Story posted August 02, 2006
She played one of the most iconic characters in film history: the faded, and possibly insane, former silent movie star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. She famously uttered lines of dialogue that have become entrenched in the American pop culture lexicon:
"I am big; it's the pictures that got small!"
"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
Yet, oddly, little has been written about film legend Gloria Swanson (1897-1983) beyond her own 1980 memoir Swanson on Swanson.
Associate Professor of Film Studies Tricia Welsch plans to give this legend the true close-up she deserves. She is working on a new, nuanced biography that will "put her life into historical context," she says.
Welsch, whose research interests include the film industry and German silent film, chose Swanson as a subject because she wanted to research someone who had made the transition from silent to sound films. She looked for an artist for whom good archival documentation still survived.
As it turns out, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin has 624 boxes of Swanson's papers, including personal correspondence, love letters, telegrams, business records, and appointment books. Welsch has spent several months there during the past few years poring over the material.
When Tricia Welsch traveled to Normandy, France, to interview Gloria Swanson's daughter, she recognized her immediately -- not from any resemblance to the late movie star, but from the dozens of photographs of Michelle Farmer Amon that Welsch had seen while researching Swanson.
Welsch found Amon charming and very generous with details about Swanson. "It was wonderful to sit down and talk with someone who knew all the people in Gloria's life. I had read the anecdotes, heard the wire recordings, seen the photographs. But they were 'paper people.' Here was someone who was actually there and could recall the same anecdotes, but give them flesh and blood."
Welsch asked Amon what her take was on the rumor that her adopted older brother was actually the result of her mother's liaison with Joseph P. Kennedy. "She said, 'No, I never thought so,' and I said, 'No, I never thought so either,'" Welsch says with a smile. "We had come to the same conclusion!"
This summer, her research took her to France to interview Michelle Farmer Amon, Swanson's only surviving child. "She was very willing to share memories of her mother and the people who came in and out of Gloria's life," says Welsch. "I can't wait to go back to speak with her again." (See sidebar.)
Swanson started acting in film as a teenager, appearing in silent comedies opposite Charlie Chaplin. At the height of her career, she was one of Hollywood's most active and highly paid actresses, churning out five films a year draped in ermine capes and peacock-feather headdresses.
In the mid-1920s, Swanson tried to break from the "clotheshorse" mold that she and Paramount Studios had created: She joined Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and the director D.W. Griffith as a member of United Artists, then an upstart independent film company. Her association in the venture was short-lived, and she never really succeeded in shaking the glamorous stereotype.
That image worked against her in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Great Depression distanced her from an audience that had become less interested in glamour.
But, says Welsch, "she was creative in the way she lived her life, in the way she kept trying to remake her life. Leaving Paramount was a very unusual thing to do, and finding work afterwards was much more difficult than she thought it would be. She had to learn about business. But learning was attractive to her, and she made it a life practice. She never looked back."
Swanson responded to her waning public star by becoming an entrepreneur.
She founded her own very successful hosiery and cosmetics companies, and launched a dress line, later winning the prestigious Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion. During World War II, she helped four Eastern European Jewish inventors form a company called Multiprises, which developed a metal ore used for tanks. In 1948, she debuted her own variety show on television, then a fledgling medium, the week after WPIX went on the air in New York.
She was called back to Hollywood in 1950 to star in Sunset Boulevard. Despite receiving her third Academy Award nomination for her unforgettable portrayal of Norma Desmond, she appeared in films only sporadically after that.
But she didn't slow down. In the 1950s, long before it was trendy, she became a self-described "health nut" and advocated natural foods and yoga. She was instrumental in lobbying Congress to pass the first bill limiting pesticides in foods.
"The time during her life when she was not a big star is fascinating," says Welsch. "She had to work for a living. She said her epitaph should say, 'She paid the bills.'"