Gloria Swanson, New York, 1924

Edward Steichen – Part Two

Colorization by Manos Athanasiadis

Actress Gloria Swanson with black head wrap dramatically made up behind a screen of lace (Edward Steichen, Condé Nast/Corbis), New York, 1924. The photograph was first published in the February 1928 issue of Vanity Fair.

Gloria May Josephine Swanson (1899–1983) was an American actress and producer. She was a star in the silent film era as both an actress and a fashion icon.
Swanson began her career as an extra at the age of 14 in Essanay Studios. She left school to work full-time at the studio and made her film debut in 1914.
Swanson moved to California in 1916 to appear in Mack Sennett’s Keystone. In 1919 she signed with Paramount Pictures and worked often with Cecil B. DeMille, who turned her into a romantic lead.
In the space of two years, Swanson rocketed to stardom and was one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood. During Swanson’s heyday, audiences went to her films not only for her performances, but also to see her wardrobe. She was frequently ornamented with beads, jewels, peacock and ostrich feathers and other extravagant pieces of haute couture. Her fashion, hair styles, and jewels were copied around the world. She was the screen’s first clothes horse and was becoming one of the most famous and photographed women in the world.
So successful were her films for Paramount that the studio was afraid of losing her and gave in to many of her whims and wishes. But, in 1927, she decided to turn down a million dollar a year (approx. $13.6 million in 2017) contract with Paramount to join the newly created United Artists, where she was her own boss and could make the films she wanted, with whom she wanted, and when.

Joseph P. Kennedy presents Gloria Swanson in The Trespasser (1929)

In 1929, Swanson jumped into making talkies. “The Trespasser” was released by United Artists, and earned Swanson an Academy Award nomination.
Sadly for Swanson, The Trespasser proved to be one of her only two hit talkies. Subsequent follow-ups like What a Widow!, Indiscreet, Tonight or Never, Perfect Understanding, and Music in the Air all proved to be box-office flops. Despite the disappointments, Swanson was well remembered by Billy Wilder, a writer on Music in the Air, when he was casting the part of Norma Desmond in his masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Although she made the transition to talkies, as her film career began to decline, Swanson relocated permanently to New York City in 1938, where she began an inventions and patents company called Multiprises, which kept her occupied during the years of World War II. This small company had the sole purpose of rescuing Jewish scientists and inventors from war-torn Europe and bringing them to the United States. She helped many escape, and some useful inventions came from the enterprise.
Swanson made another film for RKO in 1941 (“Father Takes a Wife”), began appearing in the legitimate theater, and starred in her own television show in 1948. She threw herself into painting and sculpting, writing a syndicated column, touring in summer stock, engaging in political activism, radio and television work, clothing and accessories design and marketing, and making occasional appearances on the big screen. But it was not until 1950 when Sunset Boulevard was released (earning her yet another Academy Award nomination) that she achieved mass recognition again.
Although Swanson only made three films after Sunset Boulevard, she starred in numerous stage and television productions during her remaining years. She was active in various business ventures, traveled extensively, wrote articles, columns, and an autobiography, painted and sculpted, and became a passionate advocate of various health and nutrition topics. She became a vegetarian around 1928 and was an early health food advocate who was known for bringing her own meals to public functions in a paper bag.
Swanson was married six times. Most of the marriages were brief and, in an interview, she said, ”The mess I made of marriage was all my fault. The trouble with me is that I’ve always been too independent.” Gossip columnists wrote voraciously about her marriages and purported love affairs, dwelling particularly on one with Joseph P. Kennedy, the Boston financier who was to found a political dynasty. For more than half a century, Miss Swanson denied having an affair with Mr. Kennedy, but then she wrote about it in her 1980 autobiography, ”Swanson on Swanson,” which won admiring reviews and became a best-seller.
On April 4, 1983, Swanson died in New York City, aged 84.

Gloria Swanson and I had had a long session, with many changes of costume and different lighting effects.  At the end of the session, I took a piece of black lace veil and hung it in front of her face.  She recognized the idea at once.  Her eyes dilated, and her look was that of a leopardess lurking behind leafy shrubbery, watching her prey.  You don’t have to explain things to a dynamic and intelligent personality like Miss Swanson.  Her mind works swiftly and intuitively.” Edward Steichen: A Life in Photography

Edward Jean Steichen (1879–1973) was an American photographer, painter, and art gallery and museum curator. He was born in Luxemburg, but his family immigrated to the United States in 1880.
Steichen is a major figure in the evolution of American photography and exhibition design. Having begun his artistic career as a painter, he was later a founding photographer of the Photo-Secession group, together with Gertrude Kasebier, Clarence White, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Alfred Stieglitz. With Stieglitz, he first exhibited European “modern art” at Gallery 291 in New York City. He was, also, the most frequently featured photographer in groundbreaking magazine Camera Work during its run from 1903 to 1917.
His photos of gowns for the magazine Art et Décoration in 1911 are regarded as the first modern fashion photographs ever published.
During World War I, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as a photographer, leading the aerial reconnaissance division in France.
In 1923, he began a 15-year career at Condé Nast, serving eventually as Chief Photographer and creating iconic portraits of politicians, actors, and socialites for publications including Vogue and Vanity Fair. During these years, Steichen was regarded as the best known and highest paid photographer in the world.
In 1944, he directed the war documentary The Fighting Lady, which won the 1945 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
After World War II, Steichen was Director of the Department of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) until 1962. Among other accomplishments, Steichen is appreciated for creating The Family of Man, a vast exhibition consisting of over 500 photos that depicted life, love and death in 68 countries. The exhibition was seen by nine million people.
Edward Steichen died on 25th March, 1973 at 93 years of age.
Sources / More to Read:
Wikipedia: Gloria Swanson
IMDb: Gloria Swanson
Wikipedia: Edward Steichen
AnOther mag: Ten milestones in the life of Edward Steichen

See also my other post about Edward Steichen’s work
Mary Nolan, Hollywood, ca. 1929


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