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Gloria Stuart dies at 100; 'Titanic' actress

Stuart was a leading lady in 1930s films, then gave up acting and turned to art. Her role in 'Titanic' earned her an Academy Award nomination.

September 27, 2010|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times

A third-generation Californian, she was born Gloria Stewart in Santa Monica on the Fourth of July, 1910. She later changed the spelling of her last name to Stuart, reasoning that the six letters would balance perfectly on a theater marquee with the six letters in "Gloria."

In high school, she took classes in short-story and poetry-writing and worked for free as a "girl reporter" at the Santa Monica Outlook.

While attending UC Berkeley, where she acted in a campus theatrical group, Stuart met a handsome young sculptor, Gordon Newell. They were married in 1930 and moved to Carmel, where she worked on the local newspaper and appeared in little theater productions.

In 1932, after playing Masha in a little theater production of Chekhov's "The Seagull" in Carmel, the visiting director asked her to play the role again in a small theater in the Los Angeles area.

Casting directors from both Paramount and Universal saw her performance and offered her screen tests. She wound up signing a seven-year contract with Universal: $125 a week to start, with singing and acting lessons included.

Stuart's union activities began while making Whale's 1932 horror comedy "The Old Dark House" with Boris Karloff and Melvyn Douglas.

"All of us were just exhausted by the long hours, and Melvyn Douglas leaned over to me in this theatrical way," she recalled in a 1998 Los Angeles Times interview. "He whispered the word 'union' in my ear. And I thought, 'Yes!' "

At the time, she wrote in her autobiography, "Actors worked unconscionable hours — especially females, because every morning our needs included a great deal of time in hairdressing and makeup. Meals were served at the convenience of the production staff. There was no allotment for travel time, no standard hours between work calls, no pay for overtime or double overtime — what we call golden time. And if an actor under contract refused a role the studio had chosen, he/she was suspended without pay — and the time was added on to the contract!"

Despite stiff studio resistance, the Screen Actors Guild was founded in 1933.

Discovering that she "took to politics like a duck to water," Stuart helped form the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936, the same year she and writer Dorothy Parker helped organize the League to Support the Spanish War Orphans. She also became a member of the Hollywood Democratic Committee and was on the executive board of the California State Democratic Committee.

Stuart's fledgling movie career took a toll on her marriage to Newell and they divorced. In 1934, she married screenwriter Arthur Sheekman, with whom she had her daughter Sylvia.

Stuart, whose career at Universal failed to take off, signed with 20th Century Fox in 1935.

After Fox declined to renew her contract in 1939, she acted in summer theater on the East Coast and made a failed attempt at Broadway before returning to Hollywood and turning her creative energies into the art of decoupage. She opened a shop on La Cienega Boulevard called Décor Ltd., which lasted more than four years.

In 1954, inspired by an exhibition of Impressionist paintings in Paris, she began painting. Her first one-woman show, at the Hammer Galleries in New York in 1961, was a critical hit. Art News called her "a deft primitive with a beguiling variety of subjects." She went on to have exhibits in major galleries.

In 1975, four years after her husband was stricken with Alzheimer's disease, Stuart decided to return to acting. From 1975 to 1988, she had about a dozen minor roles on TV and in movies, including dancing with Peter O'Toole in a nightclub scene in the 1982 film "My Favorite Year."

As her husband became ill, Stuart began taking classes in bonsai. She became an honored member of local bonsai clubs, and her trees are in the bonsai collection at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Five years after Sheekman's death in 1978, Stuart renewed a friendship with an old friend from her college years: Ward Ritchie, who had become a world-renowned master printer. The friendship quickly grew into an autumn romance. From Ritchie, Stuart developed an interest in fine letter-press printing and bought her own hand press.

She devoted much of her time to designing and printing artists' books (handmade, letter-press printed books in limited editions, with her own artwork and writing). Her work is in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and other museums.

About four months after Ritchie's death in 1996 at 91, Stuart received a call from James Cameron's casting director, Mali Finn.

"The next day, Jim came with a video camera," Stuart told The Times in 1997. "I read for him for about an hour, then I didn't hear anything, so I wrote him a letter and said, 'I've re-read the script and I should've given it a feistier reading.' I mailed it on Friday and Monday Mali Finn called and said, 'How would you like to be Old Rose?' I screamed and hollered."

Besides her daughter, Stuart is survived by four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

A private funeral service will be held.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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