America’s Sweetheart was truly the Iron Lady of the motion picture world. 2,242 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
1919 — Last year, Fairbanks and me did the War Bonds; now that’s over. Victory. I can’t believe I’m almost an old lady at 27. I remember 19 years old, 150 dollars a week. Like heaven, standing in front of the camera. Then $500 a week from Mr. Zukor when I was 21. I remember every year by money: how much I made. Almost more than a full-grown lady, though still an adolescent by his standards. But I let him consider me a child. “If it pays, it plays.” I didn’t mind calling him “Papa Zukor.” Tess Of The Storm Country is what he wanted me to make. After all, in 1914, it was just like playing myself in a boarding house at age 12, alone and battling to pay the rent. Stealing milk for a baby! What tripe for some, but for me almost a true story. I mean for Lottie and Jack, how we struggled. So many years since I shouted down Belasco on Broadway. I learned the word “thespian” from a British actor, a drunk. It sounded like a lisp. But when I found out it is the real word for Actor, I perked up, got all the craft out of the way, tried to read all I could.
I spoke to Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Well, we will stay united, “United Artists.” So we made up our minds to go into business together, and here we are, stuck together. since Feb. 5, 1919. If I hear one more person say “Lovable Little Tramp,” I’ll throw something. Little Mary Pickford is the only “Little” big star. Charlie has even horned in on my public. Little smallpox, more like it. The man is contagious, not a true actor. Just makes his pants fall down when his hat falls up. Oh the nerve of him.
1920 — Almost 29, as famous as could be, and not long ago I want to land smack on the pavement. Owen Moore, some husband. He was my anchor, not to hold my ship in place, but to sink me. I was afraid of water, even a country stream. I finally fell in love with a real man. Fairbanks. Fairbanks. Fairbanks. And we’re getting married finally, cut loose from our moorings. It’s not my fault he had a wife laying around! The clock stopped. In the car, and now we say, “By The Clock” to say we love each other. It’s code. Please don’t share it, if you happen to read this. Or what I think about American Delsarte. Those hambone actors will stone me! They still call me ‘Poor Little Rich ___,’ not “Girl.” Let me tell you, it’s a very naughty word for a bad lady. I made that picture in 1917: theatre folk never forget.
1921 — Twelve million souls, double that if you count their eyes, 24 million eyeballs have seen me. “Little Mary Pickford.” Marshall Neilan is my favorite director, although he drinks a lot. Maybe that’s what makes me like him so much. Grown-up Gladys Smith takes exception to Little Mary Pickford behind these eyes. But I made my way to stardom. Everyone says so. Five pictures a year, my head swims. My own two eyelids won’t shut anymore. Not for long. If I sleep that same dream slips in as a strong wind under a door jam. I won’t let myself repeat what happens in the dream right now. I’m proud of myself for helping out actors in need through the Motion Picture Relief Fund. Maybe it will help me sleep at night?
1925 — Doug asked me why I hate Charlie so much, and he wants me to patch it up. I said Gold Rush. I don’t need to explain myself, but I did. How many pictures did I make? Charlie hardly did any. Now he has one hit for us. Everybody thinks he is such a genius. Only he is such a clown, and I don’t mean a “funny” one. He came from nowhere, out of nowhere, and I hope he goes back there in a hurry.
Ever since that go-cart race at the Venice Beach, where he scared Mack Sennett half to death, he’s been a legend in his own mind. Of course, I understand how brave he is, like any circus animal! Old Charlie likes to upset people, that’s all he does. He pulls on your curls to make you look bad if you’re a girl. If you’re a man, he tugs on your coat jacket to make you look bad. All he does is make other actors look bad, unless there’s a little ladybug he wants to fly away home with him. I can’t talk about him anymore. Also I learned the big men in the industry were going to be controlling salaries.
1927 — I don’t know what will come of it, but a bunch of us got together, more than 30 of us with me and Fiarbanks, and made our own Academy. I said Doug should be President, but I don’t even know if you can have a president where an academic situation is concerned. Charlie told me we can have presidents, that windbag know-it-all. Fine by me. The full name is “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” so we don’t leave anybody out. Doug said, “The only thing left out is the horses,” I think he means the animals they ride in the Westerns.
1928 — Without mother, she died a few months ago, 1928 is a tragedy. While mother was alive, I couldn’t stop being her Little Girl, but a magazine has asked me about my hair, would I cut it? They tell me many other societies shear their locks as a sign of grief. For me, I just believe The Little Girl should die with Dear Mother Charlotte. For all we suffered, eaten up by illness when we have everything now. Now Fairbanks is angry because of my hair! He seems more upset than when mother died. He also said the magazine made me look a fool. “Mary Bids Farewell To Curlhood.” I don’t think it’s insipid, he called it “insipid.” Well, it may be a little wishy-washy, but for ladies it means something.
1929 — We’re on a tour of the world, Fairbanks is my guide: London to China, even Egypt. We will also see Japan, Switzerland. Doug promises me “big enough crowds for two motion picture stars!” I plan to read more about acting, how it works, why it doesn’t. E.B. Warman’s Works are really expensive. Why How To Read, Recite And Impersonate is a whole two dollars. And then there’s Gestures And Attitudes, by this he mean the Francois Delsarte Philsophy hooey. That old ham almost ruined the pictures, why everybody has the same hand movements, face tics, all that claptrap. Delsarte died in 1871 for heaven’s sake, and then Mr. Steele MacKaye tried to wreck the Academy of Dramatic Arts with the Delsarte System of Expression, makes me tired just saying the title. Mr, MacKaye. “American Delsarte.” How ridiculous both of these big men are, why I know the new acting for pictures can’t be that stupid. All the hand waves and back of wrist across the brow, fingers on the breastbone, you can have it. I said I’d try something new if it kills me. Now I know I was right. Ticket sales can’t be wrong. Nobody wants to go back to that stuffy Victorian hoopla.
