In the final scene of Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson, playing delusional has-been Norma Desmond, glides down a grand staircase dressed as Salome.
As she pauses to thank the assemblage for her imagined return to films, her madness sparkles in her eyes.
“A lot of people ask me if Sunset Boulevard was my own life — which is rather odd,” Gloria said of the role that would earn her a third Oscar nomination. “I’ve no dead bodies in my swimming pool. I don’t actually know of anyone who lived like Norma Desmond.”
While Norma spent her life mourning the past, Gloria lived hers leaning into the future. Her petite 4-foot-11 frame belied an outsize ambition that helped Gloria become Hollywood’s most glamorous actress as well as a producer, businesswoman and health food guru.
“She wasn’t afraid of anything,” Stephen Michael Shearer, author of Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, tells Closer. “She was very tough, and she knew her worth. She fought the industry and was up there with the men, producing her own movies.”
A coddled only child from Chicago, Gloria pushed her way into films at age 15 by hanging around Essanay Studios until she was hired as an extra.
Though fired from a film role opposite Charlie Chaplin, whom Gloria called “an odd sprite in a hobo outfit,” director Cecil B. DeMille liked her work ethic and strong persona.
He draped Gloria in jewels, furs, silks and feathers and put her in six films that began her rise to movie stardom.
By the mid-1920s, she’d become the most bankable actress in Hollywood and settled into a lavish lifestyle.
“The public wanted us to live like kings and queens. So, we did,” Gloria said. “We were making more money than we ever dreamed existed, and there was no reason to believe it would ever stop.”
Gloria’s only weaknesses were her profligate spending and poor taste in men. “She never had sense about her finances,” says Shearer. “She spent on fashion and jewelry — a lot of the jewelry in Sunset Boulevard were jewels she bought in the 1920s.”
While married to her third husband, Gloria began an affair with Joseph Kennedy, the father of the future president. He became her business partner as well as her lover, and although her first talkie, The Trespasser, earned Gloria an Oscar nomination, their other films flopped, bankrupting the star.
By the early 1940s, Gloria was forced to work as a travel agent in New York, but the tenacious actress proved to be a master at reinvention. “She started doing television and had her own show called The Gloria Swanson Hour,” says Shearer.
Gloria also toured in summer stock theater. After her film comeback in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond would always cast a shadow on Gloria, but the actress, who lived to be 84, refused to let anyone confuse her with the backward-looking character.
“People grow old because they get bored — first with themselves, then with the world around them,” said Gloria. “That’s not my idea of living.”