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Gloria Swanson: A Woman of Invention

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In today’s post, we close out Women’s History Month with the Library’s own Cary O’Dell examining yet another remarkable facet to the life and legend of the great Gloria Swanson.

Rightfully, in the past few years the celebrated screen siren Hedy Lamarr has been rediscovered.  But not so much for her extraordinary beauty or even her various iconic film roles (“Delilah,” anyone?), but, remarkably, as the mother of modern-day wi-fi technology.

Yes, the lady was an inventor.  And her 1942 invention of “spread-spectrum” technology (US Patent #2,292,387; registered on August 11, 1942, under Lamarr’s then-married name of Hedy Kiesler Marke) has served, largely, as the basis for a host of such now commonplace conveniences as Bluetooth and cellphones.

If that is not astounding enough as a fact in and of itself, then equally as surprising is that Lamarr was not the only major female screen star who had a flair for the mechanical and an expert eye for inventing.

When the legendary screen diva Gloria Swanson died in 1983, she was 82 years old.  Yet, for all the things she did–the multitude of lifetimes she seemed to live–it does not seem possible that one person was able to fit all of it in just eight quick decades.  Consider what Gloria Swanson (whose legendary film “Sunset Boulevard,” from 1950, was among the very first films added to the Library’s National Film Registry) was:  an actress, film producer, fashion designer (and fashion icon), acclaimed visual artist, best-selling author, newspaper columnist, businesswoman, health advocate, radio host, and television pioneer.  And, even then, she still found the time to raise three children and marry (and usually divorce) eight husbands!

Gloria Swanson, during her silent film heyday
Gloria Swanson, during her silent film heyday

Additionally, one aspect of her life for which Swanson should also be remembered is as an inventor, patent holder, patent facilitator/executive and humanitarian.  It’s a quartet of labels that all arrived, more or less, together.

It was the late 1930s.  Gloria Swanson had been one of the biggest and grandest stars in the silent movie era.  So profound was her fame in the 1920s that newspapers of the era often referred to her simply as “Gloria”—everyone knew exactly who they meant.  But though Swanson survived the arrival of sound cinema—unlike many other silent era stars—by the middle of the 1930s, movie-going trends were changing, new names were catching on and Swanson’s two most recent big screen vehicles had both been big and costly failures.

Worse for Gloria, however, was her financial situation.  Though she made a fortune during her (first) Hollywood heyday, she lived lavishly.  Though far from destitute, Swanson was, by this time, low on funds and in need of a new way of earning an income.

Up to that time, people often confused Swanson with the roles she played on screen.  (And they would do it again, later, with her great cinematic comeback in “Sunset Boulevard.”)  But Swanson was, in real life, a smart and dynamic woman.  And she had long harbored an interest in science and in inventions.  In her 1980 memoir, “Swanson on Swanson,” she relates a fascinating story from 1927.  One day, she was in her New York apartment and unable to quickly summon her butler.  The only way to reach him was via a light signal located in the kitchen—but what if, Swanson wondered, the butler was not in the kitchen to see the light or had his back turned to the wall?  Was there a solution to this conundrum?  Swanson began to ponder.  She had just read an article about soundwaves.  Could calling the butler be done via soundwaves?  Consider:  a soundwave signal sent from one area could, perhaps, be sent out to a receptor (“a little gadget,” as she calls it) carried on the butler’s person letting him know he was needed.  Yes!

What Swanson was proposing was a type of wireless communication.  Shortly after coming up with the idea, she conveyed the idea to a friend of hers, engineer and inventor George de Bothezat.  He believed such a thing to be feasible and moved onto the drawing-board stage for the new device.  A year later, 1928, he and Swanson applied for a patent for the technology.  Swanson said in her autobiography, “I was beside myself with joy.”

Swanson said about herself once, “I’ve always had a mechanical mind, wanting to know the ‘why’ of things.  I guess you’d call it an instinct rather than actual knowledge.”

For years, Swanson had subscribed to “Popular Mechanics” and often busied herself with plans for new inventions.  She knew, too, of the great profitability of new inventions and patents.

Gloria Swanson, mid-career

By the mid-1930s, Swanson had also become aware of the plight of many German-based scientists, especially those of the Jewish faith or those who were refusing to support the Nazi regime.  These scientists were not only at risk of losing the rights to their inventions, they were also at risk of losing their lives.  Hence, Swanson came up with a plan to bring various inventors out of Europe and set them up in labs in the US, working with them to further their work and market their creations.

Initially, Swanson especially had her sights set on developing a long-lasting luminous paint which, she believed, would be of great use both in the film industry and to the US military.  According to her biographer, Stephen Michael Shearer, Swanson also had her eye on various new inventions and developments in plastics, metals and liquids (i.e. paints) which she could utilize in the creation of fashions, jewelry and art products.

So, in 1939, after throwing herself an opulent Hollywood going-away party, Swanson moved to New York City.  There, she rented office space at 630 Fifth Avenue, atop Rockefeller Plaza, and with $200,000 (about $3 million today) of her own money, she set up a corporation and assembled a board of directors.  The company, as described by Shearer, was “a profit-sharing enterprise that secured patents and markets for inventions.”  Swanson named her company Multiprises.

At the birth of Multiprises (sometimes since then erroneously referred as “Multiprizes”), there were five scientists Swanson set out to extricate from Europe.  It would not be easy.  In 1939, though the US was not yet at war, Europe was already engulfed.  And Germany was not going to let a quintet of their greatest minds depart their nation easily–if at all.  Still, the Germans had never gone up against someone like Gloria Swanson.

