There is one power couple that started people’s fascination with Classic Hollywood Love Stories: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Going to the movie theatre had just become the nation’s new pastime when these two stars started their love affair and the public went crazy for them. Classic Hollywood Central takes a look at some of Classic Hollywood’s real-life love stories and continues this journey with the story of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
When Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks met in November 1915, the movies were still silent. There were only a handful of real film stars and Mary was one of them. In 1909 alone she had starred in almost 40 movies and, because of her excellent negotiation skills, she was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. Douglas had just had his big break and was already winning over the eager movie goers. They were at a party of fellow actress Elsie Janis, an ideal place to meet a new partner. Except for one thing: both Mary and Douglas were married. Still, they got along so well, that they struck up a friendship. Or as host Elsie put it: “Mr. Fairbanks and Miss Pickford had become Douglas and Mary by the time we dragged our weary bodies home.” In the following year, Mary was a shoulder to lean on for Douglas after his mother’s death and by 1917 they were actively having an affair. But even back then, actors were aware that a scandal could ruin their careers. So they wore disguises to meet up or used friends like Charlie Chaplin and Anita Loos to accompany them at outings.
In 1918 the government reached out to them both to go on tour to help sell war bonds for World War I. The couple accepted and their loving glances in pictures were so obvious that rumours about their affair started to swirl. Douglas subsequently divorced his wife, though Mary was still nervous about what getting a divorce would do to her career. But they were more than just a (secret) couple, they truly were a pówer couple: in 1919 the pair joined forces with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith to form their own production company United Artists. This was a big deal, as it was the first time actors teamed up to start their own studio and defy the ones that reigned supreme.
By 1920, Mary finally divorced her husband and a few days later she married Douglas. Mary had no reason to be nervous about the public’s response: the pair was overwhelmed by the crowds of well-wishers greeting them at every train station on their European honeymoon. The newly-weds immediately set up house in a hunting lodge that Douglas had bought for them in Beverly Hills. They turned it into a 25-room mansion, with L.A.’s first in-ground swimming pool, and named the estate Pickfair.
They gave lavish parties with dinner guests like Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. An invite to Pickfair was a status symbol, a token of approval from Hollywood’s reigning couple. When Douglas’ son from his first marriage married Joan Crawford, even she had to wait for months to get an invitation.
The pair remained very much in love, but the pressure of being a famous couple weighed on them. They were so loved by the public that they were the first celebrities to put their hands and feet in cement in front of The Graumans Chinese Theatre, starting a tradition that lasts to this day. Both were also busy with their careers, but they always made an effort to spend as much time together as they could. It is said that for the first seven years of their marriage, they did not spend one night apart. They wrote each other endless letters and telegrams when they eventually did have to spend some time apart for work and travel. The love notes were filled with sweet words, romantic declarations and their nicknames for each other: Duber (Douglas) and Hipper (Mary).
The late 20’s brought the invention of sound to films, which would signal the end of both of their careers. Though Mary’s first sound film Coquette was well received, her career went downhill from there. It was not just the sound that did it: audiences did not like that their child-like superstar was actually a grown woman. She had gotten away with playing childlike roles, but she was approaching her 40’s now. Douglas did not like the ‘talkies’ at all, as he had always seen his acting as a form of ballet, which he felt was lost with sound. They tried to give it one more go by starring in their first feature together, The Taming of the Shrew, but the film flopped.
With their acting careers mostly behind them, they focused on other things. Mary was actively involved in the business side of Hollywood and in philanthropy. Douglas started to travel, mostly alone since Mary disliked travelling. Their personal life had taken some pretty big hits too: Mary had started drinking heavily after her mother’s death in 1928, which upset teetotaler Douglas. The very jealous Douglas started accusing Mary of having affairs, while having affairs of his own for years. Mary filed for divorce in 1933, which was granted in 1936.
It is said that Douglas and Mary tried to salvage their marriage, but to no avail. Fairbanks’ son later said that both Douglas and Mary regretted their inability to make their relationship work. After his divorce to Mary was final, Douglas married his mistress Lady Sylvia Ashley. They travelled extensively, but Douglas’ health was declining. He would die of a heart attack in 1939 at the age of 56.
Mary would go on to marry fellow actor Buddy Rogers in 1937 and she continued to live at the Pickfair estate. Both her brother and sister had died in the few years before, leaving Mary as the last surviving member of her beloved family. Like most of her family members, Mary soon became an alcoholic. Though she tried to stay active in Hollywood behind the scenes, even mentoring a young Shirley Temple. Mary and Buddy adopted Roxanne and Ronald in the early 40’s.
By all accounts, they were not very good parents and the children spent most of their days in boarding school. Although charitable events continued to be held at Pickfair and Buddy even gave tours of the estate in the 60’s, Mary was usually holed up in her bedroom. Even when she received an honorary Academy Award in 1976 a TV crew had to be sent to her bed. She kept in touch with people through telephone calls and Buddy took care of her failing health. In 1979 Mary passed away due to complications from a cerebral hemorrhage.