Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star

Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star

3.0 8
by Stephen Michael Shearer, Jeanine Basinger

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Gloria Swanson defined what it meant to be a movie star, but her unforgettable role in Sunset Boulevard overshadowed the true story of her life. Now Stephen Michael Shearer sets the record straight in the first in-depth biography of the film legend.

Swanson was Hollywood's first successful glamour queen. Her stardom as an actress in the mid-1920s earned


Gloria Swanson defined what it meant to be a movie star, but her unforgettable role in Sunset Boulevard overshadowed the true story of her life. Now Stephen Michael Shearer sets the record straight in the first in-depth biography of the film legend.

Swanson was Hollywood's first successful glamour queen. Her stardom as an actress in the mid-1920s earned her millions of fans and millions of dollars. Realizing her box office value early in her career, she took control of her life. Soon she was not only producing her own films, she was choosing her scripts, selecting her leading men, casting her projects, creating her own fashions, guiding her publicity, and living an extravagant and sometimes extraordinary celebrity lifestyle.

She also collected a long line of lovers (including Joseph P. Kennedy) and married men of her choosing (including a French marquis, thus becoming America's first member of "nobility"). As a devoted and loving mother, she managed a quiet success of raising three children. Perhaps most important, as a keen businesswoman she also was able to extend her career more than sixty years.

Her astounding comeback as Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard catapulted her back into the limelight. But it also created her long-misunderstood persona, one that this meticulous biography shows was only part of this independent and unparalleled woman.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Shearer (Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr) succeeds brilliantly in not missing a moment of 1920s Hollywood starlet Gloria Swanson's gilded, imperfect life. Celebrated as "the movie star of all movie stars," film and fashion icon Gloria Swanson's rich, glamorous life included six marriages, myriad affairs, and a fortune all but squandered. Both charming and headstrong from the start, Gloria moved to California to become an actress at age 16, where she embraced a work hard, play hard mentality, raising three children while bankrolling lovers and husbands. Described by her daughter as "a very feminine woman with a masculine brain," Gloria was in control of her career and lifestyle early on. She segued into television and talkies, making a comeback with her critically acclaimed performance in Sunset Boulevard. Her not-so-secret affair with Joseph P. Kennedy was a passionate, complicated relationship, and left her finances a shambles. Shearer's riveting, weighty biography is a powerful paean to the silent movie era, its renowned stars and directors, and to Gloria, who was as famous for her acting as for her liveried butlers, generous gifts, and extravagant Parisian shopping sprees. (Aug.)
From the Publisher

“Shearer succeeds brilliantly in not missing a moment of 1920s Hollywood starlet Gloria Swanson's gilded, imperfect life. … Shearer's riveting, weighty biography is a powerful paean to the silent movie era, its renowned stars and directors, and to Gloria, who was as famous for her acting as for her liveried butlers, generous gifts, and extravagant Parisian shopping sprees.” —Publishers Weekly

“In this excellently detailed account of actress Gloria Swanson's life, we see a young starlet grow into the unforgettable ‘Norma Desmond' from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. … With a glimpse into the lives of the full range of film stars, an examination of the tribulations in Hollywood through World War II, and a complete look at Swanson's robust life, this well-written title is sure to please any reader with a passion for classic Hollywood movies.” —Library Journal

“Reveals the passion, the ego and the insecurities that propelled the movie queen through a seven-decade Hollywood career in which she was a remarkably modern woman years ahead of her time: producing her own movies, choosing her scripts and leading men on-screen and off, becoming a flamboyant Hollywood magnate and blowing a fortune indulging her libido. … Stephen Michael Shearer exposes the demons that drove the egocentric screen siren.” —The Daily Express (UK)

“Stephen Shearer… is to be lauded for his scholarship and the depth of his research.” —New York Journal of Books

“A comprehensive biography of Swanson, who was not only one of film's biggest stars in her day but an astute and successful businesswoman.” —Tampa Bay Times

“A fascinating biography that recreates Hollywood's Golden Age of Glamour.” —Publishers Weekly on Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr

