Before Mary Tyler Moore, Debbie Reynolds, or Julia Roberts, there was the original America’s Sweetheart: Mary Pickford. This silent film star won audiences over with her sweet smile and cascading curls, and reached a level of fame that no other movie star ever had before. Sadly, behind the scenes, her life was filled with tragedy and heartache. When her career faltered, she became a recluse—but now all her Hollywood secrets are out, and they tell a chilling story of the early days of film.
First of all, "America’s Sweetheart?" A total fabrication. Sure, she charmed American audiences, but the woman they knew as Mary Pickford was actually Gladys Marie Smith of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The street where she was born is now filled with ritzy glass towers, but at the time, Mary’s working-class family lived in a small house there, where they hovered at the edge of poverty. Their existence was precarious—and tragedy was lurking around the corner.
When Mary Pickford was just three years old, her alcoholic father walked out on the family—but that was just the start of their nightmare. Mary was a sickly child, barely surviving bouts of pneumonia, diphtheria, and tuberculosis. Local authorities even had to force her family to quarantine as a public health measure. And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, devastating news reached Mary and her family.
When Mary Pickford was six, her father hit his head while working on a local steamship, causing a blood clot. Six months later, he was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. It was a horrific tragedy for the family. Despite their estrangement, his passing devastated Mary’s mother Charlotte. On top of that, the loss threw them off the edge of the working class existence into utter poverty. However, there was also an unexpected silver lining.
Mary’s family was so poor that her mother had to take in boarders to rent rooms in their home. One of those boarders worked in a local theater. When he met Mary and her younger sister Lottie, he suggested that they take minor roles in a play that he was working on, and even got their mother in as the organist. It was the start of something big…
The loss of her father and her family’s financial situation forced Mary Pickford to grow up fast. Instead of playing with her siblings, she took care of them. Her mother never shielded her from their dire situation, and Mary became her confidante. On top of that, she already had a flourishing theater career in her hometown by the time she was ten. It was time for their next step.
Mary Pickford signed a film contract with famed director D.W. Griffith and before long, she was working harder than any other actress her age. In 1909 alone, she appeared in 51 films—just about one per week. And talk about range…even though she was just 17 years old, she took on all sorts of roles, from mother to ingenue to lady of the night.
The studio she was working for rarely listed every actor's name in the credits, but audiences fell for Pickford’s cherubic charm and began to track her appearances. However, they weren’t the only ones who fell for her…
Griffith knew he had a star on his hands, and he tried to hone her talent—but sometimes, he went too far. In one instance, he even beat her. In another, Griffith sensed Pickford’s inexperience and naivete when it came to the ways of the heart. He asked her how she would do a love scene and flagged down a random actor to work with her.
Pickford knew she was in over her head, but she was a good sport about it and eventually, Griffith let her off the hook. But the encounter had left Mary shaken, and not just because her career was on the line.
The actor that Griffith had plucked to rehearse with Pickford that day was Owen Moore, and teenaged Mary had a major crush on him. He became her co-star in The Violin Maker of Cremona, her first starring role. As children of working-class Irish immigrants who got into showbiz with their siblings at a young age, Pickford and Moore had a lot in common. Young love blossomed, but there was one problem: Pickford’s mother couldn’t stand him.
See, Moore had a little too much in common with her family.
When Mary’s mother Charlotte met Moore, she must have flashed back to her youthful romance with her own husband. After all, Mary’s dad and Moore had two things in common: volatile moods and a penchant for drinking. Charlotte put her foot down and disapproved of her teenage daughter dating anyone, let alone him. Her mother’s fervent disapproval just made Owen Moore all the more appealing to Mary Pickford.
However, D.W. Griffith was on Charlotte’s side and helped break them up. Griffith’s plan may have worked for a while, but ultimately, it blew up in his face in a spectacular way.
The studio where Moore was working, IMP, was in dire need of a leading lady. Mary Pickford, by then an in-demand star, was in dire need of a raise. It was an easy choice. The studio not only offered Pickford a lucrative contract but also promised to employ her mother and siblings. To cover her tracks, she kept the fact that Moore worked there a secret from her family…and that wasn’t the only secret she was keeping.
