The golden goddess of the silver screen stood up in her elegant Fifth Avenue apartment and towered at her full five feet of loftiness and commanded: a
"Feel my ribs."
O the poor hungry lamb, poor grayhound. Naught but bones. Though covered with a fairly startling femininity all the same. At the age of 81, Gloria Swanson is American's only 90-pound heavyweight, though she thinks she's shrinking and maybe should go to the male gym where (she says) cops go and get stretched to six feet so they can pass their physical exams.
Her newly released autobiography, "Swason on Swanson," has seduced more than one reader who does not usually sit under the hair dryers at beauty shops reading about the stars.
That is because it's frank, less than usually self-serving and full of humor.
"I suppose you want me to talk about Joe Kennedy," she said, "like everybody else."
"Not if you don't want to," she was told. "He never interested me much. It's you he interested. There must be three chapters about your affair with him in your book. And then there's that published letter of his daughter, Eunice Shriver, complaining about all this old 'gossip' and this 'alleged affair.' So of course people ask questions. The letter must have done wonders for book sales, though I don't supposed you paid for it."
She said she deeply resented being called a liar by Eunice Shriver.
But of course the Shriver letter did not accuse Swanson of lying, merely of providing gossip a half-century old, complete with details. She didn't say it wasn't true gossip, merely that it served no good purpose, and Joe Kennedy was a great man and his wife, Rose, is a saint.
"You've forgiven more men than most women have even known," I shifted, seeing the name Kennedy did nothing for the softness of her famous blue eyes or her general sweetness of expression.
By her own account, Swanson has made endless mistakes choosing men or allowing them to choose her, and the three-year liaison with Kennedy she reguards as one of her worst mistakes, in which she was blind and foolish. They didn't love each other, she said, and there was no point at all to the affair, except Kennedy wanted this glamorous actress and was utterly used to getting whatever he wanted and he "owned" her because he had taken over her business affairs, and simply rolled over her like a wheelbarrow.
"But now at the age of 81, what should be looked for in a man, profiting from your own experience?"
"How in the world would I know?" she shot back. "I can't begin to judge a man. It's odd, too, because I rarely make a mistake about women. I can see a woman across a room and know a great deal about her, without even speaking with her. But not men. As you know, I've had six husbands."
Not all of them winners, you gather. The first one, Wallace Beery, seized her with such force on their wedding night that she was in pain for days.
Her second husband threatened divorce on grounds of adultery, listing 14 men he said she had gone to bed with. This was sheer blackmail, Swanson said, and not a smidgen of truth in it, to speak of, but on the advice of counselors who knew Hollywood best, she settled without a court case. The list of 14 men would have finished her career, she was warned, however false.
Her third husband was a French marquis who had no money. She said Joe Kennedy dreamed up a job and an office for him in Paris, while Kennedy and Swanson carried on in Hollywood. When the marquis came for occasional visits, she wrote, Kennedy moved back East.
The day after this third marriage she had an abortion, not telling her husband about it. It would probably have upset him. But the operation was botched and she nearly died from blood poisoning and was grievously ill for weeks. She had to make a triumphal return to America, and never mind how she felt.
Her fourth husband was an Irish sport by whom she noted she became pregnant after a moment of trusting folly on a yacht. She refused to marry him at first, since she scarcely knew him, but he said he'd tell the world she was pregnant by him if she refused further. So she gave in and married.
The fifth marriage was to a businessman and it lasted briefly and her sixth marriage is to William Dufty, several years her junior, whom she married when she was 76 and is perfectly happy, thank you.
Besides Kennedy and the husbands there were other friendships with men, some of them intense, as chronicled in her book, and some of them were even good lovers.
Ah, well, the years pass.
It's uncommon for women who made their living in glamor to detail in a book their abortions, especially the second abortion which she had for no other reason than she feared the scandal that would surely end her career. This act has tormented her the rest of her life and she still regrets it.
