By: Sarah Key
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/14/21 – Life is full of mysterious, unexplainable moments that lead to an extraordinary purpose. These moments can be the place where you met your spouse, what led you to receive a notable award, or even what led you to become inspiring to others. The relationship between silent film actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks is an epic story of the unexpected and the wondrous joys sprinkled with the inspirations of life. The idea of the unknown and the what-ifs come to mind when wondering what would occur if these two legends never met. The joys they had together at first glance defined what a true relationship should be and how the unexpected can change your life forever.
Gladys Marie Smith, known professionally as ‘Mary Pickford’ (1892-1979) and ‘America’s Sweetheart’ began her film career at Biograph Company (American Mutoscope and Biograph) with director D.W. Griffith. She was born in Toronto, Canada. Her first film she performed in was Her First Biscuits (1909). Per the suggestion of theatrical producer David Belasco, in 1907, Gladys became ‘Mary Pickford.’ With her middle name ‘Marie’ and her maternal grandfather’s name, John Pickford Hennessey, the name was fitting. She starred in plays for Belasco, which helped her learn her craft for acting. After Her First Biscuits, Pickford signed on, on April 20, 1909, with the Biograph Company, making $10 per day. She met her future husband Owen Moore on that day as well. They would marry in 1911.
In 1910, Pickford would leave Griffith to sign on with Independent Moving Picture Company of America (IMP) and Pickford would earn the name ‘Biograph Girl’ in place of Florence Lawrence being known as the original. Their First Misunderstanding (1911) starred Moore and Pickford, however, in 1911, Pickford would sign on with the Majestic Company, now making $225 a week. After a few shorts, Pickford would then again return to the Biograph Company.
After continuous moves from a different film company to the next, Pickford starred as ‘Julia’ in her first feature-length film with Adolph Zukor in A Good Little Devil for his Famous Players Company. She would now make $500 a week. In 1914, Tess of the Storm Country is released, and Pickford was now becoming recognized among audiences. Variety declared “Little Mary Pickford comes into her own,” and that she has stuck “another feather in her movie crown.” Her salary at $500 would increase over time to $2000, making her the world’s highest-paid actress at the time. She would play a variety of leading roles and bit parts at various character ages; a rich girl, an orphan, a mischievous child, or even a stock girl. Within this year, Pickford met her lifelong friend Frances Marion (1888-1973) who was a screenwriter for over 325 scripts.
As the years continued, Pickford wasn’t just starring in more films and growing as an actress, she was becoming ‘America’s Sweetheart’, which David Grauman, father of Sid Grauman of “Grauman’s Chinese Theatre,” named her. Pickford and Fairbanks would later be one of the first actors in Hollywood to immortalize their footprints in the wet cement in front of the Chinese theatre.
Douglas Elton Fairbanks Sr., known simply as ‘Douglas Fairbanks’ (1883-1939) began his career in acting in theatre in summer stock at the historical Elitch Theatre in Colorado. It is said that he went with an acting troupe of Frederick Warde, an English Shakespearean actor, beginning a tour across country in September 1899. Touring for two seasons, with multiple roles as an actor and assistant stage manager, he was bit by the acting bug. His first role on Broadway was in Her Lord and Master (1902) in New York City, which would be his new home. In 1906, he met his very first love, Anna Beth Sully, with whom he had his first child, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.. In 1915, he moved to Los Angeles, and signed a contract with the Triangle Motion Picture Company, where he met D.W. Griffith. Fairbanks appeared in his first film, The Lamb (1915) where he would showcase his signature “swashbuckling” and athletic skills.
In November 1915, Mary was attending a party at the home of actress Elsie Janis in Tarrytown, New York. Douglas was also in attendance. Though both had their spouses, Fairbanks and Pickford later formed a friendship.
Regarding the party, Janis quoted, “Mr. Fairbanks and Miss Pickford had become Douglas and Mary by the time we dragged our weary bodies home.”
