I’ll never forget the encouragement that author Stephen Michael Shearer gave me when I was writing my Mae Murray biography several years ago. His Hedy Lamarr biography had just been
released in hardcover. Although he was busy doing publicity for the release, he made time to give me a call and talk through some important points to remember when writing a life story.
When his latest book, Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, came out last fall, I was anxious to learn what he uncovered about the legend. I took the book on my travels to Italy in October and learned more about Gloria during those two weeks than I had read 30 years ago in her own memoirs, Swanson on Swanson. After reading her book, I thought I knew all there was to know about the “ultimate star.” I was wrong!
Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star turns the spotlight on one of the most fascinating personalities of the 20th century. Great job, Stephen. Miss Swanson was overdue for her closeup!
I was anxious and hopeful that Stephen would spend a little time talking about his latest book and his other important works. Here is how our conversation unfolded a few days ago.
Michael: Gloria Swanson has been gone almost 30 years. Why has it taken so long for someone to write an in-depth accounting of her life and career?
Stephen: I think it is because for all these years since Swanson’s own book came out, many film buffs and quasi-historians have assumed it to be the definitive account, the last word. Swanson wanted her take on her history to be the Holy Grail, her intimidation reaching out from the grave. Most authors would not touch Swanson’s life after Swanson on Swanson was published – her assumed “authority” just simply prohibited contradiction.
Michael: What was it about Gloria that first interested you enough to devote a biography to her?
Stephen: As a biographer you know that there is never a “final” word about one’s life and/or career, and certainly with an autobiography such as Swanson on Swanson there remained many gaps and holes left untapped, not to mention untold questions. Swanson’s immense ego gave me rise to ponder the truth about her life and work. Definitely in her tome her accuracy on her work was for the most part correct.
Yet the circumstances revolving about her life, her own personal motivations, her career, and her “self,” fascinated me. Once I spent the first of several weeks in Austin, Texas, sifting through her hundreds of boxes of her archives which reside at the Harry Ransom Center, I realized a need to chronicle her life and career properly, with objectivity and, yes, passion. I eventually fell under her spell, and came to love her (as I have with all my subjects) once I felt I was getting to know her.
Michael: I love what Gloria said about her mother. ”We could look at the same window and never see the same things.” What impact did her mother have on Gloria’s life?
Stephen: Swanson was a “do-er,” and overachiever. Her mother was very needful. Quite like today’s Lindsey Lohan and Jodie Foster, Swanson (who also adored her father) took on the mantel of provider and support for her mother at an early age, a not uncommon act for daughters of divorced parents. Swanson wanted to please her mother and in one telling letter I found amongst her papers (so diligently archived by her friend Raymond Daum in Texas) Swanson reprimanded her mother Addie (after she had remarried without informing Gloria) suggesting that now she was the parent and her mother the impulsive child. The dynamics between Swanson and her mother were not much different from countless others. What made the relationship interesting was that Swanson realized their differences, and kept a financial and emotional “control,” if you will, over her mother’s personal and public image.
Michael: Her marriage to actor Wallace Beery was fascinating. You bring him to life in your book in a way that made me take a second look at this actor. Beery, you write, “possessed an animalistic manly and muscular body, he harbored a “no-nonsense approach to sex” and that he was strangely, sensuously attractive to you girls.” What a description! Was he really a hunk and irrestible to women?
Stephen: By all accounts at that time, yes. Just look at his frame, those biceps, and that ruggedly manly body in off-camera pictures of him from the 1910s. What he lacked in intelligence, compassion, manners, grace, cleanliness, and moral and social acceptability, Beery certainly made up in talent and virility. He was crude and vulgar, and remained so the rest of his life. But Swanson too was uncultured and ignorant then. And what possibly attracted them to each other – she had an equally strong libido even as a teenager. So it is totally not unreasonable to understand her attraction to an older man who enjoyed the carnal things in life as much as she. What possibly broke them up was that Swanson wanted finer things for her future, and Beery remained fixed.
