Mary Pickford’s Birthday

220px-Mary_Pickford_1916April 8 is Mary Pickford’s 122nd birthday. Born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Canada, she lost her father, an alcoholic, at an early age. She and her younger sister and brother were raised by their mother, Charlotte, a fiercely determined woman who pushed all three of her children onto the stage and into silent pictures. Mary’s siblings, Lottie and Jack, became stars on her coattails–she was the international superstar of her era, the best known and best loved female face in the world. Yet she was not “just” an actress. She was a producer and the co-founder of United Artists–at a time when everyone thought actors didn’t have the brains to run a business. It was said that she had “a man’s head on her shoulders”–a rare compliment in that highly sexist era.

pickford-mary-roseIn my upcoming mystery, SILENT MURDERS, the setting moves from vaudeville to silent pictures. It is 1925, the height of the silent film era, and my protagonist, Jessie Beckett, finds a job as a lowly assistant script girl at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, one of the better known but studios in Hollywood but not one of the largest. I introduce Mary Pickford, who is about 33 then and still playing children in her movies; Jack and Lottie play supporting roles in my story as well. I learned a lot about Mary Pickford–and her family–from reading a couple biographies and her own autobiography. And after writing her into several mysteries, I feel as if I know her quite well. Isn’t she pretty? But she was not just a pretty face; she was a genuinely kind person, a tough boss but always kind to her employees. She used to say that no one worked for her, they all worked with  her. 

So Happy Birthday, Mary Pickford!

Mary Pickford 1892-1979

220px-Mary_Pickford_cph.3c17995uThe greatest silent film star of all, Mary Pickford, died on this day, May 29, thirty-four years ago. It would be nice to say she lived a long and happy life, but it wouldn’t be true. She did live a long life–at a time when infant mortality rates for white women born in North America predicted a life span of 51, she passed away at 87. But happy? Almost certainly not.  

From her earliest years, Gladys Smith, as she was christened, supported her family. Her father, an alcoholic, deserted and died a few years later. Her mother struggled to put food on the table and little Gladys went to work on stage at age seven. From then on, she was the breadwinner, and she developed a fierce work ethic that never quit. Moving from the stage to silent pictures, she became the first true “film star” with fans all over the world. She revolutionized the moving picture world, from acting style to production and her business sense was legendary. She made buckets of money, built a gorgeous home with an inground swimming pool, something unheard of in that day. She married three times, divorced twice. When sound came to the movies, she made the transition fairly well–she had been trained, after all, for the stage and knew how to use her voice, something most silent film actors did not understand. With all this success, why wouldn’t she be happy?

Roles for mature women, then as now, were few and she never maintained the wild popularity of her early decades. The family curse of alcoholism claimed her, as it did her brother and sister. She couldn’t seem to find anything to do that would occupy her–no charity work, no social life, no business management, no films. Her beloved mother had died of breast cancer; her sister Lottie and brother Jack soon followed, dying of an excess of alcohol and drugs that claims so many Hollywood personalities. Her second husband Douglas Fairbanks (some say, the love of her life) died of a heart attack at 56. She very nearly destroyed all her films. She retreated into her lovely home, Pickfair, and almost never came out. By the time she died, few remembered her name or her films. 

I’ve given her a supporting role in my second and third mysteries. She is mentioned in the first, The Impersonator, as inspiration for my main character who, like Mary Pickford, grew up on stage and played child roles even as an adult. I think “Little Mary” would have liked the way I’ve portrayed her. 

The Name Game

       Silent film actors often gave themselves a new name, something more memorable, more alliterative, more modern than the one bestowed upon them by their parents. For example, one casting director advised a handsome young extra named Frank Cooper to change to a first name that sounded tougher. She suggested Gary after her rough-and-tumble hometown of Gary, Indiana. “Coop” took her advice. When little Gladys Smith got her first part in a David Belasco play, the famous New York director insisted she change her humdrum name. Together they settled on Mary Pickford. She became one of the country’s most famous film actresses, known all over the world as “Little Mary” or “Our Mary.” Her siblings were all too happy to piggyback on Big Sis’s fame. They change their names as well, from the almost comically boring John Smith to Jack Pickford, and from Charlotte Smith to Lottie Pickford.

       Foreign-born actors needed something less—well, less foreign, so that American audiences could pronounce and remember their names. So Greta Lovisa Gustafsson became Greta Garbo, the famous vamp. Wong Liu Tsong became Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American film star. My favorite? Get a load of this: Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi who became Rudolph Valentino, the Latin Lover.  Here are a few more silent movie name changes:

 Mary Astor – Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

Joan Crawford – Lucille Lesueur

Lon Chaney – Leonidas Chaney

Douglas Fairbanks – Douglas Elton Ullman

W. C. Fields – William Claude Dunkinfield

Buster Keaton – Joseph Frank Keaton

Stan Laurel – Arthur Stanley Jefferson