GLORIA AND JOE

By Axel Madsen

Arbor House/Morrow

328 pp. $18.95

THE Gloria & Joe of Axel Madsen's title are Gloria Swanson and Joseph P. Kennedy, whose three-year romance was recounted in Swanson's 1980 autobiography, Swanson on Swanson. When the two met in 1927, Gloria Swanson was already a big star and Joe Kennedy was a young Boston millionaire beginning to make the deals in Hollywood that would make him richer. When they parted abruptly at the end of 1930, she was already on her way out as a top box-office name; and he was leaving Hollywood to begin his efforts to help elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Madsen is a veteran biographer, having written about Billy Wilder, William Wyler, John Huston, Andre' Malraux, and Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. As one would expect, Gloria & Joe is competent and workmanlike, but there's nothing much compelling or new here, though Swanson did omit from her autobiography one sensational story involving then-12-year-old Jack Kennedy. Since the Swanson-Kennedy romance was a relatively brief interlude in their long lives, much of the book is devoted to the times before and after they were lovers and seems pasted together from already known information. Gloria Swanson comes more alive than Joe Kennedy, perhaps because the particulars of her story are less familiar. One can certainly see what he saw in the beautiful, intelligent, independent and unconventional Swanson, however.

One finishes the book thinking of her courageous performance in Sunset Boulevard and of the scene in which the young Joe Gillis recognizes Norma Desmond as they watch an old movie together and says, "You used to be in pictures. You used to be big." Drawing herself up in the brutal light of the movie projector, she replies icily, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

ELIZABETH I

By Jasper Ridley

Viking. 391 pp. $24.95

HISTORIANS HAVE long taken sides on the merits of England's Elizabeth I, disagreeing, for example, over whether she or her minister William Cecil, Lord Burghley, were chiefly responsible for the achievements of her reign. Either they have been, like Sir John Neale, perhaps her best-known biographer, her unqualified admirer, or they have, like the more recent biographer Carolly Erickson, condemned her as a vicious shrew who made life unbearable for those around her.

Biographer Jasper Ridley here takes a more balanced view in his thoroughly researched and well-written study. Ridley finds Elizabeth to have been a woman who was not ambitious for herself, but who took her role as monarch with utmost seriousness, trying always to do her duty as she saw it. Consequently, she was overwhelmed by her responsibility as queen, a responsibility for which she sacrificed her one great love, her passion for Leicester.

A deeply religious woman, she was a convinced Protestant, but her devotion to the Protestant religion often conflicted with her belief in the absolute power of the monarchy and her resultant loathing for Puritan rebels. Because of this, Elizabeth was frequently indecisive and loathe to make up her mind to act, most notably in her vacillation over Mary Queen of Scots. This hesitation, Ridley believes, was her greatest fault, far more dangerous than the petulance and emotionalism of which she was also guilty.

Nevertheless, Ridley makes a strong case for Elizabeth's achievements: the relative tolerance of her regime and the ending of the burning of heretics; making England a Protestant nation; bringing Scotland permanently under English influence; defying the Spaniards Philip and Alva and standing firm against the Spanish Armada. Ridley's biography is also notable for its discussion of Elizabeth's relations with Ireland, a subject usually neglected by her biographers, and for his care in accurately quoting contemporary documents paraphrased by earlier writers. Most of all, though, Ridley makes Elizabeth come alive to us, so distant from the 16th century, and makes us feel empathy for the often unhappy woman who told a group of MPs two years before her death that "to be a King and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it, than it is pleasant to them that bear it." ::

THE LAST CRUSADE

By Mark Caldwell

Atheneum, 336 pp./ $22.50

FRIGHTENED AS we are by our own plague, AIDS, most of us have forgotten another deadly, contagious disease that terrorized America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: tuberculosis, popularly called consumption, also known as the White Plague. In The Last Crusade: The War on Consumption, 1862-1954, Caldwell, a professor of English at Fordham, has written a fascinating, readable account of what became a national obsession, the attempt to contain a disease which at the end of the 19th century still killed almost one-seventh of the world's population and which was three times more often the cause of fatality than cancer. What Caldwell calls the "War on Consumption" and the sanatorium culture that grew out of it were an important part of life for five generations of Americans.

