished. They agree to axe the Africa ending and have Swanson herself direct an “alternate” conclusion that they could then release internationally. But Swanson and Kennedy get in a tiff, Kennedy absconds to New York City, and the press announces that he’s left filmmaking forever. Swanson looks at her funds and realizes that Kennedy, ever the clever accountant, has billed her production company for everything associated with Kelly — including furs that Kennedy had ostensibly gifted the star. Queen Kelly has a pitiful run, and the film goes down as one the greatest quagmires of Hollywood history.

Swanson tries to restart her identity: she divorces the long-suffering Marquis in 1930, and attempts to reinvigorate her career with a bevy of talkies, none of them successful. She marries Michael Farmer in 1931, gives birth to a second daughter, Michelle, in 1932. Her career dwindles to nothing: yet another silent star who withered on the branch, a glittering, if somewhat faded, artifact of cinema history. She was all of 33 years old.

But Swanson does not disappear forever. She would go on to a second act of her career that was nothing short of stunning — a true testament to how well she understood her image and its place in Hollywood. So put on some drapey silks, acquire a closet to fit a thousand shoes, and find yourself a solid gold bathtub: La Swanson Part Two is coming for you.

Previously: The Exquisite Garbo.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.