Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, 1924

When Doug met Mary

In late 1915-early 1916, Douglas Fairbanks met Mary Pickford, and the rest is history.

But how exactly did these two super-stars – the first-ever hero and heroine of motion pictures — come to carry-out a most passionate love affair, get married, and be crowned King and Queen of Hollywood, barely 3+ years later?  At this point, Douglas had made his first (The Lamb) and second (Double Trouble) movies out in Hollywood, and had returned to NYC to visit with his old friend, Frank Case, the owner of Algonquin Hotel.  Let’s see what Doug’s niece, Letitia Fairbanks, wrote with her co-author Ralph Hancock in their 1953 biography, Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer.

“There’s nothing like a convert,” laughed Frank Case, when Douglas exploded like a typical Californian and spilled his Hollywood enthusiasm over his old friends at the Algonquin. Case couldn’t help but recall Douglas’ recent reluctance to enter the movies.

“It isn’t the money, entirely,” laughed Douglas, a little shamefacedly. “Hollywood has everything-great climate, great people, and a great new frontier. Come go back with me, Frank, and I’ll show you what I mean.”

“You’re really going back?” joked Frank. “You plan to make more pictures?”

“Yes, a few,” answered Douglas, and it was evident that he still believed that he would ultimately return to the stage. While he must have realized the tremendous possibilities of the movies, it is doubtful if he himself at this time imagined or foresaw the important part he was to play in their further development.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, pages 123-124

On the matter of Douglas’ prodigious luck, Ralph & Letitia spoke clearly:

Douglas had always taken his good luck as a matter of course; action, not introspection, was the dominant feature of his personality and its application in hard work had brought him success. But he accepted each day as it came, asking little more from life than that he continue to enact his role in the exciting business of living. Although he was extremely ambitious and motivated by the desire for success, he lived entirely in the present, convinced that the completion of each day’s endeavor was sufficient to insure future rewards. Doubtless this was one reason for his tremendous popularity. He highlighted and dramatized every moment as if there were no tomorrows or other moments. Few men have been gifted with such a dynamic quality.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, page 124

So when luck (Douglas) met opportunity (Mary), a match was struck that lit a flame:

Still, he must have known an inner frustration, a feeling that there was or should be more to his life than be had as yet discovered. He was thirty-two and he still lacked fulfillment in his private life. While his marriage to Beth Sully had been a congenial one, it had not touched the realm of profound love. His emotions, during his days on the stage, had been the emanations of a controlled personality, never hinting at the inner depths of feeling that were submerged beneath his buoyant mannerisms. His flirtations, and they were many had been almost adolescent and superficial. He had escaped serious entanglement because of their weakness
rather than his strength.

Consequently, it came as a shock to those who knew him best when he fell in love with Mary Pickford. They were unable to imagine the happy-go-lucky Doug they had always known in the role of a serious lover. Few believed that his attachment for her was more than a temporary interest, or realized at first that it was a mature and consuming passion that was to change the course of his life.

Douglas always maintained that he fell in love with Mary even before tbey met, when he saw a photograph of her standing before a lighted candle with her hair in curls about her shoulders.

“It was then that she first typified everything to me that was desirable in a woman,” he once said.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, pages 124-125

As for Doug & Mary’s second meeting, that was arranged by Doug’s good buddy, Frank Case, owner of the Algonquin Hotel.

Mary Pickford, about 1916, the time she met Douglas Fairbanks

Mary Pickford, about 1916, the time she met Douglas Fairbanks

But it wasn’t until he met her for the second time, at a dinner dance Frank Case gave at the Algonquin shortly after the success of The Lamb that the romance really began. Douglas, as usual, had arrived early and was standing with a group of friends. He was relating one of his endless anecdotes when he paused suddenly in the middle of a sentence and stared at someone across the room. The others sensed immediately that something unusual was happening. They turned and, following his gaze across the room, saw Mary Pickford entering the ballroom.

“It’s Mary!” exclaimed Douglas, as though recovering from a tremendous shock and, leaving his friends, he dashed across the room.

Their conversation was remarkably banal. Mary smiled up at him and complimented him prettily on the success of his first picture. Though never starved for praise, her words meant more to him than all the other compliments he had ever had.

“It was just a case of beginner’s luck,’ be laughed.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, page 125

But no one was fooled as to Doug’s rapt attention to Mary, and her interest in Doug:

The mutual attraction of these two could hardly escape the notice of the other guests. They spent nearly the whole evening together and though their conversation remained on the conventional level of their mutual interests in motion pictures, their eyes and the tone of their voices gave them away. Douglas’ attitude was intent and filled with admiration, while Mary was all smiles and becoming modesty.

“I like the sensitivity, the taste, and the restraint you get into your portrayals,” confided Douglas as they sat out a dance at a small table in the corner. “You’re a great artist, Mary, because you give the illusion of reality, and in the theater or in the movies that’s better than reality itself. It takes a real artist to accomplish it.”

