Pickford, Mary (1893–1979)

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Pickford, Mary (1893–1979)

Canadian-born film actress and first female studio executive whose ingenue screen persona captivated film audiences in a long series of Cinderella-style stories, many of which she wrote and/or produced. Born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8, 1893, in Toronto, Canada; died on May 29, 1979, in California, of heart disease; eldest of three children of Charlotte and John Smith; married Owen Moore, in 1911 (divorced 1920); married Douglas Fairbanks (an actor), in 1920 (divorced 1933); married Charles "Buddy" Rogers (an actor), in 1937; children: (second marriage) one stepson.

Began touring with a vaudeville company at age five, appeared on Broadway by the time she was 14, and in her first film at 16; became the highest-paid film actress up to that time, exercising nearly total control over her career; was among the four partners who formed United Artists Corporation (UA), a film distributor (1919); found her acting career languishing (mid-1920s) when she was no longer able to convincingly play ingenues and turned to more mature dramatic roles which were not well received; retired from the screen (1933) but remained actively involved in the business of film making into the 1950s; received a special Academy Award for her contributions to the industry (1976).

Filmography:

various silent shorts (1909–12); The Unwelcome Guest (1913); In a Bishop's Carriage (1913); Caprice (1913); A Good Little Devil (1914); Hearts Adrift (1914); Tess of the Storm Country (1914); The Eagle's Mate (1914); Such a Little Queen (1914); Behind the Scenes (1914); Cinderella (1914); Mistress Nell (1915); Fanchon the Cricket (1915); The Dawn of a Tomorrow (1915); Little Pal Rags (1915); A Girl of Yesterday (1915); Esmeralda (1915); Madame Butterfly (1915); Poor Little Peppina (1916); The Foundling (1916); The Eternal Grind (1916); Hulda from Holland (1916); Less Than the Dust (1916); The Pride of the Clan (1917); The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917); A Romance of the Redwoods(1917); The Little America (1917); Rebecca of Sunny-brook Farm (1917); The Little Princess (1917); Stella Maris (1918); Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1918); M'Liss (1918); How Could You Jean? (1918); Johanna Enlists (1918); Captain Kidd Jr. (1919); Daddy Long Legs (1919); The Hoodlum (1919); Heart O' the Hills (1919); Pollyanna (1920); Suds (1920); The Love Light (1920); Little Lord Fauntleroy (1920); Through the Back Door (1920); Tess of the Storm Country (remake, 1922); Rosita (1923); Dorothy Verdon of Haddon Hall (1924); Little Annie Rooney (1925); Sparrows (1926); My Best Girl (1927); The Gaucho (1927); Coquette (first sound film, 1929); The Taming of the Shrew (1929); Secrets (1933).

Halfway through the 1976 Academy Award ceremonies, the star-studded proceedings paused for the more subdued presentation of the Academy's annual Lifetime Achievement Award. Its 83-year-old recipient was too ill to accept the award in person and had chosen instead to address the gathering via closed circuit television from her home. The surprise, even shock, was almost audible when the image of an emaciated, pale old woman wearing an ill-fitting wig flickered on the screen, speaking in a voice barely above a whisper. It was difficult to believe that she had at one time been "America's Sweetheart" and the film industry's first female studio executive.

Mary Pickford's career mirrored the explosive growth of "the flickers" during the first 30 years of the century. There was no film industry at all when she was born on April 8, 1893, in Toronto, Canada; and the screen name by which she would be known to millions lay some years in the future. John and Charlotte Smith named their first child Gladys Louise, born shortly after they moved into a working-class neighborhood of Toronto where John had found a job as a printer. Charlotte took in sewing to help support the family. By 1897, Pickford's sister Charlotte and brother Jack, Jr., had arrived. John had managed to save enough from his printing job by then to buy and run his own concession stand on a Lake Ontario ferryboat. One winter's day, late for supper and impatiently waiting for the boat to dock, John tried to jump the last few feet ashore, striking his head on a dangling pulley. He died only hours later of a fractured skull. Pickford was six, Lottie just three, and little Jack barely one year old.

For the next year, Charlotte and her three children struggled to survive, often depending on food given to them by neighbors. Pickford looked after the younger ones and kept house, while Charlotte tried to earn as much as she could from her sewing. Even when she began letting out rooms in the house to boarders, it was impossible to make ends meet. One of these boarders, a stage manager at a Toronto theater, suggested that she put the young ones to work on the stage, where there was always a demand for children as extras. By September 1898, Pickford had made her stage debut at Toronto's Princess Theater, playing both a girl and a boy in a long-forgotten melodrama, The Silver King. Later, when the same play was presented by another stock company, Charlotte astutely brought Pickford to an audition for the same two parts. She was promptly hired.

