Larger than life film director Cecil B. DeMille surrounded himself with intelligent, strong women at home and work to keep his empire running. Impressed with his mother’s thoughtfulness and drive, a young Cecil admired her as a person, influencing his actions and support of women throughout his life. Several women dominated his creative endeavors, including writer Jeanie MacPherson, editor Anne Bauchens, and secretary Gladys Rosson, a group which some referred to as his “harem.”
Rosson would remain at DeMille’s side for 39 years as secretary, but author Lisa Mitchell describes her as actually like the director’s vice president or aide-de-camp, organizing and ruling his business office like a controlling general. DeMille acknowledged her power and importance to his life, stating in the book Yes Mr. DeMille that she “rules my home and my office.”
Rosson with DeMille, 1951.
Born February 6, 1891, in New York City, Rosson was the second oldest child of Arthur and Helen Rosson and began working as a stenographer out of high school per the 1910 United States Federal Census. She found herself hired as a secretary to filmmakers Jesse L. Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille on December 13, 1914, two weeks after arriving from Rhode Island, as she told the Salt Lake Tribune in 1940. Showing strong ethics and dedication, Rosson began working solely for the great director in 1919, remaining at his side, both work and domestic, for the rest of her life.
DeMille appreciated the loyalty and confidentiality of his seemingly meek and quiet secretary, who demonstrated toughness and savvy in dealing with Hollywood egos, power, and politics. Rosson was the strong woman behind the man, not just as trusted advisor but also as former mistress as well, per his niece Agnes de Mille. She sometimes relayed news good or bad to others on DeMille’s behalf, including payments or gifts to his mistresses past and present including MacPherson and actress Julia Faye. Rosson knew more about productions, contracts, or even gossip than anyone who worked with the great director, but took all her secrets to the grave.
Detail oriented and with a razor sharp memory, the young woman moved beyond secretarial work into what almost could be called producing: watching dailies if he wasn’t available, critiquing continuity, acting, and production details, deciding who would travel to locations, reading scripts and watching screen tests to offer suggestions, conducting research, and scouting locations. Rosson accompanied DeMille on location trips or even weekends on his yacht or Paradise Ranch, taking notes, typing scripts, writing speeches, even laying out his clothes the night before appearances out of town. A stickler for rules and manners, some found her prissy and prim.
DeMille so trusted her judgment that he handed his personal investments to her as well, allowing her to research and then buy and acquire stock shares in commodities and businesses she considered most promising. When the legendary figure established Cecil B. DeMille Productions, Inc., he named Rosson secretary/treasurer, where she handled financial matters for the production entity as well as business and private loans for the executive.
Working with DeMille from his Laughlin Park home, studio bungalow, or ranch, Rosson sometimes found herself drawn into film productions at little notice as well. In 1916, she served as stand-in for singer actress Geraldine Farrar in Joan the Woman since she possessed the same complexion and hair color, tied to the stake as flames lapped at her feet. Newspapers and trades proclaimed in 1919 that her beautiful hands often stood in for stars in various productions, such as the film We Can’t Have Everything. In 1952 she appeared on camera as an extra for the first and only time in DeMille’s circus film The Greatest Show on Earth.
Rosson remained tight with her own family, several of whom also were veteran film workers and often all lived together. Older brother Arthur joined the industry as stuntman for Vitagraph in 1909, worked as an assistant director to DeMille, and later became a director on westerns, co-directing Red River in 1948. Younger sister Helene acted in silent films while brother Richard worked as an actor before becoming an assistant or second unit director. Baby brother Harold, the most famous of the siblings, worked a variety of odd jobs in movies before eventually becoming of the industry’s most respected cinematographers. He is perhaps best remembered as the third husband of platinum blonde actress Jean Harlow, and suffered from polio after they separated.
Gladys Rosson died June 14, 1953, in her Beverly Hills home after a long illness, surrounded by family. Virtually unknown today, she helped organize and shape the life and career of renowned director Cecil B. DeMille, possibly contributing creatively to his projects, but now consumed by the great man’s shadow.