Mary Pickford and the Scandal that Wasn’t

     Perhaps the Pickford family scandals were as inevitable as their fame. Jack and Lottie were incapable of avoiding trouble and, really, why bother when big sister Mary was there with her money and her influence to extricate you from any mistakes you made? But what about Mary herself? Did she avoid scandals, or was she really the virtuous, spunky, girl-next-door sweetheart her films portrayed?

           Well, no, she wasn’t. What she was was smart. Far smarter than Lottie or Jack or just about everyone else in Hollywood. Mary Pickford was Hollywood’s first international superstar and as such, the first to experience the fame and fan adulation that stars today expect.

           Mary’s first marriage was a big secret, even from her domineering mother. Against Momma’s wishes, Mary married Irish-born actor Owen Moore in 1911 when she was 18. It is said (but I’ve never seen anything that even approximates evidence) that she had become pregnant earlier and had either miscarried or had an abortion (illegal then, of course), which could explain why she never had any children. This would have been a huge scandal, big enough to have ruined her career forever, but it never got out. You might say it still hasn’t gotten out!

           The marriage was a disaster. Moore was an alcoholic and violent, not to mention hugely jealous of his wife’s greater success. They separated, got back together, and separated again several times. All of that was secret. All of it would have caused harmful scandal if the news had leaked.

            Mary met Douglas Fairbanks in 1916, and sometime afterwards they began their affair. The were very much in love, but both were married to others and divorce was too scandalous to contemplate. They were terrified of the reaction of their fans should they divorce, or should their affair become public. Finally, Douglas could stand it no longer. He gave Mary an ultimatum: either she get a divorce and marry him, running the serious risk of professional and financial ruin, or he would never see her again. She gave in.

           “We had to be very discreet in our meetings,” Mary Pickford wrote. “I was still married to Owen Moore, and to risk the wrath of a man whose antics on and off the set had caused me considerable pain would have been disastrous to my career. We met at friends’ homes and planned a strategy to get my divorce.” It took months and a lot of money (some sources say a half million dollars; Mary’s biographer says $100,000) to convince Moore to agree to a divorce and play along with the scheme to get it. But they still needed a place to get one, and the most convenient place was Nevada.

           Divorce wasn’t easy in those years. In many states, it was virtually impossible. Even in Nevada, residency requirements meant that you had to own property in Nevada and actually live there for six months before you could apply for a divorce. Mary Pickford couldn’t do that, not and still make movies in Hollywood. Nonetheless, she and Owen Moore were granted a same-day divorce on March 2, 1920. She married Douglas Fairbanks a couple weeks later. (His own divorce was finalized early in 1919.)

           The uproar started when newspaper reporters learned that some Nevada legislators were questioning the legality of the divorce on the grounds that Mary was not a Nevada resident. Evidently exceptions had been made in consideration of her international fame and fortune. Finally her lawyers produced a deed that showed she had purchased property several months earlier. Many think the document was backdated—again, no proof. Some say she claimed to have moved permanently to Nevada for her health. Mary only commented, “My lawyers arranged that. I had nothing to do with it.”

           A full-fledged scandal ready to erupt? But it didn’t. To everyone’s surprise, Mary Pickford’s image was so strong that it withstood the bad publicity. Her millions of fans either didn’t believe a word of it or they didn’t care. She was “Little Mary,” “our Mary,” “America’s Sweetheart,” and now she was married to everyone’s favorite movie hero, Douglas Fairbanks. Amazingly, her popularity grew even greater.