GLORIA SWANSON -- STAR. At the height of her career she was perhaps the most famous female in the world. This self-described "little shrimp with a turned-up nose and horse teeth and a mole on her chin" was both celluloid and flesh. In darkened movie palaces Gloria Swanson lived out the fantasies of an adoring public. In scores of films made before her eclipse in the late 1930s, Swanson created conflicting images of sophisticated sexuality and simple domesticity, of magnificent display and humble self-sacrifice, of wild adventure and helpless femininity. Paradoxically, it becomes apparent that Swanson, while consistently reflecting the aspirations and ambivalences of America, adopted them as her own. She has lived a life caught up in the opposing illusions she created on screen.
The Swanson of this autobiography emerges as a ferociously driven career woman who vows that all she wants in life are babies (this said directly following an abortion) and quiet domesticity on a farm (this said at the height of her flamboyant extramarital affair with Joseph P. Kennedy). She is a canny, ambitious business person who allows several of her husbands and lovers to take over her life and her pocketbook, calls them "Daddy" (her third husband being French is exempt, he is addressed as "Papa"), and subsequently belittles them until in example after example of self-fulfilling prophecy, she ends up paying both literally and figuratively.
Gloria Swanson's life unfolds in a series of scenes that could have been lifted from her films. Gloria May Josephine Swanson, born March 27, 1899 "under the sign of Aries," is the only daughter of a mother determined to make her "unique" and a career officer father. As they move from post to post Mother stitches up a spectacular wardrobe while Daddy tells Gloria the names of all the stars and even fights his way through a hurricane to her side. She idolizes him, and it is years later that she discovers his faults: drinking, gambling, and perhaps drugs, or what a friend refers to as "the army disease." Her idealized image of Daddy and her search for paternal domination is to color all her relationships with men.
Gloria quits school after ninth grade to become a stock extra at the Essanay Company in Chicago, playing 30-year-old-society women at a weekly salary of $13.25. In 1915, Mother leaves Daddy and takes Gloria to California where Mack Sennett puts her to work as a cute, perky comedienne. Within two years her weekly salary is $100.
When her mother remarries, 17-year-old Gloria, feeling adrift and alone, elopes with comedian Wallace (Wally) Berry. Her vision of him is romantic, her wedding night (depicted in graphic horror) destroys all illusions of romance. They are married only two months, but in that time she discovers Beery's inadeuqacies: he drinks, philanders, and when Gloria finds herself pregnant, Beery slips her some "medicine" that causes her to abort the child she wanted. She leaves him and the slapstick Mack Sennett "world of falling planks and banana peels and wet paint and sticky wads of gum. . . ." A series of Cecil B. De Mille films on "the marital intrigue of high society people" -- Don't change Your Husband, Male and Female, and Why Change Your Wife? -- projects her to stardom. Sam Wood's The Impossible Mrs. Bellew, My American Wife, and Beyond the rocks with Rudolph Valentino, followed by Allan Dwan's Zaza crystallize her image. Draped in a king's ransom of jewels, furs, and fabulous fashions, Swanson becomes the quintessence of luxury and style. Her sexual image is that of the ultimate femme fatale. Her weekly salary is $7,000. Soon she will have her own production company and her yearly salary will be $1 million.
Although Gloria Swanson is now 81 years old, her life through her mid-twenties occupies over three-quarters of this autobiography. At her zenith she led a vivid, chaotic existence that moved at the hyped-up pace of a Sennett chase through couture days and champagne nights and the who-cares sexuality of the 20s, through the establishment of the Hays office, Hollywood's effort at self-censorship, when sexual fantasy moved too close to reality for the comfort of many Americans. Swanson moved among the great and forgotten legends of Hollywood: Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Francis X. Bushman, Thomas Meighan, Herbert Marshal, June Walker, screenwriter Elinor Glyn, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, and a cast of thousands.
Her personality was reactive, a litmus paper gauge of the current social values and the desires of her public. "We dealt every minute in our pictures with love and marriage. I wasn't surprised that people thought of us as creatures who do nothing but fall in love, on the screen as well as off, and in fact, they seem to discourage us from doing anything else. . . . In the tone of their voices I began to sense a sort of psychic pressure on me to be in love, or fall in love if I wasn't already, to get married to someone else who was famous, to love the romantic dreams they invested in every time they bought a ticket to one of my pictures."