In late 1910, Owen Moore gave Mary Pickford an ultimatum. He wanted her to tell her mother that they were together, and he wanted her to marry him. Well, one of two ain’t bad. In January 1911, the young couple eloped together—but instead of a fairy tale, it was an absolute horror story. As Mary, then just 19 years old, walked up to the altar, she knew she’d made a terrible mistake.
She pondered turning on her heel and running the other way, but just as she gathered the courage, she heard herself robotically repeat "I do". It was too late.
The secrecy didn’t end with the wedding ceremony. Instead of celebrating with her new husband, Mary Pickford returned to her mother’s apartment and snuck into bed, pretending nothing had happened. For a while, she was able to keep up this charade, keeping her marriage secret from her mother and her regret secret from Moore.
But, lest we forget, they were all working for the same studio, IMP. It was a house of cards, and it was about to fall.
Soon after her secret wedding, IMP decided to decamp its entire operation to Cuba. That meant Pickford, her secret husband, her disapproving mother, and her two clueless siblings were all about to spend days on a ship together. Mary couldn’t take the tension anymore and finally confessed what had happened to her family. Their reactions were brutal. As Mary’s mother sobbed, her sister and brother went stone-cold silent on her—and it didn’t end there.
As soon as the ship landed, Moore went off to drink himself stupid—but his drinking was far from the worst problem in their marriage. Moore was desperately insecure. The fact that Mary was not only more famous than him but also made way more money grated on him until he became a walking raw nerve. One day, he finally exploded. He attacked an assistant, who wanted to press charges. Salvation came from an unexpected source.
She may not have liked him, but Mary’s mother Charlotte came up with a plan to save her son-in-law. She had another IMP actor hide him from local law enforcement until such time that he could find a ship willing to take him back to the US. And Charlotte wasn’t just trying to get rid of him—she sent Mary back with him as well. Did Moore learn a lesson from this? Absolutely not.
In fact, things got even worse, and he turned his rage toward Mary.
On top of his insecurity and his drinking problem, Moore was also physically abusive with Pickford. She hadn’t even wanted to tie the knot with him in the first place, and now she was really, really stuck. IMP, the studio they’d decamped for together, was struggling—but one terrifying incident led Mary to her breaking point.
While filming a scene that required her to swim in the (filthy) Hudson River, she was nearly hit by a boat. Then, in her panic, she thought that the man saving her was trying to drown her. Traumatized by the experience, she knew she had to do something.
Mary Pickford told studio head Carl Laemmle that she was leaving IMP. Soon after, Moore quit as well, and they both signed with a fledgling studio called Majestic. Where Laemmle had once been jovial and kind with them, he now made a drastic about-face and sued in order to stop them from "posing" for any rival studio. Well, he’d messed with the wrong actress.
Pickford fought her case in court, testifying at length against IMP and listing all the ways they’d failed her as an employer. Ultimately, the court made a decision in her favor, as she’d signed the contract as a minor. Pickford was finally able to move on…from IMP, at least.
Majestic had signed Mary Pickford on a plum $225 a week contract and had offered the same to Owen Moore. His fragile ego was soothed—but Mary was hiding a dark secret. She’d orchestrated his contract, and the studio had only agreed in order to secure her. Can you blame them? Mary had charm, star power, and legions of fans.
Mary and Owen had a myriad of issues in their relationship, but she’d just managed to eliminate professional jealousy as one of them. Unfortunately, she was playing a game that was impossible to win.
Mary Pickford had proved herself to be particularly adept at navigating the studio system in the silent era, but she was still just a girl in many ways. She relied heavily on her mother Charlotte, and it drove a wedge between Mary and her husband. They were rarely alone together because Mary would constantly invite Charlotte to stay with them.
It drove Owen mad, but instead of doing anything about it, he’d just go off on benders. Majestic did their best to paint them as a happy couple, but the cracks were starting to show.
Mary Pickford and Owen Moore made it through just a handful of movies for Majestic. Their relationship was so tumultuous that something had to be done. So, they went their separate ways…from the studio. Both signed contracts with other studios, ending their professional relationship. While this made it to the gossip rags, there was another part that didn’t get quite as much publicity—they also separated.
