Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,577

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,577

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This is the grave of Mary Pickford.

Born in 1892 in Toronto, Gladys Smith grew up in a working class family. Her father was someone who just picked up whatever work he could and her mother was a seamstress, which was pretty close to the bottom of the limited available work for women. Her father died in 1898 and her mother did that other thing that desperate women who at least owned a home did to survive–took in boarders. Well, one of the boarders was a theater stage manager. He took a liking to the young family, suggested that she could get a job playing the organ for the production and maybe her two little daughters could act in small roles. She agreed and one of the legendary acting careers of all time was born.

The whole family got into theater as a way to make money and by the early 1900s, it was basically a family touring group. But this went about as well as you might think–not very. They did get some work, but it was basically traveling poverty. Now appearing as Mary Pickford, which I guess is a better stage name than Gladys Smith, she got some roles, even on Broadway, but it was rough. Still, over the 1900s, she got to know a lot of people and this eventually paid off. Her real break came from D.W. Griffith. In 1909, she screentested for his film Pippa Passes. She didn’t get the role, but that’s mostly because Griffith didn’t feel she was right for it. But he very much felt she was right for other roles and he signed her to his Biograph company for $10 a day and a minimum of $40 a week, which says how many films these silent companies were churning out at the time. In 1909, Pickford appeared in a mere 51 films. When you worked with Griffith, you worked. Sometimes, she played in starring roles. Other times, she’d show up for 5 seconds. You were part of a crew and you did whatever the role demanded.

It didn’t take long for the public to wonder who this young girl was, which was harder to figure out since Griffith didn’t put acting credits in his films at this time. But pretty soon, theaters were advertising her films as “The Girl with the Golden Curls” and other such things. This gave Pickford, who was never one to turn down an opportunity given the poverty of her childhood, the chance to get out of Griffith’s control. She left Biograph in late 1910 and soon ended up at Universal. She and Griffith were still buddies though and in fact she introduced Lillian and Dorothy Gish to him around this time.

Pickford’s popularity grew and grew. It was Edwin S. Porter’s 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country that really sent her into the stratosphere. By 1916, she ranked only behind Charlie Chaplin in polls of favorite actors. One rather purple prose using writer said she was “the best known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history.” While that’s probably not true, it’s not as far from true as perhaps you’d think.

Pickford had total control over her roles by 1916. She occasionally played little girls and she liked those roles and so did her fans. She was a tiny little woman, under 5 feet tall, so she could make it work. In 1918, she declined Adolph Zukor’s offer to renew her contract. She joined with Chaplin, Griffith, and her new lover Douglas Fairbanks to go independent and start United Artists as a production company that actually favored the actors. She worked less once UA was a thing and that was good for her. Her 1920 film Polyanna brought in over $1 million, incredible for the time. For most of the rest of 20s, she remained at the forefront of the films. She and Fairbanks married and created their famed Pickfair home that was a center of American culture for that decade.

But by the late 20s, things got not great. Pickford was trying out new things and even cut her hair for Coquette, her first talkie. She actually won the Oscar for Best Actress for that role, but fans didn’t like America’s sweetheart in a bob. For her and Fairbanks both and really for most, though not all, of the silent film stars, the talkies were a disaster. She did several early movies but they didn’t do much and she basically retired from the film industry in 1933. She did stay involved in United Artists and produced several films into the 40s.

But really, the last decades of Pickford’s life are not great. She and Fairbanks divorced in 1936. She married the bandleader Buddy Rogers and she was married to him until her death. But she became a recluse and a nasty drunk. She was by all account awful to her children, demeaning them constantly. Her siblings had already drank themselves to death, so the booze ran in the family. She wrote her memoirs in 1955, but things just weren’t the same. The loss of her stardom put her into a deep depression and she never really recovered from that. Politically, Pickford was a total right-winger, as so many leading Hollywood actors were. Again, as we go through this series, the idea that Hollywood has always been some center of liberalism or leftism just does not hold up to scrutiny. She was a huge supporter of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and of Ronald Reagan’s 1966 run for governor of California.

Pickford died in 1979 of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 87 years old.

Mary Pickford is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.

Funny story about this grave. Many of the graves here are in private areas and the public can’t access them. This was exceedingly annoying to me, as there were a bunch of people on my list that I wanted to see and I knew where they were but the trogolodytes like myself aren’t allowed in. Well, this is true enough of Pickford’s grave too. In fact, knowing where it was, I actually hauled myself up on top of a concrete wall to aim down and get a bad picture at least. But then I noticed that the door to this area was open. It’s a huge area and it turned out the groundskeepers were working the other side. I snuck in and grabbed this much better picture. I should have wandered around until I got busted, see who else I could find, but I didn’t want to cause problems. Still, it takes a real rebel to run the grave series. Your rules don’t apply to the Internet’s Least Important Series!!!!!

If you would like this series to visit other silent film stars, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Buster Keaton is in Hollywood and Lillian Gish is in New York City. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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