Norma Shearer was one of Hollywood’s top actresses during the golden age of film. At the start of her career, she was told she would never make it. So, how did she reach stardom? Was it her stellar work ethic or her versatility in switching genres that allowed her to succeed when others couldn’t? Or was it an opportune romance that gave her a leg up on the competition? Enough questions—prepare to find the answers in her jaw-dropping story.
1. She Could Not Be Overshadowed
Andrew and Edith Shearer waited until their third child was born to give her Edith’s name—but right from birth, that namesake would not define Edith Norma Shearer. She was determined to blaze her own path as “Norma.” She had everything a little girl could ever ask for, thanks to her father’s successful lumber business. Sadly, this “pleasant dream” would soon turn into a nightmare…
2. She Had High Ambitions
Shearer’s parents’ marriage was a tinderbox, and it was in danger of blowing at any minute. Her father suffered from manic depression, while her flamboyant mother had an unflagging zest for life. Edith focused her attention on her youngest child and hoped her daughter would be a famous concert pianist. Not wanting to live someone else’s dream, Shearer had her own plans by the age of nine.
After viewing a vaudeville show, she decided she was going to be an actress. No ifs, ands, or buts. But there was trouble brewing…
3. She Endured Family Hardships
When the economy slumped after WWI, the Shearer family fell on hard times. Shearer’s father had to sell his company and then lost almost everything in bad investments. On top of that, her sister Athole had a mental breakdown. The family moved into modest housing, but her mother wasn’t going to happily accept her new abode. So, she sold the piano and took her two daughters to New York City to make stars of them…stage mom style.
4. Her Resolve Strengthened
All dolled-up for their entrance on the NY scene, the Shearer party of three didn’t like their living conditions, which went from modest to bleak. Crammed like sardines into a one-room apartment, you can only imagine what they thought of the communal washroom shared by the whole floor! Shearer had entered the world with a taste of the good life, and she was ready to take on the world to get back that status. But would the world have her?
5. She Brushed Off Body-Shaming Comments
Her first stop was to see Florenz Ziegfeld of the Ziegfeld Follies, a big name in the theater business—but she was in for a major disappointment. He blatantly rejected her, reportedly calling her a “dog,” and citing problematic physical traits such as crossed eyes and short legs. Shearer was well aware of her eye condition, crooked teeth, and a sturdy frame. She didn’t let it bring her down. She had determination, and determination would lead to success. Atta girl!
6. Her Appetite For Stardom Was Fierce
Shearer went with her sister for an audition to be extras in a film. The studio only needed a handful of extras, but there were 50 looking for the part. The casting agent wanted the most attractive and shapely young women. By the time he was one away from his limit, Shearer used her quick wits and coughed to get his attention, producing a big smile. You guessed it, he gave her the part—and Shearer’s ingenuity didn’t stop there.
7. She Made The Most Of Opportunity
While working as an extra, Shearer snatched an opportunity to approach blockbuster director D.W. Griffith during a break to tell him about her ambitions. Considering lighting and angles, he knew exactly what to look for, and frankly stated that her eyes were no good. “You’ll never make it,” he said. Tell us what you really think, Griffith! Well, Shearer took matters into her own hands…
8. She Worked On Self-Improvement
Shearer sought out Dr. William Bates, a pioneer in the treatment of the eye condition strabismus. She used his daily muscle-strengthening exercises to prevent her eye from wandering in order to be ready for her time in the limelight. She further practiced poses that would conceal her physical flaws, always keeping her end goal in sight. But was it enough?
