Coming Out of the Archives is a selection of materials curated by students in my spring 2017 Queer Archives class. The materials can be seen in the Ransom Center’s Stories to Tell exhibition that features rotating highlights from the collections. [Editor’s note: the items are no longer on view, as the display cases have rotated] [Read more…] about Coming out of the archives
Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of people at the Harry Ransom Center.
Joan Sibley has filled a variety of roles during her 25 years at the Ransom Center. Now, as Senior Archivist, she is responsible for the completion of retrospective conversion cataloging of manuscript collections, grant writing, and management of grant projects. [Read more…] about Meet the Staff: Archivist Joan Sibley
One of the most unusual items in the Ransom Center’s collections resides within the Gloria Swanson archive, and it’s as challenging as it is amusing. The “sugar coffin,” as it has become known, was given to Swanson by avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, in response to a lawsuit filed by Swanson against Anger.
A little backstory: When Anger wrote his salacious tell-all-book Hollywood Babylon he included a chapter on the death of Lana Turner’s boyfriend, mobster Johnny Stompanato, who was killed by Turner’s daughter. In the chapter, Anger mistakenly quotes Swanson as saying Turner was “not even an actress… she is only a trollop.” Anger was apparently unaware that when it was first printed by Hollywood gossip columnist Walter Winchell, Swanson had the quote retracted.
When Swanson was alerted to Anger’s use of the false quote she filed a libel suit against him and his publishers, but before the verdict was handed down, Swanson began receiving hate mail from Anger, including voodoo dolls and mutilated photographs with pins stuck through them. Anger knew Swanson was a serious health fanatic (William Dufty, her sixth husband, wrote the book Sugar Blues), so he filled a green, foot-and-a-half-long coffin with sugar, writing Hic Jacet (Here Lies) Gloria Swanson on its lid.
For the Ransom Center, the challenge was how to preserve a coffin full of sugar? The Center’s Curator of Film wanted to keep the object in its original form, so the coffin was encapsulated in Mylar to prevent the sugar from spilling out. After many discussions we decided to remove the sugar and place it into several polypropylene bags.
Unbeknownst to us, Anger had another message for Swanson. As I was removing the sugar, I noticed there was a word in Hebrew printed on a piece of newsprint that translated as “shalom.” No one at the Ransom Center had seen this before or knew that it was there.
Consequently, I encapsulated the newsprint in Mylar, placed the polypropylene bags with the sugar inside the coffin, and constructed housing for the object, an amazing item to have in the Ransom Center’s care.
Read related Preservation Week 2015 posts.
Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.
Click thumbnails to view larger images.
“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” says Norma Desmond in the famous end scene of Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson, the actress who portrayed Desmond, is ready, as well. Bowdoin Professor Tricia Welsch received fellowships, which were funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection. The University Press of Mississippi recently published Welsch’s book, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up. Below, Welsch writes on her time at the Ransom Center.
When I took an exploratory trip to the Ransom Center to see if there was enough material to support a biography of Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), I was floored by the breadth and depth of the collection as well as the exceptional helpfulness and insightfulness of the staff. The Center’s holdings cover Swanson’s personal and professional life, from the first pictures she made in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin in Chicago through her movie stardom and her work in theater, television, radio, publishing, fashion, politics, and health activism. She lived in New York, California, Rome, London, and Paris. She traveled widely, and corresponded with everyone from Carol Burnett and Noel Coward to Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. I felt like I hit the biographer’s jackpot every day.
Over the months I spent at the Ransom Center, I saw the records of a fully lived life. I examined Swanson’s grade school report cards, read the fan mail she received, pored over seven decades’ worth of business correspondence, and looked at thousands of photographs. Swanson’s contract specified that she was to receive a complete set of film stills from each of her pictures, and they provide a valuable record of many films considered lost today. Swanson also had a vibrant love life, and there are amazing love letters from her six husbands and her many lovers—including hourly telegrams sent by an enraptured Herbert Marshall. There is even one surviving love note from her producing partner Joe Kennedy, who left few records of his private affair and preferred that his assistants refer to Swanson in code even in their business papers.
Swanson considered writing her autobiography for decades and made some wire recordings of her memories in the 1950s, which the Ransom Center converted to digital format. Hearing Swanson talk about her life in her low, thrilling voice—imperious, wry, yearning, and philosophical by turns—was a special pleasure.
I particularly enjoyed one recording where she and her long-time friend actress Lois Wilson reminisced about their early Hollywood escapades—in particular, Swanson’s reputation for scandal: “If I was in a room fully clothed for five minutes with some men, mayhem! Lois could walk out of a room with a dozen men in a black chiffon nightgown after two hours and they’d say, ‘Oh, somebody must be ill in there. She’s taking care of them.’” The peals of laughter throughout their conversation were infectious.
I also heard Swanson’s voice in her extensive correspondence, in the many drafts she prepared of her memoirs, in published interviews, in her TV talk show appearances, and—unexpectedly—in a series of dispatches she wrote for the United Press from Europe in the mid-1950s. These appeared as twice-weekly syndicated newspaper columns. In them she wrote about whatever grabbed her: Roman fireworks and French perfume manufacturing, bullfighting, her visit to a camp for Iron Curtain refuges, Princess Grace’s wedding in Monaco. Swanson called her 117 articles “the hardest and most disciplined work” she ever did. They chronicle the mid-life adventures of a fascinating woman who was prepared to be fascinated by every new experience.
Swanson called herself a “mental vampire” because she had a voracious appetite for learning of all kinds, and the Swanson collection affirms that. It is the ideal archive.
The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for the 2014-2015 fellowship program.
Please click thumbnails to view larger images.
Although best known for her role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson was a legendary actress even before then. She starred in countless silent films, working with celebrities Cecil DeMille and Charlie Chaplin. Vivacious and enigmatic, Swanson was known for her extravagant clothing, spending, and love life.
In his new biography Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer utilized the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection, which includes personal correspondence, professional contracts, and ephemera.
Swanson was not known for being revelatory or reflective, and an interesting quotation from one of Swanson’s 1943 diary entries, held in the Ransom Center’s collection, stands out in Shearer’s book. She writes, “God’s wisdom finds no solace, no satisfaction in sin, since God has sentenced sinners to suffer.” This introspective quote is at a discord with her usual attitude of rarely expressing remorse, whether for her inveterate spending and debts or the many hearts she broke.
Swanson also worked hard to gloss over anything negative and to cultivate an image of perpetual stardom. Her dramatic and charismatic persona was always on display, drawing men and women alike to her. “Swanson was drenched in her concept of her own allure and femininity,” said Shearer. Swanson’s carefully crafted autobiography Swanson on Swanson reflects this tendency to conceal the negative aspects of her life and showcase her greatness, but holdings such as this diary entry help paint a portrait of Swanson that goes beyond Norma Desmond and Swanson on Swanson.