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!

Another Scandalous Pickford: Lottie

      The middle child in the Pickford trio was Lottie, named for her mother Charlotte. Like all Pickfords, Lottie was pretty and had some acting talent, but she clearly rode to Hollywood on the coattails of her big sister Mary, the silent screen’s most famous actress. For instance, Mary insisted that her husband Douglas Fairbanks give Lottie a role in his swashbuckling film “Don Q: Son of Zorro” and Douglas acquiesced, even though he despised party-girl Lottie for her wild behavior and drunkeness.

      Lottie married four times. Her first marriage to Alfred Rupp produced a daughter. The girl, initially named Mary Pickford Rupp, was born in 1915. But Lottie and Alfred divorced and Lottie’s mother, Charlotte, took custody of the child (and changed her n ame to Gwynne), presumably because Lottie was unable or uninterested in caring for the girl addicted as she was by then to alcohol, wild parties, and drugs. 

      Lottie married another actor, Alan Forrest, divorced him, and married a businessman, Russel Gillard. In 1933 she married a fourth time, before getting a divorce from #3. When the judge granted the divorce, Lottie announced that she had already married Pittsburgh society man named John Lock. While this made her a bigamist, something considered shocking in those days, Lottie figured correctly that no charges would be brought against the sister of “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford.

      Lottie died at 43 of a heart attack, probably brought on by her lifestyle.

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