Pickford loved the theater from the first—the smells, the excitement, the audience's laughter and applause. For her, she said many years later, it was "an electric impulse, a definite vibration, a palpable bond." It was fortunate she took to the theater so naturally, for it rescued her family from destitution. Charlotte protected her children from the less desirable elements of the business and made life as normal for them as possible. "It was through my mother that I first learned what the term love really means," a very grownup Mary Pickford once recalled. "She diffused love in all directions, as a flower diffused perfume."

For nine years after her first appearance on a stage, Pickford trouped through Eastern Canada, the American Midwest, and the East in a long series of touring productions, many of them written and produced by entrepreneur Harold Reid. Reid took the entire Smith clan under his wing, often casting Charlotte in maid's roles and the two younger children as extras. But it was Pickford as "Baby Gladys" that audiences began to remember, especially in sentimental Reid productions like The Little Red Schoolhouse and Ellen Price Wood 's East Lynne. By 1901, the program for a production of East Lynne announced that "the souvenirs tonight will be of Gladys Smith, the little tot whose work has been so much admired."

Although the family sometimes had to break up to follow different tour routes, they would usually be reunited for the off-season summers in New York, where many of the circuits ended. At the end of the 1907 season, after 10 years on the road, 15-year-old Pickford wanted a permanent home and all that went with one. "When I saw the things that other girls had," she remembered, "I determined to have them. I'd have a fur coat one day, and it would be warmer because I had known what it was like to have insufficient wraps." While Charlotte took the younger children back to Toronto, Pickford stayed with friends in New York, intent on becoming a famous actress. That meant Broadway; and to many starry-eyed actresses in 1907, Broadway meant David Belasco.

Belasco was one of the last Gilded Age theatrical managers and producers, known for lavish melodramatic productions like The Return of Peter Grimm and Tiger Rose, both of which would eventually be adapted by the upstart film industry. Belasco's style was perfectly suited to Pickford's experience from her road tours, but it took several months of letter-writing and fruitless visits to Belasco's office before the great man agreed to see her. He later admitted to being impressed at the determination shown by the blonde, curly-haired 15-year-old who, when he opened their interview with the rhetorical "So you want to become an actress?," promptly and proudly answered "I am an actress! I want to become a good one." It was Belasco who came up with a more memorable stage name by asking Gladys Smith to recite the names of her family members, stopping her when she mentioned her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Denny Pickford . When Pickford also mentioned she'd always liked the name Marie, Mary Pickford was born. Mary hastily wired to Charlotte in Toronto: "Gladys Smith now Mary Pickford. Engaged by David Belasco to appear on Broadway this fall."

I have never been a happy woman. It is not my nature.

—Mary Pickford

The play was William De Mille's The Warrens of Virginia. Belasco was apparently satisfied with her work, especially noting that Pickford was the first to arrive and the last to leave rehearsals, even on days when her scenes were not on the schedule. "She would read and re-read her lines to find out which was the best way to speak them," he later remembered. "She was a very creative and highly intelligent little body." His only advice to her was to "always keep it natural." Since she was required at 15 to play a girl of 8, Pickford chose as her model Maude Adams , who as a grown woman was famous for her portrayal of the youthful Peter Pan. Mary learned from Adams that "the facial muscles of the grownup are controlled, while those of a child only reflect passing moods," and that children hardly ever wrinkle their brows, even when surprised or afraid. It was observations like these that would serve her well under the more demanding eye of the camera. The Warrens of Virginia ran for two seasons—the first on Broadway during the winter of 1907–08, and the second on tour starting the following May. Pickford was paid $25 a week on Broadway, and given a $5-a-week raise for the road tour.

After the show closed, however, her career as "a Belasco girl" seemed to stall, there being no parts for her in any of Belasco's upcoming productions. Charlotte dreaded the thought of going back on the road, with its possibility of splitting up the family yet again, and suggested to Mary that a temporary source of income might be found down on 14th Street, where the American Mutascope and Biograph Company had just turned an old brownstone into a studio for producing moving picture shows. On a winter's day late in 1908, Pickford took the trolley downtown and met the man who would do more for her career than David Belasco ever could.