How odd, that in a book with more warts than beauty spots, the woman still emerges clean and lovable, probably because she avoids self-righteous blather.
"You were a superstar before most Americans who are now living were even born," she was told.
She knew that, it turns out.
In 1914 she made her first film, in Chicago. Then she was with Keystone (sacred to the memory of Kops) and Triangle and Mack Sennett, and blockbuster after blockbuster for Cecil B. DeMille. And Paramount and United Artists. She broke ground with "Sadie Thompson," a semi-raunchy story that had been thought impossible for Hollywood films.
The first actess to make a million, she was also the first to turn down a million-dollar contract. She passed from comedienne to pretty-girl, to glamor queen, dramatic actess and the greatest clothes horse of the films. She may have been the very first to portray a married woman in love -- the custom had been to ring down the curtain with a betrothal kiss and a mound of orange blossoms.
Long after the first flush of nubile beauty had passed, she made a come-back in 1941 with Adolphe Menjou, then a more spectacular comeback in the great film "Sunset Boulevard" in 1950.
She'd still be coming back, no doubt, if she had accepted any of the endless offers to repeat the aging actress role of "Sunset Boulevard," but she thought that would be absurd and she'd wind up (she suspected) playing parodies of her triumph.
"You don't think, yourself, that I'm Norma Desmond, do you?" she asked. Norma was the somewhat obsessed character who went somewhat mad in "Sunset" in her fantasies of reviving her career.
"Hardly," I said truthfully.
"Good," she said. "I think I'm falling in love again."
The truth is, Swanson flirts a trifle with men who interview her and some of them - - but who is perfect? -- wind up sheer putty in her hands.
"I've never done anything with my life," she said.
Falling off the chair, I wondered what she expected: To invent the wheel?
There are her 60 movies (some of them disastrously lost) and there's spunk. It takes spunk of the greatest glamor queen of Hollywood's archives to try her hand at "Killer Bees" decades later. (In which she was covered with bees, the stingers all removed, it was said, though Swanson was not born yesterday and never believed a word of it.)
And there has been her long career on television after the movies. She was among the first to agree to television, at a time most actresses thought it beneath them. She has played on Broadway, too, and been successful in a dress-design business. She headed a corporation that employed inventors who had escaped by the skin of their teeth from Hitler's Germany. She has painted and sculpted and had a show in London. She designed a famous postage stamp (an embryo in a vortex from outer space) and she had a dear old dachshund and two children and some grandchildren and now two great-grandchildren, and was a reporter for United Press and now is a writer, too.
You used to hear about Little Gloria, her daughter.
"Little Gloria?" she repeated. "She's the grandmother, she's in her 60s."
Returning to her nothing-type life, she went on:
"People sometimes say I gave pleasure in my roles. But I was paid very handsomely to do it. I get no credit for doing something I was paid extremely well to do. I'd like to do something for children -- what about kindergartens where children are taught to use all their senses?"
Visions of a Gloria Swanson Sensory Introduction School for Tots aged 3 to 5 may flash through your head in a merry way, but of course she's right.
"Senses first, intellect later," one is bound to agree. "Without the sensual base there probably can be no brains, no reaching out, nothing."
"What of the new president?" she said, changing subjects abruptly.
It was my turn to be righteous and I reminded her God never meant a Republican president, else why do we have donkeys. But Swanson looks for the best from Ronald Reagan. Her few experiences with him in Hollywood were good ones. She expects a new dignity, a return to soundness.
I said nothing of her judgment of men. What if she's right for once?
"If I ever see a picture of Reagan with his feet up on the Oval Office desk, I'm coming down there to throw something at him." She once saw Ford with his feet on the desk and has never really gotten over it. She likes men to dress as well as they can and was not swept off her feet when a photographer showed up in the current fashion of shot-out-of-a-gun.
She herself wore a tweedy outfit on the violet side of brown -- one is nervous, after her comments on people who never see anything accurately -- with a big gold eyeglass on a chain.
