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Who Is Gloria Swanson?

By Melanie Smeltzer
Updated May 23, 2024
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Gloria Swanson was a silent film actress whose career spanned from 1915 into the mid-1970s. Best known for her role as Norma Desmond in the 1950 drama Sunset Boulevard, Swanson got her start as an extra and bit player in such films as At The End of a Perfect Day and The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket. After her Oscar-nominated performance in Sunset Boulevard, this actress essentially retired, only appearing in small film roles or making television appearances. Swanson died from a heart-related ailment in New York City in 1983.

Born March 27, 1897, in Chicago, Gloria Swanson began life as Gloria May Josephine Svensson. As a member of a military family, she moved frequently and received her formal education through public schools in Chicago, Florida, Puerto Rico, and other places. At 16, Swanson began working as a sales clerk in a department store. Though her start in the working world was inauspicious, she became curious about how the film industry worked and toured a Chicago movie lot.

During her visit, film makers recognized her unique beauty and picked her out of the crowd. She was cast as a bit player in the 1915 silent comedy The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket. Despite her dislike for slapstick comedies, Swanson appeared in several during her early career and only began working as a dramatic actress when the famed director Cecil B. DeMille took her under his wing. This change in genre caused her career to skyrocket, and by the mid-1920s, she became one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood.

By the age of 30, Gloria Swanson had to make the difficult transition into sound films. Although many silent-film actresses failed to adapt to the new medium, Swanson made the change successfully and was nominated for several Oscars. Even so, she began cutting back on work and officially went on hiatus around 1941.

In 1950, Gloria Swanson made a comeback in the movie Sunset Boulevard, in which she played a lonely, delusional Hollywood starlet long past her prime. She starred in a few more films during the 1950s, but she essentially retired from film-making, only appearing in a couple of small roles during the 1970s. Though retired from the film industry, Swanson focused her energies on art, clothing design, and cosmetics. She also wrote her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, published in 1980.

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