“I was in a business of make believe to entertain people but I’ll be damned if I want to eat make believe food!” – Gloria Swanson
Back in 1950, Gloria Swanson achieved the comeback of all comebacks when the former silent film queen gave a career defining performance in the classic Sunset Boulevard. Most people today associate her with that film and her role as the reclusive (and delusional) former star, Norma Desmond. What’s forgotten is that Ms. Swanson was a healthy-eating, yoga-practicing feminist way ahead of her time.
Unlike the fictional Norma Desmond, who needed Hollywood and the fans’ adoration as we need oxygen, Gloria was always her own woman — even during a time when women were seen and not heard. The petite star (she was just under five feet tall) blazed out trails for women that we still follow today. She was running a production company before the age of thirty when the goals of most women were to marry and reproduce. She was doing it in a male-dominated entertainment business. Gloria turned female expectations on its ears with a determination so fierce, she routinely threatened any and all men she came into contact with.
She loved fearlessly and passionately. She used her tremendous salary to purchase ridiculously expensive lingerie. (She reportedly spent $10,000 on lingerie alone in 1924, a year when the average annual American income was $2,000.) She embraced her sexual desires. She married six times but never allowed marriage to define her. She never took a husband’s name and she never married out of necessity. And her career always, always came first.
Her fellow thespians may have been indulging in rich foods and expensive alcohol but not Gloria. In the 1920s she began a clean eating program that she stuck with for the remainder of her life. Long before the average person knew about the health dangers of sugar, she was preaching it. She cut processed white sugar and meat from her diet, and eschewed drinking and smoking. She made her own flour out of brown rice. She steamed her oatmeal and grains so they would not lose nutrients. She made her own sugar out of boiling raisins and drank spring water from France. She advocated fasting. She would arrive at Hollywood events with her meal in a brown paper bag or thermos. She would go up to strangers to inquire about their eating habits and promote healthy eating. This woman meant business.
When Hollywood turned its back on her once her popularity began to diminish with the death of silent films, she simply packed her bags and went to New York. This badass chick didn’t get angry over the industry she had made a ton of money for; she reinvented herself by becoming a successful businesswoman. She sponsored pioneering inventors, she licensed patents and produced such creations as a letter copier without carbon paper, a steel cutting tool and a new type of plastic button. She also helped many inventors in Nazi-torn Europe — some Jewish — escape to America.
In the late 1940s she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She chose not to go the-then traditional route of surgery but instead a holistic route of a vegetarian diet, which she claimed “starved” the tumor. She began campaigning against pesticides and chemicals in foods and helped to push through America’s first legislation on the protection of farm produce.
At the same time, she was also appearing on stage, on radio and developing her own television series. And this was all before she had her “return,” as Norma Desmond would say, to the screen in Sunset Boulevard.
So fit and healthy was Gloria that during the filming of Sunset Boulevard, makeup artists had to work on her to make her look her own age. It’s true. Pretend Norma was the same age as real Gloria but she and her co-star William Holden, who was 31 or 32 to Gloria’s 50, looked too close to the same age.
It was after she finished filming Sunset Boulevard that she was turned on to yoga and became a devout practitioner. She claimed that yoga improved her vitality and gave her mental and emotional well-being.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Gloria started her own fashion line in the 1950s — again, laying the foundation for stars of the future. The line — called Forever Young — was affordable, would last until 1981 and focused on the larger, stouter woman, inspired by Gloria’s own mother. Because, you know, in 1951 stores and designers hardly targeted the larger sized woman.
In 1965, La Gloria, who had said that raw vegetables were her beauty secret (she not only ate them but mashed them and applied them to her face) started one of the first organic makeup lines called Essence of Nature Cosmetics.
As a testament to her beauty routine, Gloria appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, at the age of 71. She sat alongside Janis Joplin, who was 27. Gloria’s skin kicked Janis’ ass from here to Sunday. I dare you to watch it. The woman’s skin is freaking unbelievable.
In 1976, at the age of 77, she married for the last time. Her husband, William Dufty, was a writer 17 years her junior. The two had met at a press conference where Gloria, true to form, spoke to the somewhat overweight Dufty about the evils of sugar. He took her advice, shed the weight, wrote a bestselling book called “Sugar Blues,” and married Gloria. When asked about the marriage, the outspoken icon assured the media, “My sex life is very healthy.”
She and her husband became friends with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Who said Gloria Swanson wasn’t trendy? She even testified on Lennon’s behalf at his immigration hearing.
When Gloria died in 1983, she left behind a roadmap for fearless women everywhere. Long before Frank Sinatra sang about doing it “my way,” she had already lived the words.