It wasn’t quite as drastic as seeking a divorce, but for Pickford, it was definitely a step in the right direction.
Mary Pickford could’ve chosen to go to any studio. But when she looked back on her career, she came up with a surprising conclusion. In her time as an actress, no one else had challenged her as much as the man who’d discovered her—D.W. Griffith. Pickford wasn’t just in it for the paycheck. She really did want to be the best actress possible, and while IMP and Majestic had paid her well, their films just weren’t that great.
Pickford decided to return to D.W. Griffith and Biograph Pictures, even though it meant she had to take a huge pay cut. She didn’t care, and reportedly, when she finally saw Griffith again, she collapsed in his arms and cried tears of relief.
Next, the ambitious Pickford made a triumphant return to Broadway, hoping to take her career to the next level—but while she was up there, she made a shocking discovery. Surprising even herself, she realized that she much preferred film acting to the stage. Pickford may have been naïve about a lot of things, but her career was never one of them. From that moment, she vowed to work exclusively in film.
That decision would completely shape the rest of her career—and would even shape the film industry as we know it today.
Have you noticed one glaring omission in the story of Mary Pickford thus far? We’re talking film, stardom, studios, glitz, and glamour—without one mention of the word Hollywood. Why? Well, it simply didn’t exist as we know it! While the major film studios had satellite locations in the Hollywood neighborhood that had just been integrated into Los Angeles, they were mostly based in New York City.
While recovering from a surgery, Pickford decided to recover with some fresh air and sunshine in California. There, she helped open a West Coast office for Famous Players. She began to transform Hollywood into what it is today—and it began to change her too.
Next, Mary Pickford both wrote and starred in Hearts Adrift. It made her the biggest star in film, matched only by Charlie Chaplin. It also cemented her status as "America’s Sweetheart"—a name that a writer from Famous Players’ publicity department came up with. She belonged to her fans, who saw her as innocent, angelic, and pure—a true "maiden". Her long, blonde cascading curls were a symbol of her youth and girlishness, during a period when most women wore their hair up.
A journalist from that era later described her as "the best-known woman who has ever lived". That’s just how famous Mary Pickford was. It was completely unprecedented, and she basically had no idea what to do with it.
Mary Pickford was universally beloved—but even in those early days of Hollywood, this type of fame had a disturbing dark side. Obsessed fans made shrines or begged her for money, and people tried to take advantage of her and her family by fabricating stories about them. She was uncomfortable yes, but she was also the same business-savvy girl at heart. She leveraged her fame into a raise that doubled her salary, but that wasn’t all she asked for.
It’s rumored that, around this time, Mary Pickford fell hard for one of Famous Players’ contracted directors, James Kirkwood. Years later, he confessed to a love affair with the starlet, claiming that they’d even discussed marriage. Whether it was true or not, they made a string of successful films together. Unlucky in love but shrewd as can be in business, Pickford saw another opportunity. She got her studio to give her yet another raise.
Pickford had an image to maintain, and this, unfortunately, meant she couldn’t just ignore her marriage to Owen Moore. They’d pose for pictures for Photoplay, playing the happy couple, but behind the scenes, things were unbelievably dark. Pickford was desperately depressed, and when one of her films turned out bad, it threw her into an even deeper sadness. She accepted an invitation for a weekend at a friend’s mansion upstate, and she and Owen set off—not realizing that they were on a collision course with destiny.
On the way there, they stopped to check the map, and another car pulled up alongside theirs. Inside was up-and-coming actor Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, on their way to the same place. Fairbanks’ wife quickly accepted Mary Pickford into their circle—but neither knew that he was hiding a dark secret. Douglas Fairbanks cheated on his wife…a lot. He carried on multiple affairs, but they were always "passing fancies," and he always came home to his wife.
He never dreamed of leaving her—until he met Mary Pickford.
Just as Mary had a good-girl image, Douglas Fairbanks had one as a sort-of grown-up Boy Scout—and both knew that an affair would irreparably damage these images and their livelihoods. Fairbanks moved his family out to California, perhaps to distance himself from the temptation. Sadly, it was a tragedy that brought them together.