In 1916, Fairbanks branched off his talents into his own company, the Douglas Fairbanks Film Corporation. He would then get hired with Paramount Pictures. Also in 1916, Pickford would form her own production company: Mary Pickford Film Corporation to be distributed by the Artcraft division at Famous Players-Lasky. Interestingly, Famous Players-Lasky Corporation took control of Paramount Pictures, similarly to the way Pickford and Fairbanks’ marriage would soon lose control in the future.
Fairbanks’ mother Ella Marsh Fairbanks passed away in 1916. Mary was there for Douglas during this trying time. Pickford and Fairbanks were beginning to keep their relationship secret from the press so a scandal wouldn’t erupt. Pickford eventually called Los Angeles her new home. This secrecy enabled them to begin a romantic affair, and as a result, they wrote letters to each other. In order for the new couple to see each other, they frequently had to disguise themselves from the press.
Pickford, for example, wrote romantically, “I had been living in half shadows, and now a brilliant light was suddenly cast upon me.”
Fairbanks would respond with the same amount of love and honor, “Oh I am simply wild about you. I feel positively sure that no man could love a woman more than I love you. You have completely taken possession of me, I cannot live without you.”
Amid this affair, both continued to successfully star in roles that would make them shine above the marquees. In March of 1917, Pickford starred in The Poor Little Rich Girl, written by Frances Marion. Pickford would play a 12 year-old-girl, which proves that she could act in just about anything in any film. Fairbanks would star in A Modern Musketeer, a film that defined who he was in real life, a swashbuckling musketeer. In this film, Fairbanks plays ‘Ned’ who gets in trouble for chivalrous attempts to help women.
In April 1918, Pickford, Fairbanks, actress Marie Dressler, and Charlie Chaplin were all chosen to tour the country to promote Liberty Bonds during World War I. Liberty Bonds were a war bond that was sold to the United States to support the Allied cause and subscribing to these bonds proved citizens patriotic. With the popularity and success of their films, they managed to sell $18 million in bonds. It was now becoming apparent to the public that Fairbanks and Pickford were the new “It” couple. By October, Beth Sully filed for divorce from Fairbanks. This would mark a huge step for Pickford and Fairbanks to get married.
1919 was a successful turning point in everyone’s career. Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith would form United Artists, their own film studio. Their studio would allow actors to now control their own interests, rather than be dependent on other studios. They also helped establish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As another result, Pickford formed The Mary Pickford Company to produce films distributed by United Artists.
Pickford’s marriage to Moore was becoming crippled from Moore’s alcoholism and domestic abuse. On March 2, 1920, Pickford divorced Moore. There are theories that Pickford suffered a miscarriage or had an abortion with Moore’s child. Other theories present that she was unable to have children. She married Fairbanks a few weeks after divorcing Moore. They married in Glendale, California at the home of Rev. J. Whitcomb Brougher. The new couple honeymooned in Europe and were mobbed by fans in London and Paris.
The New York Times reported that “Arriving in London, the pair were ‘mobbed’ to such an extent that they had to spend one weekend at Lord Northcliffes’ [estate] in the Isle of Thanet and another at one of the country seats of the Duke of Sutherland.”
After their honeymoon, Douglas bought a mansion for his new bride in Beverly Hills. This 25-room mansion with L.A.’s first in-ground swimming pool would be called the notorious “Pickfair.” Similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the couple would host extravagant parties to guests such as Albert Einstein, F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, Thomas Edison, and even Amelia Earhart.
Fit for Hollywood royalty, the mansion was four stories tall with horse stables, tennis courts, and an in-ground pool, which was unheard of for the time. This mansion was the first private home in Los Angeles to include an in-ground swimming pool, and Fairbanks and Pickford would canoe often in it. It was originally a “hunting lodge” and was transformed into their custom, family home.
While Pickfair entertained guests and hosted many parties, Fairbanks was beginning to take advantage of the attention with hubris towards his relationship.