Though Caldwell is interested in the dramatic discoveries and scientific theories that eventually led to tuberculosis' decline with the availability of antibiotics in the 1950s, he is more interested in America's response to the disease, the metaphors and images it generated, and what people thought and wrote about it.

Along the way he raises a number of fascinating questions that show how deeply the history of medicine in America is intertwined with politics, economics, sociology and religion. Why, for example, did practical-minded America treat Robert Koch's discovery of the tubercle bacillus with such a lack of interest? Why was the research underway before World War I that could have led to a cure for tuberculosis 30 or 40 years earlier not pursued with dedication? How did the sanatorium cure flourish for so long when its origins were unscientific and its efficacy unproved? Caldwell's discussion of the sociology of the sanatorium itself -- with its ironclad authority (reflected even in its architecture) and relentless optimism -- is particularly interesting. The way in which the war on consumption revealed the national character, both good and bad, may be instructive in the struggle against AIDS. How we handle that even more complicated problem will tell us, one writer recently suggested, "what we're made of."

MUCH DEPENDS ON DINNER

By Margaret Visser

Grove

351 pp. $19.95

AS LORD BYRON wrote in Don Juan, "Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner." Indeed, Margaret Visser asserts, what we eat and how we eat it is "one of the means by which society creates itself and acts out its aims and fantasies."

To show just how much "food shapes us and expresses us," Visser, a Canadian professor interested in "the anthropology of everyday things," set out to explore, her subtitle says, "The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal." Visser's meal is one she might serve to guests and one whose ingredients would be acceptable to people in as many different cultures as possible: corn with salt and butter, chicken with rice, lettuce with olive oil and lemon juice, and ice cream.

Chapter by chapter, ingredient by ingredient, she traces the history and anthropology of each food, offering interesting facts and myths. The aroma of chicken soup, for example, actually does speed the flow of mucous through nasal passages. (Next time pay attention when Mother tells you to eat chicken soup when you have a cold.) Visser also focuses on the ways in which current production of foodstuffs -- particularly corn and chicken -- may be perilous to our health.

Her research is extensive -- even sometimes exhausting; this is a book to browse at leisure, not to read straight through. Her premise, though, that "the extent to which we take everyday objects for granted is the precise extent to which they govern and inform our lives," is, pardon the pun, food for thought.

MOTHERS OF INVENTION

By Ethlie Ann Vare & Greg Ptacek

Morrow

256 pp. $17.95

PERHAPS NECESSITY isn't always the mother of invention. Consider, for example, Mary Peck Butterworth's disposable counterfeiting plates, Frances Gabe's self-cleaning house (gallons of soapy water pour down from the ceiling), or singer Edie Adams's cigar-holder ring.

The title of Vare and Ptacek's book refers not to necessity, however, but to women inventors; its subtitle is "From the Bra to the Bomb: Forgotten Women and Their Unforgettable Ideas." It comes as no surprise that women have invented many of the conveniences that make their lives easier -- Liquid Paper, drip coffee, disposable diapers -- or that serious women scientists haven't always received the credit they deserve, that Caroline Littlefield Greene -- and not Eli Whitney -- really invented the cotton gin, for example. Perhaps the best known contemporary case is that of Rosalind Franklin, who during her lifetime was denied recognition for her role in the discovery of DNA and who died before she could be awarded her share in the Nobel Prize.

Thinking of all these ingenious and often brilliant women, often unheralded and unrewarded, is indeed poignant. Vare and Ptacek have an interesting idea here, but they try to cover everything from the sublime to the ridiculous with little distinction between them (miniskirt to nuclear fission); and their breezy, L.A. writing style (both are veterans of Rock magazine) is often laughable. Strangest of all is a foreward by actress Julie Newmar, which one assumes is there because the authors thought her "celebrity" would attract readers. Everyone who remembers Julie Newmar in The Marriage-Go-Round please stand up. What about as Rhoda in My Living Doll or Catwoman in Batman? Newmar is also included in the book for her invention of "Cheeky Derriere Pantyhose," pantyhose constructed to push up the buttocks for "a more natural appearance." The product has never been manufactured, but, says Newmar, "It can be very frustrating to have an invention that's ahead of its time. But then again, Leonardo da Vinci had to wait four hundred years for his to fly." Really.

Susan Wood is a poet who teaches at Rice University.