When Fairbanks’ mother passed on, Pickford took him on a drive to console him. Whether they were having an affair before that is unknown, but one thing is for sure—they definitely were after that night.
Soon after, Mary Pickford also up and moved to California. How…coincidental. Pickford and Fairbanks snuck off whenever they could, and even when they couldn’t. Just as her mother’s disapproval had fanned the flames of her teenaged love for Owen Moore, sneaking around gave Mary the vitality and excitement that she’d been missing during her depression.
She even bragged about visiting his wife in the hospital—and then grabbing him in the hallway to go off on a date with her. Yikes, Mary. Not exactly something to be proud of.
The affair became an open secret in Hollywood. It could’ve blown Pickford’s career to pieces—but there was a pretty big distraction on the horizon. When the US entered WWI in 1917, the government expected Hollywood to do their part. Throughout 1918, Pickford and Fairbanks crisscrossed the US selling war bonds, sometimes appearing together, sometimes in competition with each other.
Owen Moore tended to his wounds the only he knew how (drink and public outbursts) in Hollywood. Fairbanks’ wife Beth waited patiently for him in New York City…until one day, she hit her breaking point.
When Fairbanks visited New York but took a room at a different hotel from his family, Beth’s reaction was devastating. She went straight to the press and confirmed the rumors that he’d been having an affair. While she didn’t say who, she did go so far as to say that it was an actress he had business ties to. All eyes turned to Mary Pickford, who denied the rumors—but the worst was yet to come.
If you thought Beth Fairbanks' statement to the press was bad, Owen Moore’s was 1,000 times worse. He made it seem like he was defending Pickford’s honor when really, it was as humiliating as it gets. Moore said, "The other woman is now ill," and talked about how Mary was like a child who Fairbanks had taken advantage of. He finished by saying he planned to sue Fairbanks for interfering in his marriage. It was Mary’s worst nightmare come true.
The truth was out, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. Still, the ever-savvy Pickford managed to sign a lucrative new contract with another studio. The scandal hadn’t affected her profitability, and she laid low while Fairbanks was due in court. His wife had demanded a divorce. Instead of filling the court records with splashy details of his affair with Pickford, two of his friends made up stories about dalliances with nameless, faceless women—and surprisingly, it worked.
The courts granted the divorce, and the story faded from the papers as quick as it had appeared.
The illicit nature of their affair had added a layer of excitement to Pickford and Fairbanks’ romance, but the secret was out. If you think that took away any of their passion, think again. Fairbanks relentlessly pursued Pickford, asking her again and again to marry him. It was a true, genuine love—but on the other side of things, Pickford faced a calculating man who was determined to get his way.
People knew Owen Moore as moody, gloomy, and generally kind of a dark cloud—until news of the affair came out. Then he quickly painted himself as the long-suffering victim, jovial and optimistic despite the circumstances. There was a chilling reason for this about-face. The writing was on the wall and there was no way their marriage would make it through—so he wanted a parting gift.
Moore demanded $100,000 for a divorce. Pickford was horrified, but the money was ultimately a drop in the bucket.
Once she agreed to Moore’s payday, they arranged for a quickie divorce in Nevada. It was easier there than in California, but there were still some rules. However, this was America’s Sweetheart, and as soon as the judge laid eyes on her, it seemed like he forgot most of them. He granted the divorce, and Pickford returned to Hollywood, reassuring the press that she would not only atone for her sins but would never remarry. Hmm…
Fairbanks, once again, asked for her hand in marriage. One major fear held her back. If the fans turned on them, would their love be enough for them to live happily ever after? Fairbanks reassured her that they’d be fine. When she still balked, he came up with…an unconventional plan. Surprise wedding! No, really. One night, he invited Mary and two guests for dinner.
One was the county marriage clerk and the other, a local pastor. Somehow, it worked.
Mary protested and insisted that she wouldn’t marry him that night. She wasn’t dressed for it, after all. However, two nights later, she changed her dress and changed her tune. Pickford and Fairbanks tied the knot 26 days after her divorce from Moore. It was so quick that they announced it to the press before many of their loved ones, and had to rush to correct their mistake.
