Gladys Swarthout was best known as a singer in the classical field, but she occasionally delved into lighter popular fare. Born and raised in Deepwater, MO, she was the daughter of a railroad conductor. The family had at least two highly musical children, and Gladys and her sister Romah Lee both took singing lessons as young girls -- Gladys impressed those around her with her depth and range. In her early teens, she presented herself as 19 and was engaged as a contralto at a church in Kansas City. She studied classical music almost exclusively, and attended the Bush Conservatory of Music in Chicago, later joining the Chicago Civic Opera Company, where she found a mentor in Mary Garden. She was later engaged by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and made her debut there in 1929, as La Cieca in La Gioconda. She gave regular performances on the radio during the 1930s as well as on the operatic stage, and appeared in a handful of movies. She was signed to Paramount Pictures in the mid-'30s, and worked in five feature films, including Rose of the Rancho and Champagne Waltz.
On record, her repertory went beyond the classics to encompass the work of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Richard Rodgers; she recorded at least one 78-rpm pop album featuring standards by those composers for RCA Victor. Swarthout continued working into the early '50s, just late enough to have made some television appearances (including one as a guest on What's My Line). Swarthout's health began declining as she reached her fifties, a result of complications from rheumatic heart fever that she'd had -- undiagnosed -- as a child. She was forced into retirement but survived, thanks to then-new techniques of open-heart surgery. She devoted a good part of the last decade of her life to a campaign to raise awareness among parents about childhood rheumatic heart fever. She passed away in 1969 at the age of 68.