Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Gloria Swanson

Episode Summary

Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) was an actress, producer, and businesswoman. She was known as the queen of the silent screen.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s leading lady was an actress, producer, and businesswoman. She was known as the queen of the silent screen. Let’s talk about Gloria Swanson.

Gloria was born in 1899 in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother Adelaide was her primary caretaker, and her father Joseph was a U.S. army officer stationed overseas. As a result, Gloria frequently moved throughout her childhood, living in places such as Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico. 

When Gloria was 15, her aunt took her on a tour of Essanay Studios in Chicago. Some reports maintain that a tour guide was intrigued by Gloria and discovered her then and there. Others suggest that she talked her way into the business. Either way, it was at Essanay Studios that Gloria got her start. She was hired as an extra. 

At 16, Gloria dropped out of school and appeared in Sweedie Goes to College, alongside Wallace Beery. Gloria and Wallace married shortly thereafter. Gloria later wrote that the marriage was fraught with abuse and they finalized their divorce in 1918. Gloria married five more times throughout her life and had three children. 

In 1916, Gloria and her mother moved to Hollywood, where she appeared in Keystone Studios comedy shorts opposite Bobby Vernon. But Gloria longed to appear in more serious films. She moved to Triangle Studios. There, she was still disappointed by the roles she was given. Gloria later said that at that point in her life, she felt suicidal. Fortunately, Gloria wasn’t bound to a contract, and she soon began working for filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille.  

Gloria starred in Cecil’s melodramas and played sensual, glamorous characters. Cecil’s films turned Gloria into an icon, making her highly sought after in the industry. Cecil said, "The public, not I, made Gloria Swanson a star."

In 1918, Cecil told Gloria to sign a contract with Famous Players-Lasky. At Lasky, Gloria starred in a number of successful pictures, including the 1919 film Male and Female, in which she famously bathes in a luxurious setting. Cecil continued to assign Gloria roles that depicted extravagance, and she later said that her expensive taste was influenced by him. 

Gloria lived lavishly. By the mid 20’s, she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. She owned mansions, expansive land, and was a savvy real estate investor. Still, she ran through her money. Her lingerie bill alone was reported to be $10,000 a year. Gloria later reflected on her lifestyle and said, ''We lived like kings and queens, and why not? We were in love with life.”

Gloria grew frustrated at Famous-Players Lasky. She was more famous for her costumes than her acting. In 1925, she fought to get Lasky to greenlight Madame Sans-Gêne, a French-American co-production. Gloria was deeply involved in the production—she petitioned the French government for access to historic sites and helped choose the director and cast. Gloria met her third husband on set, Henri, the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye. 

 

Gloria discovered she was pregnant with Henri’s baby while divorcing her second husband. Her contract at Famous Players-Lasky had a morality clause; if broken, she might be blacklisted from Hollywood. So Gloria decided to have an abortion in Paris. She almost died from complications. 

 

When Famous Players-Lasky tried to renegotiate her contract, they eventually offered for what is now equivalent to $14.7 million per year. Gloria refused to enter into another morality clause and instead signed with United Artists, which gave her complete creative freedom. 

 

In 1927, Gloria established her own production company. She tricked the Hays Office to get permission to make the highly controversial film Sadie Thompson. The film was a hit, but shortly after its release, the company fell into financial straits. That year, Gloria met Joseph Kennedy—the father of U.S. President John F. Kennedy—and they began an affair while Gloria was still married to her third husband. 

Joseph convinced Gloria to let him take the reins of Gloria Swanson Productions so that she could focus on script selection. His direction and mismanagement cost Gloria her company. In 1930, Gloria Swanson Production made its last film What A Widow!, Gloria’s first production with sound. 

Gloria struggled to transition from silent films to talkies. The sound films she appeared in were unsuccessful, and by 1934, the press regarded her a “has been.”  

With her film career struggling, Gloria made a serious career pivot. She founded a patent startup, Multiprises. In 1938, Gloria helped four Jewish Austrian scientists flee the Nazis. With the help of her husband, Gloria paid for their resettlement and supported them until 1943, in exchange for them working at Multiprises. Austrian Engineer Richard Kobler said,“There is no question that Ms. Swanson saved three lives.”  

Still, Gloria wasn’t finished acting. In the 40s, Gloria returned to film, and in 1950, she starred in her most successful movie, Sunset Boulevard, where she played Norma Desmond—a deluded former star trying to make a comeback. Gloria won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal. 

Gloria then pivoted to Broadway and TV.1. 

Later on in her life, Gloria became an early health food advocate and a yoga practitioner. When attending Hollywood events, she even brought her own meals in a paper bag. Gloria was also politically active. In 1980, she campaigned for Ronald Reagan. 

In 1983, Gloria died from a heart ailment. She was 84 years old. 

Gloria Swanson had a lasting legacy in the film industry. She was even honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. When reflecting on her career, Gloria said, “If I had my life to live over again, I wouldn't. Life is a privilege. Mistakes should be dropped in the wastebasket.”

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!