Michael: Two interesting quotes have been used to describe Gloria Swanson. Director Allan Dwan said, “Gloria Swanson had the body of a woman and the mind of a man.” Her daughter said she was a feminine woman with a masculine brain. Do you think she thought of herself in those terms?
Stephen: I would definitely say that after a few really hard knocks in life (her marriage to Beery included) some semblance of reality must have settled in on Swanson and her outlook on life and in particular with her dealing with powerful (and weak) men. In Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star I wrote that she categorized men into definite types – “daddies” to support and take care of her (little Glory); lovers to play with and satisfy her immense ego and libido; gay comrades to appreciate the same desires she felt for attractive men; and “the enemy” – strong and powerful men she felt compelled to challenge. In that respect, professionally at least, she was in her element.
Like Lucille Ball a generation later, Swanson’s professional dealings within the Hollywood caste system were met with resistance, especially by “The Pinochle Club” (the then select group of silent film producers). I thoroughly, however, do not feel that Swanson saw herself in that light. Always immensely feminine in private, she would gird herself when she dealt with the industry powers. She never felt herself inferior (perhaps she possessed that strength because of her 4’11” height), and was oftentimes blindly unaware of her, excuse me, shortcomings, one of which was an absolute conviction she was always correct.
Michael: What was it about Gloria Swanson and children? Don Gallery, the son of Barbara La Marr, told me that Gloria would stay with his family (ZaSu Pitts adopted Don after his mother’s death in 1926) when she came out to California from New York. Don said that Gloria didn’t like kids and used to pinch him and his sister.
Stephen: Swanson and Pitts were great friends. (Both had worked under Erich von Stroheim, don’t forget.) They often attempted to develop collaborative projects which might suit them, but their public personas would not allow. Her own children Gloria found exemplary. But other children she found she had little interest in. Perhaps because she always felt her own childhood was drab and uninteresting, Gloria also found there was little in common with nurturing and caring hands on, when her own life, she felt assured, was so busy, so fascinating, and all consuming. Nowhere in my research did I find references to Swanson and her honest feelings about children. (She wrote in her memoir so overly poetic about her ecstasy of motherhood, which I found deeply suspicious, before immediately and abruptly segueing into the latest fashion trends or men finding her immensely sexually alluring.) However, there exist great publicity photos Swanson insisted upon having made of her and her girls and son which show she might have found them very useful to exploit her image to middle class audiences.
Michael: It’s funny about fame. Bette Davis was often referred to as an actress, while Joan Crawford epitomized a Hollywood star. You titled your book, Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star. From your vantage point, looking over her whole life, do you think of Gloria as an actress or star? Did her looks and glamour get in the way of her ability as an actress?
Stephen: I do not find anything funny about fame, Michael! It is a bitch. I traveled for years with Patricia Neal, who truly enjoyed her well-deserved celebrity. But I also saw how it distanced her from some minor realities of real life. Immense concentration of one’s public image is always foremost in daily preparation, social intercourse, and appearance. A little goes a long way, at least for most of us mortals who have not lived the film studio culture. At the end of the day, one is alone, the star image firmly planted in the heavens, stars distanced by their own radiance. Fame is exhausting. And it is a trade-off….
In answer to your question, Swanson was one of the Hollywood handfuls who actually created celebrity and stardom through the use of the film and publicity. By luck, determination, and self-assuredness, Gloria Swanson was first and foremost a STAR (with capital letters please!) who achieved public acceptance through the film medium. It granted her money, recognition and privilege which she always felt she deserved. By her own capricious nature she lorded it over her contemporaries and was highly disliked overall within the film community (and don’t forget too that personal and professional jealousy are part of the actor’s nature). When her image waned and times caught up with her, her career suffered. Despite what she might have written in her own book, she only became a true actress (even after two early Oscar nominations) after she learned a strong degree of professional discipline and acting technique via the stage. When Sunset Boulevard came along, and all the elements – the script, the leading man, the director, the sets, etc. – were brilliantly right in Heaven, she was more than prepared to give what I believe to be THE most sensational comeback in motion picture history. Gloria Swanson had become an actress.
Michael: How many films of Swanson did you view as you researched and wrote her biography? Do you have a favorite?