David Wark Griffith was a former actor who would transform what had been a novelty at peep shows and vaudeville halls into a powerful new method of storytelling. Although Biograph was just one of a handful of new companies hastily organized to take advantage of what was thought to be merely a fad, D.W. Griffith was among the first to see its real potential. By the time Mary arrived in the third-floor ballroom that was his makeshift studio, Griffith had been churning out one-reelers for more than a year. Even at this embryonic stage of her film career, Pickford showed a remarkable business sense by demanding, as "a Belasco actress," double the usual $5-a-day salary and a $25-a-week minimum. Griffith agreed. On April 20, 1909, Mary Pickford stepped before the camera for the first time in a one-reel comedy called Her First Biscuits.

The work was not much to her liking, particularly the lack of rehearsal time and the demands placed on her to produce an emotion in less than ten feet of hand-cranked film. But it was steady work, from nine in the morning to eight at night, six days a week; and she could add to her income by following the example of many others in Griffith's troupe and writing scenarios—$25 for a one-reel story and $50 for a two-reeler. During her first six months with Biograph, she was able to save $1,200—more money than she had ever had at one time in all her years of trouping on the stage. Over time, she grew to appreciate Griffith's genius for intuitive directing. "We just listened to his voice to get his feeling," she remembered. "[He] devised ways and means of bringing actors out of themselves." Even the informal atmosphere of the studio began to appeal to her, especially the attentions of a fellow actor, Owen Moore, much to Charlotte's disapproval. Within three months, the New York Dramatic

Mirror specifically mentioned "an ingenue whose work in Biograph pictures is attracting attention" in its review of They Would Elope. The anonymity was standard at the time, the film companies fearing that name recognition would inspire their actors to ask for more money. Even fan mail was torn up before it could reach them. Mary was known to the public only as "Little Mary" or "The Girl with the Golden Hair." During the summer of 1909, Florence Lawrence ("The Biograph Girl," as the public knew her) was wooed away by another company. Griffith promptly made Mary the new Biograph Girl and the company's leading lady.

In less than a year, Pickford had appeared in 45 Biograph shorts and could count herself among the first group of motion picture idols, along with Mabel Normand , Harry Carey, and Blanche Sweet . One trade newspaper was sure that the success of Biograph's A Romance of the Western Hills "is in great measure due to this actress, and this is a particularly fine example of her art." But Pickford was shrewd enough to realize that her success lay in playing young girls and innocent sweethearts and that she would never be a great dramatic actress. Typically, she accepted her position and made the most of it. "I decided … to be a semiprecious stone," she said, "rather than a paste imitation of something more glittering and gorgeous."

In January 1910, Pickford made her first trip with Griffith's troupe to California for two months of work in what was then still a semi-rural backwater not yet called Hollywood. The "studio lot" was just that—a vacant lot at the corner of Grand Avenue and Washington Boulevard in what is now the Culver City section of Los Angeles. The entire cast and crew lived in a boarding house nearby. Owen Moore came west with the troupe after being warned by Griffith, who had caught them necking behind some scenery, to treat Mary gently. A year later, back in New York, she and Moore were married secretly to avoid Charlotte's anger, the two of them continuing to live apart until Pickford finally broke down and confessed. Charlotte and Biograph hid the marriage from the public, fearing it would stain Mary's screen persona as the innocent young virgin. There were also rumors that Pickford had suffered a botched abortion which had left her unable to bear children.

When Owen resigned from Biograph to join Carl Laemmle's Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP), Mary went with him. ("Little Mary's an IMP now!" crowed Laemmle in his advertising.) Pickford's reasons for leaving Griffith were more than romantic, however. Laemmle offered her $175 a week, which Moore jealously noted was more than his own salary. Several months later, Mary broke her contract with IMP, on grounds that she had been a minor when she signed it, and transferred her talents to Majestic Films, this time at an impressive $225 a week. But after only five films, shot in a drafty studio during a particularly cold Chicago winter, Pickford made amends and returned to Biograph in 1911, by which time her asking price had increased several fold. During her absence from Biograph, however, Griffith had discovered Lillian Gish . In 1912, while she was shooting her last film for Biograph, The New York Hat, Pickford cabled David Belasco that she wanted to return to the stage. "I've been hiding in the pictures," she told him.