1930 — I win Best Actress for Coquette, the first ever given to me, and Chaplin tells me it should go to someone who isn’t a founding member! Well, almost everyone who is anyone is a founding member, I hate to tell him. Even though I can’t stand Charlie, I’ll smile when my fellow lunatic Charlie smiles. It’s business, all business. But if he flutters those dirty black eyelashes at me again, I’ll stick a hat pin in his trousers. Such a hambone’s hambone. The smelly suit he wears, his lucky suit, he needs a laundress. I hope someday all those millions of eyeballs will see through him.
Charlie is a charlatan, not an actor. A mad scientist who experiments on other actors, not generous, hogs the whole picture, plays the victim worse than a little child. Oh, if you’d seen the rages, his dark ugly rages. Fairbanks claims Charlie is a perfectionist, I think he’s just a garden variety sadist. The man has bruised his fellow actors, physically, I mean. A brute for someone so small, anyway. And gotten in some real fights on the street with passersby, regular folks who aren’t being paid a day’s wage. I hate him for making me feel like he might be doing something important while I apparently am not. When is a comic actor more important than a dramatic actor? Well, I say people won’t remember his clumsy pratfalls, or that stinky old suit. Charlie will vanish like dried sweat on a piano mover. Real audiences can’t be fooled by his antics. Oh, he’s just cruel, that’s all. It’s all Doug’s fault; he welcomed him into bed with us at United Artists, divided by Chaplin.
1932 — When I had Famous Players/Pickford Co., I never worried like I do now. I created a little payroll pledge program, so actors can have some future security. The money goes to the Motion Picture Relief Fund, like a savings account. I worry all the time about everything. I never worried like I did on Little Lord Fauntleroy, one of our first pictures back in 1921. How am I going to play mother and the Little Lord?, I asked myself. I couldn’t help the feeling my camera would fail me. They’ve already been calling me “Retake Mary” for years. I think they don’t know I’ve outgrown these dumb nicknames. I run this company. My dear departed mother once said I should have my head knocked on like a cocoanut to make sure it’s all there. I say The Little Girl haunts me. In the dream, the lights blind me, same as when we were on the road with cheap fiery lights, my eyes burn. Then when I can see out, empty seats. Empty seats. Over and over, I can’t sleep. I suspect it’s just me being afraid. Why I’m over 30 and they want that Little Girl? A medium told me it means the future: the stage is set for something. Fairbanks doesn’t drink, unlike my family, and he doesn’t believe in mediums.
1935 — Doug keeps destroying my heart. “Ever By The Clock,” says the telegram, but I know he is going downhill overseas. Maybe he hates me now I’m in sound. If I had to do it over again, I’d never have cut my darn hair. Fairbanks acted like I’d murdered someone. He said I sound all pinched up on film. He should worry about his own career, and that tiresome tan. “Reach bottom in a hurry!” he says. Whose bottom does he need to reach for, I wonder. He’s as bad as Charlie, puffer fish. We’d get along far better if he drank. Drybanks. Old Drybanks. I’ve worked all my life, nothing to fill the heart.
1936 — We got old, Fairbanks and me: another divorce. “Mary Pickford’s Broken Romance.” Tell me about it. Those magazines just ruin your life. Writer ladies don’t have a soul when it comes to articles in those pages. Helen Louise Walker writes “What Is Mary Pickford Up To?” Up to my neck.
1937 — Don’t ask me why I’m getting married again, but I’ll tell you marriage is the best revenge. I’ve found someone who is a buddy; that’s our joke, me and Buddy Rogers. He says I’m his Best Girl, which is another laugh, because we starred together in My Best Girl back in 1927. Don’t ask me how he is as an actor. I just cross my fingers he will be everything I can hope for in a husband. I’m going to surprise everyone by having children as an old maid. Not an Old Maid because I’ll technically be married, but at my age it will ring a bell to have little ones. We plan to adopt. Having raised my brother and sister all those years without a father, I know the main thing about children, maybe the only thing: They Cost Money. And I’ve got it, lots of it, even if I’m not sure where it all is these days.
1939 — Cry me a river to Old Drybanks. Douglas Fairbanks is dead. This must be the year all my ex-husbands die, because Owen died back in June. Now Doug in December. I’m not going to his funeral. I always said my pictures are my whole life, other than my family. My whole life is being forgotten even when I’m still alive, then Doug dies. December is a bad month to die. I plan to die in the Spring. Oh, I can’t even imagine it, Death. How could a vital man, a real strong gorgeous man like Douglas Fairbanks just up and die? I hope he will be remembered. I definitely won’t go to the funeral, I can’t because it will provide the proof that he is really dead. His brother told me Doug said “By The Clock,” implying Doug still loved me. But now it only seems like such a short time from now I’ll be gone too. Buddy says I’m being hysterical and that no one could ever forget me, or my pictures.