While some men are born into royalty, Douglas Fairbanks definitely earned his crown. From his eager beginnings in the theater to becoming one of Hollywood’s most celebrated icons, Fairbanks transformed the silent film era. Falling for “America’s sweetheart” Mary Pickford, Fairbanks and his lovely lady took their fame to scandalous new heights. With a legacy that continues to inspire today, it’s no wonder Douglas Fairbanks is known as the “First King of Hollywood.”
1. He Had A Dysfunctional Family
Douglas Fairbanks came into the world on the heels of his mother’s horrific love life. Born on May 23, 1883, to Ella Marsh and Hezekiah Charles Ullman, Douglas’ dysfunctional family defined his childhood. Ella had two tragic marriages behind her and began raising her children on a very shaky foundation. You see, Ella wasn’t the most responsible mother around.
When Douglas was only five years old, she dealt the family a betrayal so terrible—it changed her son’s life forever.
2. He Lost His Father
Douglas’ mother could never shake her penchant for cheating, and when Charles caught wind of his wife’s infidelity, he packed his bags and never looked back. After her husband’s abandonment, Ella sought a strange vengeance: She decided to change Douglas’ surname from “Ullman” to that of her late husband’s—“Fairbanks.” Little did anyone know, the name “Douglas Fairbanks” would one day be up in lights.
3. He Was A Born Performer
Douglas Fairbanks acquired a love for the theatre at a young age. When he was only 11, he started acting in amateur summer stock theatre productions in Denver, and as he made his way through his teens, he nurtured his passions by steeping himself in local theater—anything he could get his hands on. But his performing prowess came with a dark side.
4. He Was A Troublemaker
Known at Denver East High School for his infamous pranks and stunts, Douglas Fairbanks had a knack for making mischief. When he was 15, Fairbanks cut the piano wires on the school piano and paid an awful price: His antics ultimately ended in his expulsion. Later, he’d lie through his teeth about his education, throwing out extravagant lies about having attended both Harvard and the Colorado School of Mines.
In truth, Fairbanks never returned to formal education…What he did instead was far more exciting and volatile.
5. He Was A Workaholic
In 1899, when Fairbanks was just 16, he began a cross-country tour in the acting troupe of legendary Shakespearean actor, Frederick Warde. During his tenure with Warde’s group, Fairbanks perfected his craft but also took on the role of assistant stage manager. His relationship with Warde definitely paid off and by 1901, he’d already landed his first role on Broadway.
But New York had something more to offer than just the entrancing pull of the stage…The promise of romance. The only question was: Could Fairbanks love a woman more than his burgeoning career?
6. He Found Love On Stage
Fairbanks’ love of theater led him straight into the embrace of his very first love. In 1906, after a stage performance of The Man of the Hour, Fairbanks met his future wife, Anna Beth Sully. The two were smitten with each other and one year later, they married at the summer home of Anna’s father, industrialist Daniel Sully.
With Anna, Fairbanks had his first and only child, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. But even with the joy of a new baby, Fairbanks’ horizons looked bleak.
7. He Almost Changed Careers
Concerned with the volatility of his new son-in-law’s profession, Daniel Sully stepped in to ensure his daughter’s financial stability. Known as “The King of Cotton,” Sully encouraged Fairbanks to take up a position in his company at the Flatiron Building. Anna and Fairbanks seemed to have everything together. But as the marriage progressed, it soon became apparent to Anna that Fairbanks’ heart belonged to another.
8. He Couldn’t Stop Acting
Working for his father-in-law would have been a good financial move, but Fairbanks barely lasted a year before he kissed cotton goodbye and returned to Broadway. No matter the financial hardships, Fairbanks’s love for acting won out. It wasn’t long before he received a glorious offer and moved his new family to Los Angeles.
The move proved monumental for his career—but absolutely disastrous for his marriage.
9. He Clashed With A Famous Director
When Fairbanks relocated to Los Angeles in 1915, he signed a contract with the Triangle Motion Picture Company. There, he met the controversial D.W. Griffith. Under Griffith’s direction, Fairbanks appeared in his first film, The Lamb. He used his debut to showcase his athleticism—a trait he would soon become known for. But athleticism didn’t interest Griffith.
Thankfully, there were others who recognized Fairbanks’ unique talents.
