She was 4 feet 11 inches, twice divorced already at age 27, and on her third husband out of six when she came to Fredericksburg in September 1926.
She was also an actress, independent businesswoman, and far ahead of her time on alternative diets and exercise. Her name was Gloria Swanson, and she was one of the biggest silent film stars of the day.
Fredericksburg, for its part, was a small but growing town at the time it met Swanson, with a population somewhere in the 6,000 range. Interestingly, its mutual connection with Swanson was in the form of French nobility.
Earlier that year, on Memorial Day, the city had dedicated its World War memorial. Among the crowd of 3,000 and notable speakers was Henry de La Falaise, Marquis de La Coudraye, a veteran of the famed Blue Devils in the French Army during the war. The Marquis came to help dedicate the memorial at the invitation of Forrest Halsey, who spent time in Fredericksburg with family and worked in the film industry. La Falaise was Swanson’s husband at the time.
Swanson and her husband motored down from New York City in their Rolls Royce roadster on Sunday, Sept. 5, and drove directly to the Mannsfield Country Club. Mannsfield Hall had been repurposed since the tragic death of its previous owners, Reginald and Clarissa Vance, in the collapse of the Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington in January 1922.
Both Swanson and The Free Lance–Star made it clear that she was there for vacation and wanted privacy. “This is the first real vacation, free from all connection and thoughts of picture production that I have had for 10 years,” she said.
“We want to walk around your streets like ordinary human beings and play golf in overalls, if we wish, without attracting public notice,” commented the Marquis.
It doesn’t appear that they did much walking around the streets, but they did spend most of their week playing golf, tennis, fishing and boating at the country club and other private locations. And other than the first day, when a crowd prevented them from advancing to the ninth hole, it seems that people honored their request for privacy.
Nevertheless, Swanson knew what side her bread was buttered on. The Elks Outdoor Fair’s last day was Tuesday, when she and her husband put in an appearance at City Park, now Hurkamp Park. A crowd equal to the one at the war memorial dedication “surged toward the entrance at Commerce Street” about 10 p.m. Even the weather cooperated for the first time during the fair’s duration, as if sensing the importance of the visitor.
“The Marquis was at the wheel and Gloria Swanson stood up waving and bowing graciously to the admiring crowds. Led by the Elks band and escorted by a delegation of Elks, the car was piloted through the grounds with all eyes fixed on the moving picture beauty who looked her best and fulfilled every expectation. Entering on one side, making a wide turn, and skirting the other side of the grounds, the Marquis and Gloria made their exit and returned to the Mannsfield Hall Country Club.” She knew how to work a crowd.
Swanson would comment years later, “In those days, the public wanted us to live like kings and queens. So we did—why not?”
For the rest of the week, the paper detailed the couple’s golf outings, in which they managed to beat a local couple, even though Swanson had never played. Though the star refused photos from a publicity agency, she did allow a session (not wearing overalls) with local photographer Judson Smith.
Both the public and the celebrity couple seemed impressed with each other, the paper commenting that Swanson was charmingly pleasant, unaffected and sincere. For her part, Swanson tried to extend her vacation by a week but could only manage an extra day, because filming on her next picture was scheduled to begin. (The picture was “The Love of Sunya,” and it was the first film Swanson produced herself.)
The Marquis may have paid the highest compliment when he said, “I thought that New York and Los Angeles represented your country when I came here, but this is different and better. I feel that this is the real America.”
A large crowd saw the couple off on the 10 p.m. train eight days after their arrival.
As a final postscript, Swanson’s memories of Fredericksburg seemed to have faded along with her popularity. Fifty years later, a grandson of Chester Goolrick, a city editor of The Free Lance– Star, spoke to Swanson at a banquet in her honor. When he asked, she had no recollection of the visit. But that’s OK. Like her, the visit was glorious while it lasted.
Wendy Migdal is a freelance writer in Fredericksburg.