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From Annette Tapert, the coauthor of the popular The Power of Style, comes a book that is just as beautiful and entertaining but that redefines an attribute even more intangible. In word and image, it evokes a unique Hollywood era and eleven of its goddesses who lived, and left as their legacy, the Power of Glamour.
When the Glamour Era met the Golden Age of cinema, it cast a spell on a public beaten by the Depression and the threat of war. But the key ingredient in 1930s glamour was personality. Annette Tapert's movie-queen profiles, rich with fresh insights, reach beyond the star-making machinery, fan magazines, fashions, and cosmetics to the essence of each women: the carefully molded image of Gloria Swanson, who started it all . . . Marlene Dietrich's siren persona on and off screen . . . the "reverse glamour" of Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. Their power--and that of Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, and the long-neglected Kay Francis, Dolores Del Rio, and Constance Bennett--lay in using style, wit, and guile to outsmart the studio system and enchant the world. In these pages we see how, veiled in intrigue and mystery, they brought glamour very close to its original meaning: witchcraft.
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Annette Tapert coauthored The Power of Style, Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life, and Swifty: My Life and Times. Known for her lectures across the country on fashion, style, and culture, she lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
When people meet me, they expect me to bite them, I guess because they expect me to be Norma Desmond," Gloria Swanson once said about her memorable role in Sunset Boulevard as a faded silent-screen actress. "A lot of people thought Norma Desmond was the story of my life. I'm not a recluse, nor am I out of the past. . . . It's amazing to find so many people who I thought really knew me could have thought Sunset was autobiographical. I've got nobody floating in my swimming pool."
She had a point. Norma Desmond had waited twenty years for a comeback. Gloria Swanson never waited for anything in her life. Instead, she seized her opportunities as they presented themselves and when they had played themselves out, she cut her losses and moved on, consistently reinventing herself as she went along.
"When you put them all together and add them up, Gloria Swanson comes out the movie star of all movie stars," observed Cecil B. DeMille, decades after the actress's rise to stardom in the twenties. "She had something that none of the rest of them had."
What Gloria Swanson had was glamour, written in big capital letters in large sparkling lights. And it was Swanson's dazzling persona in the 1920s that put "glamour"--then a rarely used word--into common usage, making it synonymous with Hollywood.
It all started in 1919 when DeMille tapped Swanson to star in a series of lavish films that depicted upper-class folk embroiled
in domestic entanglements. Swanson was magnificently gowned and dripping in real jewels. The characters she played were young women with exciting, high-voltage problems. They had to wrestle with sexuality and infidelity--either their own or their spouses'.
In these six films Swanson did such unconventional things as divorce her husband for a rake, then remarry the husband. Or she was a bland wife, rejected by her husband, who transformed herself into a beauty and won him back. In another film she played a woman who had two fiancés.
Although Swanson was only twenty when she started making the movies that established her as an icon of glamour, she was eager to make the transition from reality to illusion. "I have decided that when I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment a star," she said. "Everyone from the studio gateman to the highest executive will know it."
Off-screen she also liked to be swathed in luxurious fabrics and significant jewels and wear them against a backdrop of splendor. In life as well as in films, she indulged in dramatic love affairs and serial marriages. She entertained on a scale that would have impressed Marie Antoinette.
For a movie-crazed public desperate to live vicariously through its movie stars, Swanson's filmic and off-screen lives seemed to merge. And Swanson fed the myth. "The public didn't want the truth," she commented years later.
But behind this saga of conspicuous consumption, there was another story being played out: the very public education of a practical, down-to-earth woman, who, at twenty-six, recognized that she was a prisoner of fame. She saw with unusual clarity that stardom was an impediment to a good marriage and a contented personal life. She understood that stars were victims. And yet she not only struggled to keep her values intact, she continually stood up to the industry titans who were out to exploit her.
Swanson's career is like a capsule history of the movies. The tale of the pint-size pipsqueak who became a Napoleon in skirts is a miniature portrait of the progress of women in this century.
"I feel sure that unborn babies pick their parents. They may spend a whole lifetime trying to figure out the reasons for their choice, but nothing in any human story is accidental," Gloria Swanson wrote in her memoirs, Swanson on Swanson. But aside from the fact that she was a clotheshorse from a young age, very little in Swanson's childhood seems connected to her later life.
