By Christopher P. Andersen
February 16, 1976 12:00 PM

At a Manhattan press conference, then-New York Post reporter William Dufty popped the lid off his coffee container and reached for a sugar cube. Unexpectedly the tiny woman next to him leaned over and whispered, “That stuff is poison. I won’t have it in my house, let alone my body.”

That first encounter with Gloria Swanson in 1956 had a lasting effect on Dufty, an author who had written the best-selling biography of Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues. “Gloria was Carrie Nation confronting demon rum,” recalls Dufty, who then weighed an unsightly 220 pounds. “William Jennings Bryan beholding the Cross of Gold, Moses with a pork chop on his plate.”

A decade later, Dufty paid a call on Swanson at her elegant Fifth Avenue apartment with its green baby grand piano, mirrored green fireplace and French provincial furniture scaled down to Swanson’s five-foot size. “There was this trim, good-looking young man,” Swanson marveled. “He told me that in a way I was responsible for changing his life. We wound up talking in the kitchen until 1 a.m., and we’ve been the best of friends since.”

Indeed. Last week, the two were planning to marry in Manhattan. It would be the second marriage for Dufty, 60, and the sixth for Swanson, who had previously married and divorced Wallace Beery, Herbert Somborn, the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudray, Michael Farmer and William Davey. At 76, she is not only a grandmother—”Marlene Dietrich’s legs may be longer, but I have seven grandchildren”—but also twice a great-grandmother. Why marriage? “Because we totally understand each other,” says Swanson. “Besides, my life is one surprise after another.” One surprise she was not prepared for: the marital red tape. “I had forgotten about all the blood tests and documents,” she shrugs. “After all, the last time I got married was sometime in the ’40s.”

The couple’s top priority these days is a nationwide tour promoting Sugar Blues, Dufty’s indictment of refined sugar which he claims can cause ailments from heart disease to possibly lung cancer. The book’s dedication reads: For Billie Holiday, whose death changed my life, and Gloria Swanson, whose life changed my death.

Swanson, who began in silent films in 1913 when she was only 14, had become one of Hollywood’s first millionaires when she joined the ranks of the nutrition-conscious in 1927. She had begun to produce her own films and was afraid the strain had given her ulcers. “I went to Dr. Hal Bieler in Los Angeles,” she says, “and the first thing he said was, ‘Take off your earrings.’ Naturally I thought I had a nut on my hands. It turned out that large earlobes are a sign of good adrenals, and he wanted to see mine. I have good lobes, but I was eating all the wrong things.”

Since then, the teetotaling, nonsmoking Swanson has also become an avowed vegetarian, buying only organically grown food. Nor is tap water acceptable. “If you looked at it under a microscope, you’d be horrified,” insists Swanson, who drinks only bottled water from France. Instead of refined sugar she recommends natural sugar boiled off from organically grown raisins. “Why do people treat their bodies like garbage pails?” Swanson asks, her blue eyes flashing. “I sound like a broken record. Actually, now I just tell people to go ahead and eat ground glass if they want. See if I care.”

Despite her regimen she has not managed to avoid serious illness altogether. Seven years ago Swanson found she was having great difficulty walking. “For just a second,” she recalls in horror, “I considered living the rest of my life in a wheelchair.” A blood test revealed that she was being poisoned by arsenic, lead and mercury fumes coming through the ventilating system of an apartment she was renting.

Today, dividing her time among homes in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and Portugal, Swanson shows little sign of slowing down. In 1972 she left the Broadway hit Butterflies are Free after 666 performances, and her most recent screen role was playing herself in Airport 1975. Now, 26 years after her comeback as the washed-up movie queen in the classic Sunset Boulevard, plans are afoot to film a sequel, tentatively titled The Trials of Norma Desmond. Dufty, meanwhile, is contemplating yet another exposé, this time of the dairy industry, and has finished the script for a stage version of Lady Sings the Blues.

For Swanson, the Sunset Boulevard sequel will complicate her task of convincing the public she is not like the roles she has played. “People still ask me if I’m Norma Desmond,” she explains. “Sure, I live in the past, never go out and have a body floating facedown in my pool.”

She also bridles at the common misconception that she started out as a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. “Once during a party at Mary Pickford’s house I fell into the pool and everybody laughed when I cried for help,” she remembers. “I went down twice and almost drowned before anybody realized I was serious. I can’t swim.” Although she admits to “feeling six feet tall,” Swanson is still somewhat mystified when people are surprised to discover she is so tiny.

The final misconception is the most difficult of all to dispel. “Since there is no more live television,” she complains, “it’s getting harder to prove you’re not dead. So many of us are. I was interviewed for 10 minutes in London before I realized the reporter thought I was Tallulah Bankhead—and she had already been dead six months. If people mistake me for somebody else, at least make it someone living.”

Advertisement