Fairbanks’ son Douglas Jr. explained, “Dad wanted all of Mary- herself and her talent and her fame and her exclusive devotion. And he longed to be able to display their union to the world like a double trophy.”
Fairbanks would cheat on Pickford behind her back during the parties at Pickfair. A question that defines their passionate, yet complex relationship is: Would Fairbanks still love Mary if she was no longer an actress?
Pickford’s brother Jack did not approve of Doug for his sister. The Mary Pickford Foundation adds that Jack thought Doug was “a charlatan trying to buy his own importance through his association with Mary.”
It would make sense to assume that Fairbanks was pretending to love Mary based on his swashbuckling, saving roles and terse, yet perfectionist acting. He wanted to look better than her, and it was like a competition for him. She would receive much more attention as “America’s Sweetheart.” Their acting positions were beginning to cross into their marriage, eventually causing them to split.
One might even argue that he allegedly abused her, and this claim can be seen in the film Taming of the Shrew (1929). Pickford stated in later years that working on this film was both the worst experience of her life, and was one of the best performances from Fairbanks. Written by William Shakespeare and adapted and directed by Sam Taylor, Pickford played ‘Katherine’ and Fairbanks played ‘Petruchio.’ Eerily enough, the plot of the film depicts the courtship or period during which a couple develops a romantic relationship, between Petruchio and Katherine. Katherine (the shrew) is unwilling to continue with the relationship, however, Petruchio “Tames” her (hence the title of the film) with torments to become a submissive wife. Many onlookers stated that Fairbanks exaggerated Petruchio’s harsh treatment towards Katherine to take out his own frustrations on Pickford. The film premiered days before the great Wall Street Stock Market Crash of 1929. Sadly, these two events symbolize their crashing relationship. Living once in a passionate love affair, Pickford’s heart was breaking.
Before production of the film in 1928, Pickford’s curly golden hair was cut into a short bob. In 1929 Pickford also starred in her first sound feature Coquette, (Taming of the Shrew was her second sound feature). The film made a box office of $1.4 million, which was a lot of money for the time. In 1930, Mary won a Best Actress Academy Award for Coquette, proving that anyone can start a new chapter of their lives and feel empowered. Pickford was concealing her pain beautifully in front of the public. Fairbanks could not stand the fame she was receiving. They would spend every night they could together, but that spark between them was missing. It was like a game of ping-pong between the couple where both tried to show off to each other how successful they can be without one other.
On December 8, 1933, Pickford filed for divorce from Fairbanks. Given a challenging and heart-wrenching marriage, their divorce became final on January 10th, 1936. Immediately after the divorce, Fairbanks married British socialite Lady Sylvia Ashley in March. Doug Jr. was living with his biological mother until he married actress Joan Crawford and soon began his acting career. It was clear that Fairbanks Sr. wanted to start over and marry someone else as soon as possible. Fairbanks Sr. tried to convince Pickford to not divorce, but she was in so much anguish, she ended it.
Pickford is also to blame for the crumbling of their relationship. Through all her anxiety, she succumbed to alcohol to numb her pain. She didn’t only lose the love of her life to horrible circumstances, but she also lost her family. She lost her mother Charlotte, whom she was closest with, to breast cancer in 1928. Her siblings Jack and Lottie died in 1933 and 1936 from alcohol abuse. Her father was also an alcoholic and left his family in 1895. Pickford became depressed and reclusive within Pickfair years later. She retired from acting in 1933 after her final film Secrets but continued to become a producer and influential Hollywood mentor for those around her.
Pickford found her happiness when in June of 1937 she married Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers. Ten years prior, Rogers and Pickford starred together in My Best Girl, which is where their hearts aligned. As time continued, in 1938, Pickford developed Mary Pickford Cosmetics, designed to be affordable to society after the stock market crash.
