It’s the Pictures That Got Small

Rachel Syme in Bookforum:

One evening in early 1950, the film mogul Louis B. Mayer hosted a small dinner party for the actress Gloria Swanson. She was fifty-one years old, which was not considered an ancient, crone-like age, even in an industry that values youth above all else. Still, she was in need of a professional boost. Mayer’s small soiree was something of a ceremonial gesture. Here was one of the last tycoons of classic Hollywood extending his hand and his hospitality to an actress who was tottering, on marabou-covered heels, back into the business after a decade-long fermata.

Swanson was one of the highest-paid—and most dazzlingly famous—stars of the silent-film era, after signing with Cecil B. DeMille when she was only nineteen. If Mary Pickford was America’s Sweetheart, and Theda Bara its Goth Vamp Id, then Gloria Swanson was the Fashionable Cool Girl, gallivanting around Hollywood in peacock plumage and beaded tassels. She wore clothing from Paris and shoes from Italy and rarely appeared in public without being camera-ready, her saucer eyes rimmed with kohl. She was a proto-influencer, the kind of celebrity who could get thousands of women to buy a brand of soap simply by mentioning it in a sidebar in Photoplay.

She was also smart enough to know when her value had exceeded that of the men she was making money for.

More here.