Mary, accustomed to adulation and flattery from everyone, was, nevertheless, struck by the sincerity in Douglas’ tone and manner. Douglas appreciated her as a woman and as an artist, and she was thrilled because it was different from anything she had known before.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, pages 125-126

But soon, Douglas’ mother Ella, had to be brought into the mix, and Douglas had to get his mother’s (Victorian) opinion on what would proper to do in these circumstances.  A portrait of mother-son devotion and love emerges from Ralph’s & Letitia’s portrait. Douglas adored his mother, and did all he could to see that she was well cared-for, loved, and yes, spoiled:

A few days later Douglas appeared unexpectedly at his mother’s apartment in the Seymour Hotel around the corner on 45th Street. Ella was always delighted to see him and she was especially pleased by his visits these last few years, when the demands of his work and his married life had made their moments alone increasingly rare. But Douglas was always thoughtful and frequently did little things even in his absence to show his love for her. He had brought her a sapphire and diamond bar pin when he had arrived recently from California, and this afternoon he had brought her a sealskin coat.

“You spoil me, Douglas,” she said, kissing him tenderly. “And you’re much too extravagant.”

“Not with my best girl.”

Ella tried on the coat for his approval and then they sat chatting about Douglas’ plans to return to Hollywood and the movies. But Ella was keenly sensitive to the moods of her son, and it was not long before she sensed an undercurrent of excitement in him and guessed that something more than a fur coat and Hollywood plans had brought him to see her that afternoon.

Suddenly, and in an attempt at casualness, he asked, “How would you like to have Mary Pickford and her mother here to tea?”

“Mary Pickford?” asked Ella.

“Yes, I thought you and Mrs. Pickford might enjoy knowing each other ,” he explained.

Ella understood immediately, but she said it was thoughtful of him and that she would enjoy it very much.

“I knew you would,” said Douglas, jumping up. “They’ll be here in half an hour.”

“But, Douglas,” began Ella, in some dismay, trying to decide whether she should change her dress first or order the tea.

“Everything’s taken care of,” said Douglas, quickly. “I stopped at Sherry’s on my way over and ordered something.”

Ella dashed to her bedroom to change her dress Just as the caterers arrived with the tea things and set them up on a table near the window. There were enough tea sandwiches and pastry for a dozen people and, before the table was set, a florist arrived with several large bowls of flowers already arranged. These they placed about the room and by the time Mary and her mother arrived Ella received them as if she had spent the afternoon preparing for their visit.

“It’s lovely, Douglas,” said Mary, laughingly surveying the room and realizing that it could only have been arranged by his prodigal hand.

While Douglas and Mary sat talking quietly in the semi-privacy of the °alcove, their mothers, who were both on diets, enjoyed nibbling the temptations on the tea table.

They had a lot in common, these two mothers, and it was not long before they were exchanging reminiscences about their trials and troubles as young widows trying to raise families. Charlotte Pickford had a delightful Irish humor and, when occasion or a good anecdote required it, a broad Irish brogue. Ella always had a ready laugh and a sunny disposition, so this meeting was the beginning of a close friendship. The mothers met several times for tea before Douglas returned to Hollywood and thus provided opportunities for Douglas and Mary to be together. These two naIvely believed that their mutual interests would resolve themselves into nothing more than a close friendship if they were able to see each other occasionally. It was a hypothesis that failed to stand the test of reality.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, pages 125-128

And so the stage was set for Doug and Mary, with Ella giving her reluctant blessing:

On the eve of his departure for Hollywood, Douglas was plunged into a new kind of despair as he realized how much he cared and
wondered when he would see her again. That evening, after Mary and her mother had left, he turned to Ella and said, “1 suppose you know how I feel about Mary.”

Ella nodded, and Douglas began pacing up and down the room.

“I know all the things you are thinking,” he said, impatiently, “and I agree with them. We’re both married, we both have promising careers, and it isn’t fair to Mary to expose her to even a hint of gossip.”

Ella was sympathetic, but she had little to say. “No one can help falling in love,” she said, “nor should he blame himself for doing so. But everyone must be held accountable for his actions.”

Douglas knew she was thinking of Beth and remembering his father’s desertion. It was a wound that had never healed/

“What should I do?” he asked in despair.

“I wish 1 were wise enough to advise you,” sighed Ella, “but that is something that only you and Mary can decide. Only, be careful, Douglas. Sometimes we pay dearly for the unhappiness we cause others.”

But nothing was resolved and Douglas left New York in a mood of confusion and despair. Now, more than ever, he needed diversion and an outlet for his emotions. He prevailed upon his old friend, Frank Case, to return with him to Hollywood.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, pages 128-129

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