10. He Impressed The Right people
Although Fairbanks’ athletic prowess flew under Griffith’s radar, the filmmaking power couple, Anita Loos and John Emerson, quickly recognized the young actor’s potential. With their support, Fairbanks starred in several romantic comedies, establishing his position as one of Hollywood’s rising stars. As his popularity shot skyward, he caught the eye of several VIPs…including one of Hollywood’s most coveted leading ladies.
11. He Had A Secret Affair
In 1916, at a private party, Fairbanks met the illustrious Mary Pickford. Though both were married, the two began a secret affair that would one day evolve into the most memorable of Hollywood romances. Afraid of ruining their respective careers, Pickford and Fairbanks went to great lengths to hide their relationship from the public.
12. He Had A Clever Disguise
There’s nothing more exciting than a secret romance, and when it came to Fairbanks and Pickford, they were experts at keeping their passion under lock and key. The two would reportedly dress up in grand, floppy hats or wear gigantic sunglasses to disguise themselves. Pickford’s mother even hired a “fixer” to keep the relationship out of the papers.
But what started as an exciting secret soon turned into something far more serious and risky.
13. He Professed His Love
Spurred by the secrecy of their romance, Fairbanks and Pickford shared private love letters and reveled in their newfound romance. The words they wrote to one another proved that these lovebirds were in deep. Fairbanks wrote, “You have completely taken possession of me, I cannot live without you.” Unfortunately, as heady as their honeymoon phase was, the couple’s road to “happily ever after” would prove far from smooth sailing.
14. He Went On A Life-Changing Trip
In 1918, Fairbanks and Pickford took their affair out on the road and traveled throughout the United States, promoting Liberty Bonds to assist with the war effort and raising a staggering $18 million in the process. But they did not travel alone. Fairbanks had made another connection along the way, and this particular friend would prove invaluable for the rest of his life.
15. He Had Friends In High Places
One of Fairbanks’s closest friends was none other than the extraordinary Charlie Chaplin. During WWI, Fairbanks and Chaplin became Four Minute Men—volunteers appointed by President Woodrow Wilson who delivered informative, four-minute speeches to the public regarding the Great War. But beyond this venture, Fairbanks and Chaplin would join forces in an effort to propel their own careers to new and glorious heights.
16. He Knew His Worth
By 1918, Fairbanks was the most popular actor in Hollywood. Alongside his friends, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, he was also one of the highest-paid stars. But the big studios weren’t too happy with the actors’ massive salaries and wanted greater control over distributors. Of course, Fairbanks—ever the businessman—refused to part with his autonomy.
He, Pickford, Chaplin, and Griffith formed United Artists, a studio corporation that allowed them to distribute their films and control their own profits. But as industrious as his professional life seemed, Fairbanks’ private life took a huge hit, devolving into utter chaos.
17. He Had A Bitter Divorce
As Fairbanks focused his attention on his career (and, let’s face it, his affair), his marriage to Anna Beth Sully flopped. Despite their best efforts, Fairbanks’s relationship with Pickford had gone public and the fallout wreaked havoc on his love life. But while Anna and Fairbanks settled their divorce in 1918, Mary Pickford’s turbulent marriage was a whole other story.
18. He Watched Her Struggle
Fairbanks’ divorce granted him free rein to pursue his love, Mary Pickford. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Pickford’s tenuous marriage with silent film star Owen Moore was a serious problem. Ripples in her personal life threatened to poison her career, and with a reputation for playing innocent characters, Pickford feared that a divorce might upend everything she’d already achieved.
Unfortunately, this was only the tip of the iceberg.
19. He Gave Her An Ultimatum
Fairbanks’ watched impatiently from the sidelines as his love, Mary Pickford, struggled to escape her marriage. It was a certifiable mess. Pickford’s husband, Moore, was a total crook and even tried to con money from her. But Fairbanks was not interested in waiting. He ended up giving Pickford an ultimatum, to which she finally conceded.
But if Fairbanks thought that his path was to happiness was finally clear, he was wrong.
20. He Had A Quickie Wedding
To Fairbanks’ delight, Mary Pickford procured a hasty divorce from Owen Moore on March 2, 1920. The relieved couple didn’t waste a single second and married only three weeks later. But legislators in Nevada pursued the newlyweds, insisting that Pickford’s divorce was unlawful. It was a fiasco, but they were in for a shock. Their adoring fans didn’t seem to care about the scandalous origins of their romance.
