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Gloria Swanson cast big shadow over Hollywood

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/9/2013 (1444 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hollywood director Billy Wilder's classic melodrama Sunset Boulevard, released in 1950, is still regarded as one of the most devastating portraits of our obsession with celebrity and stardom.

If anything, it resonates even more strongly today in our world of social media, where a star's every sneeze becomes amusement for the millions with smartphones and too much time on their hands.

Swanson packed a lot of living into her 84 years.


Swanson packed a lot of living into her 84 years.

In Gloria Swanson, the Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer, who has made a career of writing bios of Hollywood divas such as Hedy Lamarr and Patricia Neal, provides all the info you might ever want about the making of that classic movie.

But he doesn't stop there. The book covers every aspect of Swanson's life, from her birth in Chicago on March 27, 1899, to her death at Cornell Medical Center in New York on April 4, 1983.

A tiny lady, standing just under five feet, she packed a lot of living into those 84 years, but only the most dedicated pop culture historians are likely to cherish every page of Shearer's book.

Along with Mary Pickford and possibly the Gish sisters, Swanson was one of Hollywood's earliest and most legendary stars. Her first movie was At the End of a Perfect Day, shot at the Essanay Studio in Chicago when was 15. She starred in dozens of films before 1920, almost none of which exist today because their nitrate film stock disintegrated long ago.

Swanson's infamous private life began at an early age as well. At Essanay, she worked with likes of Charlie Chaplin and Wallace Beery. The latter became the first of her six husbands at a courthouse in Pasadena, Calif., on her 17th birthday.

None of her six marriages lasted, but Swanson did manage to raise three children, and she also had at least three abortions along the way. As might be expected, Shearer devotes many pages to Swanson's complex relationship with Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of U.S. president John F. Kennedy.

Joe Kennedy was a ruthless businessman who cut a swath through the fledgling movie business in the 1920s. Despite his wealth and power, he was totally star-struck when he met young Swanson. He took over her career and became her lover, even though she knew all too well that Kennedy, the devout Catholic, would never leave his wife Rose and the children in Boston.

Shear says that Kennedy couldn't help boasting of his conquest with Swanson, no matter how harmful the impact might be.

Once, near the end of their affair in 1929, according to Shearer, Kennedy and Swanson had sex on the top of Joe's yacht, supposedly unaware that 12-year-old JFK was the only other person aboard. The implication is clear that the father wanted to show off to the son.

Later, Shearer tells of the elder Kennedy giving his new daughter-in-law Jacqueline a tour of the family estate in Hyannis Port, Mass. He showed her the greenhouse where he says he and Swanson enjoyed sexual marathons.

All the people in these stories are long dead, so one must take them for what they are, but it will no doubt add to the seemingly endless interest in the Kennedys.

After reading about how Swanson crossed the Atlantic countless times, complete with servants and 10 steamer trunks to carry her wardrobe, the reader might be tempted to skip to the making of Sunset Boulevard.

Swanson, who was 50 when the picture was released, starred as the psychotic Norma Desmond, whose web attracts a penniless young scriptwriter played by William Holden. Her chauffeur was played by Eric von Stroheim, a legendary Hollywood director who was essentially blacklisted in the 1920s after the debacle of Queen Kelly, which also starred Swanson.

All of that makes fairly fascinating reading, but the before and after of Swanson's life seem far less interesting in 2013.

Roger Currie is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster and a movie aficionado.


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