Gloria Stuart: Actress who began her career in the 1930s and was nominated for an Oscar six decades later for 'Titanic'

The glamorous blonde actress Gloria Stuart was a popular leading lady of the Thirties, starring in two classic horror films directed by James Whale, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, and playing romantic leads in two vehicles for the child-star Shirley Temple. She was also Dick Powell's love interest in the Busby Berkeley musical, Gold Diggers of 1935, and starred in several "B" movies.

But she became known to a new generation when she was cast by James Cameron as Rose, the 101-year-old survivor of the Titanic sinking. Kate Winslet played the young Rose, a spirited rich girl whose love for a penniless artist travelling in steerage (Leonardo DiCaprio) endured for a lifetime after she lost him in the disaster, and Stuart's moving depiction of the aged Rose, who narrates the tale, won her an Oscar nomination – she was the oldest performer to achieve that distinction.

Gloria Frances Stewart was born in 1910 in Santa Monica, California. She acted in student theatre while at the University of California, where she met her first husband, the sculptor Blair Gordon Newell. The pair settled in Carmel, where Stuart became part of a bohemian community, writing for a weekly newspaper and acting at the local theatre. In 1932, she was playing Masha in Chekhov's The Seagull, and was asked to repeat the role at the Pasadena Playhouse.

"Like most players in those days,I was lofty about movies, but wewere broke, so I called Bob Holliday, who published the paper I wrote for and was a good friend of Randolph Hearst, and said, 'I'd like to make contact with someone in motion pictures.' Bob called someone at Paramount, and they sent a casting director to the opening night. The leading man's agent sent someone from Universal, so next morning I was offered contracts by both studios. People say, 'How do you get into movies? It's so hard!' It was just nothing, they flipped a coin and Universal won."

Changing the spelling of her surname, she was immediately loaned to Warners for Street of Women (1932). Her first Universal film, James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) was arguably her finest, a superb blend of horror and comedy in which Stuart was among a group of stranded travellers on a stormy night taking refuge in a strange house with some very odd inhabitants, including a mute butler (Boris Karloff). "Boris was the most charming, the most considerate actor that you could imagine, the complete antithesis of the kind of character he played in the movies."

In The Invisible Man (1933) Stuart played the fiancee of a scientist (Claude Rains) who concocts a drug that makes him invisible. "Claude was an actor's actor," Stuart said. "That meansan enormous ego! Deep concentration all to himself and death to the rest of the cast. He would back many of his leading ladies into the scenery. When he did that with me, I'd simply yell, 'James!' and he'd say, 'Now, Claude, be nice to Gloria; this is not the stage. Now, do it again.'"

In Whale's stylish The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), Stuart was as a faithless wife murdered near the film's start by her jealous husband (Paul Lukas). Lukas and Melvyn Douglas were actors who prompted Stuart to become actively involved in a campaign to form an actors' union. "Equity was already in existence for stage actors, but there were no unions for actors, writers or directors. I would get to the studio at six in the morning and sometimes we'd work straight through until midnight. I remember about halfway through The Kiss Before the Mirror, Paul Lukas said to me, 'I'm going to quit at six o'clock,' and I said, 'You can't do that unless Jimmy says so!' It was such a revolutionary idea, that you would walk off a film set. He planted a seed."

Stuart was the female lead in John Ford's Air Mail (1932), and she was effective in Kurt Neumann's Secrets of the Blue Room (1933), as a woman who tests the love of three suitors by having each of them spend the night alone in a castle in which three mysterious murders occurred 20 years earlier. But most of her Universal films were inconsequential, and she had better roles on loan, such as the Goldwyn production Roman Scandals (1933). During the filming, Stuart met the writer Arthur Sheekman, who provided material for the Marx Brothers and in 1934, after Stuart's divorce from Newall, they married, and in 1935 had a daughter.

Stuart then moved to 20th Century-Fox, headed by Darryl Zanuck, where John Ford wanted her for The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), amoving account of the injustice that befell a doctor who treated the wound of Lincoln's assassin and was falsely convicted as a conspirator. Stuart was the convincingly steadfast wife. She was then cast in the Shirley Temple vehicle, Poor Little Rich Girl (1936). "I said 'I don't want to do a Shirley Temple picture. I'm a dramatic actress and I don't want to play her sister.' Zanuck said, 'Look Gloria, millions of people who have never seen you will see you in this picture. She's the most popular star today and it is very foolish of you.' Well, he was right."

Stuart also supported Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) and later described Temple as "a genius, an absolute miracle." She also enjoyed working with the comedy team the Ritz Brothers in a musical version of The Three Musketeers (1939).

When her 20th Century-Fox contract ended, she and her husband took a trip around the world before settling in New York. There, she hosted lively parties, since Sheekman knew so many comics. "George Burns, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, Groucho... I spent 40-odd years surrounded by some of the funniest people in the world."

The Sheekmans were also politically active. They were founder members of the Screen Actors Guild, and in 1938 Stuart was elected to the board of directors along with James Cagney and Joan Crawford. They also helped found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

In 1943 they returned to Hollywood, and Stuart returned to the screen in four B-movies that included The Whistler (1944) and She Wrote the Book (1946), in which she was an outwardly prim college dean's wife who writes a racy novel under a pseudonym.

Stuart later took an interest in painting after visiting her daughter at the Sorbonne in Paris. "She took me to Jeu de Paume, where I saw the great impressionists. I was overwhelmed! I bought a book on how to paint, an easel and a canvas, and I started to paint – I'm a primitive." She also became an expert designer of prints; her work is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

After Sheekman died in 1978, she occasionally acted on television (including Murder, She Wrote) and on screen, notably in My Favourite Year (1982), in which she danced with Peter O'Toole.

Stuart was largely forgotten, however, when she was sent the script for Titanic. "When actors or actresses get a script, we don't read anyone's part but our own. So I went through it reading 'Old Rose' and I knew it was going to be wonderful. It was what I had been waiting for all my life... When I read for James [Cameron], he only stopped me once. It was Old Rose's speech about how they didn't go back to look for survivors, for the 1,500 people in the water. He said 'You sound very angry' and I said 'Well, isn't that the way you wrote it?' He said, 'No, I hadn't thought of it that way.' When I met Kate Winslet it was immediate affection and identification. I had a wonderful tea set out for her at my house, and she said, 'Couldn't we have a drink?' so we killed a bottle of champagne instead. It was a VERY happy hour!"

Tom Vallance

Gloria Frances Stewart (Gloria Stuart), actress: born Santa Monica, California 4 July 1910; married 1930 Blair Gordon Newall (divorced 1934), 1934 Arthur Sheekman (died 1978, one daughter); died Los Angeles, California 26 September 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Déjà vu: David Tennant returns to familiar territory with Anna Gunn (‘Breaking Bad’)
tvReview: Something is missing in Gracepoint, and it's not just the familiar names
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing boutique prac...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?