Gloria May Josephine Swanson was born in Chicago in 1899. Her father was a civilian attached to the U.S. Army Transport Service; her early life was spent moving from one army base to another. As an only child, she was doted on by her mother, who went to considerable lengths to outfit her in fancy clothes as a way to camouflage two worrisome flaws: unusually large ears and oversize teeth. In every other way she was a beautiful child with unique features. From her Italian ancestors, Gloria had inherited an olive complexion. From her Swedish and German forebears, she got almond-shaped blue eyes--so pale and clear that you felt as if you could see through them.
Even as a young child, Swanson spent considerable time with adults and was sophisticated beyond her years. "I dreamed steadily of being a grown-up," she said. By her early teens she was wearing soignée frocks that made her appear older. At fifteen she visited Essanay Studios in Chicago with a movie-mad aunt who was invited by the company's owner to have a peek at the new medium of moving pictures. Swanson's air of sophistication caught the attention of the studio's casting director, who asked her to return in exactly the same outfit she was wearing that day: a black-and-white checked skirt with a slit up the front, a black cutaway jacket, and a green waistcoat that her mother had modeled after an outfit worn by the celebrated ballroom dancer Irene Castle, a leading fashion trendsetter.
In her first role Swanson rushed onto the set and handed a bouquet of flowers to a bride. Not much of a part, but she made enough of an impression to be offered a contract as a stock extra at $13.25 a week.
"In those days no one ever thought of becoming a motion picture actress. It was like saying 'I want to be a burlesque queen,'" Swanson observed in later years. Why did she take the contract? Money. She detested school. With a job, she could finally persuade her mother to let her quit and be what she always wanted to be: a grown-up.
By 1915, Swanson was working regularly, playing thirty-year-old women in comic two-reelers with Wallace Beery. Swanson was next teamed up with Charlie Chaplin, but his whimsical slapstick skits were lost on her. After he'd coached her for hours, she finally told the comedian that she failed to see the "humor in many of the things he was asking me to do." He responded by asking for a replacement. Swanson, Chaplin thought, "didn't have a strong enough comic sense to be in his picture."
It wasn't just Chaplin who perplexed her. The business itself held little allure for Swanson. She found motion pictures so "crude and silly" that she wouldn't watch her own movies from beginning to end even when she landed featured roles that had her playing mature socialites.
The novelty of moviemaking might have ended in Chicago--and Swanson might even have pursued her larger ambition to be an opera singer--if it hadn't been for a sudden turn of events. Her father had been transferred to the Philippines, and she and her mother decided to take a vacation in California en route to Manila. Before they left, Essanay's casting director gave Swanson a letter of introduction to Mack Sennett, the comic genius.
The Essanay executive wasn't the only one who thought Swanson had something special. Wallace Beery had written to her from California suggesting she ought to try her luck out west. And as it happened, Beery was waiting at the train station to greet Swanson and her mother.
Once in Los Angeles, Mrs. Swanson announced that she was divorcing her husband and that the stay in California would be permanent. As for her daughter, she may have wanted to be an adult, but she was still an impressionable teen. When Beery informed Gloria that the studio where he worked was eight hours away and that he'd made the drive specifically on her behalf, a romance quickly followed. Several months later she celebrated her seventeenth birthday by marrying the twenty-nine-year-old actor.
It was only on her wedding night that Swanson discovered Beery was far from a cuddly protector. He was a brute who handled his underage virgin wife like a caveman. She endured her first grown-up mistake for two months. When she learned she was pregnant, Beery gave her medication that he said would ease her morning sickness; it turned out to be a drug that induced a miscarriage. With that, she ended the marriage.
Still, her marriage to Beery was a blessing. For it was he who encouraged her to use her letter of introduction to Mack Sennett. After one film, Sennett hired her at his Keystone Studios for $100 a week. Once there, Swanson immersed herself in the development of her craft as a distraction from her personal nightmare. And she soon decided that if she was going to be in movies, "I was going to be good in movies. I was one of the first deadpan comedians. I was funny because I didn't try to be."
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