When the news broke, the press descended on Pickford and Fairbanks for their scandalous quickie marriage. The attorney general of Nevada announced he’d be pursuing Pickford for lying during her divorce proceedings. The Baptist Church was up in arms. As for the fans? Well, they didn’t really seem to buy into the narrative that the couple had done anything wrong. Pickford had prepared for a backlash, but it never really came.
In the aftermath of WWI, people in the US and abroad wanted happy news. They wanted a love story—and Mary Pickford gave them one. Timing was everything, and for once, it had worked in her favor. On their honeymoon, fans gave Pickford and Fairbanks a hero’s welcome wherever they went. In fact, their scandal had, if anything, only caused their admirers to be more fervent—but some went too far. While in England, fans nearly dragged Pickford from a car and a riot ensued.
Mary Pickford was the original "America’s Sweetheart," and the first female actor/writer/producer in Hollywood. Now, to cap that off, Pickford and Fairbanks became the first official Hollywood power couple. Fairbanks gave Pickford a home as a wedding present, and "Pickfair," as they called it, became the venue for lavish parties that every A-list guest in town attended. They were on top of the world—but for how long?
When it came to her relationship with Fairbanks, Pickford had learned some lessons from her first marriage. First, she kept her mother at a safe distance. Second, there was no more on-again-off-again. For the first eight years of their marriage, Pickford and Fairbanks didn’t spend a night apart from each other. They sat together at dinner parties and Pickford wouldn’t dance with any other man—which once even led to her turning down the future King of England, George VI.
Pickford and Fairbanks were the Queen and King of Hollywood, and Pickfair was their castle. They had guests nightly, sometimes numbering a dozen or more. They also regularly held massive parties with honored guests like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Amelia Earhart—not to mention the European royalty who’d occasionally pass through. It’s hard to imagine what those dinner party conversations sounded like!
Everything in Pickford and Fairbanks’ marriage seemed like a fairy tale—but behind closed doors, it was a tragedy in the making. They may have been constantly surrounded by people, but Pickford was terribly lonely. She had few close friends and her fame made her unapproachable. And then, there was Fairbanks’ dark side.
There’s a reason why the two were never apart—he was terribly jealous and didn’t like it if their male guests even so much as looked at her. Not a great sign…
Mary was universally beloved, but the mother and siblings who she’d dragged into the industry with her? People regarded them with cautious suspicion…and occasionally, contempt. Her sister Lottie and her brother Jack loved rowdy parties, drinking, and occasionally even something a little harder. They’d managed to keep it all under control and not cast any dark shadows over the family name…until now.
First, her sister Lottie got divorced and gave away her child to their mother Charlotte. But that scandal was nothing compared to what happened to her brother Jack. In 1920, Jack and his wife Olive Thomas went on a second honeymoon to Europe, hoping to save their struggling marriage. One night, after an evening out partying with Mary’s ex Owen Moore, Thomas had trouble sleeping.
She grabbed a bottle from the bathroom, thinking it was a tonic for sleeping. Instead, it was a topical liquid that Jack used to treat his chronic syphilis. The aftermath was both gruesome and tragic.
Olive Thomas ingested the poisonous substance and immediately cried out in pain as it burned its way down her throat. Jack Pickford rushed her to the hospital, and Moore soon joined him there. For the next five days, they sat by her bedside as she suffered a slow and painful end—and in that time, the press descended on them like vultures.
They dragged the Pickford name through the mud. They claimed that Thomas had attempted to take her life; that she was despondent over Pickford’s infidelity and getting syphilis from him; that both were addicts; and even that Jack Pickford had taken her life.
A French investigation cleared Jack’s name, and he sailed back to the US with her body. Years later, Mary recounted the story of how he considered taking his own life on the boat back, but didn’t want to leave his mother and sisters heartbroken. Not only did the scandal cast a shadow on the Pickford name, but also on Hollywood as a whole. The public had seen Mary Pickford as the personification of virtue for so long, and now they began to slowly turn on her and the entire establishment.
In the mid-1920s, Mary’s mother’s health began to fail, and she had to prepare for the inevitable. The inseparable pair left Hollywood behind and spent nearly five months alone at a private beach house, grappling with what was about to happen. Charlotte finally passed on, and Mary fell into a deep state of shock. Although she broke out of it, she was never the same again.
