“I was in a business of make believe to entertain people but I’ll be darned if I want to eat make believe food! “
No character quite like Norma Desmond strikes dread in the heart of the celebrated and aging quite like this delusional, Champagne swilling, caviar nibbling faded star in Billy Wilder‘s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. (1950) But Gloria Swanson was the complete opposite of the character most people identify her with. She was a pioneering proponent of macrobiotic diets, she did not drink, smoke, eat meat or much sugar, and she certainly did not live in the past.
She was married six times and her marriages made headlines. Throughout her life and her many marriages, Swanson was always known as Miss Swanson. Though she legally took the names of her husbands, her own personality and fame overshadowed them. Her first husband was the actor Wallace Beery (1885 – 1949) whom she married on her 17th birthday. In her memoir Swanson On Swanson (1980), Swanson wrote that Beery raped her on their wedding night. She became pregnant by him in 1917. Not wanting her to have the child, he tricked her into drinking a concoction that induced an abortion and although they still worked together for the same studio, they divorced two years later. In the 1930s Berry was MGM’s highest paid actor.
Next, in 1919 she married Herbert K. Somborn the owner of the Brown Derby restaurant. Their divorce in 1925 was sensational and led to Swanson having a “morals clause” added to her studio contract. Somborn accused her of adultery with thirteen men.
Her third marriage was to Henri de la Falaise, a minor royal with a title and little else to recommend him. While still married to Henri, Swanson had an affair with the married Joseph P. Kennedy.
In 1927, while Kennedy and Swanson were producing the financially ruinous Queen Kelly, Swanson became interested in healthy living. Swanson:
“I thought I had ulcers because if you are a producer, you are supposed to have ulcers…”
She went to a doctor who had her describe all the food she had eaten the night before. He asked her: “mentally picture putting all this food in a pail and then tell me what animal, including a pig, would eat it?”
She became a self-described “health food nut”. She was big on brown rice, using it to make flour. She an early proponent of macrobiotic diets and raw food, claiming to only steam her oatmeal and grains so they would not lose their nutrients. She drank spring water from France, made her sugar from boiling organic raisins, and touted the benefit of frequent fasting, saying:
“After one fast I was on for 10 days I swore I’d never eat again. I was just going to eat petals of flowers.”
When she retired from films in 1935 and moved to NYC, Swanson became showbiz’s favorite eccentric, preaching the benefits of yoga and clean living, chastising strangers for eating junk food on the street, and bringing her own lunches to the many events to which she was invited. She lobbied against pesticides, chemicals and hormones in food. She spoke before Congress and helped push through America’s first legislation protecting farm produce.
Her interest in healthy eating led to her sixth and happiest marriage. At a 1965 press conference, she witnessed William Dufty (1916–2002) a chubby young writer, pop a sugar cube. She approached him, saying: “That stuff is poison. I won’t have it in my house, let alone my body.”
Dufty was a book writer and newspaperman, the ghost-writer of Billie Holiday’s autobiography Lady Sings The Blues, and at the New York Post he was assistant to the editor from 1951 to 1960. In 1967, the two were living together as a couple.
In 1975, Dufty wrote the bestseller Sugar Blues which claimed refined sugar was a drug, and the couple toured the country to promote it. With a mutual interest on healthy eating, they became great friends with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, with Swanson testifying on Lennon’s behalf at his immigration hearing.
Swanson told actor Dirk Benedict about macrobiotic diets when he was battling prostate cancer at a very early age. He had refused conventional therapies and credited this kind of diet and healthy eating with his recovery. Benedict turned 73-years-old this month.
She underwent facial rejuvenation injections in the 1930s, decades before Botox was invented. When diagnosed with cancer in 1947 she rejected surgery, curing herself with a vegetarian diet to “starve the tumor away”. And, in 1966 she launched her own line of organic make-up.
“It’s better to eat the bugs than poison!” (referring to the benefits of organic produce)
Swanson lived to be 84-years-old. Duffy died in 2002 at 86. Sugar Blues is still in print.
Gloria Swanson’s Butterless Devil’s Food Cake
1.5 cups unsweetened chocolate powder
1 cup milk
4 eggs, separated
1.5 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1.5 cups sugar
Icing or jam
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Dissolve chocolate in the warmed milk and let cool. Beat egg yolks with sugar then add to the chocolate mixture. Mix flour and baking powder into a separate bowl and add gradually to the chocolate. Whip egg whites until stiff, and gently fold into the chocolate mixture. Divide between two cake pans and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then turn out onto cooling trays. When cake is cold, sandwich layers together with icing or jam.