On top of that, after years of struggle, they finally settled the dispute in 1922. By then, they were already a global sensation.
21. He Became A Sensation
When Pickford and Fairbanks left for their honeymoon, they probably didn’t realize the breadth of their popularity. As they’d soon learn, these Hollywood darlings had become the first-ever celebrity couple. Crowds met them wherever they traveled, and people mobbed airports and hotels to get a glimpse of these famous newlyweds.
In London and Paris, the crowds supposedly numbered upward of 300,000 and caused riots. But that wasn’t all.
22. He Was A King
Dubbed “The King and Queen of Hollywood,” Fairbanks and Pickford were nothing short of Hollywood royalty. They were the world’s most popular couple, which made it impossible for them to keep their relationship private. Always on display, they were unofficial “world ambassadors,” attending special events and parties alongside their acting and producing gigs.
They were the reigning couple of the time, and as such, all they needed was the finishing touch…A castle.
23. He Built A Kingdom
Fairbanks definitely got a homestead fit for a king after he purchased the deed to an 18-acre estate in Beverly Hills. Christened as “Pickfair” by the press, the mansion became one of the most renowned in the world. It was even rumored that Pickfair was the first private house in Los Angeles to have an in-ground swimming pool.
Of course, the glamorous couple used their estate for much more than fun and games.
24. He Was An Eccentric
Fairbanks may have been known for his athleticism, but not everyone knew he was obsessed with exercise. When he and Pickford built their studio complex, they included a gymnasium, an exercise yard, a steam room, and an underground running track. Why underground? Well, the reason was utterly scandalous: Fairbanks liked to jog…in the nude.
The actor reportedly requested the track so he could run laps naked between shooting scenes. Fairbanks was an eccentric, but his interesting idiosyncrasies didn’t prevent him from becoming the most popular kid on the playing field.
25. He Held Court
Fairbanks’ home was the royal court of Hollywood, and an invitation from Fairbanks and Pickford was as good (or better) than attending the White House. The couple held lavish parties and entertained illustrious guests, both for recreation and networking. Esteemed attendees included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Crawford, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, the President and Mrs. Roosevelt, and naturally, Charlie Chaplin…who lived next door.
Fairbanks’s personal life was on a roll, and when it came to his career, the actor was on the brink of another breakthrough.
26. He Was A Hero
While many men have won the hearts of their audiences, few have remained as immortally beloved as Douglas Fairbanks. Known for portraying heroic heartthrobs and performing his own incredible stunts, Fairbanks had completed 29 films by 1920 alone. His debonair looks and dashing personality coupled with his shrewd sense for business made him an unstoppable champion of the silent film era.
But he was more than just good looks and charm…Fairbanks had an idea that would change the course of filmmaking history.
27. He Was Innovative
Though he had obtained success through romantic comedies, Fairbanks had a passion for adventure. He was restless by nature and harbored a lifelong affair with the theatrical, so it is no surprise that he decided to create a new type of picture based on the adventure-costume genre—a genre which had fallen out of favor with the public.
With his superb athleticism, imagination, and fondness for elaborate costumes, Fairbanks fashioned a new brand of silent films that took the world by storm. He even set the stage for one of the most iconic archetypes in film history.
28. He Created An Icon
Inspired by The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley, Fairbanks created one of the most iconic action films in cinematic history: The Mark of Zorro. The film received thunderous reviews. Fairbanks had changed the landscape of silent film and paved the way for one of today’s most popular genres: action-adventure. In fact, some film historians speculate that Fairbanks’ creation paved the way for comic-book classics like Batman and Captain America.
But empires rise and fall, and the King of Hollywood was about to lose his crown.
29. He Felt Threatened
Fairbanks had conquered the silent film genre, but at the end of the 1920s, a new medium took center stage. Early sound cinema, commonly known as “the talkies,” was a big hit with audiences. Fairbanks, who reveled in the theatrical freedom and expression unique to silent film, felt confined by the new genre. But this critical change in cinema history was not the only thing holding him back.
30. He Had His Vices
Though Fairbanks’s biological father, Charles Ullman, had left the family when Fairbanks was a small child, it seemed he left one strong impression on the young boy: Because Ullman had been an alcoholic, Fairbanks despised drinking. Still, he needed some way to cope with the pressures of fame and fortune. So, instead of drinking, Fairbanks became a habitual chain-smoker.
