“Gloria Swanson” by Steve Starr

Gloria Swanson

by Steve Starr

Editor’s Note: Steve Starr is the author of the column “Starrlight,” which features biographies and stories of Hollywood luminaries from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. He has graciously given permission to reprint his column on Gloria Swanson.

Gloria Swanson

Uptown’s Sweetheart, Gloria Swanson. Image courtesy Steve Starr.

In 1922, the stunning Gloria Swanson declared, “I have gone through a long apprenticeship. I have gone through enough of being a nobody. I have decided that when I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment the star! Everybody from the studio gateman to the highest executive will know it.”

Gloria May Josephine Svensson was born to Joseph and Adelaide in Chicago on March 27, 1897. Her maternal grandmother attended the birth and remarked to her daughter, “She’s beautiful.” Then she took the doctor aside to worriedly ask him, “But aren’t her ears very large?” Joseph was employed by the U.S. Army transport service. Gloria spent most of her childhood on army posts, moving to Key West at age eight and to San Juan at age eleven until at age fifteen her family settled back in Chicago on the second floor at what was then 341 West Grace Street, which was just east of Clark Street, before the address system was changed. It is believed that sometime after Wrigley Field was built in 1914, the home was moved around the corner to 3710 North Kenmore. Over sixty years later, when Swanson was visiting Chicago and searched for her childhood home, she could not find it. At this time, it still stands.

“I have decided that when I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment the star!”—Gloria Swanson, 1922

Mother Svensson arranged singing lessons for her daughter, who also attended the Chicago Art Institute for a time, and Joseph bought and operated the Relic House, located at 900 North Clark Street, across from Lincoln Park, a “Refreshment Hall” and “Cafe and Beer Garden,” which was built and decorated with wood, molten iron, ceramics, and relics salvaged from the Great Chicago Fire in 1872, and there was an adjoining rental library. The bulding was demolished in 1929.

One day in 1914, Aunt Inga took Gloria to visit Chicago’s Essanay Movie Studios at 1333-1345 West Argyle Street. Essanay was named after its founders, James K. Spoor and Gilbert Anderson, using their last names’ initials, S & A. Today, the entrance to the old studio, which is now St. Augustine College, remains intact, adorned with the original Terra Cotta design that includes two colorful Indian faces flanking the Essanay name. Inga was a friend of Mr. Spoor. While at the studio, Gloria asked if she could be an extra in a crowd scene “just for the heck of it.” A director who saw her thought the 16-year-old girl was vibrant and pretty and expanded a role for her in the short film At the End of a Perfect Day. Later that year, Essanay hired the young beauty as a “stock player,” for four days’ work at $3.25 a week. Soon she became a “guaranteed player,” which was someone on call for any role at any time. Foreseeing movie stardom, Svensson renamed herself Swanson and appeared in dozens of short films before her first full length role in 1915 in the awkwardly titled The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket. The future fashion plate was thrilled at making enough money to buy all the clothes she loved.

Gloria Swanson

An early studio portrait of Gloria Swanson.

Spoor and Anderson began to tire of lugging their equipment around to make movies on the expansive plains of Rogers Park and decided to open a west coast Essanay Studios. California, with its orange groves, palm trees, orchards, and refreshing climate conducive to year-round filmaking, beckoned most of the New York and Chicago film colonies. While visiting Hollywood, Anderson discovered a comedian named Charlie Chaplin. He offered Chaplin a then enormous salary of $1,250 a week, luring him away from the Keystone Studios to Chicago to appear in his movies. Chaplin commuted to Essanay while he lived in the beautiful Brewster Apartments at Diversey Parkway and Pine Grove with its elaborate grillwork elevators and frosted glass block floors in the atrium balconies. Soon, he built two charming homes that mirrored each other, one a redstone and one a graystone, one used for himself and the other for his guests, at 4901 and 4900 North Glenwood, where they still stand just around the corner from Essanay.

In 1915, Gloria Swanson was given a small uncredited part in Charlie Chaplin’s very first Essanay film, aptly titled His First Job. After a day of filming, Chaplin, and sometimes Swanson, stopped for a drink at the new, elegant Green Mill Gardens, later the site of the Green Mill Lounge, on Broadway at Lawrence Avenue, with its gorgeous outdoor sunken gardens that hosted cabaret shows during the summer months. Soon, Chaplin became a big star, but he disliked Chicago’s winter weather and wanted to return to Hollywood where he was offered an astounding amount of money. To keep Chaplin in Chicago, Spoor tried to blackmail him with photos of his mother, who was insane from syphillis and dying in a sanitarium, threatening to send the pictures to the Chicago Tribune if he didn’t stay. When Chaplin resisted the blackmail and left Essanay, it was the beginning of the end of the once-thriving studio. After Chaplin left, other Essanay stars began heading west. The Uptown neighborhood surrounding Essanay continued to thrive as an entertainment destination which offered the elegant French Renaissance style 2,500 seat Riviera Theatre with its eight storefronts and 36 “Bachelor Apartments,” the gorgeous Spanish Baroque style 4,381 seat Uptown Theatre, the spectacular Mediterranean style Aragon Ballroom, and the magnificent Rainbo Gardens, with the Rainbo Room that could accommodate 2,000 diners, 1,500 dancers, and famous entertainers and orchestras on its revolving stage. Lawrence Avenue was like a highway to the stars.

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