By the late 1920s, Pickford and Fairbanks’ dominance over the film industry was threatened by the introduction of sound films. While Pickford kept up a show of reluctance, she secretly began to prepare for what she knew was an inevitable change. They built a sound stage at Pickfair and began to work with a voice coach. She also took on a risqué role in a film named Coquette, which would once and for all do away with her impeccably wholesome image.
The film was a huge success and Pickford won the second-ever Oscar for Best Actress—but there was a twist. Pickford and Fairbanks, among others, had actually been the ones to create the Oscars the year before! That’s right, they helped establish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She’d also had the judges over for tea beforehand, making her one of the first actresses to campaign for her award. Nothing but firsts for Mary Pickford…
Pickford and Fairbanks had been the dominant force in Hollywood for a decade, and no one had come close to their fame—but all good things must come to an end. When Fairbanks’ popularity began to wane, he grew anxious and desperate. For her part, Pickford finally turned to the bottle like pretty much every member of her family had.
They were growing apart, and making a movie together only exacerbated the problem. He baited her, and even when he didn’t, she found his behavior infuriating.
On top of everything, the Great Depression had been a crushing blow to the once-prosperous film companies of Hollywood. It affected both their careers, which only made Fairbanks’ bad behavior worse. They had once spent every night together, but now he went off on far-flung adventures for months at a time without her. And he also fell back into his old habits from his first marriage…
Fairbanks began seducing other women behind his wife’s back—sometimes, they were even guests at Pickfair. His son from his first marriage recounted a time when he fell for a Japanese aristocrat, only to for her to tell him in the middle of a tryst that he was "so like his father". Yikes. At the very least, Fairbanks kept it to short flings, always returning home to Mary…at first.
Fairbanks began to spend a lot of time with glamorous socialite Lady Sylvia Ashley, who was 13 years younger than Mary—but two can play at that game. When Pickford began to feel aged and unattractive in comparison, she looked for validation in a surprising place. Pickford had once acted in a hit romantic comedy with an actor named Buddy Rogers, who was 12 years her junior.
They’d had loads of chemistry both on and off-screen—and even years later, they still did.
Pickford’s career decline in the 30s was a professional heartbreak—but she was also in for a personal one too. In 1932, her brother Jack visited, thin as a rail. When he said goodbye, she had a feeling that she would never see him again. He passed on shortly afterward of neuritis, likely caused by his drinking—and the tragedy didn’t stop there.
Three years later, Mary also lost her sister Lottie to similar causes.
The family problem had come back to haunt them all, and now that she was all alone, Mary was its last victim. Her drinking became worse and worse, especially as her marriage to Fairbanks fell apart. Buddy Rogers, for his part, had the stars in his eyes and could see no wrong in either her drinking or the fact that she was still married. Fairbanks kept crawling back, until one day, he didn’t—he wired Pickford that he wouldn’t be returning to Pickfair, then, or ever.
The news devastated Pickford, but she picked herself up and went to the courts, filing for divorce and citing "mental anguish" as the reason. She kept Pickfair, he kept everything else. Then, just as it was a done deal, Fairbanks returned to Pickfair and begged her to take him back. He even asked his ex-wife Beth to help him convince Mary. And when the divorce was finalized, he only intensified his efforts.
It was clear to everyone that they still loved each other, but Mary wasn’t ready to invite him back into her life. She put him off, and he retreated, still sending telegraphs confessing his love. By the time she finally relented and sent one back, it was too late. Fairbanks had left on a ship the night before to see Lady Sylvia Ashley. Soon after, they tied the knot in Paris. The fairy tale of Pickford and Fairbanks had finally come to a close.
By this time, Pickford had retired from film acting, and after trying her hand at the stage and at radio, decided to stick to working behind the scenes in film. There was one bright spot: Buddy Rogers had stuck around throughout the separation and divorce from Fairbanks, and finally proposed. In 1937, they made it official.
