By Stanley Paul
When you mention the name Gloria Swanson today, the first thing people think of is the Norma Desmond character from the film Sunset Boulevard coming down the grand staircase saying, “I’m ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille!” Although she did have several queen-like characteristics, she was nothing like that at all. She didn’t live in the past, she was always thinking about the future.
I first met Gloria Swanson while asked to compose the background music for a show she was going to be doing at the old Ivanhoe Theatre here in Chicago. We made a date to discuss the music, and she arrived in my suite at the Ambassador East Hotel. She was a tiny woman, very attractive, wearing little makeup, sporting a chic suit with a miniskirt and black knee-high boots. She made herself comfortable in my living room while I went to the kitchen to get her a glass of water. When I returned to the room I was surprised to see Ms. Swanson moving furniture around in my living room. She told me she was setting up the scene the way the stage would look for the play. She even carried my piano bench away, prompting my sudden thought, “What the hell am I supposed to sit on?” Soon the entire living room had been rearranged. I hunched over the piano trying to play Jerry Lee Lewis-style, and she was saying, “I shall walk here and will need twenty seconds of background music, and then I’ll move over here. You need to play while I’m walking, but stop when I raise my arm.” Hunched over the piano without a piano bench, I thought to myself, “How long is this going to last?” We got through setting-up the background music and made a date for a few days later to see what I had come up with. Trying to straighten up after she left, I spent the next few days reading everything I could find out about her.
One thing I discovered was that she sang in her first talkie movie, TheTrespasser, shot in 1929, which was her sound debut. The song was Love, Your Magic Spell is Everywhere. On our next date, I asked her if she would sing the song for me. I was surprised, she had a good voice… maybe not great, but not bad either. I said to her, “Gloria, have you ever thought about doing a record album?” She responded, “What a good idea that could be! I never thought of it!” Immediately, we started discussing the various songs she could sing for the album. Everything was going along wonderfully, until I opened my big mouth: “Gloria, I have an idea for the cover. You could be photographed in color and the background could be all those black and white stills from your wonderful days in Hollywood.”
That was all I had to say. Her eyes widened, her arms stretched out to the side almost like she looked from the movie Sunset Boulevard, and she exclaimed, “I COULD WEAR RED!” From that moment on, all she was interested in discussing was what she would wear for that damned cover! We never did make the album!
A week later she called me at the hotel: “I would like to go to that place where all my cast members go after the show. Would you escort me?”
“You mean Punchinello’s?” I said.
“Yes, that sounds about right,” she responded.
“It’s a nightclub isn’t it? How should I dress?”
I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t so much a nightclub; it was just a casual joint on Rush Street where all the cast members from all the shows would go to relax after their performances.
“Gloria,” I said, “they dress very casual: shirts and blue jeans. I don’t think you’d like it at all.” Thinking about it, I don’t think the word casual had ever been a part of Gloria Swanson’s vocabulary. But, she didn’t want to be left out, so casual or not, she was going to Punchinello’s.
The next evening, I was finishing up my last set at the Pump Room and the maître-d’ Victor gave me a signal that Ms. Swanson was waiting in the lobby for me. When I arrived in the lobby after finishing my set, there she was: A Vision, wearing a hat, gloves, diamonds, and dripping in sables.
“Casual…” I thought, smiling to myself. “She’s ready to make the grand entrance at Ciro’s, circa 1940!” Rather than changing into something casual myself, I stayed in my tux, hailed a cab, and we were on our way to Punchinello’s.
In the cab, she exclaimed, “I DON’T WANT ANYBODY TO MAKE A FUSS OVER ME! I just want to blend in with the crowd.”
So what did the madam who wished to “just blend in” do? She walked straight to the table beside the piano, the table with a spotlight directly over it. With every eye in the place looking at her, she turned to me, “Stanley, they’re staring at me! I don’t know how they always find me, but they do!”