Santa Monica remembers Gloria Stuart's 100 years

Many remember Gloria Stuart for her portrayal as the aged version of Rose DeWitt Bukater, who told the story of how she met, and fell passionately in love with Jack Dawson in James Cameron’s “Titanic”. On April 5, Gloria Stuart’s 100-year life was celebrated at the Santa Monica Public Library’s main branch with a screening of a documentary produced by her grandson, Benjamin Stuart Thompson, and a reading from her great-granddaughter, Deborah Thompson’s memoir.

The documentary, The Secret Life of Old Rose: The Love and Art of Gloria Stuart, featured five years of footage with various appearances by Stuart, and interviews with “Titanic” producer Jon Landau and actress Frances Fisher, among others.

“The whole idea is to try to get young people, and old people to understand that there are many ways to accomplish what they want,” said Stuart Thompson said.

Stuart Thompson explained that his documentary is not necessarily a story about one special person, but a story about a special attitude, spirit of rebirth and reinvention.

A Santa Monica native, Gloria Stuart graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1927, before moving on to study drama at UC Berkeley; the only ‘UC’ in California at the time.

In 1932, Stuart performed in Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ at the Pasadena Playhouse, where she was spotted by a talent scout from Paramount, and another from Universal.

At that time, Stuart signed with Universal, but when her seven-year contract ended, she declined to renew it, as she didn’t care for the roles he was offered.

During Stuart’s career, names like Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo were being cast in fascinating leading roles that drove the story of their films, but Stuart was never offered these kind of roles.

“She did not want to be like everybody else, she had a notion of being rebellious,” Stuart Thompson said, regarding his grandmother’s acting career. “She did not like being cast as a beautiful woman.”

Aside from acting, Stuart was also a bonsai master and an artist. It was during one of Stuart’s art book creations that her grandson suggested his daughter Deborah assist her with cutting and gluing, as an apprentice.

After an informal audition, Thompson worked with her great-grandmother, whom she nicknamed ‘Great Gloria,’ on a butterfly shaped collection of poetry and art, for six years before Stuart passed away.

“Until that moment, when I lost her, I was just living the experience,” Thompson said.

Thompson recalled how her great-grandmother helped her develop from a shy outsider, to a courageous and confident young woman during, her senior year in high school.

“The butterfly book itself, is a metaphor, butterflies go through this unbelievable metamorphosis from a caterpillar to this thing with wings that can fly,” Thompson said. “I felt like a little green caterpillar going to work with her.”

Thompson’s book, Butterfly Summers: a Memoir of Gloria Stuart’s Apprentice was released as an e-book on April 5, and conveys the story of Thompson’s relationship with her great-grandmother during their time working on the butterfly book together.

Guests at the screening were shown a couple of clips from the post-production stage of the documentary, and Thompson read a passage from her book, on the same stage ‘Great Gloria’ Stuart had performed in the past.

“She’s been here several times,” said librarian Judith Graham. “She was a big supporter of the library.”

Graham remembered working with Stuart on many occasions, and spending time with her during art programs.

“One of my first programs with her was in 2001,” Graham said. “She was such a dear lady, we just really hit it off. We both had kind of wild spirits.”

Gloria Stuart accomplished many things during her 100 years, and people who knew her recall a warm, loving and humorous woman, always ready to make everybody laugh, and who affected their lives in many ways.