Between 1919 and 1921, Gloria Swanson starred in a series of wildly popular films for director Cecile B. De Mille in which the iconography of Hollywood glamour was formally codified. The titles of these films carry the whiff of scandal and decadence: Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), For Better, For Worse (1919), Male and Female (1919), Why Change Your Wife? (1920). In truth, each of the DeMille-Swanson films were neat little morality tales where virtue and tradition triumphed.
The visual language of glamour was characterized by stunning women sheathed in one gorgeous outfit after another, placed within elegant sets that defy practicality in favor of a dream-like universe. In De Mille’s Swanson movies, the decadent bathrooms were prominently featured. The massive sunken tubs, marble walls and floors, made audiences gasp with disbelief and pleasure. The symbol of the roaring twenties, according to Hollywood, was a bathroom fit for a queen.
Swanson’s elaborate costumes often weighed close to her petite 90lb. frame. But Swanson soldiered on bearing her burden with nary a complaint. For the sake of authenticity, De Mille accessorized his leading lady in wildly expensive jewels that only added to the fearsome weight Swanson carried with such regal posture.
For an army brat raised on spartan outposts in Key West and Puerto Rico, Swanson’s rise to superstardom—she was as popular as Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin—was a classic American dream that played itself out in Hollywood, a peculiar universe in the process of inventing itself as the dream capital of the world.
But of course, the glamour machine that Swanson helped invent veiled some frightening scenarios. And Gloria Swanson’s hasty marriage to actor Wallace Beery was a gruesome nightmare.
Swanson was just breaking into pictures when she met Beery. She was shy and withdrawn whereas he was the life of the party.
Beery, under contract to Broncho Billy, advised Swanson on all aspects of her career. He coached her how to play scenes, how to read a contract, how to meet the right people. Normally a drunken bully, Wallace Beery put on the best show of his life as he courted Swanson with a sensitivity and decency that was poisonously seductive.
Beery was a shrewd player. He was also courting Gloria’s ferociously ambitious mother. Addie Swanson was always around her beautiful but pliant daughter. Like so many Hollywood stage mothers, Addie was separated from Gloria’s father. Alternately depressed and bitter, Addie sought romance using Gloria as a proxy.
Thus, in 1916, when Beery proposed marriage Gloria accepted and Addie eagerly gave permission to the impulsive couple.
Addie’s permission was not just a function of polite society. Addie needed to sign off legally on the marriage because Wallace Beery was 30 years-old and Gloria Swanson was just 17, barely out of childhood.
Gloria and Addie squeezed into the right-hand barrel seat of Beery’s roadster and speeded—at about 35 mph.—to Pasadena.
With no legal barrier the actors were married by a local minister.
The threesome found a hotel and Beery paid for two adjoining suites. Addie would be right next door for her young and innocent daughter’s wedding night.
In Swanson on Swanson, Gloria Swanson describes the dreadful scene:
I was brushing my hair when he came into the room. He gave me a look that made me turn away, but he didn’t say anything. Then he turned out the light and in the darkness pulled me to him. I gave a coquettish little command to stop that I thought would make him laugh. Still he said nothing. He turned me and pushed me backward until I fell on the bed. He fell beside me, and there was nothing romantic about the way he began to repeat that I was driving him crazy.
He was raking his hands over me and pulling at my nightie until I heard it rip. I pleaded with him to stop, to wait, to turn on the light. His beard was scraping my skin and his breath smelled. He kept repeating obscene things and making advances with his hand and tongue while he turned his body this way and that and awkwardly undid his buttons and squirmed out of his clothes.
Then he forced my body into position and began hurting me, hurting me terribly. I couldn’t stand it. I begged him to stop, to listen to me, and finally when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I screamed. He told me to be quiet, not to wake the whole hotel, and he said it in a voice of quiet, filthy conspiracy. The pain became so great that I thought I must be dying. I couldn’t move for the pain. When he finally rolled away, I could feel blood everywhere.
Gloria’s mother, just a few feet away during the rape, did not come to Gloria’s aid, nor did mother and daughter ever talk about that night.
Gloria’s career soared while Beery’s faltered. She supported him. But more than a career, Gloria yearned for children, a family. Soon Gloria was pregnant and overjoyed. But Beery, wary of losing his meal ticket, tricked her into swallowing an abortifacient. She lost their child, and in agony for days, almost died.
Beery and Swanson were divorced in 1919.
Swanson married six more times. When her movie career was dead and gone, Gloria scored her greatest success in Billy Wilder’s brilliant Sunset Boulevard (1950) in which she plays Norma Desmond, a forgotten, half-mad star of silent cinema.
At the time, Swanson was but 51 years-old.