9. She Was Biding Her Time
Norma Shearer headed to the theater balconies of Broadway in order to study the physical movements of the actresses, particularly their entrances, to use in her roles in silent motion pictures. One of the actresses she studied was Katharine Cornell. Later, Shearer would play the role that Cornell originated in The Barretts of Wimpole Street to much success. But at the time, funds were running out…
10. She Used What God Gave Her
Desperate for money, Shearer became a model. She was really good at holding a pose and sharpened her acting skills by being enthusiastic about the products she was promoting. She secured a title role for Kelly-Springfield Tires and became known as “Miss Lotta Miles”—a billboard beauty. However, this would come back to bite her much later…
11. She Started At The Bottom
Norma Shearer began as an extra, but by 1923 she had obtained a number of roles and began making a name for herself. A West Coast producer for Louis B. Mayer Pictures gave her a six-month contract and a test for a leading role in a major film. After making many sacrifices, she was finally on her path to stardom! Sadly, when she reached Los Angeles, she had a rude awakening.
12. Her Determination Was A Driving Force
With her mother in tow, Norma Shearer was expecting star treatment from the studio when they arrived at the train station in LA. Instead, she was in for a less-than-warm welcome. They ended up having to hail a taxi after waiting an hour for a ride. Well, she’d been patient this far, and her patience would have to serve her again…
13. She Beguiled Men
Shearer’s first screen test was a complete disaster. The use of flat lighting made her light blue eyes look almost white and also gave her a cross-eyed appearance. I have to admit here that Griffith called it! Another cameraman intervened after he witnessed her “fierce, almost raging disappointment.” Advocating on her behalf, she got a second test—but it wouldn’t necessarily be smooth sailing.
14. Her Feistiness Made Her A Better Actor
Two directors complained to Mayer that Shearer was “unphotogenic” and lacked acting skills. Intuitively, Mayer knew how to handle her and staged an outburst to provoke her reaction. Teary-eyed, Shearer’s obstinance rose to the occasion: “I’ll show you! You’ll see!” she said, and went on to ace a performance, landing her a string of roles. But it still wasn’t good enough for her…
15. She Made Friends In High Places
Norma Shearer once made an embarrassing mistake by mistaking the Vice President of Louis B. Mayer Pictures, Irving Thalberg, for an office boy. Oops! Only in his 20s, the press had dubbed Thalberg “The Boy Wonder” for his contributions in creating profitable films. Impressed by his calm demeanor and his “almost black, impenetrable eyes,” was it love at first sight? Not quite, but wait for it…
16. She Showed Her Vulnerable Side
Shearer blazed a path to VP of production Irving Thalberg’s office to plead for prime roles. He was a patient man and listened to her while recognizing that her popularity was due to her current roles. He didn’t want to stray from something that worked. Occasionally she would burst into tears, but his reaction was cold as ice. As in, Thalberg would barely react at all as she sobbed. However, for Shearer, it was try, try again!
17. She Started Dating The Boss
In 1925, Thalberg asked Shearer to accompany him to a Charlie Chaplin film premiere. The wheels were now in motion to take it to the next level, but they would move slowly over the next two years, as they continued to date other people. And there were other obstacles to conquer as well…
18. She Became Infatuated
Norma Shearer had a brief dalliance with director Victor Fleming. The attraction was understandable, as actress Olivia de Havilland commented: “…he was intelligent, talented, handsomely built, and virile in a non-aggressive way. He was also sensitive. A potent combination.” It was short-lived, as Victor moved on to the next actress who worked for him. And the next. You get it. But she had someone else in mind…
19. She Had A Competitive Spirit
Irving Thalberg had a dire heart condition—AKA, a forecast for early mortality and limited, er, bedroom capabilities. He had the hots for actress Constance Talmadge, although the feeling wasn’t mutual. Apparently, Shearer won the approval of his protective mother by ending dates early and proving she wouldn’t demand much in the bedroom—and she didn’t stop there. Shearer then converted to Judaism in order to marry him. And that wasn’t all she had to prove.
20. She Set Her Own Standards
Shearer was extremely self-critical. Enter stage right: the actual critics. Notoriously sharp-witted playwright Lillian Hellman once commented on her screen presence, saying that Shearer had “a face unclouded by thought.” Writer Anita Loos gave all the credit to Thalberg, “…by expert showmanship and a judicious choice of camera angles, he made a beauty and a star out of [Shearer].” Trolls! Well, she had an even bigger challenge waiting for her after she tied the knot with Thalberg.