Belasco immediately cast her as the poor blind girl in his 1913 production of Rostand's The Good Little Devil, which was seen by a former fur seller from Chicago who had the idea of creating a film company that would bring famous plays starring famous stage actors to movie audiences. Adolph Zukor called his company Famous Players. His first production was The Good Little Devil, with Pickford reprising her stage role to such effect that Zukor signed her to a contract for three pictures over fourteen weeks at a salary of $500 per week. For Zukor, Pickford appeared in The Bishop's Carriage, Caprice, and Uncle Tom's Cabin. By 1914, Zukor had signed her to a full year's contract, at $1,000 a week, and Pickford had announced her formal retirement from the stage. "I'm in the movies for money," she bluntly told Photoplay. "In … three years and eight months [in motion picture work], I was laid off only four weeks." That same year, she starred in what everyone agreed was her finest picture to date, Tess of the Storm Country, although privately Mary disliked the movie. In one-sheets promoting Tess, Famous Players billed her by name as "American's foremost film actress."

Over the next six years, Pickford starred in some of the most famous silents of the early cinema, such as Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Suds, and The Little American. Along the way, Zukor merged his company with Jesse Lasky's Feature Play Company to form Famous Players Lasky, while Pickford's salary went from Zukor's initial $500 per week in 1914 to an astounding $10,000 per week in 1916. The two-year contract she signed that year was a model of shrewd negotiating based on her new-found star power, for it included clauses giving her 50% of the net receipts of each of her films, with a guaranteed minimum of $1 million, and complete creative control over her productions, from writers to directors to casting. The studio was legally obligated to provide her with a secretary and a press agent, along with "parlour class accommodation" on her frequent cross-country train trips between New York and Los Angeles. Like the film industry itself, Mary Pickford was growing up.

Other actors were building star careers, too. Among them was Douglas Fairbanks, the dashing hero of such action films as The Three Musketeers and The Thief of Baghdad. Pickford and Fairbanks, who was also married, met frequently at social functions and premieres starting in 1914. By 1916, the two had become lovers, often meeting in secret at a house owned by Fairbanks' brother in the Hollywood Hills. But word was bound to leak out. Charlotte, who had tried to prevent Mary's marriage to Owen Moore, was now equally horrified at the possibility of a very public divorce; Moore himself, his career long eclipsed by that of his wife, began drinking to excess. In 1918, with the affair filling the newspapers, Fairbanks' wife Beth named Mary in public as her husband's paramour and demanded she step forward and admit it. Pickford called a conference with two friends, scriptwriter Frances Marion and journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns , to decide if her career could survive the scandal. Both of them assured her it would, for Mary's public was as much in love with her, they pointed out, as she was with Fairbanks. "More than anything else I had wanted desperately to be approved of," Pickford wrote many years later, "and that approval Douglas gave me. I had never believed anybody would speak of me, and to me, as he did." In 1919, Pickford began divorce proceedings in Nevada against Owen Moore, giving him $100,000 to hasten the proceedings; while Fair-banks gently persuaded his wife Beth to take similar action against him, citing "an unknown woman" as the cause of the separation. On March 28, 1920, little more than two weeks after her divorce from Moore became final, Pickford married Fairbanks at a private ceremony in Fairbanks' Hollywood home. As a wedding present, Fairbanks bought a rambling, rustic hunters' lodge in Benedict Canyon and remodeled it into a 22-room Tudor mansion he and Mary dubbed "Pickfair," which became a social center for much of Hollywood's artistic elite for the next two decades.

To add to the turmoil of this period, Pick-ford's long-standing argument with Zukor over "block-booking" of her films reached a critical point. It was Zukor's practice to lure theaters into booking a package of less successful films by using a Mary Pickford picture as bait; without taking the whole package, theaters couldn't have Pickford's film—a practice Mary, and others in similar situations at other studios, felt cheapened the value of their work. In 1918, she refused to renew her contract with Zukor and signed instead with First National Pictures, at a salary of $750,000. In return for the lower salary, First National agreed to book her films separately from any others and, more important, gave Pickford the right to set up her own film company—The Mary Pickford Company—with Mary as its creative head and Charlotte as its business manager. (With her financial acumen, Charlotte had invested most of Mary's earnings safely and wisely, a practice that would see Pickford comfortably through the Depression when other Hollywood stars lost their fortunes.) A year after her signing with First National, however, rumors began spreading that First National and Famous Players would merge to form a virtual monopoly controlling the production and distribution of filmed entertainment. The result of the merger was Paramount Pictures; the answer to it from Pickford and three other key creative Hollywood personalities was United Artists.