“Much more than a standard Hollywood biography.” —Edge Magazine on Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr

“In Beautiful, Mr. Shearer writes with humor and has fun with some of the glorious nonsense of Lamarr's movies.” —The Wall Street Journal on Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr

“Shearer is to be congratulated for this account of Neal's life....Anyone interested in movies as well as U.S. social history will treasure this volume about an extraordinary actress and lady.” —New York Daily News on Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life

“This impressively researched biography of film actress Patricia Neal covers an immensity of material.” —Deseret Morning News on Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life

“Shearer delivers an inspiring look at the professional triumphs and personal tragedies that define one of Hollywood's legendary stars.” —Des Moines Sunday Register on Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life

Kirkus Reviews
A biography of Gloria Swanson (1899–1983), who was difficult, vain, arrogant and self-deluded, as well as shrewd, stylish and magnetic. She was, by her own account, "every inch and every moment a star." Swanson had limited gifts in terms of looks and talents. Barely 5 feet tall and, by her own description, stout, she had a pleasant singing voice, but stage fright kept her from pursuing a career as an opera diva or theater actress. The Chicago-raised daughter of an itinerant Swedish-American Army officer and a Polish-American mother whose poor judgment occasionally brought unwelcome publicity, Swanson began acting in the late 1910s for the local Essanay movie company. Finding that she liked the work--especially the money it brought her, as well as the men in front of and behind the cameras--she eventually wound up in Hollywood, where she was "discovered" by Mack Sennett, in whose comedies she first gained public notice. But it was Cecil B. DeMille who made Swanson a star. More than any other actress, Swanson, with her mentor DeMille, created the image of the movie star as fashion-plated glamour queen, both on screen and off. Her high-life style attracted wealthy men and aristocrats, including a French marquis whom she married and Joseph P. Kennedy. Shearer (Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, 2011, etc.), who relied on Swanson's fib-telling 1981 biography, newspaper and magazine articles, and a collection of her papers at the University of Texas, warms up to his subject about halfway through, in time for the amazing story of her comeback (some might convincingly argue, the capstone of her entire career) in Sunset Boulevard. A mysteriously aloof cipher in the early chapters, she eventually comes to life as a delightfully zestful grande dame, despite numerous personal and professional failures before and after Sunset. An uneven, rushed-through life with occasional high notes.
Library Journal
In this excellently detailed account of actress Gloria Swanson's life, we see a young starlet grow into the unforgettable "Norma Desmond" from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. Trained as a silent film star, Swanson (1899–1983) had more acting tools at her disposal than most, and she used every single one as she transitioned from silent movies to talkies, took on television, and experimented with Broadway, radio, and business. Shearer (Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr) provides details from telegrams, quotes, articles, and personal accounts to show readers, more than anything, a human being. We learn that Swanson had to become savvy about business to make money, mend rifts with her children, and keep her past husbands from taking what she had left. VERDICT With a glimpse into the lives of the full range of film stars, an examination of the tribulations in Hollywood through World War II, and a complete look at Swanson's robust life, this well-written title is sure to please any reader with a passion for classic Hollywood movies.—Rochelle LeMaster, Medina Cty. Dist. Lib., OH

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.58(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.66(d)

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Read an Excerpt




“When I was a little girl, I used to dream day dreams all day long,” Gloria Swanson once told her secretary. “I dreamed of having all the pretty things that every girl wants. I dreamed of finding happiness in love. The only difference between the average girl and myself was that I set about making my dreams come true.”1

Gloria always lived by her own beliefs. She once stated quite emphatically, “I feel sure that unborn babies pick their parents.”2 She never believed anything was accidental. By that same reasoning, babies probably also pick where they are born. For Gloria, it was in Chicago, Illinois.

*   *   *

The 1890 U.S. Census reported the nation’s Swedish population to be over 800,000 (causing a major concern in Sweden, as its national population had begun to dwindle). Most Swedish immigrants were young and unmarried Lutherans. Primarily they were farmers. Yet some settled in urban communities such as Chicago’s “Swede Town,” adopting new trades to earn enough money to eventually buy farms. In 1900, Chicago could boast of being the world’s fifth-largest city, a large percentage of its population being of German, Irish, Swedish, and Polish decent. By 1910, the city supported 407 movie houses, twice more per capita than New York City.