Unfortunately for him, every vice has a price, and as we’ll soon see—he paid for it in the most heartbreaking way.
31. He Said Goodbye
By the end of the 1920s, Fairbanks conceded that the silent film generation was at an end. His last silent film, The Iron Mask, was not only a follow up to The Three Musketeers, but also an adieu to the genre that had won his heart. It was also his first attempt at a talkie…sort of. He narrated two short speeches within the film, but it primarily remained a silent film.
But, just like his character in The Iron Mask, Fairbanks was more than ready for his next great adventure.
32. He Tried to Adapt
While many filmmakers scoffed at the prospect of talking pictures, Fairbanks knew a time might come when “the talkies” ruled supreme. In 1929, he and Pickford teamed up to do their first talking picture together: The Taming of the Shrew. It was the first time one of Shakespeare’s plays was set to sound…but sadly, it didn’t go so well.
Though Pickford stated that it was one of his best performances, Fairbanks had to face a harsh reality.
33. He Had To Give In
By the early 1930s, Fairbanks’s health was in rough shape. Smoking had hindered his token athleticism, and the stress of the spotlight was finally catching up with him. Shortly after The Taming of the Shrew, he hung up his cape and retired from acting altogether. He maintained some involvement in the film industry, but unfortunately, another storm was brewing just over the horizon.
34. He Was A Pioneer
Douglas Fairbanks was a founding member of one of Hollywood’s most important organizations: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). And his historical contributions didn’t end there. Together with Mary Pickford and a few other Hollywood execs, Fairbanks started the first film school in the United States at the University of Southern California.
It’s safe to say that Fairbanks was one of the most influential figures in Hollywood history. In fact, without him, audiences wouldn’t get to place their bets on the annually anticipated Academy Awards.
35. He Returned To The Stage
As the film industry continued to grow, so did the world’s fascination with the stars. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929, at the distinguished Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Its host? You guessed it—the King of Hollywood himself. Fairbanks played a crucial role in the preservation and continuation of the cinematic arts.
36. He Was Ahead Of His Time
Though it might not seem strange to those of us in the 21st century, Douglas Fairbanks harbored uniquely progressive attitudes for the time. In fact, many knew him for his conscientiousness, particularly in regard to prejudiced stereotypes. Fairbanks reportedly combed through scripts, omitting offensive slurs before production began.
37. He Was Jealous
After losing her mother in 1928, Pickford started turning to drink to cope with her rapidly changing life. This, along with the end of their rule in silent cinema, drove a wedge between Fairbanks and Pickford. The two began to lose faith in each other, and this was exacerbated by a rumor that Fairbanks was flirting with younger women.
In response, Pickford started flirting with one of her costars. Fairbanks was a notably jealous man and immediately assumed that his wife was cheating. Soon after, the entire affair snowballed into a finger-pointing frenzy. But that was just the beginning.
38. He Had A Wandering Eye
Given his popularity, it’s no surprise that Fairbanks had a slew of admirers. Among them was Edith Louisa Hawkes, better known as Sylvia, Lady Ashley. At the time of their meeting, Sylvia’s husband was Lord Ashley, the heir to the ninth Earl of Shaftesbury. Rumors began to circulate about Fairbanks and Lady Ashley, and it wasn’t long before Mary Pickford learned of her husband’s affair.
39. He Went His Own Way
The end of the silent film era was the first in a long list of defeats for Douglas Fairbanks. With the pressures of their high-profile lifestyle, Fairbanks and Pickford struggled to keep their marriage together. But by 1933, it was painfully clear that their relationship had fizzled out. The two separated, but it wasn’t only the stressors of Hollywood that drove them apart.
40. He Bounced Right Back
Fairbanks and Pickford had the relationship of a lifetime, but their Hollywood fairytale was just not made to last. What made their end even more heartbreaking was that Fairbanks actually tried to win her back. Sadly, he wasn’t successful. While Pickford moved on to marry Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Fairbanks went on the rebound and married his mistress, Lady Ashley.
He and his new bride spent much of their time traveling throughout Europe and seemed completely smitten with each other. Little did Fairbanks know, he’d learn to regret this marriage for the rest of his life.
