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Gloria Swanson, Health Food Crusader

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Photo courtesy Florida Keys Public Library
Photo courtesy Florida Keys Public Library

"I was in a business of make believe to entertain people but I'll be darned if I want to eat make believe food! " -- Gloria Swanson

Norma Desmond. No movie character strikes dread in the heart of the celebrated and aging quite like this delusional, Champagne swilling, caviar nibbling has-been in Billy Wilder's 1950 masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard. But Gloria Swanson, who played Desmond after other less self-deprecating silent stars turned down the role, was the complete opposite of the character most people now identify her with. An early proponent of macrobiotic diets, she did not drink, smoke, eat meat or much sugar, and she certainly did not live in the past.

The daughter of a Lutheran soldier, Swanson was one of the biggest stars of the 1920s. Though she stood barely five feet tall, she had oversized features and an inborn swagger and style that helped her become the clotheshorse of the decadent and ridiculous Jazz Age. Her movies with Cecil B. DeMille were top grossing, and her marriages made headlines, especially her third marriage to Henri de la Falaise, a minor royal with a title and little else to recommend him.

Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

By 1927 Swanson had joined United Artists and begun a long term affair with Joseph Kennedy (yup, JFK's dad). It was while they were producing the financially ruinous Queen Kelly that Swanson first became interested in healthy living. "I thought I had ulcers because if you are a producer, you are supposed to have ulcers," she quipped. So she went to a doctor who had her describe all the food she had eaten the night before. He asked her to "mentally picture putting all this food in a pail and then tell me what animal, including a pig, would eat it?"

She became a self described "health food nut" then and there. She was a big fan of brown rice, using it to make flour, and an early proponent of macrobiotic diets and raw food, claiming to only steam her oatmeal and grains so they would not lose their nutrients. She drank spring water from France, made her sugar from boiling organic raisins, and touted the benefit of frequent fasting. "After one fast I was on for 10 days I swore I'd never eat again. I was just going to eat petals of flowers," she said.

Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

After turning her back on Hollywood in the early '30s, Swanson was everyone's eccentric, preachy New Age aunt ( in a turban with ostrich feathers and diamonds, of course) espousing the benefits of yoga and clean living, chastising strangers eating junk food on the street, and bringing brown bag lunches and a thermos of soup to the many jet-setting events she frequented. Along the way she managed to form a company that brought Jewish inventors over from war-torn Europe, lobby against pesticides and hormones, have a couple more marriages and children, write a syndicated column, design clothes and accessories, and make frequent appearances on stage and screen.

Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection   

It was her meddling that led to her sixth and happiest marriage. At a press conference she saw William Dufty, a chubby young writer, pop a sugar cube. She approached him, saying "That stuff is poison. I won't have it in my house, let alone my body." Ten years later he showed up at her door, trim and svelte, to thank her for changing his life. In 1975, Dufty wrote the best seller "Sugar Blues" which claimed refined sugar was a drug, and they toured the country to promote it. Hip to the last, the couple became great friends with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, with Swanson testifying on Lennon's behalf at his immigration hearing.

Swanson died in 1983 at the age of 84, a larger than life eccentric, no doubt, but one that put Norma Desmond and her faded dreams to shame. Swanson was indeed big, and the pictures and the limited world of Hollwood much too small.

Gloria Swanson's Butterless Devil's Food Cake
1.5 cups unsweetened chocolate powder
1 cup milk
4 eggs, separated
1.5 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1.5 cups sugar
Icing or jam

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Dissolve chocolate in the warmed milk and let cool. Beat egg yolks with sugar then add to the chocolate mixture. Mix flour and baking powder into a separate bowl and add gradually to the chocolate. Whip egg whites until stiff, and gently fold into the chocolate mixture. Divide between two cake pans and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then turn out onto cooling trays. When cake is cold, sandwich layers together with icing or jam.

Gloria Swanson's Potassium Broth
A tip from Gloria: "'Drink the broth every few hours, hot or cold. It tastes sweet, as all the natural flavors of the food come out. It's one of the best cleaners I know."

1 cup string beans, chopped
1 cup outer green stalks of celery, chopped
1 cup zucchini, chopped
Few leaves Swiss chard, chopped

Wash the vegetables. For every 2 cups of water, add 1 cup chopped vegetables. (Swanson would never use tap water -- for full authenticity, use spring water.) Cover and cook in a pot of, preferably, a pressure cooker, until celery is tender. Allow to cool to room temperature. Drain liquid into a container, cover, and refrigerate.

Double Corn Soup recipe from "Sugar Blues"
2 chopped onions
2 table spoons olive oil
½ cup corn meal
4 cups water
Tamari to taste

Sauté onions with olive oil. After onions are brown add cornmeal and stir. Slowly add water, making sure mixture maintains a gravy like consistency. Let simmer for one hour.

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