Whereas Swedish immigration was fueled by economic opportunity, Polish immigration was ignited by cultural suppression, brought on by an age of industrialization, turning many peasant Polish farmers into migrant workers. By 1900, Chicago and its suburbs were home to one of the largest Polish American communities in the country. One could not walk down a city block without hearing Polish spoken.

Into this melting pot was born Gloria Swanson. Her Swedish-Lutheran paternal grandfather was Jons (Americanized to James or John) Peter Swanson, a shoemaker born in November 1849 in Vastina (Småland), Sweden.3 Jons and his wife Johanna (nee Schoberg) had immigrated to Chicago with John’s younger brother Carl Albert. The family resided in Chicago’s 11th District on West Elizabeth Street. Jons and Johanna would have a total of thirteen children, according to Gloria, including her aunt May and two uncles, Charles and Jonathan.

Joseph Theodore, the oldest of their sons, was born in Chicago in November 1874. He met Adelaide M. Klanowski, born July 15, 1878, in the summer of 1897.4 Adelaide, called Addie, was the daughter of saloonkeeper and shoemaker Herman Klanowski, born in Prussia in 1849, and his wife Bertha May (one of another thirteen children), who was born in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 1856.

Gloria’s great-grandfather May came to America in 1852. His house on LaSalle Street burned to the ground during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the family lost everything. After their marriage in the 1880s Herman and Bertha resided on Clark Street with Bertha’s sister Clara. The family later moved to 213 Ashland Avenue around the turn of the century. Herman and Bertha had two sons, Edward, born January 1873, and Herman Jr., born in 1877. After granddaughter Gloria was born, Bertha divorced Herman Klanowski and remarried a pleasant fellow named Mr. Lew, by whom she had a daughter named Lola.

Joseph T. Swanson was a handsome, lean, and restless man with blue eyes. He had once worked for a local politician, but found politics not his métier. He became a civilian clerk attached to the Army Transport Service. (Later, after serving in Europe during the Great War, he was given the rank of captain.) On January 4, 1898, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Joseph Swanson married Addie Klanowski.

Addie was not well educated. And because she was a bit of a romantic, she chose marriage over life as a Polish working girl, which usually meant toiling in restaurants, laundries, or the garment district. Joseph and Addie moved to a two-story wooden frame house located at 150 Seminary Avenue in Chicago soon after their marriage.5 On the first Monday of Holy Week, March 27, 1899, their only child, a girl, was born.6 The attending physician was thirty-four-year-old Dr. Willis D. Storer, who three years earlier had delivered in Los Angeles the future film dance director Busby Berkeley. The Swansons christened their daughter Gloria May Josephine Swanson. Even as an infant, Baby Gloria was fashionably adorned.

Addie was quite a seamstress, and to distract attention from what she felt were Gloria’s large ears, she fashioned huge bows for her hair and large hats for her to wear. She always saw that her daughter was dressed in clean and fancy dresses, usually with large collars. Despite Bertha’s stern warning that Addie spoiled the child, she willfully did just that, and Joseph reluctantly allowed his wife her way.

“She never dressed the way the other girls dressed,” Gloria’s second daughter, Michelle, would recall in an interview. “She always had something particular. She told me that when she was a child her mother would make something special for her.”7 Though she was a pretty young girl with an olive complexion and almond-shaped blue eyes—perhaps her most attractive feature—Gloria also was her worst critic. “How I hated my teeth,” she remarked years later. “They were so big and square that I always kept my mouth covered with my hand when I smiled.”8 A modest remark, and selectively true.

When Gloria entered grade school she was determined not to pay attention in class, much to the consternation of her second-grade teacher, Bertha L. Wernecke. She would spend her time drawing pictures of herself, her parents, and her pets.9 Addie took her child’s doodlings as God-given talent, and, according to Gloria, enrolled her in classes at the Chicago Art Institute at an early age.