41. He Went Off The Deep End
After his marriage to Lady Ashley, Fairbanks began to exhibit uncharacteristic behavior. He no longer abstained from drinking and reportedly imbibed to appear more sociable and to please his new, young wife. The newlyweds often stayed out late, partied hard, and ate heavy meals. Both Mary Pickford and Fairbanks’s son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., were concerned for Fairbanks’ health, with Pickford famously commenting, “that woman will kill him.”
42. He Had One Huge Regret
An empire crumbled when Fairbanks and Pickford divorced. The lavish, extraordinary parties held at Pickfair were no longer, and it felt like the end of an extraordinary chapter. Mary Pickford ended up keeping Pickfair, and in the end, the divorce seemed amicable enough. But according to his son, Fairbanks later admitted that he wished he and Pickford had been able to resolve their differences.
And when it came to strained relationships, Fairbanks and his son also endured their fair share of struggle.
43. He Was An Absentee Dad
Fairbanks was not on the greatest of terms with his one and only child, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The two had a rocky relationship, with Fairbanks Sr. hovering between indifference and loathing for his son. When Fairbanks Jr. told his father he was dropping out of Harvard to pursue acting, Fairbanks Sr. reportedly threatened to disown him.
44. He Had A Bittersweet Reunion
Fairbanks and his son eventually reconciled, but their relationship was a far cry from normal. The two were reportedly more like brothers than father and son, and Fairbanks Sr. was a bit of a loose cannon, always willing to lash out with a spiteful tongue. When Fairbanks Jr. married his father’s old friend Joan Crawford, Fairbanks Sr. accused her of being a cradle robber.
Still, as much as they butt heads, it became glaringly obvious that they shared undeniable similarities.
45. Like Father, Like Son
Both father and son chose powerful spouses ensconced in the entertainment industry: Fairbanks Sr. chose Mary Pickford while Fairbanks Jr. shacked up with the scandalous Joan Crawford. But that wasn’t all. They each showed a talent for business and made their fortunes outside of acting. And then, when it came to acting itself, both actors gravitated toward sweeping adventure roles.
But even as his son echoed many of his career moves, Douglas Fairbanks certainly had the upper hand when it came to making his mark on cinematic history.
46. His Last Words Were Devastating
Fairbanks had both a prolific career and mind-blowing life, but after years of stress and bad habits, his body just couldn’t cope. On December 12, 1939, Fairbanks suffered a heart attack. He passed later that day after uttering his heartbreaking last words: “I’ve never felt better.” He may have died young at 56, but Fairbanks left an indelible impression on the ones that loved him most.
47. He Had A Final Message For Her
Before Douglas Fairbanks died, he asked his brother to call his ex-wife Mary Pickford and give her a mysterious message. Fairbanks had three words for Pickford: “By the clock.” Only Pickford knew what it referred to—the night they’d fallen in love. Shortly after his mother died, Fairbanks and Pickford were out together when he broke down. At that moment, the clock in his car stopped. They had always taken it as a sign that she blessed their union.
48. He Broke His Heart
When Fairbanks passed, Hollywood mourned. Though some moved on, one person reportedly never truly recovered: his dearest friend, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin read a remembrance at the dedication ceremony for Fairbanks, and today, the film industry continues to immortalize their unforgettable friendship. In the 1992 film Chaplin, Kevin Kline played Fairbanks alongside actor Robert Downey Jr., who played Chaplin.
49. He Had To Move
Fairbanks was originally buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, but his stay there was only temporary. Two years after his passing, Lady Ashley had Fairbanks moved to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. Lady Ashley commissioned a beautiful marble monument complete with a reflecting pool in Fairbanks’s honor. The final cost of the memorial was a whopping $50,000.
But with the King of Hollywood gone to rest, who would take his empty throne? Well, it just so happened that Fairbanks’ widow Lady Ashley had front-row seats to the next big thing.
50. He Passed On His Crown
Lady Ashley certainly knew how to pick them. After Fairbanks’ passing, she eventually ended up with the next King of Hollywood—the dashing Clark Gable. In a weird twist of events, Gable even ended up sharing a bed with Joan Crawford too (Fairbanks Jr.’s wife). With the romances of the Hollywood elite creepily entwined, it’s no wonder that Gable and the Fairbanks men shared the same women.