Hollywood diva Gloria Swanson gave Akron a close-up


Movie star Gloria Swanson played the role of a Hollywood diva during her visit to Akron.

It was a part she knew well.

Fresh off her Oscar-nominated performance in the classic “Sunset Boulevard,” the actress came to Ohio in September 1952 on a 26-city tour to promote her new line of clothing. She scheduled two fashion shows at Polsky’s department store and booked a room at the Mayflower Hotel.

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Innkeepers later called Swanson “the most demanding guest ever to sleep there.”

She stood 4-foot-11 but gained a couple of inches by wearing heels. She had a regal air about her and spoke distinctly, enunciating every syllable. By local accounts, she was a breathtaking beauty with brown hair, blue eyes, red lips, arched eyebrows, a beauty mark on her left chin and a dazzling smile.

It was easy for casual spectators to confuse Swanson with Norma Desmond, the character she played in director Billy Wilder’s 1950 drama “Sunset Boulevard.” Portraying a faded actress hoping for a big comeback, Swanson delivered memorable lines that are still quoted today.

“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.”

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”

And most famously: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Gloria Swanson and William Holden star in director Billy Wilder's 1950 classic "Sunset Boulevard."

A Chicago native, Swanson had appeared in movies since 1915. She became one of the greatest stars of the silent film era and credited filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille with her fame.

“I rode in on his success,” she admitted.

After more than a decade of declining stardom, “Sunset Boulevard” put her back on the map.

In Akron, Swanson demanded two limousines in constant attendance. She required private elevator service at the hotel. She refused to eat meat, prohibited salt and declined white bread. She ate eggs from only one farm in the country and had cartons air-expressed from Maryland.

Swanson would not drink water from a tap. The hotel was required to provide bottled water, which was not as easy as it is today.

“I make a different town every two days,” she explained, “and if you keep changing water that fast, well — you get an upset tummy, you know.”

Gloria Swanson grants interview

Beacon Journal reporter Ken Nichols was feeling nervous after landing an interview with the actress in her hotel suite Sept. 18, 1952. The five-time divorcee’s diva reputation had preceded her.

Swanson immediately put him at ease as she ushered him into the room.

“I don’t bite or scream or yell,” she said.

The Hollywood star’s friendliness caught him off guard. Judging by his words, Nichols may have been a little smitten.

“She’s little — as she puts it, ‘just two inches over five feet,” he wrote. “Her head, hips and bust belong on a larger woman, her legs on a smaller one.

“But the mismatched appendages put together in Gloria added up to a wonderfully harmonious thing because — at 53 — she has the bright, clear eyes and smile — and the vivacity — of a girl of 26.”

Gloria Swanson, featured in a 1922 edition of Photoplay, was one of the biggest stars of silent films.

Swanson took off a black stole to reveal a gray dress lined in taffeta and trimmed in black and white with a red petticoat showing at the hemline. She wore about 20 gold bracelets and a pearl ring.

Just as the interview was beginning, Swanson noticed a bouquet of flowers that someone had left wrapped on a table.

“Oh, my,” she said. “They’ll dry out.”

She called for a maid: “Get a vase, a squatty one — not so long as wide.”

And then she returned to the conversation.

It was a wide-ranging interview that covered Swanson’s movie career and her role as a mother and grandmother.

Nichols dared to bring up an often-repeated anecdote from Hollywood. In the early 1930s, gossip columnist Lemuel F. Parton wrote that Swanson had returned home after a long absence in Europe. She noticed a little girl and took a shine to her.

“What a beautiful child!” she told a maid.

“That’s your daughter, Ma’am,” the maid replied.

Such elitist indifference. Absolute hogwash, Swanson said. The columnist made it up. 

“The idiot,” she said. “My children were always with me.”

If it’s any consolation, no one knows the name Lemuel F. Parton today, but Gloria Swanson’s name is legendary.

The actress gave a candid reply when Nichols asked about her ill-fated marriages.

“I was never actually married in the sense that I played the wife,” Swanson said. “I was always the supporter of the family and I don’t believe that ever works out.”

Asked if she would ever marry again, Swanson mused: “I don’t know, I suppose so. I would like to lead the life of a normal woman. I started working when I was 14½ and I was always the mainstay of my family. I had no one to help me much. My father died when I was 23. My mother was never interested in the movie profession.” 

She told a funny tale about taking her mother, Adelaide Swanson, to a big premiere in Hollywood. Spotlights swept the sky, fans jammed the sidewalks, flash bulbs popped as cameramen took pictures.

“I don’t see how you stand this sort of thing,” her mother told her. “Next time, let me go by myself and just enjoy the movie.”

Polsky's department store advertises Gloria Swanson's visit to Akron for two style shows in 1952.

Fashion shows at Polsky’s store

More than 7,000 people packed the fashion shows at 2:15 and 4:15 p.m. the next day on Polsky’s third floor. 

Akron Mayor Charles Slusser presented Swanson with the key to the city.

“It’s the most beautiful I have ever received,” she said.

The audience applauded as the Hollywood star narrated the shows. Models displayed Gloria Swanson Originals made of wool, Orlon and wool blends, crepe and soft taffeta.

The sizes for women were 12¼ to 24½ and 12 to 20 for misses. They ranged in price from $20 to $30 (about $216 to $324 today).

Beacon Journal fashion writer Marion Geyer reported that Swanson wore a black yarn dyed taffeta dress appliqued with swirls of taffeta ribbon and also a taffeta hat.

“She made her entrance through pale blue chiffon curtains carrying an armful of her favorite flowers — pink and red carnations,” Geyer wrote.

“Miss Swanson does not particularly care for orchids.”

Referring to her petite stature, the actress offered a few style tricks. Because she had a short neck, she avoided wearing collars. A skirt that hangs a little longer in the back will give a taller look, she said. Belts placed lower give the illusion of height.

“Feel tall, think tall and dress tall,” Swanson advised.

Ten years later, almost to the day, she starred in a sequel on the third floor of O’Neil’s department store across Main Street from Polsky’s. She introduced her fall line of apparel with style shows at 12:30 and 3 p.m. Sept. 21, 1962.

Maintaining her diva reputation, Swanson expressed displeasure with her Akron accommodations and bolted for a hotel in Cleveland.

For lunch, she ate an avocado from her purse.

Hollywood icon Gloria Swanson revisits Akron in 1962 for a fashion show at O'Neil's department store. For lunch, she ate an avocado out of her purse.

Swanson wore heavy rouge, blue eyeshadow and false eyelashes. Beacon Journal fashion writer Nancy Yockey called her “the most beautiful grandmother in the world.”

Her fashion advice that year was simple: “Women today should wear what they like. I love the loose look. Besides, I get tired of holding my breath under tight things.”

At the fashion shows, Swanson acted out a two-minute scene from “Sunset Boulevard.”

She thanked the crowd for helping make her a movie star.

“The only reason people know us is because we’re put in a tin can like sardines and shipped around the world,” she told the women in the audience.

As an afterthought, she added: “And tell your husbands I appreciate their support for these many years.”

Gloria Swanson was 84 when she died April 4, 1983, in New York. She was survived by her sixth husband, children and grandchildren.

At her final appearance in Akron, the Hollywood star told women that it was OK to grow older.

“Kick up a lot of dust as you go along,” she said. “If you do, Father Time won’t be able to see you.”

Spoken like a true diva.

Mark J. Price can be reached at mprice@thebeaconjournal.com.

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