21. She Had An Advantage
Once married, Norma Shearer had her choice of roles, actors, and directors. This auspicious partnership was irksome to some, but Shearer kept her vision focused on the big picture, as did her husband. She once said: “It is impossible to get anything major accomplished without stepping on some toes. Enemies are inevitable when one is a ‘doer.’” But she still had some “doing” to do…
22. Her Husband Was A Genius
Thalberg’s secret to success was his commanding presence and a gift of empathy. Even older and more important studio execs would defer to him. The fact that he raised in rank to a VP position by the age of 24 is a testament to his capabilities. As a result, his studio was “the only studio to consistently show a profit during the Great Depression.” Kudos for your choice of men, Shearer, AKA “First Lady of the Screen.”
23. She Stayed One Step Ahead
The introduction of sound to the silver screen in 1927 cost many silent film actors their jobs. To prevent Norma Shearer from being a has-been, she had help from her brother Douglas, who was experimenting with sound for Mayer’s merged studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Shearer also took vocal lessons, and audiences loved her “medium-pitched, fluent, flexible Canadian accent” in The Trial of Mary Duncan (1929). And then, a turn…
24. She Took Risqué Photos
Shearer had a good-girl image with her previous roles, but as the studio brought in Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow, she had to compete with their magnetism. She begged Thalberg for the lead in The Divorcee—and went to extreme lengths for it. Shearer had to convince her own husband that she was sultry enough, so she hired a photographer to take some racy portraits. Shearer’s allure and customized wardrobe was convincing enough to get her the part—but she wasn’t done yet.
25. She Was Indeed Sultry
Costume designer Adrian helped to create the sensual look for Shearer. She especially liked the silky nightgowns, known as “Norma’s Nighties.” She wore these without undergarments while filming. Her characters were now suggesting lovemaking for the fun of it, or to get back at a cheating husband. This was new, liberating territory for a female protagonist. Ooh la la!
26. She Had To Contend With The Green-Eyed Monster
There are perks to being married to the boss…but with that position of power, jealousy lurks around the corner. Actress Joan Crawford saw that the best roles went to Shearer because of her marital union. Shearer had snatched the lead role in The Divorcee away from Joan, and she went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. It was game time! Rivalry or not, Joan did catch onto the fact that Thalberg intended to make Shearer a star.
27. She Had Babies
Despite having a marriage that needed to keep passionate acts to a bare minimum, Shearer and Thalberg had two children: a son, Irving Jr., and a daughter, Katherine. The children attended school in Europe while their parents worked and hosted parties back in LA. Shearer and Thalberg did visit Europe with young Irving Jr. in tow, but under dire circumstances…
28. She Was Supportive Of Her Man
In 1932, tragedy struck. Shearer had to put her career on hold after Thalberg suffered a heart attack. Always putting in long hours on very little sleep, he now needed an extended recovery time. Although a year of absence had the chance to negatively impact her stardom, they headed to Europe to take the well-needed break. Now that’s my kind of prescription!
29. She Witnessed Hate
The Thalbergs had spent part of their honeymoon in Germany in 1928 and visited again in 1931, but it was in 1933 when Thalberg was convalescing that they realized something terrifying was brewing there. They saw this through hateful graffiti and political rallies, but that wasn’t all. They even witnessed an assault on a Jewish couple. Back home, Thalberg tried to help counter this hate…but that wasn’t the only problem on their plate.
30. Her Roles Changed Once Again
Thalberg coauthored the Motion Picture Production Code, which outlined morality guidelines for films that the studios should follow. The sensual roles of the Pre-Code films disappeared and ushered in more “moral” characters. Shearer again adapted to and succeeded in this new genre with The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and Marie Antoinette (1938). But she was still brazen in her own way…
31. She Knew How To Make An Entrance
Actress Carole Lombard hosted the 1936 Mayfair Club Ball, instructing women to wear white and men to wear white-tie with tails. Everyone except two pastel dresses obliged—but when Norma Shearer arrived, everyone’s jaws dropped. She wore an alluring scarlet red dress by costume designer, Adrian. Infuriated, Lombard suggested she looked like a madam for a brothel! And Shearer’s bold antics didn’t stop there…
32. She Inspired An Infamous Scene
They say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. This seemed to be the case after word spread about Shearer’s antics from the evening of the “wear white” Mayfair Ball. Apparently, it inspired the famous red dress scene in the Bette Davis film Jezebel (1939). In the film, Davis wears a “saucy” and “vulgar” red dress to a ball, as opposed to the virginal white dresses the others wore. Needless to say, it was an icy reception!