Swanson herself seems always in love. There is the $30 million heir to the Crane bathroom fixture empire, Craney Gartz, who won't marry her, and the film executive, Herbert Somborn, who does. "I had opted . . . for security and a family and a husband who was interested and enthusiastic about my career." "Daddy" Somborn doesn't turn out to be the acute businessman she had hoped for, but she has the baby she wants and names her little Gloria. Then she promptly falls in love with film director Marshall (Mickey) Neilan, adopts another child, Joseph, divorces Sonborn and falls madly in love with film star Rod La Rocque (for two months). In Paris to film Madame Sans-Gene she hires the aristocratic penniless Henri, Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye as her interpreter. Within the year Swanson has added a prestigious symbol more prized than diamonds or a sable coat to her collection of luxuries; she become the Marquise de la Falaise de la Coudraye. "I was the first celebrity in pictures to be marrying a titled European. All over the world fans were rejoicing because Cinderella had married the prince."
With a sense of melodrama Swanson chooses to begin her autobiography with this, her third wedding. Twenty-four hours later she has an abortion to preserve her career. Jesse Lasky has warner her "You stand for love, passion, glamour . . . and they eat it up. But they could turn in a minute. Believe me, Gloria, you're living on the very cusp of scandal . . ." (And she instinctively understands that the public, who encourage her sexual escapades would punish her if they discovered that their fantasies were true). The abortion is botched, and Gloria nearly dies from blood poisoning. As soon as she is partially recovered, she is shipped by train from New York to Hollywood "like the half-dead whale that P. T. Barnum had once shipped from Canada nature of her illness) hails her at every stop. She vows she will leave the films and live a life of domestic bliss with Henri. What she does is more films, including the controversial Sadie Thompson, and her first talking film, The Trespasser, and she begins an extended extramarital affair with Joseph P. Kennedy, who (in a now-established pattern) take over her company and her life.
Henri is cleverly removed from the scene when Joe Kennedy employs him as the European Director of Pathe Studios, after which the Swanson-Kennedy affair is swiftly and awkwardly consummated. Swanson relates every detail of her relationship with Joe Kennedy, and those readers who have been waiting all these years to find out what was going on will not be disappointed. For some, an affair which began some 53 years ago will hardly seem news.
When Henri seems pained by the affair, Gloria protests, "If Henri had ordered me then and there to leave pictures and live with him on the farm he owned in France, I would have obeyed him. But he didn't. He couldn't. Joe Kennedy had compromised us both with his promises of endless security which Henri wanted at least as much as I did." At this point even the most idolatrous reader must balk at Swanson's disingenuousness -- or is it self-delusion? This autobiography is such an odd mixture of frankness and fantasy, the line between "Hollywood illusion" and reality has disappeared altogether.
Swanson presents herself as a passionate mother, a veritable "clucking hen" with her three children, and yet she leaves them for months at a time in the care of nurses and governesses or her current husband. During one stretch she does not see them for a period of two years. She is constantly mired in romance, but the sex she describes is either ugly or perfunctory. She credits no emotions but her own, often portraying others as if they were one-dimensional black-and-white images to be manipulated at will. In this she often seems dishonest, disagreeable and downright cruel.
The writing in this book abounds in cliches and creates a feeling of overwrought superficiality. On the first page, we encounter, "That blissful morning in Passy in 1925 when I married my gorgeous marquis lifted me to the very pinnacle of joy," and it doesn't let up. Swanson "sweated blood," and was "the golden girl" and asks, "would I ever be able to forgive myself?" She informs us, as if we didn't know, "Nobody gets anything for nothing."
Her career moves on through the century with husbands and lovers and other films, all three of them decreasing in number and glamour. Some of the Hollywood legends grow old. Some die. In 1951 her star burns bright again as Norma Desmond, the gothic aging film queen of Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond's character is described in the script, "She is a little woman. There is a curious style, a great sense of high voltage about her." Swanson skims over the next 29 years, years in which she continues her career in films and fashion, in television and radio.
What finally emerges from this autobiography is more than the usual tell-all movie star confession. By extrapolation Swanson's early career provides a precis of the film industry and her life a picture of America's quixotic yearnings. Her span of years is great: she was a star on the set of a De Mille film the day the World War I Armistice was declared; as Charles Augustus Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, Swanson was busily conniving to buy the film rights to Somerset Maugham's Rain. One wishes that Gloria Swanson was not encumbered by an opacity of vision that precludes any sense of social history, but with all its contradictions, insensitivity and imperfections, this life remains a remarkable one. Swanson on Swanson is the name of the autobiography: there is no doubt, the celluloid image and the woman are one.