Stephen: Because my final manuscript of Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star was so lengthy, the editor felt we should not include the Appendix (Swanson’s complete film, theater, television, radio and recording credits which totaled another 50+ pages) so as to market the book affordably. (This Appendix can be downloaded off my website www.smsmybooks.com.)
I viewed every one of Swanson’s film in existence chronologically as I prepared the manuscript, including one last 1922 little epic Zaza, shortly before the book came out. (Many of the silent films are lost.) With Gloria Swanson I had to learn to appreciate objectively the process of silent film making and performance. Swanson truly possessed that “It” factor, that unexplainable gift of cinema magic, which her mentor Elinor Glyn wrote so rapturously about. In those silent films, Swanson is mesmerizing to watch even if she repeats the same techniques and physical mannerisms she repeatedly found precious. One simply cannot take one’s eyes off of her. Only a few of her silent films to me are memorable, as I wrote in the book. They epitomize why Swanson was such a great star. Only when sound came in (and she was quite acceptable and sometimes quite good in a few of her talkies) did her story lines, contract demands, and her absolute refusal to change with the times force her career to nosedive. After Sunset Boulevard, she was offered many a golden lost moment to continue her popularity juggernaut. But Swanson reverted to type, her own persona of herself destroying any opportunity to evolve and capitalize on her rediscovered fame. Pity for us all. Swanson’s retort was that the studios demanded she play “Norma Desmond” over and over again (which is VERY untrue). However, she very well could have played the part of Norma Desmond too well.
Michael: How did carnations become Gloria’s signature flower?
Stephen: Her ego, plain and simple. She used to use roses as if she carried a magic wand to accentuate her prominence in a room. Her small frame dictated to her that she needed to bring attention to herself physically. By swatting a long-stemmed rose (which evolved into a simple carnation – cheaper? – in later years) about in conversation, attention was always focused on her. Once at a social gathering which Swanson attended another not mentioned actress appeared with a long-stemmed unnamed flower in hand, batting the daylights out of it much to Swanson’s annoyance. Swanson left the party.
Michael: What is your opinion of Gloria’s memoirs, Swanson on Swanson? Truth, fiction, or somewhere in between?
Stephen: Like legions of film buffs for nearly 30 years, I believed Swanson on Swanson was the gospel. That is until I began to study her work and life. She did not write that book. Her last husband, William Dufty (Sugar Blues) did it as a wedding gift to her. (Others tampered with the manuscript before publication after Dufty left her over another man.) Dufty also ghost-wrote the much heralded Lady Sings the Blues, which is Billie Holiday’s “autobiography.” Holiday could barely spell her own name, much less write a book. But Dufty was a longtime friend of the tragic singer (she was his only child’s godmother), and he did the work. A gifted mimic (after he left Swanson his longtime partner, Dennis Fairchild, told me Dufty was a “ventriloquist”) he could channel speech patterns, wordage, the actual “way” Holiday and Gloria spoke. And for years, as with Lady Sings the Blues, I truly believed that Swanson had written her own book.
She told her story as she wanted it to be remembered. Gloria superficially was always somewhat honest, especially about her career. But her image of herself, her outspokenness, her total concept of life was tainted by her convictions she was always right. And that leads to questions. Plus, as my research progressed, I found Swanson never took an objective viewpoint on anything and much historical accuracy and important factors of her life were trifled with or merely left aside.
Michael: How much cooperation did you receive from her family?
Stephen: As much as I needed. Children of celebrity are different. They suffer in ways we mere mortals cannot assume to understand. They were more times than not exploited. On display when needed, their parents voicing and demonstrating affection though they are never there, in reality so much of Swanson’s children’s lives was spent in the care of nannies, nurses and tutors. Gloria was always off filming, or in rabid pursuit of “romance” entrenched in her amorous affairs or “traveling.”
