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.
In January 1971, J. Michael Lennon wrote a letter of encouragement to Norman Mailer after watching the author get into a raucous televised debate with Gore Vidal. Mailer responded, sparking a lifelong correspondence between the pair.
Lennon went on to become Mailer’s personal archivist and authorized biographer, as well as Emeritus Vice President and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University. He has written and edited a number of books about Mailer, including Norman Mailer: Works and Days (2000). His most recent book, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, comes out today. This biography draws on unpublished documents, including Mailer’s letters, as well as Lennon’s personal relationship with the author. In 2009-2010, Lennon visited the Ransom Center on a fellowship funded by the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund to conduct research for the biography. Cultural Compass spoke with Lennon about his new book, his work in the Ransom Center’s archive, what first attracted him to Mailer’s writing, and more.
You knew Mailer well before starting work on Norman Mailer: A Double Life. While researching and writing, were you ever surprised by anything you learned about him?
I was surprised at the intensity of his depression after his second novel, Barbary Shore, received extremely negative reviews in 1951. He became more depressed (but not clinically) than I had previously thought and actually investigated the possibility of working in a prison or becoming a lawyer. The other things that surprised me were the extent of his many passionate love affairs and the number of young writers, hundreds of them, with whom he corresponded, and encouraged, something that went on from the 1950s until his death in 2007.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I hope readers will see how immersed Mailer was in the great events and issues of the latter half of the twentieth century and the first years of the next one. He saw and wrote about World War II, the Cold War and the espionage and counter-espionage that accompanied it, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, technology and the environmental movement, and the early space exploration effort. Mailer not only wrote about these things, he also debated them publicly on just about every major talk show in existence. He is the most important public intellectual from the literary world in my lifetime. He was also a terrific biographer and wrote memorable biographical books and essays on a score of iconic figures, from Marilyn Monroe and Madonna to JFK, Muhammad Ali, and Hemingway. Also some infamous individuals—Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Hitler. And Jesus Christ, in his 1997 novel, The Gospel According to the Son.
What first drew you to Norman Mailer as an author?
His daring, his edgy style, his exploration of his identity, and his self-awareness.
The Mailer archive is the largest single-author collection at the Ransom Center. Have you been through every box? How do you organize and prioritize your work in the archive?
Yes, I think I have handled every piece of paper in it. Building on the pioneering work of Robert F. Lucid, my mentor, my wife and I organized Mailer’s papers and then helped the Ransom Center’s staff create the Mailer finding aid. During my several visits to the Center, I used the finding aid to organize my request list so that I could spend my time reading and note-taking. The system devised by Steve Mielke and his team made my research efforts considerably easier. I am indebted to the Ransom Center for expert and thoughtful help over the past eight years.
Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History at Columbia University, made several trips to the Ransom Center between 2003 and 2011. Her biography, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, will be published by Bloomsbury Press on April 24. She has written many books, but this is her first biography.
Lillian Hellman sent her papers to the Harry Ransom Center in several different consignments. The initial agreement included only her manuscripts, but when she died, her will provided that all her “literary property” be conveyed to the library. The will also specifically excluded “such correspondence that is personal and confidential in nature or of no public or literary value.” The provision created a bit of a conundrum. Despite her celebrity, Hellman tried hard to control information about her private life; and yet to those interested in her place in twentieth-century politics and letters, every aspect of that life is of public interest.
As I worked through the 120 plus boxes of papers and material in the Ransom Center’s Lillian Hellman collection, I was acutely aware of this conundrum. How much of what I encountered was meant, even inadvertently, to shape Hellman’s image? How much would she have omitted had she been able to speak from the grave? Was I reading what Hellman would have wanted me to know about her? Could I read between the lines, find the odd document that revealed what she would have preferred to keep to herself?
My mind was set at rest when I discovered tucked into the files some of those wonderful public/private items that revealed her human face and that suggested that no matter how carefully one tries, the private will somehow become public. In Hellman’s case, I found among the several manuscripts of each play, among the letters to her agents protesting one decision and promoting another, among the records of who she wanted invited to which party, some far more humble papers. They were lists of instructions to the domestic helpers she employed. The lists tended to be quite specific, often filled with diatribes about what had been done wrong as well as what should be done to make her life comfortable. They ranged from mandating a daily bath towel and twice-weekly bedding changes to the frequency with which furniture should be polished and with what kinds of oil. They identified which items of clothing might be washed, which dry-cleaned, and which cleaners could best handle the most expensive garments. They noted the right time to fill ice buckets and provided instructions for waiting at the table. Sometimes these instructions were undated handwritten notes on lined paper, and others they were letters left for new members of her staff. All of them evoked the expectation of good and faithful service.
The private is, I now believe, concealed between the lines of the public—sometimes literally as it is in those boxes, sometimes symbolically—but always somewhere there.
Writer and journalist Selina Hastings is the author of four literary biographies, including The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, which was released today in the United States.
Hastings recently wrote an article for Ransom Edition about her work in the Ransom Center’s collections and the “uneasy friendship” between Maugham and Hugh Walpole.
Hastings is a terrific storyteller, and you can listen to audio of her talking about the challenges she faced in researching Maugham. In a case of being in the perfect place at the perfect time, Hastings was the first scholar to be granted access to Maugham’s papers by the Royal Literary Fund.
At the Ransom Center, Hastings conducted research as a Mellon Fellow in 2002–2003 and was awarded the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies in 2009–2010. She has previously worked in the Ransom Center’s collections for her biographies on Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Rosamond Lehmann. She is currently working on a biography of Sybille Bedford.