It was the great love affair that built Hollywood. Fairbanks, born Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman in Colorado was an entertainer at an early age. He was on the stage in his teens but his family made sure he finished his schooling. An unconfirmed rumor was that Fairbanks at one time was in enrolled at Harvard. In the early 1900’s he moved to New York City to pursue his acting career. He also married his first wife Anna Sully, an heiress and they had one child. In 1915 Fairbanks moved his family to Los Angeles and signed a contract with his first movie contract. The following year he met actress Mary Pickford and fell head over heals for her.
Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto, Canada and started on the stage at young age. She did her first Hollywood screen-test was at the age of 17 with D.W. Griffiths in New York City in 1909. In 1909 alone Pickford starred in 51 movies. She made more films that year than modern day actors make in first 2 decades of their career. By 1910 Pickford was already Griffiths highest paid actor and on her way to Los Angeles. Pickford was known in Hollywood as one of the nicest people to know. She was extremely successful in find future stars, like Florence La Badie, Dorothy & Lillian Gish. In 1911, Pickford married in to the greatest dynasties of the film industry, the Moore family. Her husband Owen Moore along with his 4 siblings hold the record for the family with the most movie credits in history. Between the 5 siblings they were in 829 movies that have been documented. The number may be higher but not all of the films ever made withstood the test of time.
Pickford’s marriage with Moore was doomed from the beginning because Moore could not handle Pickford’s celebrity status. After a few years of emotional and physical abuse she and Moore lived separately. In 1916, Pickford and Fairbanks met at a party in Hollywood and their love affair would carry on for many years until 1920, two years after Fairbanks was divorced from his wife and Pickford finally divorced her abusive husband. The duo would become legends for their public and private lives, American royalty in their own right. Fairbanks leased the estate GrayHall in Beverly Hills for a few years, during his affair with Pickford and a few years after their marriage. In 1919 he bought a hunting lodge onto of hill in Beverly Hills as present for Pickford, the couple built their new home for the next 5 years and in 1924 it was named Pickfair, a moniker based on their names (the first moniker in Hollywood). Their dinner parties at Grayhall & Pickfair were legendary, with a guest list that was jaw dropping from one night to the next. The only other couple who could top them would be William Randolph Hearst & Marion Davies. While Hearst and Davies kept with the usual Hollywood who’s who guest list, Mary & Douglas mixed Hollywood with great personalities and visionaries of their own fields, for example H.G. Wells, Lord Mountbatten, Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald and Arthur Conan Doyle.
In 1919 the couple really made their mark on Hollywood by joining with friends director D.W. Griffiths & Charlie Chaplin to form United Artists Film Studio. The studio allowed Fairbanks, Pickford and Chaplin to maintain control of the careers. The trio were the top 3 actors for many years and other studios were coming up with ways to short change their income from their movies. Also in 1921, the trio along with a few actors and D.W. Griffiths, started the Motion Picture Fund (which would eventually include Televsion. The fund was created to help actors who were limited in or had no resources and eventually the fund built the Motion Picture & Television Country House & Hospital which was a retirement community for the members of the Actors Guild and the unions.
Fairbanks & Pickford’s marriage blossomed in the 20’s, due in part to their hectic schedule, they made efforts to see each other and enjoy romantic weekends and vacations. Sadly when the 30’s arrive, Fairbanks health and transition in to the talkies was very bumpy. With Pickford’s continued success, Fairbanks withdrew from Pickford and his marriage and eventually started having affairs. The duo separated in 1933 and Fairbanks was already in publicized relationship with Lady Sylvia Ashley (well known English actress and model who would eventually marry 6 times in her life). In 1936 the couple divorced and Fairbanks remarried with months. Fairbanks health continued to decline and he eventually died of a heart attack in 1939. Pickford would find love a second time with Buddy Rogers who was also an actor and Jazz Musician and they would marry the following year. Their marriage would last for the rest of Pickford’s life.
Fairbanks & Pickford’s relationship truly was a great love story, long before the coupling of stars for publicity. Sadly the dawn of the talkies truly left a black mark not only on their careers but also their relationships. One thing has proven, the joining of two stars is always a unpredictable outcome. From some like Boggie & Bacall, Hepburn & Tracy or Woodward & Newman the electricity will last till the very end. Sadly for others it just fizzles for one reason or another.
Today, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. great-grandson Dominic Fairbanks-Weston is co-producing a bio-pic about Mary Pickford titled “The First”. Playing Pickford will be American Horror Story actress Lily Rabe, she played the Stevie Nicks devotee witch in this last season. Still no word on who will round out the cast, including Fairbanks.