Swanson: a chatty memoir from the siren of the silents; Swanson On Swanson, by Gloria Swanson. New York: Random House. $15.95
"I'll do it myself." This has been the fulcrum of Gloria Swanson's full and exotic life, beginning with her debut in silent movies at 15, the first of her six marriages at 17, stardom in her early 20s, and a lifetime of successes which gained her a title (husband three was a Marquis), wealth, palatial dwellings here and abroad, and entourage (including a nursemaid for her three children), and endless Rolls Royces and jewels.
HEr independent spirit surfaced early. She turned down one wealthy suitor because she wanted some of life's luxuries, yes, but "it's not the same if it's yourm money. I want to make it myselfm ." She did. At 27, she became the first motion picture star offered a million dollar contract -- and turned it down to launch her own company, Gloria Swanson Productions.
She was tenacious and astute in her dealings with Hollywood's tough moguls. She led a bold and victorious battle against censorship to produce and star in "Sadie Thompson," based on Somerset Maugham's story "Rain," and enjoyed a long reign as Queen of the Silver Screen. Then, Swanson-style, instead of fading at 50, she played a fading star in the film, "Sunset Boulevard," and was a smash hit.
She had her own radio and TV programs and starred on Broadway in her 70s. She designed her own clothes so expertly that she became a professional designer for a women's clothing manufacturer; ran a small business to promote inventions; and continues today to sculpt and paint, something she has done since girlhood days in Chicago.
Everything she does is imbued with a fierce, almost reckless zest for life. In her early days, this included horseback riding, flying, driving a motorcar with speed and much squealing of brakes. She performed her own movie stunts rather than use a stand-in, ducking in a hole a split-second before a locomotive roared overhead; diving into 60 feet of water in the black of night without knowing how to swim; and allowing a lion to put a paw on her bare back as she lay on the ground. Director Cecil B. DeMille called her "young fellow" as a compliment of to her courage.
Her bravado and cool head saw her through many near-disasters in business, several scandals imagined and real (including an affair, she confesses in this autobiography, with Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.), and two occasions when she became pregnant before marrying the men involved. The first time, she had a secret abortion, which she says she bitterly regrets. The second time, determined to have the baby, she want through many machinations to hide the truth including one plan to disappear, give birth, have friends say the child was theirs, and then adopt it. In the end, she married the father, though she had no love for him. A divorce was inevitable.
All this and more is told in "Swanson on Swanson" with a near-arrogance bred of high self-esteem and most surely an awareness on the part of author and publisher that frank sex sells books as well as films.
Throughout, we are steeped in the calculated Swanson ambiance, meeting a woman who could always set the stage for her appearances with high style. Once, nearly broke, she spent her last $300 on a bottle-green suit with a squirrel collar. Yes, she was seen in it by a leading director who hired her on the spot because she had "class."
We marvel at the eternal beauty who never had a face lift; the prankster who once gave a dinner party at which all guests except one special man were mannequins; the heartbreaker condemned as too strong for most men who married current husband, William Dufty, because he wanted to take care of her -- something she says she always wanted someone to do.
Her intelligence always shone -- she once invented the forerunner of a telephone beeper system -- but she confesses that as a young woman, she didn't even know who Nietzche was because "I had never had the time or training to read a single difficult book in my life." She has filled this gap, however, and her book is sprinkled with references to such personages as playwright Pirandello and writer-philosopher Kahlil Gibran.
Gloria Swanson is a hearty survivor of the tinseltown which wrecked so many gifted but less gutsy stars. She lives in New York with her husband and says her two daughters, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchilren are "the joys of my life." Her sorrows are the passing of family members -- her mother, her adopted son, and one granddaughter.
Her history is fascinating, especially for those who remember her with Rudolph Valentino in "Beyond the Rocks" and Laurence Olivier in "Perfect Understanding."
But in the end, it is all too much -- too long a story, too overwritten. The Gloria we cheer at the beginning begins to seem embarrassingly self-centered, her emotions merely sentimental, all relationships romanticized.
The book reads too much like the vapid and impromptu scripts she helped create in the early days of films, replete with stilted dialogue and clinches:
"The words traveled through me like lightning . . ."
"With very moist eyes I said . . ."
"I don't want to join the free love cult. I want to be respectably married."
"I was quite ready to forgive him, of course."
Is there no difference, we begin to wonder, between the Gloria on screen and off? Is all of life to her a drama in which she stars and to which we will ever be the audience, seeing (or reading) only what she chooses us to see and no more?
For in purporting to tell us "all," she has told us nothing of he real self. That would take a writer of merit with the courage to probe below names, dates, events, and surface reactions to the heart of the person hiding inside those stylish clothes.
Perhaps that's an unfair criticism. Perhaps none of us can see ourselves as we really are. Or perhaps she is merely being the enternal sophisticate, always holding some part of herself in reserve.
We are not likely to know, for to surrender her story to another writer would be to lose control of it -- and that's something the "I'll-do-it-myself" woman would find it hard to do.