Gloria Stuart, actress in 'Titanic,' dies at 100

By Sarah Halzack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; 6:17 PM

Gloria Stuart, 100, a glamorous blond actress who starred in 1930s horror films and musicals before reviving a long-dormant career in 1997 with her Oscar-nominated performance as the older version of Kate Winslet's character, Rose, in the box-office smash "Titanic," died Sept. 26 at her home in West Los Angeles.

She had received a diagnosis of lung cancer several years ago, said her daughter Sylvia Thompson, who confirmed the death.

In the role of a 101-year-old Titanic survivor, Ms. Stuart narrated the James Cameron-directed film and served as the linchpin of its past and present-day story lines. Her effective portrayal of a feisty, headstrong character made her the oldest actress to ever be nominated for an Academy Award.

She lost to Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential," even as "Titanic" swept many of the awards that year, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Many profiles of Ms. Stuart suggested that her nomination was largely sentimental, but she won admiration from several prominent movie critics.

"Her ease is poetic," reviewer Elvis Mitchell wrote of Ms. Stuart in 1997. "This actress in her 80s holds the picture together, and the irony is, we come to look forward more to her scenes than we do those featuring the colossal scale of the rebuilt Titanic and its expertly milling passengers."

Ms. Stuart had all but abandoned acting when a casting director contacted her and asked her to audition for the part in "Titanic."

Cameron was looking for an actress whose heyday had been Hollywood's golden era, and Ms. Stuart filled the bill.

She joked later to the New York Times that she was cast because, at 87, she was one of few actresses in her age group who was "still viable, not alcoholic, rheumatic or falling down."

Long before that career-defining role, the blond beauty appeared in James Whale's "The Old Dark House" (1932) as a traveler stranded by a rainstorm who takes refuge at a creepy home with a family of mysterious characters.

The next year, Whale directed her opposite Claude Rains in "The Invisible Man." She played Flora Cranley, the lover of a scientist whose experiment with invisibility has turned him into a deranged killer.

Ms. Stuart said that working with Rains, an English actor who had a distinguished stage career, had difficulties stemming from his vanity.

"We were supposed to do a 50-50 profile shot," Ms. Stuart told the Bergen Record of Hackensack, N.J., in 1997. "I noticed that when the camera started, he was gradually moving me around so that my back was to the camera and his face was there. He didn't get that far, because I stopped and said, James, look what he's doing. And he [Rains] said, 'Oh, oh, oh, I'm so sorry, please forgive me, Miss Stuart.' We did another take, and he started doing it again, and I said, 'Mr. Rains!' Well, that was the last time he tried it."

Ms. Stuart appeared in more than 40 films during the 1930s that showcased her versatility. She was in the Busby Berkeley musical "Gold Diggers of 1935" as the love interest of crooner Dick Powell. She played the wife of the imprisoned Samuel Mudd in John Ford's "The Prisoner of Shark Island" (1936) opposite Warner Baxter, and she took supporting roles opposite Shirley Temple in "Poor Little Rich Girl" (1936) and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" (1938).

Despite many efforts, Ms. Stuart said she had been unable to break through to A-list stardom and said she "got sick and tired of fighting." She added that her husband at the time, comedy writer Arthur Sheekman, discouraged her acting career and wanted her to stay home.

She had met Sheekman while appearing in the Eddie Cantor musical "Roman Scandals" (1933), and they married the next year, after Ms. Stuart was divorced from her first husband, sculptor Blair Gordon Newell.

Ms. Stuart didn't abandon acting entirely, taking small parts on television in the 1970s and in films including "My Favorite Year" (1982), where she had no lines but briefly danced with star Peter O'Toole. Meanwhile, Ms. Stuart began studying painting and had her first exhibit in 1961 at the Hammer Gallery in New York.

A few years after Sheekman's death in 1978, Ms. Stuart became reacquainted with master printer Ward Ritchie, a friend she hadn't seen in decades. He became her companion until his death in 1996 and taught her the art of letter-press printing, which became Ms. Stuart's new passion and career.

Gloria Frances Stewart was born July 4, 1910, in Santa Monica, Calif. She began acting when she was a child, putting on backyard performances with children in her neighborhood. After a brief acting career at the Pasadena Playhouse, she was recruited to Universal studios.

Besides her daughter from her second marriage, of Ojai, Calif., survivors include four grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

After the success of "Titanic," Ms. Stuart received new acting offers. Many, she said with resignation, were a variation on "sweet old ladies." She turned them all down, instead agreeing to eccentric parts such as a bag lady in the crime drama "The Million Dollar Hotel" (2000), directed by Wim Wenders.

Ms. Stuart wrote a memoir, "I Just Kept Hoping" (1999), in which she said of her late-blooming career, "When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927, I was voted the girl most likely to succeed. I didn't realize it would take so long."

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