“When I was a little girl, I used to dream day dreams all day long,” Gloria Swanson once told her secretary. “I dreamed of having all the pretty things that every girl wants. I dreamed of finding happiness in love. The only difference between the average girl and myself was that I set about making my dreams come true.”1
Gloria always lived by her own beliefs. She once stated quite emphatically, “I feel sure that unborn babies pick their parents.”2 She never believed anything was accidental. By that same reasoning, babies probably also pick where they are born. For Gloria, it was in Chicago, Illinois.
* * *
The 1890 U.S. Census reported the nation’s Swedish population to be over 800,000 (causing a major concern in Sweden, as its national population had begun to dwindle). Most Swedish immigrants were young and unmarried Lutherans. Primarily they were farmers. Yet some settled in urban communities such as Chicago’s “Swede Town,” adopting new trades to earn enough money to eventually buy farms. In 1900, Chicago could boast of being the world’s fifth-largest city, a large percentage of its population being of German, Irish, Swedish, and Polish decent. By 1910, the city supported 407 movie houses, twice more per capita than New York City.
Whereas Swedish immigration was fueled by economic opportunity, Polish immigration was ignited by cultural suppression, brought on by an age of industrialization, turning many peasant Polish farmers into migrant workers. By 1900, Chicago and its suburbs were home to one of the largest Polish American communities in the country. One could not walk down a city block without hearing Polish spoken.
Into this melting pot was born Gloria Swanson. Her Swedish-Lutheran paternal grandfather was Jons (Americanized to James or John) Peter Swanson, a shoemaker born in November 1849 in Vastina (Småland), Sweden.3 Jons and his wife Johanna (nee Schoberg) had immigrated to Chicago with John’s younger brother Carl Albert. The family resided in Chicago’s 11th District on West Elizabeth Street. Jons and Johanna would have a total of thirteen children, according to Gloria, including her aunt May and two uncles, Charles and Jonathan.
Joseph Theodore, the oldest of their sons, was born in Chicago in November 1874. He met Adelaide M. Klanowski, born July 15, 1878, in the summer of 1897.4 Adelaide, called Addie, was the daughter of saloonkeeper and shoemaker Herman Klanowski, born in Prussia in 1849, and his wife Bertha May (one of another thirteen children), who was born in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 1856.
Gloria’s great-grandfather May came to America in 1852. His house on LaSalle Street burned to the ground during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the family lost everything. After their marriage in the 1880s Herman and Bertha resided on Clark Street with Bertha’s sister Clara. The family later moved to 213 Ashland Avenue around the turn of the century. Herman and Bertha had two sons, Edward, born January 1873, and Herman Jr., born in 1877. After granddaughter Gloria was born, Bertha divorced Herman Klanowski and remarried a pleasant fellow named Mr. Lew, by whom she had a daughter named Lola.
Joseph T. Swanson was a handsome, lean, and restless man with blue eyes. He had once worked for a local politician, but found politics not his métier. He became a civilian clerk attached to the Army Transport Service. (Later, after serving in Europe during the Great War, he was given the rank of captain.) On January 4, 1898, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Joseph Swanson married Addie Klanowski.
Addie was not well educated. And because she was a bit of a romantic, she chose marriage over life as a Polish working girl, which usually meant toiling in restaurants, laundries, or the garment district. Joseph and Addie moved to a two-story wooden frame house located at 150 Seminary Avenue in Chicago soon after their marriage.5 On the first Monday of Holy Week, March 27, 1899, their only child, a girl, was born.6 The attending physician was thirty-four-year-old Dr. Willis D. Storer, who three years earlier had delivered in Los Angeles the future film dance director Busby Berkeley. The Swansons christened their daughter Gloria May Josephine Swanson. Even as an infant, Baby Gloria was fashionably adorned.
Addie was quite a seamstress, and to distract attention from what she felt were Gloria’s large ears, she fashioned huge bows for her hair and large hats for her to wear. She always saw that her daughter was dressed in clean and fancy dresses, usually with large collars. Despite Bertha’s stern warning that Addie spoiled the child, she willfully did just that, and Joseph reluctantly allowed his wife her way.
“She never dressed the way the other girls dressed,” Gloria’s second daughter, Michelle, would recall in an interview. “She always had something particular. She told me that when she was a child her mother would make something special for her.”7 Though she was a pretty young girl with an olive complexion and almond-shaped blue eyes—perhaps her most attractive feature—Gloria also was her worst critic. “How I hated my teeth,” she remarked years later. “They were so big and square that I always kept my mouth covered with my hand when I smiled.”8 A modest remark, and selectively true.
When Gloria entered grade school she was determined not to pay attention in class, much to the consternation of her second-grade teacher, Bertha L. Wernecke. She would spend her time drawing pictures of herself, her parents, and her pets.9 Addie took her child’s doodlings as God-given talent, and, according to Gloria, enrolled her in classes at the Chicago Art Institute at an early age.
