Gloria Swanson was born on March 27, 1899, in Chicago. Her father was a civilian clerk in the U.S. Army, and at that time civilians traveled with the troops. The family moved frequently, and she lived for a time in Puerto Rico. During a vacation with her mother's family in Florida, she took up singing in church. With everyone impressed with her performance, her mother took her to the Chicago studios of Essanay, a mid-sized silent film production company specializing in comedies. Just 15 years old, she soon left school to work full-time at the studio, where she starred in numerous pictures with Wallace Beery.
Her star on the ascent, she and her mother (her parents had separated) moved to California, where she got a contract with Paramount Pictures and Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille turned her into a star with the 1919 film Don't Change Your Husband. Over the next decade, Swanson would be the most popular film star in the world. But by 1929, her star was fading. Although she made the transition to talking pictures well (and sang in several of her films), she largely stopped acting by 1934. Depression audiences simply didn't want to see Gloria Swanson in $50,000 dresses acting like a wealthy tramp when they struggled to buy bread.
Swanson had spent most of her money, unfortunately (she plowed through what would today be $500 million in just a decade). She took advantage of the situation in Europe by buying the patents of fleeing refugees, and then licensing the patents in the United States. This allowed the refugees to come to America, and generated a solid income for Swanson. She wrote a syndicated newspaper column, appeared in a few plays, and appeared in radio programs. After World War II ended, she appeared on television in her own series and began a 20-year career as a fashion designer.
Swanson made the stunning film Sunset Blvd. in 1950. It was pretty much her last picture, however (aside from a cameo in 1975's Airport). She starred in the Broadway play Butterflies Are Free in 1971, but it was her last major role and she retired afterward. She lived in an apartment in New York City and died there of a heart ailment on April 4, 1983.
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Now for the juicy stuff:
She married Wallace Beery on March 27, 1916, and he raped her on their wedding night. They separated in 1918, and within weeks of her divorce in 1919 she married Herbert Somborn, the 38-year-old president of Equity Pictures and later owner of the Brown Derby restaurant. They had a daughter, Gloria, in 1920 and adopted a three-year-old child, Joseph, in 1923. Somborn wanted Swanson to be a homemaker, but she wanted the life of a star. They divorced on January 1, 1925, after Somborn accused her of adultery. Swanson next married French aristocrat Henri, Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, on January 28, 1925. Henri was the love of her life, and they spent months cruising the Mediterranean, partying in Frnace and Switzerland, and so on. Swanson got Henri (who was penniless, despite his title) a job as the U.S. representative of the French film studio Pathé. Pathé's American owner was Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., and Swanson became Kennedy's lover. The affair was an open scandal, and Henri divorced Swanson in 1930.
While yachting in off the French coast, Swanson met Irish insurance company executive Michael Farmer. The handsome, muscular Farmer wed her in August 1931. Due to doubts that her marriage with La Falaise was not recognized in the United States, they were remarried in November 1931, by which time Swanson was four months pregnant with her third child, Michelle.
Unfortunately, Michael Farmer was a major alcoholic. One of his favorite tricks was to take four champagne glasses, and stack them rim-to-rim and end-to-end. He'd then fill the top one with champagne. Pressing the topmmost glass down and the bottomost glass up, he'd hold the contraption together -- and then drink the champagne.
As you can see from these photographs, this thrilled Gloria Swanson to no end.
Swanson finally had enough of Farmer's boozing, and they divorced in 1934. She married California businessman William N. Davey in 1945, but he too turned out to be a drunk and they divorced in 1946. Swanson married for the last time in 1976. He sixth husband was writer William Dufty, who had co-authored the Billie Holiday autobiography Lady Sings the Blues. He survived Swanson.