33. She Put Her Nose To The Grindstone
No one could ever accuse Shearer of resting on her laurels while filming. She worked tirelessly to give her best to the performance. George Cukor, the director of Romeo and Juliet commented: “She will play a long, exhausting scene over and over again without appearing to lose an atom of her freshness and verve…[then] collapse.” But sometimes, hard work alone doesn’t cut it.
34. She Could Bow Out Gracefully
People often have strong opinions when a favorite literary character makes the jump to the silver screen. This rang ever more true than usual when the studio announced that Shearer was going to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. They thought she wasn’t a suitable Southern minx and were angry that she wanted to change Scarlett’s role to be more sympathetic.
Shearer stepped away from the role with lightheartedness, saying, “Scarlett is a thankless role. The one I’d really like to play is Rhett.” Way to save face, Norma!
35. She Sacrificed Herself For Her Craft
Apparently, Shearer’s role in Marie Antoinette was her favorite. Detail-oriented designer Adrian created costumes using precious stones and heavy embroidery. The wedding gown weighed 108 pounds—talk about literally carrying a weight on your shoulders! She was able to work under the heavy restrictions, and go on to receive another Academy Award nomination, no less! But, just like Marie Antoinette, she had some unusual habits…
36. Her Image Was Hollywood Glamor
Norma Shearer spent much of her time resting in bed, so that when she was filming or making appearances she would look her best. Her best took time, forcing her to spend lengthy periods in front of the mirror applying makeup. She would always arrive late and make a grand entrance. Once, she was hours late—to her own dinner party! But Shearer could also be considerate…
37. She Took The High Road
The rivalry between Shearer and Joan Crawford gained momentum, giving the publicists something to work with for promoting The Women. Joan took a role in the all-female cast that had her character stealing the husband of Shearer’s character. After filming, animosity faded. Norma commented: “How could I hate Joan? She is so much like me…[we] both struggled to create an illusion of glamour and beauty.”
38. Her Tragic Role Imitated Life
What middle-aged woman doesn’t dream of being questioned on their age while purchasing from the liquor store? For Shearer, she played the traditionally-teenaged role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet while in her mid-30s…and snagged a nomination for an Academy Award to boot! The film lost a great deal of money from high production costs—but that wasn’t the real tragedy for Shearer.
39. She Knew How To Play Hard Ball
On the night of the premiere, Shearer’s husband Irving Thalberg died at the age of 37—not from his heart condition, but from pneumonia. MGM was supposed to pay him a percentage from the films he produced. It would be a hefty sum—but instead, they dealt the grieving Shearer a brutal blow. They refused to pay. Well, they were messing with the wrong widow.
Shearer hired a lawyer and when they didn’t back down, she took the story to a gossip columnist. And voila, MGM eventually paid over $1.5 million…and renewed her contract for six films. She hit that out of the ballpark!
40. She Went On A Dating Spree
Norma Shearer had remained faithful during her marriage, but as a widow, male companionship was in order—wink, wink—especially after suppressing her passion in the bedroom. Shearer briefly dated actor James Stewart. A fling with actor Mickey Rooney followed while she was 36…and he was still a teenager! But neither compared to the affairs to come…
41. She Had A Longer Affair
There must have been a strong attraction between Shearer and dancer-turned-actor George Raft, because they engaged in a long relationship. He wanted to marry her, but there was a major problem. Raft was already married! Before his career had taken off, he had separated from his wife, but she refused to grant him a divorce. Shearer ended the doomed relationship, but don’t be sad, there would be another…
42. She Was A Cougar
Heading to slopes at Sun Valley, Shearer met and fell in love with a hunky ski instructor named Martin Arrougé. This seemed like an odd pairing for her, a wealthy woman, and he, 12 years younger and living on a meager salary. Regardless, the couple tied the knot with a prenup in 1942. They had a happy marriage, and he was very attentive until her final days. But how did she capture his attention?
