Celebrating Gloria Stuart
It was fitting that Gloria was born on Independence Day. She was a firecracker: sharp, witty, energetic. She was a firework: beautiful, radiant, a sparkle in her eye, growing up by the sea in Santa Monica, CA. She was my father’s maternal grandmother, my great grandmother. She would be 79 years old when I came into her life.
From her earliest years in the 1910s, Gloria wanted to do something Big and Great, so she pursued acting. In her twenties she was discovered by and signed with Universal Pictures, shooting classics like The Invisible Man and my favorite, Roman Scandals, both released in 1933. That same year she helped found the Screen Actor’s Guild.
In her thirties she learned the art of decoupage and opened her own shop in Beverly Hills. In her forties she taught herself to paint after seeing Impressionist paintings for the first time in her life; they moved her to tears. In her sixties she fell for the art of bonsai and trained with a Japanese master to become a bonsai master herself. In her seventies she learned to print on a printing press and became one of the first independent women printers in California.
She was 79 the year I was born, and you might think that her best years were behind her. No way, not even close! At 87, she would be cast in James Cameron’s Titanic as Old Rose, earning an Academy Award nomination.
In her nineties she decided to complete a set of artist’s books, hand printed with her own poetry, hand painted and bound, in the shape of large butterflies. These books were to be her greatest art piece, and it meant everything to her to finish them “before the ol’ lady goes,” as she put it. But it was a huge project, and it looked like the books would never be finished. That’s where I came in. I was 16, on summer break, and my father volunteered me to be my Great Grandmother’s apprentice.
I couldn’t have been more different from Great Grandma “Glorious.” I was terribly shy and lacked confidence in my own abilities. Frankly, her devil-may-care attitude and moxi intimidated me! Also, she wasn’t Jewish and I was. I worried that she would find many of my customs, such as keeping kosher, bizarre. But over the course of that summer, and for the remaining years of her long life, we bonded in a way that surprised both of us, given the three-generation gap between us. I loved how she called out “Avanti!” at the start of each workday and “Champagne for everyone!” upon hearing good news. I loved reading poetry with her, everything from William Blake to the Haiku master Issa to her own work. One of her love poems always made me smile:
The nights are much too long
The days seem a slow dream.
End them soon
(Or I shall swoon)
My dear gassoon,
With a bright festoon
And a rigadoon!
When she turned 100, though her body slowed, the bright sparkle in her eyes proved my belief in the immortality of the soul. “I wish I knew how much longer I have left,” she used to say. “I’m ready to move on, already!”
She “moved on” in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot in 2010.
As her apprentice, I learned more than I could ever put down in this blog post. You can read the full story of my experience in my new ebook Butterfly Summers: A Memoir of Gloria Stuart’s Apprentice.
So, this Independence Day, the 102nd anniversary of Great Gloria’s birth, I’ll toast the sparkling skies in her honor and renew my resolve to keep learning throughout my life, as she did, and strive to be as fiercely independent as she was.