Though most of what I do as a photographer are documentary and travel projects, I shoot the occasional wedding, promotional portrait, or headshot, almost always by referral. I recently received a shout-out from a friend on Facebook to do some head shots for her landlord, who happens to be moonlighting in our local film and television industry. She needed a couple of updated pictures for her agent, and preferred someone who was willing to make a house call. After a brief phone conversation, I went over to scout her home, and that’s when I met Miss Lauren for the first time.
According to IMDB, Lauren Swinney has worked on nine film or television projects, all shot in New Orleans over the past 11 years, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Paradise, Hateship Loveship, the unfortunate Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and most recently the film Left Behind, her second with Nicholas Cage. Not a bad resume for any actor plying their trade in the city, considering the current landscape of a burgeoning film industry. Even more impressive for one who just celebrated her 92nd birthday.
One unique and wonderful quality about New Orleans is that it’s the kind of place where you can create your own celebrity, whether on purpose or not. The city not only breeds, but attracts, the subversive genius of the creative diviner. It is a hotbed of the eccentric, a mecca for the unique, the unusual, the misfit, the maverick. The city will nurture your gifts, applaud your quirks, and celebrate your story, as long as you are willing to share it. That feeling of being connected to the local cultural milieu in a way that seems familiar is why coming to New Orleans often feels, for some, like coming home. That was certainly the case with Miss Lauren.
“I was not born in New Orleans, unless in another life,” she explains. “When I first came here, I just came for the weekend, and it just felt so right. I felt that I’d been here before, as so many people do.”
If you Google her name, you will find — aside from her IMDB page — other references to her ubiquitous local celebrity, such as a reading from her travel memoir that she did at Bacchanal for her 89th birthday and a rap song she wrote and performed onstage at Siberia for another. She was recently featured on a Food Network cooking show for an episode shot locally. In one online article, she is described as an actress, writer, bon vivant, and that may be about as appropriate a description as any to describe her joyful demeanor and boundless energy.
“It’s fun for me,” she says of her many local activities, onscreen and onstage. “And then I meet somebody, and they come out and do something with me like this. I don’t know where it goes, but I’m happy. I enjoy doing it.”
She lives in the modest back house of a property she owns in the Bywater, where she once lived with her daughter Holly, who passed away from ovarian cancer in 2005. Though she is not as mobile as she once was and her eyesight has deteriorated, Miss Lauren is a marvel of mental acuity who will recall, with uncanny detail, the conversations and serendipitous moments of a life well traveled. She can no longer offer a timeline or precise chronology; spending time with her, listening to the stories and snapshots of her life, is a bit like wandering through a meadow that is blooming with her remembrances.
“I was 4 years old when I did my first radio broadcast,” she recalls without hesitation, when asked if she could remember her first foray into show business. “I was with my father, and I recited a poem on WJKS in Gary, Indiana.” The poem was called Animal Crackers, Miss Lauren adds, reciting it word for word, recreating her performance from 88 years hence, replete with self-conscious cuteness and perfect Shirley Temple vocalization:
“Animal crackers in my soup, lions and tigers loop the loop, gosh oh gee but I love to see, animal crackers in my soup.”
She made several more appearances on local radio throughout her childhood.
“The nuns forced me to get up and do things, radio broadcasts were big then.” Because she was naturally outgoing? “No, I was the opposite! I was an obedient child, always cooperative, but very shy. They apparently sensed that I had some degree of talent.”
That talent was for more than just performing. “I won a national poetry contest when I was in the eighth grade. You know what I won? Any book I wanted that didn’t cost more than two dollars.” And what did she choose? “Bold Blades of Donegal. I’ve still got the original book, signed by all the priests and nuns.”
After going on to get her master’s degree at Northwestern University’s prestigious School of Speech, Miss Lauren had expected to return to Gary and be “the first female disc jokey on WIND, and spin records at night. That was the height of my ambition.”
That radio station had folded, though, by the time she graduated in the mid-’40s, and with it, her connections. So she decided to follow her parents — who had recently bought a chicken ranch in Fremont, California — and move to the West Coast. She became a speech therapist at several different schools and ultimately began pursuing a doctorate at Stanford University.
True to her creative instincts, she got involved in Stanford’s drama department, and it was also around this time that she met her first husband, Jack Swinney. She was visiting a historic site called the The Little Brown Church in the Valley, in Studio City, California.
“That’s where I met him. I thought, what is this? It’s a beautiful sunny day, but the air is going hmmmmmmmmmmm [she makes the sound in the deep of her throat] … like electricity all around, and I thought, this is strange, this humming sound. At a distance, there was this tall man, and uh … he was the one. Hmmmmmmmmmm. I don’t know what that was.”
Though she enjoys remembering her years in California — her one-woman show, The Empress of Louisiana, performed at the CAC in 2007 as a memorial/fundraiser in honor of Holly, was about her time on a military base in the Mojave Desert with Jack and her young family — her time at Northwestern University was clearly one of the happiest of her life. She is proud to point out that era it is now considered a “golden era” for the program, with legendary teachers such as Alvina Krause and Lew Sarett. Her friends during that time are a veritable Who’s-Who of classic Hollywood and Broadway stars. Lydia Clarke went on to do a few movies and worked as a photographer, but is best known as the long-time wife of Charlton Heston, who himself was another college chum. In fact, she knew the pair when they met, and her memory of the two of them is highlighted by the kind of clear and lucid anecdote that makes her eyes light up when she tells it, animated with a spirited recollection.
“After Charlton went into the service, he came back on leave to see her. They came over to my apartment and said ‘let’s go out to breakfast.’ The elevated train was right across the street, the train ran right by my window, and the world’s worst greasy spoon restaurant was right there. So we ordered one stack of pancakes and three plates, because we didn’t have enough money. It cost 15 cents for that big stack of pancakes.”
Jean Hagen, best known for her Singin’ in the Rain fame, was her roommate at one time, and other friends in her clique included Paul Lynde (Broadway actor most notable for his long-time residency on Hollywood Squares), Martha Hyer, Chloris Leachman, and Helen Horton, who worked in film and television almost constantly for 60 years, but is probably best remembered for being the voice of the computer Mother in the film Alien.
All in all, it’s hard to nail down exactly when she came back to New Orleans to settle down, but her time here has been no insignificant chapter. Her dormant acting career came to life while working for a French Quarter catering company, when a colleague suggested that she meet with his agent. And in addition to her performance projects, she has never stopped writing. There is a manuscript about her travels around the world, a trip she made with her eldest daughter, Darcy, who worked for a major airline at the time and was able to fly them from place to place for almost nothing. It is a book from which Miss Lauren does occasional public readings, but which is not published, and may never be. She said she will give it to her remaining children when she is gone.
In the meantime, she will continue telling her stories in person, including the one about how she shouldn’t even be here. When she was a child, she suffered a triple misfortune of double pneumonia, scarlet fever and a car accident. Her resulting recovery left her with something the doctors called “a children’s heart,” and told her she would be lucky to live past the age of 20.
“I wasn’t allowed to play sports in high school, and later they were concerned with childbirth. But five children later, here I am.”
“Miss Lauren,” I said to her, at the end of the interview, “your heart’s had the last laugh.” And then, as if anticipating the question before I asked it, she explained her “secret,” which really seemed as much a mystery to her as it does to me:
“I take one baby aspirin per day. They tell me it’s good for me, so I take it. But as I say, I’m in good shape for the shape I’m in.”