Gloria Swanson’s Not So Hollywood Wedding Night

Gloria Swanson photographed by Edward Steichen, 1924.

In a series of wildly popular films Gloria Swanson made with Cecile B. De Mille between 1919 and 1921 the iconography of Hollywood glamour was formally codified.

The visual language of glamour—and it was purely visual, films were still silent—is characterized by stunning women wearing one gorgeous outfit after another, placed within elegant sets that defy practicality in favor of a dream-like universe. In De Mille’s Swanson movies, the decadent bathrooms were prominently featured; the massive sunken tubs, marble walls and floors made audiences gasp with pleasure.

Swanson’s costumes often weighed close to her petite 90lb. frame. But Swanson soldiered on bearing her burden with nary a complaint. For the sake of authenticity, De Mille accessorized his leading lady in wildly expensive jewels that only added to the fearsome weight Swanson had to bear with a regal posture.

For an army brat raised on spartan outposts in Key West and Puerto Rico, Swanson’s rise to superstardom—she was as big as Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin—was a classic American dream, but played out in Hollywood, a peculiar universe in the process of inventing itself as the dream capital of the world.

But of course, the glamour machine that Swanson helped invent veiled some frightening scenarios. And Gloria Swanson’s hasty marriage to actor Wallace Beery was a gruesome nightmare.

Swanson was just breaking into pictures when she met Beery. She was shy and withdrawn whereas he was the life of the party.

Beery, under contract to Bronco Billy at the time, advised Swanson on all aspects of her career. He told her how to play scenes, how to read a contract, how to meet the right people. Normally a drunken bully, Wallace Beery put on the best show of his life as he courted Swanson with a sensitivity and decency that was poisonously seductive.

Beery was a shrewd player. Gloria’s mother, Addie, was always around. Separated from Gloria’s father, Addie was alternately depressed, bitter, and seeking romance using Gloria as a proxy.

Thus, in 1916, when Beery proposed marriage Gloria accepted and Addie eagerly gave permission to the impulsive couple.

Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson, 1916.

Addie’s permission was not just a function of polite society. Addie needed to sign off legally on the marriage because Wallace Beery was 30 years-old and Gloria Swanson was just 17, barely out of childhood.

Gloria and Addie squeezed into the right-hand barrel seat of Beery’s roadster and speeded—at about 35 mph.—to Pasadena.

With no legal hitch the actors were married by a local minister.

The threesome found a hotel and Beery paid for two adjoining suites. Addie would be right next door for her young and innocent daughter’s wedding night.

In Swanson on Swanson, one of the best Hollywood memoirs, Gloria Swanson describes the dreadful scene:

 I was brushing my hair when he came into the room. He gave me a look that made me turn away, but he didn’t say anything. Then he turned out the light and in the darkness pulled me to him. I gave a coquettish little command to stop that I thought would make him laugh. Still he said nothing. He turned me and pushed me backward until I fell on the bed. He fell beside me, and there was nothing romantic about the way he began to repeat that I was driving him crazy.

He was raking his hands over me and pulling at my nightie until I heard it rip. I pleaded with him to stop, to wait, to turn on the light. His beard was scraping my skin and his breath smelled. He kept repeating obscene things and making advances with his hand and tongue while he turned his body this way and that and awkwardly undid his buttons and squirmed out of his clothes.

Then he forced my body into position and began hurting me, hurting me terribly. I couldn’t stand it. I begged him to stop, to listen to me, and finally when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I screamed. He told me to be quiet, not to wake the whole hotel, and he said it in a voice of quiet, filthy conspiracy. The pain became so great that I thought I must be dying. I couldn’t move for the pain. When he finally rolled away, I could feel blood everywhere.

Gloria’s mother, just a few feet away during the rape, did not come to Gloria’s aid, nor did mother and daughter ever talk about that night.

Gloria’s career soared while Beery’s faltered.  She supported him. But more than a career, Gloria yearned for children, a family. Soon Gloria was pregnant and overjoyed. But Beery, wary of losing his meal ticket, tricked her into swallowing an abortifacient. She lost their child, and in agony for days, almost died.

Beery and Swanson were divorced in 1919.

Swanson married six more times. When her movie career was dead and gone, Gloria scored her greatest success in Billy Wilder’s brilliant Sunset Boulevard (1950) in which she plays Norma Desmond, a forgotten, half-mad star of silent cinema.

At the time, Swanson was but 51 years-old.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in Ava Gardner’s Not So Hollywood Wedding Night with Mickey Rooney.

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  1. Barry
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    In fairness, it should be noted that Wallace Beery had an absolutely terrific career until the time of his death in 1949.

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    • Shyla
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      What does “in fairness” mean? “In balance, although he brutalized his young bride, he still found acting jobs until he died”? “We need to be sure to note that he managed to keep his career even though he was a moral reprobate”? 

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  2. Bill Brandt
    Posted August 4, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of the other movie star you mentioned months ago – Ester Ralston? Fame and fortune – while you have it – aren’t everything to many it would seem.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted August 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink


      Esther Ralston wrote one of my very favorite Hollywood memoirs Some Day We’ll Laugh. She was a lovely leading lady who was on the cusp of stardom but for various reasons her career node-dived. She married three times and each of her husbands tried to kill her.

