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Excerpts from Gloria Swanson's Abortion

A review of her autobiography Swanson on Swanson

by Herbert Ratner, M. D.

It is easy to scrape a baby out of the womb, but not so easy to scrape the aborted baby out of the mind and - one may add - heart and soul.

Nowhere is this shown more poignantly than in Gloria Swanson's life history, which she wrote when she was 80 years of age. In Swanson on Swanson, her remorse over taking her unborn baby's life begins and ends her autobiography. Despite her sophisticated, colorful, worldly career as a renowned movie star, despite her half a dozen marriages - or perhaps because of them and their lack of fulfillment - she still hadn't forgotten a death that had taken place 55 years earlier. She began her autobiography by saying:

I'm going to start with the moment in my life when I thought I had never been happier, because until that moment, I hadn't ever assessed the events that had come before it, and once it was over, I could never view my life or my career in the same way again.

That blissful morning in Passy when I married my gorgeous Marquis lifted me to the very pinnacle of joy, but at the same time it led me to the edge of the most terrifying abyss I had ever known. One moment I had everything I had ever wanted, the next I was more wretched than I had ever been before; and in the days that followed, the more I blamed my misery on the fame and success I had achieved in pictures, the more famous and successful I seemed destined to become.

I was then twenty-five and the most popular female celebrity in the world, with the possible exception of my friend Mary Pickford ....

What the press and fans didn't know that January morning was that I was pregnant. Not even my dear, sweet Henri knew that, and I didn't have the heart to tell him . . . and I couldn't let him take the responsibility for a decision I would have to make alone. What I knew was that if I had Henri's child in seven months, my career would be finished. The industry and the public would both reject me as a morally unsound character, unfit to represent them . . . . Therefore, I took a single close friend into my confidence and with his help arranged to have a secret abortion the day after my marriage. The very idea horrified me, but I was convinced that I had no choice. I consoled myself with the fact that Henri and I were young and could therefore have other children. I already had two, a girl of my own and an adopted boy. Surely, I told myself peremptorily so that I wouldn't argue back - I could have more. With that I stifled my fears and doubts and kept the dreaded appointment ....

In a steady stream of cablegrams Mr. Lasky and Mr. Zukor begged me to  sail with my Marquis to America in time for the New York premiere of Madame Sans-Gene, the film I had just made in Paris. Then, they said, they would transport us across the country for the Hollywood premiere, and then back again to New York, where I would start my next picture as soon as I felt up to it.

I wanted to refuse them. I wanted to hold them responsible for my misery and blame them for controlling lives like mine that didn't really belong to them, and for making me destroy my baby. But I am a very pragmatic person. I could not, after all, back up and undo what I had done, so I cabled Mr. Lasky that I would attend both premieres. I sent my children on ahead with their governess and a few trusted friends, and Henri and I sailed on to Paris the third week in March ....

The night of the premiere of Madame Sans-Gene at the Rivoli Theatre, the police had to route all traffic around the block ....

It was our first quiet moment in days, the first time I could really think.

Mother finally said, "Glory, you're so quiet. This should be the happiest night of your life." My mother and I could always look out the same window without ever seeing the same thing. I shook my head. "No, Mother," I said, "it's the saddest. I'm just twenty-six. Where do I go from here?"

I suddenly felt empty and sick and bitter and exhausted and desolate. Henri took my hand. I'm sure he knew what I was thinking. I was thinking every victory is also a defeat...

I was thinking of the price I had paid two months ago to be able to walk that orchid-strewn aisle tonight. I was wondering what all those glamorous important people would have thought if I had stood up and shushed them and spelled out that price for them; if I had told them that in order not to break my contract or create a scandal, I had had to speak to a French surgeon like a criminal and sacrifice a child I was carrying . . . .

"But I just have to tell someone, Andre; that I have such a bad conscience about what I'm thinking of doing."

"There's no other way, is there?" I ask

"Of course not Gloria," he said.

His voice  was reassuring and I smiled feebly at him in gratitude. Then I heard another voice speaking very clearly: "Don't do this," it said.

The voice, I knew, was inside me. It as the voice of my unborn child. I tried not to listen. "Your heart is pounding," the voice said. "I know you hear me. Listen to me. I want to live. I am frightened of the sewers."

I shuddered and started to sob.

Andre came over...He didn't ask me what was wrong. He thought he knew. But of course he didn't know at all, and I could never tell him what I had just heard.

Five and a half decades after those events, she could write:

". . . the greatest regret of my life has always been that I didn't have my baby, Henri's child, in 1925. Nothing in the whole world is worth a baby, I realized as soon as it was too late, and I never stopped blaming myself."

Herbert Ratner, M.D., is editor of Child and Family Magazine 

1994 Herbert Ratner, M.D.    Celebrate Life/ May-June 1994 /13

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