In her retirement, Pickford decided to do the one thing she’d never had time to do before. She and Rogers adopted two children in the early 1940s, hoping to make their family whole—but it was a heartbreaking wake-up call for everyone involved. Pickford wasn’t cut out to be a mother, and her drinking and depression further separated her from Roxanne and Ronald.
She was harsh about their appearance, and often too preoccupied with her own problems to even notice them.
Luckily for Pickford, Buddy Rogers was so enamored with her that he didn’t see this, or her drinking, as a problem. They remained happily married for decades—even though Fairbanks would occasionally stop by Pickfair and the once-golden couple would lament their failed relationship together. Though she tried, she could never quite leave behind the home they’d shared. Pickford and Rogers moved in there shortly after their wedding.
Bad news comes in threes—but what happened to Pickford in 1939 was beyond bad. The only family she had left was her niece Gwynne, who ran away from Pickfair in the middle of the night and eloped, breaking Mary’s heart. Then, her first husband Owen Moore had a heart attack in his home. He passed on alone and wasn’t found for two days. It was all a shock, but the worst was yet to come.
Gwynne called Mary in the middle of the night to deliver the bad news. Douglas Fairbanks had suffered a heart attack and died. Pickford was too heartbroken to attend the funeral, and she also didn’t want his wife to suffer. Mary had kept up the façade that her stardom dictated for many years, and after all these tragedies, it began to falter.
Her drinking only made it worse, of course. So, instead of embarrassing herself, Pickford began to withdraw from the world.
Pickford spent most of the rest of her life alone at Pickfair. She and Rogers had shuttled their children off to boarding schools, and she only allowed a few people to visit, mostly old friends or her former stepson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Rogers would host events and allow tours of the home, but his wife rarely participated. She knew that her time as the Queen of Hollywood had passed.
After three decades in relative seclusion, Mary Pickford passed on in a Santa Monica hospital after suffering a stroke the week before. She was 87 years old. Pickford had been the first to do so many things in film, and the industry honored her for it. Many also shared their stories, good and bad—including some that she’d kept hidden for decades.
In her final years, Mary Pickford grew progressively closer to her former stepson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and doted on his accomplishments as an actor. After all, they had one important thing in common: They idolized Fairbanks Sr. This came at the expense of her relationship with her adopted children, Ronnie and Roxanne.
Ronnie had once tried to take his own life, but when Pickford heard the news, she barely reacted. When Pickford passed on, her adopted children were heartbroken—but the contents of her will revealed the dark truth. She’d been a multimillionaire, but left them each only $50,000. Roxanne ended up working as a waitress and Ronnie was something of a drifter. Still, they forgave her, with Ronnie saying he ultimately thought she was a good person.
Mary Pickford was always open and forward about her childhood and her path to fame—but there was one part of her story that she always lied about. As mentioned earlier, Pickford’s alcoholic father had walked out on the family when she was three. She was either humiliated by his decision or she never came to terms with it, because whenever Mary recounted her story, she always left this part out.
She preferred only to recount the tragedy of his passing, which she claimed happened at her family home. It did not, as he was still estranged from the family at that point.
Throughout her three marriages, happy or…otherwise, Mary Pickford never had any children of her own, only adopting with her third husband. Many have speculated that there was a heartbreaking reason for this. It’s rumored that Pickford became pregnant by her first husband, Owen Moore, either in 1910, before they were married (and when she was still a teenager) or in 1913, when their relationship was very much on the rocks. But then, why was there no child?
While Pickford claimed that she suspected an equestrian accident had rendered her infertile, many think that she may have had a botched abortion during her relationship with Moore that could’ve thwarted her chances at having a child. It was almost common practice for stars to have secret abortions during that era, with the studios paying for them and/or covering up any evidence.
Before Douglas Fairbanks passed on, he asked his brother to contact his ex-wife Mary Pickford and give her a mysterious message: "By the clock". Only Mary would’ve known what it referred to—the night they’d fallen in love. He’d been grieving his mother, and the clock in the car they were in had stopped. They had always taken it as a sign that she blessed their union.
Incredibly, Mary Pickford had a plan to destroy all her films before her passing. Her rationale was that nobody would care about them anyway. Thankfully, Pickford was persuaded not to go through with this plan, and her legacy continues to exist far beyond her own lifetime.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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