As soon as I saw the premise of the Diamonds and Gold blogathon—a blogathon highlighting stellar performances by actors over 50—my immediate thought was to cover Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, as it’s one of the meatiest roles ever for a woman “of a certain age” in classic film, and one of my favorite and most endlessly rewatched films. However, when I realized I couldn’t quite place anything Swanson had done after that film in my memory, and saw that there weren’t a ton of quantifiable entries in the all-knowing eyes of IMDb, I became a bit concerned that she had embodied her performance as the misanthropic Norma Desmond a little too fully, and that I’d have to write an epilogue about how she’d frittered away the rest of her life unhappily attempting to further pursue an acting career. A bit more research revealed, though, that that worrisome scenario was far from the actual case. Despite not appearing in many more films after Sunset, Swanson lived in an incredibly full life throughout her 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, and was a fascinatingly unique, well-rounded woman all the way up to the end.
Swanson was a huge star in the silent era, one of Hollywood’s first millionaires and an enviable queen of glamour. But she was also a shrewd industry player, at one point turning down a million-dollar contract with Paramount to join United Artists, where she would have more control of her own films. The increased power of independent production ultimately came with more risks for her though, and a few financial flops would take a big hit on her film career in the 1930s. Never one to sit on her laurels, in the following years Swanson would cultivate a variety of business and personal interests unrelated to film, including owning a travel agency, engaging in political activism, starting an invention and patents company, and even hosting her own early-era television show in 1948. But her performance as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is what would cement her into the public’s lasting consciousness, earning her her third Academy Award nomination and inspiring many loving imitations in the years to come.
After Sunset Boulevard, she appeared in just a handful of films, in part because her magnificent performance had momentarily blinded casting directors in regards to her range, and her offers tended to be shoddy Norma Desmond knock-off after shoddy Norma Desmond knock-off. She turned them down, for the most part, choosing instead to return to the multitude of other pursuits she had begun to follow in the intervening years. Only this time, bolstered by renewed popularity, Swanson was able to parlay the public’s newfound interest into making her activities more profitable by reaching a more widespread audience.
Swanson was keenly interested in fashion, sometimes designing her own dresses for events, and in 1951, she joined with the Puritan Dress Company to create a line of clothing under a label called “Forever Young.” These weren’t trendy designs for young women, though, as one might expect for an actress with a reputation as a glamorous clotheshorse—no, this line was for middle-class, middle-aged women, looking for well-made, fashionable products at affordable prices. Using her own “dear stout mother” as inspiration, the designs were intended to be flattering and appealing in all regards, from the types of fabrics used to the necklines. Swanson took a personal interest in making sure that everything was satisfactory—she visited mills to inspect the fibers that made the dresses, and went on publicity tours, meeting fans at department stores across the country. This collaboration lasted for three decades, through 1982—which means there are plenty of pieces available out there for vintage collectors (check your local vintage store, eBay and Etsy). Throughout Swanson’s fashion career, she also collaborated with designers like Coco Chanel, Edith Head, René Hubert, Givenchy, Pauline Trigere, Adam Werlé, and Valentina.
Swanson also had a somewhat bustling television and theater career around this time—maybe not working consistently enough to support a struggling actor relying solely on that income, but certainly enough to keep her in the public eye throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. She appeared on popular serials like Dr. Kildare and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, on game shows like What’s My Line, and talk shows: Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, David Frost. Her 1970 appearance on Cavett is sassy and charming; she appears holding a carnation (her signature flower), sporting a flapper-esque silver bobbed wig, and ribbing fellow guest, Janis Joplin. In 1972, at 73 years old, she appeared on Broadway and on tour in Butterflies Are Free. Her last onscreen film appearance was in Airport 1975, playing herself, but she continued to make guest appearances on television until shortly before her death in 1983.
Throughout her life, she was an advocate for extremely healthy living, going organic and macrobiotic decades before the trends hit Hollywood restaurants as the status quo. She didn’t drink alcohol, or tap water, or eat meat. She considered refined white sugar to be an especially nasty thing —”poison,” she called it—and used natural sugar boiled from organic raisins instead, as well as collaborating on an exposé of the sugar industry with her sixth husband, William Dufty, in the 1970s. “Why do people treat their bodies like garbage pails?” she asked a reporter for People on the tour for the book. “I sound like a broken record. Actually, now I just tell people to go ahead and eat ground glass if they want. See if I care.”
In 1980, just a few years before she died, she released Swanson on Swanson, a memoir covering her expansive life and career. She didn’t shy away from the many controversies and scandals of her life, instead favoring a more candid view. In 1982, she sold a vast collection of personal and professional ephemera to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, where they are still accessible to scholars today. Swanson claimed she rarely threw anything away, so the 620-box collection of papers, art, posters, films, scrapbooks, telegrams, and the like have proved a valuable resource for those studying film history, and have preserved her legacy not only as an actress, but as a producer, traveler, artist, designer, and businesswoman.
Swanson was a unique lady, and certainly proved that, apart from their shared silent film stardom, she was nothing like Norma Desmond. Swanson was engaged, lively, in tune with her surroundings and utterly curious about the world around her. And, of course, she was an acerbic wit (I’ve had to limit myself in not just making this a post of quotes from her), telling that same People reporter:
“People still ask me if I’m Norma Desmond… Sure. I live in the past, never go out and have a body floating facedown in my pool.”