      I wrote a series for this blog and Big Hollywood about her.

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  3. Posted August 4, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how unusual this wedding night was in 1916, when women were still considered by many men to be their property?  Sure, we’ve made serious advances in the social equality of women in western societies, but has much changed in the fundamentalist Muslim world where woman must remain veiled and can’t be associating with non-related males for fear of stoning?

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    • Pax ad Israelum
      Posted August 5, 2011 at 5:01 am | Permalink

      I see someone got high marks in Women’s Studies!
      Unfortunately, that’s a myth, just like the “let them eat cake” thing about Marie Antoinette, and just like it, designed to prop up the new regime by illustrating the “bad old days” under the old one.
      While women’s status under the laws was bad back then (and had been since the Renaissance, which revived Roman views on the sexes), custom provided an antidote. In virtually any traditional culture, if you did that to your wife, and your male in-laws found out about it, they found you, they knocked you down, and they stomped on your head until teeth stopped flying up.

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      • Rahel
        Posted August 7, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        Pax ad Israelum, not so much, from what I’ve read. These days (and, I’m sure, in the past as well), the woman’s family evidently decides in most cases that the marriage (read: alliance) is more important than their kinswoman’s well-being and simply leaves her to her fate. Nonie Darwish tells of her niece, who tried to get out of her marriage many times — she’d been married extremely young — who was ordered back by her family time after time and finally took her own life at the age of 25. Dr. Phyllis Chesler writes about many other similar cases.
        From much of what I’ve read, a woman who tries to escape an abusive marriage in those cultures will be captured and returned to her husband for death or mutilation, or honor-murdered by her relatives. Those relatives won’t protect her — they’ll see her as a source of shame to the family and deal
        And that’s not from taking courses in women’s studies. That’s from reading contemporary news reports.

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        • Rahel
          Posted August 7, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

          (oops) — Those relatives won’t protect her — they’ll see her as a source of shame to the family and deal with her accordingly.

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  4. Shyla
    Posted August 4, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    It really is shocking that so many “stage mothers” have been willing to sacrifice their children on the altars of their own personal gods. Where would these stars learn any decency when their own parents, who should be willing to die to protect them, are willing to sell them to the highest bidder?

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted August 5, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink


      Swanson’s mother was not the typical Hollywood stage mother. She was, in my reading, more of an insecure woman with great social pretentions. In any case, Addie failed to protect her daughter. Gloria knew it, nevertheless she adored her mother.

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  5. Johnny
    Posted August 4, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Norma Desmond should have won Swanson the Oscar if only for being brave enough to take the role.  Billie Dawn was a nice role but Swanson made Desmond an iconic character.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted August 5, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink


      Yes, Swanson really should have won the Oscar, but a look at the history of Oscar reveals that the Academy usually gets it wrong.

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  6. Pax ad Israelum
    Posted August 4, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    “Not so Hollywood”? No, I’m pretty sure this is exactly Hollywood’s concept of wedding-nights, and marriage in general. Go read “Welcome to the Monkey-House” by Kurt Vonnegut, for further evidence—these people really do think that sort of thing was the norm, and only their precious exalted selves are any different.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted August 5, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Pax ad:

      I have to admit that Vonnegut is one writer whose work I’m allergic to. I was forced to read one or two of his books in college and just hated them.


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      • Pax ad Israelum
        Posted August 5, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

        In our silly younger days, my sister and I both read most of his books—”Welcome to the Monkey House” was the one that turned me off to him once and for all. But your reaction is not an allergy. “Allergic” means your immune system misidentifies something as a pathogen; Vonnegut’s work definitely is one. He claimed Dresden makes the Allies just as bad as the Nazis—never mind the difference of death-toll between that and the Holocaust, there’s a huge moral difference between “burn your enemy’s city in rage or desperation” and “carefully make him line up, like at the DMV, to be murdered”.

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  7. Posted August 4, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    It’s funny you posted this, Robert, since I just finished writing a scene with a gossip columnist who was telling this story to some extras on the Cleopatra set.  It’s a wonder her wedding night didn’t turn her off to men entirely.  And it all seems – speaking in a strictly utilitarian sense – to have been a big waste of time.  You would think a star like Beery would have no trouble getting any desperate starlet into bed with him; was Gloria just that much of an irresistible treat?
    And I love that Steichen photo; I saw it in public was last summer at a production of Sunset Boulevard at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, where Norma’s walls were covered with Swanson photos as well as at least two of Pola Negri that I caught!  I knew the difference, but I wondered whether the set designer didn’t or if it were a subtle joke for any silent fans in the audience.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted August 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink


      Gloria Swanson matured into a forceful woman who knew her mind. Unfortunately she had terrible, horrible, very bad taste in men—which is not all that unusual in Hollywood. I’m sure you know that Theda Bara’s husband Charles Brabin was widely known as an oily lech who regularly cheated on Theda.

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