A biography of Gloria Swanson (1899–1983), who was difficult, vain, arrogant and self-deluded, as well as shrewd, stylish and magnetic. She was, by her own account, “every inch and every moment a star.”
Swanson had limited gifts in terms of looks and talents. Barely 5 feet tall and, by her own description, stout, she had a pleasant singing voice, but stage fright kept her from pursuing a career as an opera diva or theater actress. The Chicago-raised daughter of an itinerant Swedish-American Army officer and a Polish-American mother whose poor judgment occasionally brought unwelcome publicity, Swanson began acting in the late 1910s for the local Essanay movie company. Finding that she liked the work—especially the money it brought her, as well as the men in front of and behind the cameras—she eventually wound up in Hollywood, where she was “discovered” by Mack Sennett, in whose comedies she first gained public notice. But it was Cecil B. DeMille who made Swanson a star. More than any other actress, Swanson, with her mentor DeMille, created the image of the movie star as fashion-plated glamour queen, both on screen and off. Her high-life style attracted wealthy men and aristocrats, including a French marquis whom she married and Joseph P. Kennedy. Shearer (Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, 2011, etc.), who relied on Swanson’s fib-telling 1981 biography, newspaper and magazine articles, and a collection of her papers at the University of Texas, warms up to his subject about halfway through, in time for the amazing story of her comeback (some might convincingly argue, the capstone of her entire career) in Sunset Boulevard. A mysteriously aloof cipher in the early chapters, she eventually comes to life as a delightfully zestful grande dame, despite numerous personal and professional failures before and after Sunset.
An uneven, rushed-through life with occasional high notes.