43. She Was A Fitness Fanatic
In order to keep her trim physique, Norma Shearer would work out daily with an exhaustive routine that she kept up well into her 60s. She began it with a 5 AM jog, followed by calisthenics in the afternoon, and a long walk in the evening. As if that wasn’t enough, she would also exercise to music in the middle of the night. If she had filmed it, she could have been the first fitness guru: Body By Norma! It seemed like a full-time job, but she had even more to do…
44. She Had a Bizarre Routine
Shearer went to extreme lengths to preserve her youth. She would soak in an ice bath for an hour after exercising. A friend commented on the effects: “Once, I saw her getting out of the bathtub. She had an incredible body, like a young girl’s. But the face was old. I seemed to be looking at a head and a body belonging to a different person. But she always refused to consider a facelift.”
45. She Knew When To Pack It In
How many actresses can say they have six Academy Award nominations for Best Actress? Shearer can, having won the award once. She retired in 1942, after her last two films lost money at the box office, and having passed up roles in highly successful films. One of those was Mrs. Miniver. Apparently, she passed it up because she didn’t want to portray the mother of a 20-year-old. But she did do something else for the film industry…
46. She Had An Eye For Talent
Being connected in Hollywood allowed Norma Shearer to pull some strings, and much like her dearly departed husband Irving Thalberg, her instincts for talent were spot on. From only seeing a photograph of a girl at a lodge in Sun Valley, she organized a screen test at MGM. They changed the girl’s name to Janet Leigh and eureka—a star was born!
Shearer also spotted Robert Evans by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She thought he could play her late husband in a biopic that was in development. He went on to become an actor and a film producer.
47. She Became A Hermit
In her later years, Shearer was so concerned about her public image that she rarely made appearances. She didn’t go to see her brother before he died at age 71, as she had depression to deal with—and it got much darker than that. Apparently, she refused to see her grandchildren because they reminded her of her age. Estranged from her son and daughter at the end of her life, she withdrew from the world. Sadly, it only got worse from there.
48. She Underwent Extreme Measures
Suffering from severe attacks of anxiety in the 60s, Shearer underwent electric shock treatment. Her depression improved slightly—at first. It wasn’t enough to prevent an incident in 1970 where she tried to throw herself out of the window on the top floor of a high-rise building while at the dentist’s office. More shock treatment ensued, but it affected her memory. Well, at least she had this…
49. She Had A Gem Of A Second Husband
In 1980, Shearer took up residence at the Motion Picture Country Home, an institution for aging and infirm Hollywood figures. Her second husband, Martin Arrougé, tried to look after her as long as he could by employing a nurse, but she needed more care. He would visit her every day despite her asking him if he was “Irving.” Shearer was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and was confused. Well, she left behind her films and something else…
50. She Was A Writer’s Muse
Shearer and Thalberg once threw a dinner party that would go on to inspire the short story “Crazy Sunday,” written by their dinner guest F. Scott Fitzgerald. Reportedly, he based the main characters, Stella and Miles, on the MGM powerhouse couple. Set over several days, the story deals with the interpersonal and intimate politics of those involved in the Hollywood studios. And then there is her legacy…
51. Her Contribution Is Recognized
Norma Shearer is on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the US and also Canada’s Walk of Fame, all thanks to her achievements in the motion picture industry. Sadly, Shearer died in 1983 from pneumonia, just as her first husband, Irving Thalberg, had. Reunited in death, she was laid to rest beside him in a crypt marked Norma Arrougé. RIP Edith Norma Shearer, you achieved your dreams.