The formidable combination of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Pickford's old friend D.W. Griffith was in the form of an independent distribution company, the stock of which was not released to each partner until the required number of films, produced at each partner's expense, had been delivered. It was a direct challenge to the near total control the studios held over the choice, production, and distribution of an artist's work. "The satisfaction was in one word: freedom," wrote Pickford. "It's a heady wine, and having tasted it you find it impossible to go back working for someone else." She delivered the first of her required three films a year, via her own company, in the form of her 1920 adaptation of Eleanor Porter 's Pollyanna, which grossed well over $1 million worldwide. But there were problems with United Artists from the start. Charlie Chaplin, always meticulous about his films, didn't deliver a movie until 1923's A Woman of Paris, which fared badly at the box office and earned him Pickford's deepening displeasure as the years passed. Griffith, who brought the company some $8 million with his pictures in its first three years, was repeatedly rebuffed in his requests for production advances to complete his films, and left the company in 1924 to sign with Paramount. Efforts to increase United Artists' product by contracting films out to independent producers resulted in a string of financially unsuccessful pictures; and all the partners, including Pickford, repeatedly "roadshowed" their own films by renting a theater and opening a picture at their own expense, keeping all the revenue generated for themselves and dulling the market for the picture when it was handed over to UA.

But Pickford's films released during this period are among her best remembered—especially the adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett 's Little Lord Fauntleroy, in which Mary played both the title role and that of the child's mother, and a remake of her earlier Tess of the Storm Country. She stuck to her money-making formula of playing the working-class sweetheart beset by adversity who triumphs in the end, although by 1927's My Best Girl critics were hinting that it might be time for a 35-year-old woman to stop playing 18-year-old girls. As if to emphasize the need for a change, the industry's first talking film, The Jazz Singer, took the country by storm. My Best Girl would prove to be Pickford's last silent picture, as well as her last appearance as a sweet young thing. On June 21, 1928, Pickford walked into a fashionable beauty salon on New York's East 57th Street and walked out two hours later with the short, bobbed, heavily lacquered hair of a Jazz Age flapper. Two months later, she began work on her first "talkie," in her first adult role.

Coquette was little more than a stiffly photographed version of a popular Broadway play of the time, the camera tethered to its new, immobile sound apparatus and separated from the actors by a windowed, soundproof wall. Pickford was convinced the public would never accept the sound of her voice ("That's not me!" she protested on hearing herself for the first time. "It's impossible!"), and she had gone through two directors and two sound technicians before the picture was released to great acclaim in April 1929. It grossed nearly $1.5 million during its run and earned Pickford the Academy's Best Actress award at its second annual ceremony. But Coquette would prove to be her last successful picture. Her only screen appearance with her husband, in a 1929 film adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, made only a modest profit, while Pickford herself shut down production on her next effort, Forever Yours, commenting later that it was "the most stupid thing I ever saw, including me." She completed and released the film later under a new title, Secrets, but it still lost $100,000 at the box office.

Fairbanks' films were faring no better. Friends noted that he seemed to have lost interest in his screen career and was spending long periods of time away from Pickford, traveling around Europe on the pretense of making a travelogue while carrying on an affair with a former "chorus girl" from England. Pickford, too, had indulged in a series of amours, the longest running of which was with actor Buddy Rogers, who had played opposite her in My Best Girl. Rumors that her marriage was in trouble became so widespread that Mary was forced to answer Photoplay's inquiry in 1931 by saying, "I cannot deny there may be a separation. I can only say there is none now." In June 1933, however, Pickford and Fairbanks were, indeed, legally separated. That same year, Mary officially announced her retirement from the screen and, for nearly a year, rarely left the isolation of Pickfair.

She briefly emerged in 1934 in a stage production of Alice in Wonderland (for which journalist Edmund Wilson claimed she had had a facelift) and in a weekly series of radio dramas which were indifferently received, as was a chat show replacement, "Party at Pickfair." Two spiritually inclined books, Why Not Try God and My Rendezvous with Life, along with the novel Demi-Widow—all ghostwritten from Pickford's notes—appeared in 1934 and 1935. But it was the film business that kept beckoning. "Let no one tell you they don't miss their career," she once wrote. "I miss it terribly. It's a constant ache with me." One solution was to form a new film company in partnership with Jesse Lasky, the Pickford Lasky Production Company, which released two unsuccessful pictures through UA in 1935 before being disbanded.

