(born March 17, 1899, Chicago, Ill., U.S.—died April 4, 1983, New York, N.Y.) U.S. film actress. She played minor roles in comedies at the Mack Sennett studio before she was hired by Cecil B. DeMille and achieved stardom in a series of farces, including Male and Female (1919), Zaza (1923), and Madame Sans-Gêne (1925). The glamorous queen of silent movies, she formed her own production company with backing from her lover Joseph P. Kennedy, making Sadie Thompson (1928) and then the disastrous Queen Kelly (1928). After The Trespasser (1929), her first talkie, and several lighter vehicles, she tired of the poor scripts available, stopped making films, and started several business ventures outside the motion-picture industry. She made an acclaimed comeback as an aging silent-film star in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Learn more about Swanson, Gloria with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Gloria Swanson (March 27, 1899 – April 4, 1983) was an Academy Award-nominated, Golden Globe-winning American Hollywood actress. She was prolific during the silent film era, but her career declined with the advent of "talkies". She is now best known for her performance in the film Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which—mirroring her own life—she portrayed a former silent movie star largely forgotten by audiences of the day.
Swanson moved to California in 1916 to appear in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies opposite Bobby Vernon including Teddy at the Throttle, 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.)
In her heyday, audiences went to her films not only for her emotional portrayals in lurid romances, 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 Gloria 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 an 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 Theater 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.
Swanson auditioned for the leading female role in His New Job, a Charlie Chaplin short, 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.
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 she died, 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.
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. Swanson played an aging movie star in the Warner Bros. comedy. With disappointing reviews and ticket sales, the failure ended Swanson's return as a movie actress.
Swanson had a reputation as a difficult and often unpleasant character, albeit a fascinating one. This is referenced in the TV movie, White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd (1991), where Swanson is portrayed in that light and is rebuked by the actress playing Patsy Kelly, Todd's comedy partner.
Swanson died in New York City of natural causes at the age of 84; she was cremated and her ashes interred at the Episcopal Church of Heavenly Rest on Fifth Ave in New York City.
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, Marquis de la Falaise whom she married in 1925 after the Somborn divorce was finalized. He became a film executive representing Pathé in the United States. She conceived a child with him but had an abortion which she said (in her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson) she regretted. This marriage ended in divorce in 1931.
In August 1931, Swanson married Michael Farmer (1902-1975). Although frequently described as a sportsman the only evidence of the Irishman's prowess was his frequent betrothals. Unfortunately 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. Little is known of Davey except that single mother Gloria married this rich man because young Michelle had been nagging her about wanting a father. According to Swanson, she and Davey actually cohabited forty-five days. Swanson is also known as one of the first celebrities with an obsessed stalker. In the early 1950s she was pursued by a crazed World War II veteran, Samuel Golden. Golden 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 somehow disappeared somewhere in the Boston area.
Swanson's final marriage was in 1976 and lasted until her death. Her sixth husband, writer William Dufty (1916-2002), was the co-author of Billie Holiday's autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, the author of Sugar Blues, a best-selling health book, and the author of the English version of Georges Ohsawa's You Are All Sanpaku. Swanson shared her husband's enthusiasm for macrobiotic diets.
Swanson had an affair with married tycoon Joseph Kennedy for a number of years. He became her business partner and their affair was an open secret in Hollywood circles.
The Kennedy's: Joe Sr. & the Gloria Swanson Affair Series: The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga
Mar 22, 1987; Joe Kennedy first met Gloria Swanson in the Renaissance Room of the elegant new Savoy Plaza Hotel on Nov. 11, 1927. Swanson was...
Ready for her close-up; In the larger-than-life role of silent- movie queen Norma Desmond, in the footsteps of film divas Gloria Swanson and Glenn Close, tonight at the Orpheum it's `Sunset Boulevard' starring ... Linda Balgord, a virtual unknown.(VARIETY)
Dec 26, 1996; 1/3 "Sunset Boulevard: STARRING Linda Balgord . . . no, cancel that. How about "Featuring Linda Balgord" . . . no, no. Maybe...