While attending the Art Institute, she wrote, she once peeked into an art class where a half-clad male model was posing. Sex, which was never discussed in front of her, held a deep and insatiable fascination. She expounded on this some years later. “I hated being a child,” she told a movie magazine writer. “I wanted terribly to be grown-up. I was never interested in things of childhood. I felt always that I was simply marking time through an intolerably dull and monotonous prelude to something real, something mysterious and poignant … No doubt sex and marriage and the having of children were the hidden, half-guessed at things that so intrigued me.”10

There exist pictures of little Gloria playing with her dolls. However, as Gloria Swanson, movie star, she would distance herself from her childhood normalcy. “I never played with dolls,” she claimed. “I had as a child no maternal complex. I seldom played with other children. I preferred my own company or the company of adults from whom I might, at some unexpected moment, catch a glimpse of the mystery I continually felt them to know.”11

In 1907 Joseph was transferred to the Key West Barracks in Florida. Addie and Gloria remained in Chicago until the late spring. The importance of her father in Gloria’s early life and his influence on her emotional development cannot be overestimated. Her feelings for men as an adult would be governed by her longings for security and guidance from the man she most desired in her life. “My father was the greatest single influence in my life during the years when my mind was plastic, when it was in the formative state,” she related in the 1920s. “But for him I might have been a stenographer or a clerk in a department store … It was his philosophy in my up-bringing more than anything else which gave me the wisdom, the ability and the strength to take advantage of the opportunities which, later in life, came my way.”12 Her own elder daughter confirmed Joseph’s impact on his only child. “She had a keen mind and curious mind,” Gloria Daly stated. “She always said her father instilled that in her—to search out the answers for a lot of things.”13

Addie and Gloria joined Joseph in the spring of 1908. He met them at the Tampa Bay Hotel in Tampa, and the family spent the day sightseeing. At the Key West Army Base, they soon settled into their new house, which stood on stilts and had a large veranda.

Gloria loved Florida because of the sunshine and the feel of the tropics. She also discovered she liked to sing. Attending a Protestant church, she was asked by her Sunday school teacher to warble a solo at a service. Imitating Addie’s singing voice, eight-year-old Gloria somehow got through “The Rosary.” With that and the encouragement of a local actress named Venice Hayes, she sang again in a show staged at the Odd Fellows Hall, on Caroline Street. She chose “As the World Rolls On,” sans accompaniment, as no one was available to play the piano. Amateur night in the Keys for sure, but she felt like a star, soaking up the attention.

On October 11, 1909, a major hurricane hit the Keys. The women and children on the base had been evacuated, Addie and Gloria departing by boat to New York. They then traveled by train to Chicago, where their hurricane survival story made Gloria popular among the other children. At the beginning of the summer Addie and Gloria rejoined Joseph in Key West.

In 1910 Joseph was restationed, and the family moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico. They would live there until 1913, with Addie and Gloria taking a boat to and from Florida and a train back and forth from New York or Florida to Chicago for visits. Gloria’s education would suffer.

“I was in 16 different grammar schools,” Gloria recalled. “Then I’d be whisked away, because my father was in the Army and I was an Army brat. I’d spend six months of the year in Chicago with my mother and grandmother, and six months in tropical countries with my father. I was always being put forward a grade, put backward a grade—on a treadmill. I don’t think I learned one solid substantial thing in school.”14

During their times together Joseph spoke intelligently to his only child, not imitating childish “baby talk” as did Addie. In Puerto Rico of a warm and heavily scented evening, when the heavenly Southern Cross was on display, the balmy trade winds wafting the air, Joseph would tell Gloria the names of stars and explain the conundrum of infinity. Gloria longed to explore the unknown, and these moments with her father she never forgot.