Daughter Michelle, in interview after interview, told of her seldom seeing her mother until she reached young adulthood. Swanson children were always sequestered off to private schools. All three grew into fine adulthood, producing normal, stable non-showbiz families. Gloria was an enigma they simply had to come to terms with. I believe I dealt fairly with Gloria’s heirs. They were rarely a part of their mother’s life, by her choice. She provided education and sometimes support to them as they became adults. Yet she rarely let them intrude in her social and professional activities.
Michael: Your first book was a biography of Patricia Neal, whom you interviewed extensively. How did the two of you become acquainted?
Stephen: Patricia Neal was a very close, dear friend for nearly 20 years. I met her when I lived in New York in the early 1990s. I was acting at the Nat Horne Theatre in the original off-Broadway play, Luigi Jannuzi’s The Appointment. (I originated one of the two male lead roles.) It won the coveted Samuel French Award that year. Patricia and Philip and Marilyn Langner came to a performance. Langner was the head of the Theater Guild. Afterwards, my partner, Michael, and I drove Pat to her apartment on the Upper East Side. We had a glorious time, became good friends, and things evolved from there. I have never been enamored or intimidated by celebrity. Certainly I am respectful of it, and I have my favorites. But as a struggling actor in New York, I worked with a few stars, and had even developed a varied and diverse group of actor friends. I waited tables to survive, and met many stars and celebrities, and found them to be normal folks, for the most part.
Patricia was a Southern woman born and bred, and with me, she felt she could be real. (Occasionally in later years when we would travel together and she was tired she would become “the STAR,” and I would gently remind her not to treat me as a secretary, but as a friend.) She could count on my being honest with her. She was always fascinated with the fact I wanted to know more about her career. She had to relearn her life after her debilitating stroke in 1965. So my coming up with facts fascinated her, as most of her other friends did not do the research I did. At any rate, we were always on the phone, dining out in the city, and keeping in touch. I went to her home on Martha’s Vineyard, and we were simply good friends. She would ask me periodically if I was ever going to do a book on her life. I once asked her why, and her reply was, “No one had ever asked her.” (She did write her own autobiography in the late 1980s As I Am.) I had published some reviews and did a fair amount of research for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
After 9/11, when I lost 11 colleagues in Tower One, I quit corporate work and began Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life. She opened up her archive, her files, her letters and pictures to me with the one stipulation, that I tell her story “warts and all.” I believe I did a proper job. Patricia agreed to travel with me to high-end venues (original book signing in New York, The National Book Convention in Washington, D.C., and some television interviews.) The book did well. I appeared with Pat in her last film, Flying By, in 2009, which co-starred Billy Ray Cyrus and the lovely Heather Locklear.
Patricia Neal was my friend, my muse. I miss her terribly.
Michael: Is it harder to write about someone you know personally, for example, Patricia Neal, as compared to Hedy Lamarr and Gloria Swanson, whom you didn’t meet or know personally. Compare the experiences.
Stephen: With Pat Neal, I had the great opportunity to talk with her about her life and career for a couple of decades. She graciously allowed me the wherewithal to her papers and memorabilia, and it was a glorious experience, a pampered and brilliant exercise for a first-time author. I became spoiled, for sure. When writing Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, I had to be very careful NOT to make it a “fan-based” book. They are more often than not none too truthful or objective, as you know. I truly had to search out negative comments and reviews of Patricia in particular because, aside from her numerous triumphs, in some of her most dreadful projects, she usually walked away with positive reviews. I fought to be objective when I dealt with aspects of her career.
I did not know Lamarr or Swanson. However, with both of their projects, I went to living sources, family in particular, friends and colleagues, to glean insight to these women. It is often not in the questions asked that is important, but in the answers given. To present the right questions and assimilate the answers properly is vital. (For Hedy Lamarr’s daughter, Denise, to tell me her mother, and Dirk Benedict, Gloria Swanson’s dear friend, to tell me she too, “would have liked you” meant, to me, that I was doing the work correctly.)
Michael: Your biography on Hedy Lamarr was just released in softcover. She was stunningly beautiful. Was she the most beautiful actress in Hollywood?