It would take several trips across the Atlantic for the actress, as well as an avalanche of cables, visa applications, some remarkable work by Swanson’s intrepid assistant, Iphigenia Engel (“Iffi,” for short), the connections and multi-lingual skills of one of Gloria’s ex-husbands, Henri (a Marquis), and Swanson’s own considerable charm and star power, but she achieved amazing success in her efforts.

In the end, Swanson was able to withdraw from Germany four men:  Leopold Karnoil, a plastics expert; Anton Kratsky, a metallurgist; Richard Kobler, an electronics experts; and Leopold Neumann, an acoustical engineer.  Sadly, an attempt to rescue a fifth scientist was not successful.  He had disappeared before Swanson and company could get to him and apparently later died in a concentration camp.  In the end, it is believed that Swanson spent over $25,000 of her own money getting the scientists into the US.

Once ensconced in America, the newly-liberated scientists gave their benefactor and new boss a nickname–“Big Chief.”  And newspapers around the country had a field day with articles on the “former” actress entering the field of science and manufacturing.  Meanwhile, while the “Big Chief” dealt with a lot of publicity, the newly-imported scientists went to work in the workshop that Swanson procured for them.  In time, other inventors would also be brought into the fold.

Swanson, still glamorous, c. 1970

During her company’s existence, Swanson and her team developed a carbide-steel-alloy cutting tool and developed the first plastic buttons for clothing.  According to one source, it is to Swanson’s company that we also owe the invention of the extension cord.  Finally, Richard Kobler, one of her inventors, began work on his later patented “Talking Typewriter” while under the auspices of Multiprises.  Eventually that innovation led to other Kobler inventions including the Dictaphone and speed dial on telephones.  (As for Swanson’s early flirtation with wireless communication?  She lamented in a 1950 interview that she never followed up on the original idea.)

Unfortunately, despite some early promising design developments, Multiprises, Inc. was out of business by 1943.  In her memoir, Swanson explained its demise:  “The war effort, however, soon overtook…private interests, and Anton Kratky and Leopold Neumann asked permission to work for the U.S. government…for the duration.  We kept our office, but as long as the war lasted, it was obvious that Multiprises was going to be a small concern.”

Not long before her death in 1983, Swanson sold her papers (a massive collection of correspondence, business records and ephemera) to the University of Texas at Austin.  The section of her papers devoted to Multiprises (dating from 1937 to 1951) consists of 32 archival-size boxes.

Though Multiprises ended in the 1940s, Swanson, herself, never stopped inventing and tinkering.  Later she began to explore a photography process that would impose photographic images onto fabrics, and she even drew up plans for a water-conserving toilet.

For most people, it would be their full legacy to found a company as impressive as Multiprises.  But for a life as extraordinary as Gloria Swanson’s, it is almost like a small sidebar.

Further, as impressive as her vision and ambition to champion inventors and their discoveries, was Swanson’s equally noble instinct and drive to save from the Nazi regime some of the world’s greatest thinkers.  She said once about her company, “I felt I had to do something constructive with my money to justify my existence as a human being.”  In a 1950 interview, Richard Kobler put it succinctly when he said, “There is no question that Ms. Swanson saved [our] lives.”

And as fascinating as Swanson’s film legacy was, and as prescient as her company’s various innovations were, that perhaps is what Gloria Swanson should most be remembered for.



Comments (5)

  1. Gloria Swanson managed to reinvent herself every decade, but she was always “La Swanson.” I had the opportunity to encounter her in 1978 when I attended a tribute to her film career at a repertory theater in upstate New York. I had been invited to the event by the host but otherwise I didn’t know a soul among the hundred or so guests. Filing into the theater most people sat towards the back, but I wandered down to the front and sat in the middle of the second row. Ms. Swanson had not yet appeared. The lights darkened and a compilation of her many films began.
    A few minutes into the film I became aware of somebody walking down the aisle to my right. The only light was coming from the screen and I saw the silhouette of a slender lady turning into the first row and sitting right in front of me, slightly to my right. I soon noticed that her distinctive profile backlit by the screen was the unmistakable face of Gloria Swanson!
    She had a microphone with her and soon began commenting on the film clips we were all watching. The rest of the audience was many rows behind us but up front there was only Gloria and me. I felt a little bit as though I was having a private screening with her. The most remarkable aspect of this encounter was seeing her face lit by the screen where the image of her face was as big as a house on that huge screen. Truly, if flesh and fantasy ever met, this was it.

  2. Absolutely fantastic stuff. What an absolutely stunning human being she was in every imaginable way.

  3. I was fortunate to become friends with Gloria and her husband William Dufty in 1978. Gloria and I became best friends. I was 24. Gloria was 79. Gloria and I spoke daily. My mom was always thrilled when Gloria called to tract me down. I traveled to Paducah, KY with Gloria and Bill where the Art Council presented a retrospect of her movies. I sat next to her during the showing of Sunset Boulevard. It was a surreal experience. I was the guest at her home 3 times, spending a week there each time. I could write a book about my experiences with her and Bill. The last time I spoke with her was when she was in the hospital. The next day, Bill called me and said she had passed. I thought she was going to live to 100. I have many memories, one special memory was when we walked from her apartment, down ten blocks or so to go to Lord & Taylor department store. We stopped at a street vendor where I had my first taste of roasted chestnuts. It was just before Christmas. She was gracious to everyone and always wore gloves because she didn’t want to shake bare hands.

  4. Wasn’t it Hedy Lamarr that invented spread spectrum technology???

  5. (mark John’s ) how did you first get to know ms swanson ? she painted was that correct? She went to Paris do you know if she collected art ?

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