When you’ve lived a full life and made it to the century mark, it’s hard to complain, but Gloria Stuart still had a special spark even in her 101st year on the planet. Her energy was waning, and her mind could wander, but she loved life, including her family, her artwork, her fine-edition books, kites and bonsai plants. I’m happy that she was able to celebrate her 100th birthday in high style two months ago with a series of events, including a citation from the Screen Actors Guild, which she helped to found, and a gala evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which positively thrilled her. (I was privileged to host that evening, and wrote about it HERE). She was also feted by Suzy Amis—who played her granddaughter in Titanic—and her husband James Cameron, who treated her like—
—a member of the family.
As much as I enjoyed watching her revel in the attention that Titanic brought her—including the opportunity to write her candid and engaging autobiography, I Just Kept Hoping—I will never fully understand why Gloria didn’t become a bigger star the first time around, in the 1930s. She was beautiful and smart, a rare combination. Perhaps she lacked the drive to make it happen, or perhaps she just didn’t get the breaks. Her first contract was shared between Paramount, which didn’t make good use of her at all, and Universal, which primarily made undistinguished “program pictures,” although she did get to work with James Whale and John Ford there. She longed for better material and made her way to 20th Century Fox, where again she worked for Ford but toiled mainly in B movies. (Having married screenwriter Arthur Sheekman she wasn’t interested in the advances of notorious studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck; perhaps that was a factor, as well.) It was Hollywood’s loss; she brought charm and conviction to even the silliest films she was forced to make.
She held her own in the heady company of her husband’s witty friends, including his best pal Groucho Marx. And she succeeded in every one of her non-acting pursuits, from throwing imaginative dinner parties (vividly described in her book) to painting (selling out her first show at the prestigious Hammer Galleries) and finally, the creation of paper and hand-setting of type for her fine-art books.
No life is perfect, but hers was varied and rewarding. And just when she’d stopped thinking about acting, Titanic came along. I spoke to her on the phone when she was awaiting a callback from the casting director, and she asked me to cross my fingers for her. When she got the part she was elated; as it turned out, that was just the first step in a parade of unexpected joys, from an Oscar nomination to the enduring friendship of her costar and director.
The one thing Gloria didn’t do was live in the past. She didn’t mind reminiscing, and for years she was sought after by anyone writing about James Whale, Boris Karloff, or Groucho Marx…but she was much more interested in tending to her garden or setting type.
I feel very fortunate to have known her. If you haven’t read her book, I urge you to do so, and you’ll see why she was so much more interesting than most of the characters she got to play on screen.