In a way, Gloria Stuart's early lack of fulfillment was her ultimate good fortune: one of the reasons director James Cameron cast the actress in Titanic was that audiences weren't likely to recognize her. Although she appeared in more than 40 films in the 1930s, Stuart's face easily passed for that of an aged Kate Winslet, who played young Rose in the 1997 blockbuster about the sinking of the "unsinkable" ship.
The role of Old Rose earned Stuart an Oscar nod making her, at 87, the oldest actor ever nominated for an Academy Award. She found the character rewarding in its own right. "If I had been given plum roles like this back in the old days," she told the Chicago Tribune, "I would have stayed in Hollywood."
When Stuart died Sept. 26 at 100, it was nearly 80 years since she'd debuted on the silver screen. She'd worked with Eddie Cantor, James Cagney and Dick Powell; played Shirley Temple's older cousin; acted with Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House and Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. But her career wasn't satisfying. As she described it, the all-controlling studios reduced the blond beauty to a "girl detective" or "society girl."
Her life offscreen was less predictable. A founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, she also helped create the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Away from movies for some 30 years, she became a successful painter.
She returned to acting in the '70s and had a role in 1982's My Favorite Year. But it was only after Titanic that Stuart wrote her memoir, I Just Kept Hoping.
This text originally appeared in the Oct 11, 2010 issue of TIME Magazine.