The neckline is cut as low as decorum allows, since she long ago noticed the first thing to go, in a woman's descent from teen-age dewiness, is the neck. A low neckline avoids accenting turkeyland.
We spike of string beans and zucchini, enthusiasms of hers. Once she had a tumor and surgeons strained at the leash to get at her, but she said no, and she made the tumor vanish, she said, by amending her diet. She eschewed animal proteins largely, and exalted string beans. For her it worked.
"Just common sense," she said. "I used to stop mothers on sidewalks, begging them to take away those lollipops from their children, but it did no good of course. [Swanson equates sugar with cyanide, roughly, and as she once told her sixth husband, she wouldn't have it in her house, let alone her stomach.] But now people can go around eating ground glass if it suits them and I say nothing."
She seems to have learned that not everybody is called to a life of zucchini.God grant one last port chop on the eve of death, some say, and Swanson no longer attacks them with health lectures.
We toured a bit through the walnut library, admorong her sculptures here and there on tables, the vases of red carnations, the bright green and white morning room full of paintings -- a worldly lighthearted room, only with a huge painting of the agony on the cross in one corner, a stunning picture she once lugged home herself.
As a writer, no matter how ably helped, the voice is unmistakably Swanson's, and there is considerable skill.
But I thought of her comment that she had done nothing with her life. Maybe not. But I submit two scenes as justification for any life:
You recall her remarkable film, "male and Female" of 1919 in which she was in Babylon in a sort of lion's den. Her head sprouts enough peacock feathers to furnish Africa and the train of her dress contains one and a half bushels of pearls. She is flat on her stomach, sultry as they no longer make women nowadays, and EEEEK, a lion stalks forward and rests his tremendous claws on her naked back.
Cecil B. DeMille understandably chickened out, saying the scene was too risky to film. But Swanson insisted, so it was filmed. DeMille and some others stood around looking efficient with guns and whips, but what good would they have done if the lion had raked her back?You don't know the real Swanson if you forget this scene.
There have been many scenes. In her landmark film, "Sadie Thompson," she amazed Hollywood (which had thought semi-raunchy stories about whores and preachers could never be made): She signed off with a farewell:
"You'd yank the wings off butterflies and claim you were saving their souls, you psalm-singing son of a bitch."
But the one I nominate for immortality is this, not in any film:
While shooting "Madame Sans Gene" on Paris, word got back to Hollywood she was spending billions and had quite lost her mind. Two studio executives arrived to see what the hell was going on. This offended Swanson, who decided to give them a real show, something to rattle the teeth.
She set up the scene at her mansion, and when the studio moguls arrived they saw Swanson in a gown to end all gowns with a tiara in her hair, and her good old secretary and everybody else dressed up like the Empress of India and all speaking French. Dinner lasted for hours, pickled egret ears and the works, and Swanson had lined up a fellow to pose as a maharajah with whom she was supposed to be in love. (The studio moguls were treated rather as charcoal peddlers during all this.)
Another fellow, well rehearsed, rose during dinner and cried:
"My God, Gloria, you can't marry that son of a bitch. He's black as the ace of spades."
At which the imitation maharajah threw a glass of wine in his face and the two men stalked out to fight.
"More wine, please," Gloria said, as if nothing were happening. A shot was heard, The maharajah did not return but the other guy did, his shirt dripping blood.
"Well, that's one more dead Indian," he cried.
Women guests, nicely rehearsed, all screamed.
"Please sit down, everybody," said Swanson. "It is nothing. It has happened before."
Studio moguls were somewhat faint before it dawned on them they were being had, beautifully had, by one of the brightest little old sparkies of Dreamtown.
If this scene and the lion and the peacocks of Babylon and a few others don't qualify Swanson for immortality and a well-spent life, you may as well conclude there is no longer any judgment, any taste, any ginger left in Elysium.