Gloria wore her hair long in pigtails or full down her back, sometimes with bangs, always with a large hat or with a bow atop her head. Pictures taken on board ship and in San Juan with other army children show her leading a pet goat and holding a blond doll. Gloria felt very special indeed. “I was an Army brat,” she once remarked. “I hung around adults a lot but was shy with children my own age.”15

Gloria’s first acting role was in a public school production of The American Girl, in which she also sang a song backed by a chorus of other girls. A young beau sent her flowers, and her father posted a star on her dressing room door with her name on it—“Gloria Swanson,” not Glory as everyone called her—which bolstered her importance. Thirteen-year-old Gloria knew she was good, and decided then and there on the stage of the San Juan Opera House to become an opera diva.

Gloria had been enrolled in private school in San Juan but convinced her parents to allow her to attend public school so she could perform in plays. She was also possibly motivated by the opportunity to be around boys. She had recently received a letter from young, blond Carlton Swiggett from New York, whom she had met while he was vacationing in Puerto Rico. She was determined to be his girlfriend.

As she approached puberty Gloria was very aware of her burgeoning sexuality. “Looking back on my life,” she related in an unedited recording in 1955, “what I tried to do was to find satisfaction for my physical as well as the mental … And this was a very difficult thing to do … and my father was probably the person that I was in love with … I can remember when I was quite young, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, the awakening pertaining to—sex. I can remember he smelled good to me and I already associate—because I have the nose of a rabbit—I always associate this sense of smell with people that I like … Also I looked up to him because there was nothing that I wanted to know that he didn’t seem to be able to answer.”16

Through her father Gloria met Medora Grimes, a year older than she, from Staten Island, New York, whose wealthy family Joseph had shown around Puerto Rico. Before Medora sailed back to New York, Gloria promised to visit her. Her self-assurance knew no boundaries. “I was enormously self-confident,” she later told a journalist. “I always expected to be invited to everything and to be the center of things when I was invited. If a play was given, in school, at a club, in any gathering I was confident that I would be asked to be the star performer. I was the invincible and central factor of the universe, I thought.”17

In 1913 Joseph was stationed at Governors Island off Manhattan, and Gloria and her mother moved back to Chicago to live with Grandma Lew. Gloria was reluctantly enrolled into eighth grade at Chicago’s Lincoln School. Though she was never very good at disciplined study, on June 26, 1914, she graduated, effectively ending her formal education. She was fifteen years old.


Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Michael Shearer

Meet the Author

STEPHEN MICHAEL SHEARER is the author of Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life and Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr. He has written for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and is also a former model and actor, having appeared on stage, television, and in film. Shearer currently resides in Minnesota and New York City.

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Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read "Swanson on Swanson", it was one of my favorite books, so I was very excited to read this new Biography. Unfortunately my excitement fizzled to a fart after reading the first few pages of this book. The writing is dull, tedious and without any pulse! I did make it halfway through the book though and his cold little snipes at Glory angered me. On her relationship with Sport Ward, a man who turned her on to New York nightlife, theater and classical music, that once the romance was over he had "served his purpose". What the hell is that supposed to mean? Gloria liked Sport and continued to be friends with him after her marriage to Henri! Gloria deserved better than this dull book with really nothing new to say.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is unfortunately a tiring biography that barely scratches the surface and simply repeats old, untrue rumors. It endlessly retells plots of unimportant films and relies to a great extent on published books and newspapers without questioning anything. It rarely goes to the original sources. This book could have also used an experienced editor. There are many mistakes and numerous typos throughout, the notes are especially bad. Happily this book devotes ample space to the time after Sunset Blvd. Whereas Swanson's autobiography flies over her last 30 years in a few pages and obviously does not include her death and legacy; Shearer goes into much greater detail to fill us in. These are the years that were truly missing. A boring read, Swanson deserves better!
lauraleefitz More than 1 year ago
For any movie lover, this is the book to check out. Lots of inside scoop. Swanson was one interesting woman.
tictac More than 1 year ago
Beautify written this books presents Ms. Swanson in all of her glory and all of her flaws as well. Mr. Shearer did his research and backs up his work with detailed references. I  enjoyed this look at Swanson's life and stories of early Hollywood. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
CWFineReading More than 1 year ago
Great book. If you like film history and a book that is entertaining and has a complete career chronology then I recommend purchasing this book. The author writes in way that the tesxt flows from chapter to chapter. Great fim history book.