To a great shock, Owen Moore and Douglas Fairbanks both passed away in 1939. Fairbanks and Moore both died from heart attacks. Pickford was devastated at the news of her ex-lovers’ deaths and did not attend Fairbanks’ funeral as she was in Chicago at the time. Neither did Beth Sully attend. Lady Sylvia Ashley, Douglas Jr., Robert Fairbanks (brother), and Doug’s nieces did attend, however. It could be that she wanted to be detached from Doug and be in the present moment with Rogers, beginning her new life. She bottled up her emotions and eventually became her own silent movie.
Pickford wanted to start a family of her own, and she did. Rogers and Pickford adopted a son, Ronald Charles Rogers, and a daughter, Roxanne Rogers. She wanted to adopt with Fairbanks, but it never came to fruition. In this marriage, she achieved her goal to become a mother. She fell in love with her children at first sight when adopting them. Sadly, her dream was becoming crushed as she had many weaknesses as a mother. It seemed that bottling up her emotions and suffering from alcoholism took control of her life.
The children were raised in Pickfair, and Ronald quoted, “It was so big you needed a road map to find the bathroom. I was in awe, but they told me I was going to be living there.” Pickford and Rogers would send their children to boarding schools, pose them in photographs often when they were home, and would never receive the genuine maternal love they grew up wanting. Pickford’s dream of the perfect family hardly ever achieved itself.
Pickford’s sadness resembles that of heartbreak and depression. She clearly still had love and passion burning inside of her for Fairbanks, and this is evident in how she focused on her interests more than those around her. She knew he cheated, hence the divorce, but she wished she could go back to when they first met with no conflicts. She wanted to help the public, but as the years rolled on, her emotional health was beginning to take a toll on her. Both of her adopted children observed that their mother was too self-interested to take care of them the way she should have, causing both children to become rebellious.
Pickford and Fairbanks relationship defied all odds. They tried to keep the love alive in their own ways. Fairbanks wanted to prove to Pickford he could change his ways during the divorce, and Pickford refused to show she still had love for him. Their marriage wasn’t perfect, however, they challenged the idea that love is still possible even through anger, pain, and suffering. They understood each other, but as the stock market crashed and sound pictures were available, it became a race to see who was more successful as an actor. Her reclusiveness mirrored her pain for losing him. She regretted her mistakes, and I’m sure he regretted his.
Pickford received an Academy Honorary Award at the 23rd Academy Awards in 1976. Audiences worldwide were now able to get a rare look inside Pickfair as the camera pans through her hallways, living room, and dining room. The parties could now be imagined by looking at how extraordinary their home was.
The Oscar is presented to Mary as she sits inside Pickfair, and she states, “That’s wonderful. You made me very very happy and thank you…Well, it’s very nice to be able to thank them all and especially you. Thank you. I shall treasure it always.”
Producer Walter Mirisch presented the Oscar to her, and he said, “He hasn’t changed very much at all this time, has he?” Mary quipped, “Well I hope not,” which ended in a laugh from her and the audience watching. She still was the Mary everyone loved her to be, telling jokes and being herself. Though no one notices her pain here, she conceals it with pride, honor, and confidence in receiving her Oscar. Without Mary and Doug’s contributions, the film industry wouldn’t be the same, and she probably would not have had the award presented to her.
Pickford passed away on May 29th, 1979 from complications of a cerebral hemorrhage and was interred in the Garden of Memory at Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery in Glendale, California. Buried in this specific Garden, her life shall always be a memory to symbolize how complicated and successful her life was.
After Pickford’s death in 1979, Ronald said in 2003, “I miss my mother. Things didn’t work out that much. You know. But I’ll never forget her. I think that she was a good woman.”
After Fairbanks’ death in 1939, his son Fairbanks Jr. said, “When he died, I knew I had lost the one I had always wanted to please. On the other hand, I know now that at that moment I became my own man.”
Pickford and Fairbanks defined what life was with its ups and downs, challenges and successes, love and heartbreaks.