One of the earliest big starlets of “the silver screen” was Gloria Swanson. Born in 1899, Gloria May Josephine Swanson was born in Chicago in 1899. She first achieved fame by acting in silent movies in the late teens and early 1920s. She became a fast favorite of legendary film producer/director Cecil B. DeMille and became his leading lady in a string of films, commonly called "moving pictures" in those early days. The actress was nominated three times for Academy Awards and is best known for her portrayal of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, completing a major career comeback in the 1950 offering.
Gloria Swanson is said to have impacted “Roaring 20s” fashion by popularizing hairstyles, rising hemlines, and high-heel shoes decorated with imitation pearls and stones. Plain and simply, she was a major icon at a time when the motion picture industry and star-power celebrity was just getting started. Other leading actors and actresses of this period included Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo, and male leads such as Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.
As one of the first major movie stars, young Miss Swanson had Frederick, Maryland under her “proverbial” spell in the early 1920s. I found advertisements heralding her film appearances at local theaters. I also uncovered related gimmicks by local merchants in peddling Gloria Swanson inspired candies, stockings and hats. A local beauty salon even boasted “Gloria Swanson Day” in 1923.
The previous year, in early May of 1922, the Frederick News-Post announced a unique “Swanson- themed” competition, asking the question, “What Frederick County girl most resembles Gloria Swanson?” This promotion was being undertaken by Mr. Walter Decker, manager of Frederick’s City Opera House. Many of our readers have been to the theater’s former location on North Market Street as it serves home to Brewer’s Alley Restaurant.
This “Resemblance Contest” was a great marketing ploy by the Paramount Motion Picture Company in promoting Miss Swanson’s latest movie offering, entitled Beyond the Rocks and co-starring Swanson's friend, male heart-throb Rudolph Valentino. As an aside, this particular motion picture was one of cinema’s most famous lost films—until 2003, when a print was found hidden away in the Netherlands among the possessions of an eccentric collector.
Voting for the "Resemblance Contest" was heavily encouraged throughout the week of May 3rd through 8th as contestants were asked to drop-off photographs of themselves at the local newspaper office or City Opera House. The winner was chosen by a panel of local judges, with the promise of three great prizes, tops of which was a gold wristwatch. I’m assuming this was the same brand worn by Miss Swanson in the movie.
The entrant deadline came on the night of May 8th, and judging took place that night with an announcement of the winners in the following day’s paper.
The local winner was a girl named Grace Irene Smith who spent most of her life living at 223 West 5th Street in Frederick. The property the Smith family owned from 1906-1926 is home to Frederick’s Salvation Army headquarters these days which sits between Trail Avenue and Bruner Alley.
Well-known and popular, Grace Smith was born on July 30th, 1906. I couldn’t find much regarding her childhood, but she was said to have been popular among friends. I’m sure “resembling” the top movie-star of the day also had its perks as well.
Grace had two sisters and her father, Harvey E. Smith, worked as a “drayman.” Although I had seen this term before, I had to look this vintage profession up to get a better understanding. A drayman was historically the driver of a dray, a low, flat-bed wagon without sides, pulled generally by horses or mules that were used to transport all kinds of goods.
Today the term drayman is still used in US ports for truck drivers who deliver containers to and from ports. Its also used for brewery delivery men, and has been for centuries. I guess you could consider the most famous dray that which is pulled by the famed Budweiser Clydesdales.
Interestingly I found out quite a bit on Mr. Smith which we will get to in a minute. On my initial search of his name in newspaperarchives.com, my first “hit” features an advertisement in the local newspaper for his hauling business. Ironically, above his listing was an advertisement for a Gloria Swanson movie.
The Smith family moved out of Frederick City in 1926 to Oak Orchard, a 20-acre farm owned by the Dudderar family since 1836. This sat off the Liberty-New Windsor Road in eastern Frederick County at the junction of the aptly named Oak Orchard Road. Today the Smith’s former home can be found at 14802 Oak Orchard Road. Again, I haven’t gleaned why a move was made, however Mr. Smith was a native of the Johnsville area so perhaps there could be a familial connection to the area. There also could have been need for a move to “greener pastures” for health reasons because our “Gloria Swanson” doppelganger would die in December of that year at Oak Orchard.
Grace passed on December 3rd, 1926 at the age of 20 due to complications associated with diabetes. Her obituary also made mention of Grace’s accomplishment four years earlier in winning Mr. Decker’s “Resemblance Contest.”
She would be buried in a plot in Mount Olivet's Area U/Lot 124. My hope is that a current day cousin/family member reads this story and can give us more about the life of this young lady who died much too young. I wonder if the prized gold watch is also in someone's possession, or is it long gone?
Of course, we can learn more about individuals through their family ties. Since I did not find much on Grace, primarily due to her shortened life, I discovered that her father was quite a well-known individual in the area. The local newspaper featured a thorough article on Mr. Smith in 1953 on the occasion of his 81st birthday. The article shows particular interest in his former profession as a drayman.
Harvey E. Smith died in 1960, outliving his wife (Olivia) and daughter Margaret. All three are buried in Mount Olivet’s Area U/Lot 124 with Grace who had died decades earlier.
In 1950, the year that Grace's sister Margaret died, Gloria Swanson made a historic comeback in the highly acclaimed Sunset Boulevard, for which she received her third Oscar nomination for her role as a former silent-film star named Norma Desmond. The film stars William Holden as Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter who is drawn into Norma’s demented fantasy world, where she dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen.
Although Gloria appeared in a few later films, she devoted most of the remainder of her career to television and the theatre. Her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, was published in 1980. The man who helped Gloria write this book was William Duffy, her sixth husband. They came together thanks to a book written by Duffy in 1975 entitled Sugar Blues, which has become a dietary classic, which has sold over 1.5 million copies.
Of course this resonated with me because our subject, Grace Smith, died due to complications attributed to diabetes. I researched this more and was intrigued to learn that Duffy uses the narrative form to delve into the history of sugar and history of medicine. Gloria had been a health and fitness advocate throughout her life. She took fitness to the next level with dancing, weight training and even yoga. In the 1920s, she started practicing clean eating and cut out both white sugar and meat from her diet. In the 1960s, Gloria met Duffy and convinced him that white sugar was unsafe. Dufty undertook a program of research of the impact that sugar has had on health, science and capitalism, and wrote Sugar Blues in 1975. Gloria traveled the United States promoting Sugar Blues, and the couple married the following year.
Gloria Swanson died of a heart ailment in 1983, at the age of 84. Her mortal remains reside at the Episcopal Church of Heavenly Rest Columbarium in Manhattan.