In June 1937, Pickford announced her third marriage, to Buddy Rogers, who had abandoned his sporadic acting career to form a band. Mary accompanied Buddy and his group on their road tours, and it was during a stop in Chicago that she received the news that Douglas Fairbanks had died. "My darling is gone," she was heard to whisper, for she and Fairbanks had remained close even after their separation. Gone with him was Pickford's most enduring link to the old, heady days of a Hollywood just discovering itself.

From now on, the public saw or heard Mary Pickford only in bond drives during the war years or in occasional guest spots on national radio. But Hollywood's business community heard from her often, for she continued to take a direct hand in the increasingly troubled affairs of United Artists. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, with Pickford and Chaplin the only remaining partners, UA slid precariously closer to bankruptcy. Their continuing rift over business practices which had always been mediated by Fairbanks now grew wider. Pickford accused Chaplin of using United Artists as a private banking account for his infrequent films, while Chaplin complained that she was dictatorial and trying to force him out. A series of disastrous deals with outside producers resulted in ruinously expensive lawsuits and no new product. The ill feeling reached its nadir when Pickford allowed herself to be interviewed by the FBI during the McCarthy era, Chaplin being suspected at the time of Communist sympathies and eventually forced to flee the country. He never forgave her.

Halfway through 1949, UA had already hemorrhaged $400 million and was on the brink of bankruptcy. It was saved by a group of investors to whom Pickford signed over control of the company in 1951 and to whom she sold her remaining shares for around $3 million. She took some satisfaction from the fact that Chaplin had done the same, a year earlier, for little more than $1 million. (United Artists survived and even prospered under its new leadership and became part of MGM/UA Enterprises in 1981.) With the last vestige of her most productive period now gone, Pickford lived quietly and in increasing obscurity at Pickfair. Director Billy Wilder considered her for the part of Norma Desmond in his Sunset Boulevard, but after he realized that he could not bear to show "America's Sweetheart" as a faded, delusional movie star, the part went to Gloria Swanson .

A lawyer who visited Pickford in the late 1950s described her as "a lovely person, but sad in some respects. Hollywood had sort of passed her by. She knew it, and didn't like it." Her name was kept alive through her generous donations to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital for indigent and retired entertainers, and by the announcement that she had given those of her films which survived, some 50 titles from her Biograph and Famous Players days, to the American Film Institute. Most of her remaining films shot on fragile nitrate stock had deteriorated beyond repair.

In a rare interview given in 1970, Pickford admitted that the film world had changed to such an extent that she knew she could never go back. "Making movies was fun," she said of her early days, "[but] there is not much fun today when one mistake can be fatal. In the old days, a star was loved through good, bad, and indifferent pictures. Today, three bad pictures and a star is finished." She hinted, too, that her memories were too fragile to withstand the brutal business of modern-day film making. "I think illusions are so important," she said. "That's why I haven't gone back to pictures."

Mary did not disclose that she had been diagnosed with advanced heart disease and that her strength was leaving her. Even so, on the night her frail image appeared before the Academy Award audience, she rallied sufficiently to request the camera crew to shoot only her left side so that the slight bump on her nose which had vexed lighting directors in the old days would not be apparent.

Among the last to see her was her stepson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who was a frequent visitor to Pickfair after his father's death. "She would be talking," he once reported, "and I would suddenly realize that she thought I was my father. It was at those times that I realized that she always remained in love with him." On May 29, 1979, Mary Pickford died peacefully at a Santa Monica hospital, after lapsing into a coma at home.

At the Academy tribute held five months after her death, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., reminded the audience that Pickford's great contribution to the industry had been her guardianship of creative rights. "It was her idea," he said, "that artists who created their own works from the beginning … should have the rewards due to them." But for Pickford, there was something even more precious. She recounted in her autobiography a visit to her native Toronto in 1944 during which she appeared before a group of adoring Air Force cadets about to go off to war. "It is good to have lived to know that after so many years off the screen," she wrote, "there were young men who could still pay me the sweetest and most gallant compliment of all—to ask me to be called their collective sweetheart."

sources:

Eyman, Scott. Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart. NY: Donald Fine, 1990.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

Pickford, Mary. Sunshine and Shadow. NY: Doubleday, 1955.

suggested reading:

Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1997.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York