While attending the Art Institute, she wrote, she once peeked into an art class where a half-clad male model was posing. Sex, which was never discussed in front of her, held a deep and insatiable fascination. She expounded on this some years later. “I hated being a child,” she told a movie magazine writer. “I wanted terribly to be grown-up. I was never interested in things of childhood. I felt always that I was simply marking time through an intolerably dull and monotonous prelude to something real, something mysterious and poignant … No doubt sex and marriage and the having of children were the hidden, half-guessed at things that so intrigued me.”10
There exist pictures of little Gloria playing with her dolls. However, as Gloria Swanson, movie star, she would distance herself from her childhood normalcy. “I never played with dolls,” she claimed. “I had as a child no maternal complex. I seldom played with other children. I preferred my own company or the company of adults from whom I might, at some unexpected moment, catch a glimpse of the mystery I continually felt them to know.”11
In 1907 Joseph was transferred to the Key West Barracks in Florida. Addie and Gloria remained in Chicago until the late spring. The importance of her father in Gloria’s early life and his influence on her emotional development cannot be overestimated. Her feelings for men as an adult would be governed by her longings for security and guidance from the man she most desired in her life. “My father was the greatest single influence in my life during the years when my mind was plastic, when it was in the formative state,” she related in the 1920s. “But for him I might have been a stenographer or a clerk in a department store … It was his philosophy in my up-bringing more than anything else which gave me the wisdom, the ability and the strength to take advantage of the opportunities which, later in life, came my way.”12 Her own elder daughter confirmed Joseph’s impact on his only child. “She had a keen mind and curious mind,” Gloria Daly stated. “She always said her father instilled that in her—to search out the answers for a lot of things.”13
Addie and Gloria joined Joseph in the spring of 1908. He met them at the Tampa Bay Hotel in Tampa, and the family spent the day sightseeing. At the Key West Army Base, they soon settled into their new house, which stood on stilts and had a large veranda.
Gloria loved Florida because of the sunshine and the feel of the tropics. She also discovered she liked to sing. Attending a Protestant church, she was asked by her Sunday school teacher to warble a solo at a service. Imitating Addie’s singing voice, eight-year-old Gloria somehow got through “The Rosary.” With that and the encouragement of a local actress named Venice Hayes, she sang again in a show staged at the Odd Fellows Hall, on Caroline Street. She chose “As the World Rolls On,” sans accompaniment, as no one was available to play the piano. Amateur night in the Keys for sure, but she felt like a star, soaking up the attention.
On October 11, 1909, a major hurricane hit the Keys. The women and children on the base had been evacuated, Addie and Gloria departing by boat to New York. They then traveled by train to Chicago, where their hurricane survival story made Gloria popular among the other children. At the beginning of the summer Addie and Gloria rejoined Joseph in Key West.
In 1910 Joseph was restationed, and the family moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico. They would live there until 1913, with Addie and Gloria taking a boat to and from Florida and a train back and forth from New York or Florida to Chicago for visits. Gloria’s education would suffer.
“I was in 16 different grammar schools,” Gloria recalled. “Then I’d be whisked away, because my father was in the Army and I was an Army brat. I’d spend six months of the year in Chicago with my mother and grandmother, and six months in tropical countries with my father. I was always being put forward a grade, put backward a grade—on a treadmill. I don’t think I learned one
solid substantial thing in school.”14
During their times together Joseph spoke intelligently to his only child, not imitating childish “baby talk” as did Addie. In Puerto Rico of a warm and heavily scented evening, when the heavenly Southern Cross was on display, the balmy trade winds wafting the air, Joseph would tell Gloria the names of stars and explain the conundrum of infinity. Gloria longed to explore the unknown, and these moments with her father she never forgot.
Gloria wore her hair long in pigtails or full down her back, sometimes with bangs, always with a large hat or with a bow atop her head. Pictures taken on board ship and in San Juan with other army children show her leading a pet goat and holding a blond doll. Gloria felt very special indeed. “I was an Army brat,” she once remarked. “I hung around adults a lot but was shy with children my own age.”15
Gloria’s first acting role was in a public school production of The American Girl,
in which she also sang a song backed by a chorus of other girls. A young beau sent her flowers, and her father posted a star on her dressing room door with her name on it—“Gloria Swanson,” not Glory as everyone called her—which bolstered her importance. Thirteen-year-old Gloria knew she was good, and decided then and there on the stage of the San Juan Opera House to become an opera diva.
Gloria had been enrolled in private school in San Juan but convinced her parents to allow her to attend public school so she could perform in plays. She was also possibly motivated by the opportunity to be around boys. She had recently received a letter from young, blond Carlton Swiggett from New York, whom she had met while he was vacationing in Puerto Rico. She was determined to be his girlfriend.
As she approached puberty Gloria was very aware of her burgeoning sexuality. “Looking back on my life,” she related in an unedited recording in 1955, “what I tried to do was to find satisfaction for my physical as well as the mental … And this was a very difficult thing to do … and my father was probably the person that I was in love with … I can remember when I was quite young, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, the awakening pertaining to—sex. I can remember he smelled good to me and I already associate—because I have the nose of a rabbit—I always associate this sense of smell with people that I like … Also I looked up to him because there was nothing that I wanted to know that he didn’t seem to be able to answer.”16
Through her father Gloria met Medora Grimes, a year older than she, from Staten Island, New York, whose wealthy family Joseph had shown around Puerto Rico. Before Medora sailed back to New York, Gloria promised to visit her. Her self-assurance knew no boundaries. “I was enormously self-confident,” she later told a journalist. “I always expected to be invited to everything and to be the center of things when I was invited. If a play was given, in school, at a club, in any gathering I was confident that I would be asked to be the star performer. I was the invincible and central factor of the universe, I thought.”17
In 1913 Joseph was stationed at Governors Island off Manhattan, and Gloria and her mother moved back to Chicago to live with Grandma Lew. Gloria was reluctantly enrolled into eighth grade at Chicago’s Lincoln School. Though she was never very good at disciplined study, on June 26, 1914, she graduated, effectively ending her formal education. She was fifteen years old.
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Michael Shearer
STEPHEN MICHAEL SHEARER is the author of Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life and Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr. He has written for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and is also a former model and actor, having appeared on stage, television, and in film. Shearer currently resides in Minnesota and New York City.