Stephen: When I was a young kid growing up in the South, I remember watching Tulsa’s KTUL-TV late night movies. When Hedy Lamarr was in one, I recall I could not take my eyes off of her. She mesmerized me so. I asked my late mother who she was, and I quoted my Mom in the Preface to Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr. However, beauty is subjective. It may emanate from within. I selected the title for my book for the fact that Hedy Lamarr was so much more than JUST beautiful.
There have, over the years, been many, many physically beautiful women in Hollywood – Gene Tierney, Greta Garbo, on and on. But by my taste in facial beauty, yes, Hedy Lamarr tops the list.
Michael: Before I read your Hedy Lamarr biography, the most I had read about her was Ecstasy and Me, supposedly written by the actress. Were you able to uncover the real story? Did she actually write it? How much of it was fact?
Stephen: I relied heavily on published accounts from the various trials to recount the story. I also interviewed Robert Osborne (who wrote the Preface for Beautiful) and the late Marvin Paige, plus the memories of Lamarr’s children, as to facts, motivations, and outcome. I believe I got it right.
Lamarr told the ghostwriters the story of her life (her voice can actually and accurately be heard in certain passages of Ecstasy and Me.) But then obtrusively, and in another vocal rhythm, comes a sex episode. For the most part, the book is valid. The rest – the shockingly sexual parts of it – are fictional trash.
Michael: Were you always interested in classic cinema? Were you a reader of film biographies as a youngster? Are there those that stick out in your mind as favorites?
Stephen: One has to be, don’t you think, to be an historian of cinema today? We live in a voyeuristic society. Movies have made us the society we are today. We appreciate beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful locales. When I was 10 years old, my mother gave me her childhood movie star scrapbook. I looked at those incredibly gorgeous people and wanted to know who they were and what they did, and set about making that my life’s avocation. I started reading “heavy” film biographies at that early age, such as I’ll Cry Tomorrow and Too Much Too Soon by Gerold Frank. I wasn’t a “drama queen”, but it did seem that the truth of these stars’ lives was so much more interesting than the pap of the film magazines. I have collected everything by Anthony Slide, Kevin Brownlow, Leonard Maltin (a colleague I have known since 1973), books of the 1970s and 1980s by James Robert Parish, and works by Jeanine Basinger (who wrote the Preface to Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star).
I have an extensive library with many autographed copies of good, bad and indifferent film-related books, some dating back to almost a century. Hands down, the film biographies by Barry Paris (Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo) and the late Steven Bach (Marlene Dietrich, etc.) are those which I try to model my work after. Their books are magnificently crafted. Not everyone’s cup of tea – but for shear history, grammar, and read-ability, they are like savoring rich desserts. Made to indulge in slowly and read late into the night.
Michael: You have acted in television and films. How did this work prepare you for writing about the industry, or did it?
It certainly gave me insight as to the hard work that is involved in the process of filmmaking. It is all so artificially unreal. The sets, the continuity, the emotions. It has given me a great respect for those who have lingered in front of the lights and camera a lot longer than I have. Robert Osborne said it wonderfully in his Preface to Beautiful. For anyone who has ever acted in front of a camera, one’s concentration must be particularly intense, and to do what is written for your character, to physically and verbally express the correct emotion involved for the scene, it is all a major accomplishment – an exercise in making the unreal real. The mechanics of filming are daunting. I remember I never looked at ANY movie the same after I did bit work in my first picture, Split Image, in 1981.
Michael: What new projects do you have in the works?
Stephen: I have several “pet” projects that will probably never see the light of day simply because the subjects are not remembered in the collective conscience. However, I am savvy as to what is viable for publishers. Many editors today are young, and do not recognize the names. But I remain a cock-eyed optimist, and believe strongly in a couple of subjects I have submitted proposals on to my literary agent and my editor at Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press-Macmillan. Nothing is on the dotted line as of yet, so I really am not at liberty to talk about these projects. I do have a short novel completed, and have begun work on a memoir.
Motion pictures are arguably America’s one true art form. The history of cinema needs perpetuation. The lives and careers of those people who have made pictures, the people who crafted them, these very people who have helped define and shape our very culture, should be documented and not forgotten. My purpose as a biographer and historian is to educate the reader as to who these people were and are.