Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Forgotten Pickfords

Mary, Lottie and Jack

If you're new to Hollywood history or keep yourself to films and film history post-silent era, you may not realize that the infamous and oh-so-intimidating Mary Pickford was not the only working Pickford, although the family's actual surname was Smith (no, really, it was.)  The eldest Smith child, Gladys (the future Little Mary)  had two younger siblings - - Charlotte (known as Lottie) and Jack.

It couldn't have been easy to have Mary as a sister.  Bright, talented, fiercely ambitious and preternaturally beautiful with blonde curls and big blue eyes, she set a bar for her younger siblings that they would never be able to reach.  Was it any surprise that dark headed Lottie and Jack would become the troublemaking siblings, the reported polar opposites to the dainty, demure and angelic "America's Sweetheart" ?  Poor Lottie was initially believed to have been a boy upon birth by her father, who then nicknamed her "Chuckie."  She would become her father's favorite, much to the annoyance of her older sister.  Anyone think that annoyance didn't become resentment and last?  Didn't think so.

Lottie would get less public wrath than Jack, mainly because she would become more focused on marrying, drinking and becoming a socialite. She wanted to live the life of Hollywood royalty without owning any of the ambition that her older sister had.  For what it's worth, neither Lottie nor Jack got the memo about putting professional success above and ahead of anything else.  Their sister not only lived it but wrote that memo.

Absolutely not pretty enough, right? 
Actress Linda Arvidson stated that Mary did not believe Lottie was pretty enough for films and did her best to keep her younger sister away from her first studio, Biograph.  True or not, it is fact that Lottie was defensive of her sister and once jumped on famed director D.W. Griffith during a heated argument he was having with Mary.  She and Jack also took on the surname "Pickford" once Mary changed her name. In turn, Mary had contractual stipulations, at least in her early career, that her sister and brother be given contracts as well.  That said, when Mary decamped for California from the East Coast, she left alone, leaving her mother and siblings behind.  (They would follow later.) Dysfunction, thy name is Pickford.

Lottie's first cinematic effort without appearance by or association with Mary ended in failure. The film was The House of Bondage, released in 1914, and Lottie portrayed a prostitute. The public was horrified, finding the movie "crude." It's more likely that movie-going America simply would not accept Little Mary's sister being such a basic and morally, as well as physically, spoiled character.  She attempted to mend fences by appearing with Mary and brother Jack in the film Fanchon the Cricket, the only movie in which all three would appear.  It was well received, of course, and probably led to Lottie being cast in the serial The Diamond From the Sky; she was not the original choice for the serial and only got it after the first choice rejected it.  The first choice, naturally, was Mary Pickford.  This coincided with Photoplay declaring her "Pickford The Second."  No wonder Lottie never truly tried.

In any event, The Diamond From the Sky did well and could have given Lottie her own career path but she met and married New York broker Alfred Rupp, shortly before the film was released on May 3, 1915.  She was either already pregnant when she married or became pregnant immediately after because their daughter, Mary Pickford Rupp, was also born in 1915.  Lottie's pregnancy jeopardized her continuing role in the Diamond serials and as a result, she suffered professional backlash, appearing in only five films between 1915 and 1918. Compare that to the thirty films that both Mary and Jack appeared in during the same three year span.

Lottie marries actor Allan Forest in 1922 with Mary (l) and Doug (r)
Lottie, during the intermittent periods she would work or attempt to work from 1915 until 1924, would often take self-imposed breaks - - something that must have been anathema to Mary, who would be called the most ambitious person in Hollywood.  Not most ambitious woman, most ambitious person.

In between Lottie's career "return," first in 1921, then again in 1924 and, finally, in 1925, with her final role being opposite her brother-in-law, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in Don Q, Son of Zorro, she divorced Rupp and created much gossip when she allowed her mother, Charlotte, to legally adopt her five year old daughter and change her name to Gwynne.  It seems that no one knows exactly why Lottie would relinquish custody of her daughter, unless she had enough insight and self-awareness to realize that she probably wasn't mother material.  Gwynne would live with her grandmother until Charlotte died in 1928, at which time she would then go to live with her aunt Mary until 1939, when Gwynne married for the first time.

In between and during her marriages - - three more that would follow, despite her proclamation to the press after divorcing Rupp in 1920 that she would never remarry - - Lottie made news not for her career but for her parties, which became legendary in Hollywood, often lasting until the next day.  Alcohol flowed freely, reportedly as well as drugs, and clothing was shed often. Her maid would later recall that when the disapproving Mary was heard pulling into the drive (as all the adult Pickfords lived together for a time), it was a mad dash for Lottie and her guests to "jump into their knickers."

Like her brother and eventually her sister, Lottie drank.  A lot.  Due to her copious consumption, her health began to fail around 1933, the same year she divorced husband number three and married husband number four.  On December 6, 1936. she suffered a heart attack and died at the age of forty-three.  She never achieved her sister's success but she appeared to have a good time while she was here. She was remembered by most for being friendly, unpretentious and down to earth, despite  the Pickford name and the alcohol abuse.

Whereas Lottie may have gotten a pass from some who chose to look the other way when it came to her parties, her lack of clothing and her drinking, Jack Pickford was gossip column fodder and continues to be so to this day, when he's remembered. Early on in his life he was introduced to the two things that he would become passionate about - - booze and women.  Being devastatingly handsome, insanely charming and the baby of the family that possessed the last name Pickford only exacerbated the problems.

Often unfairly cited as a classic case of nepotism, Jack was in fact a good, and sometimes excellent, actor. D. W. Griffith was quoted as saying that Jack was the best natural actor he ever saw.  Remember, this was the director that worked with not only Mary but also Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. I agree with Louella Parsons who felt that Jack would have become one of the screen's great actors if he had not been Mary's brother.

But he was and, like Lottie, knew he couldn't compete with his eldest sister's drive.  So he didn't always bother.  He made features, some eighty of them during his twenty year career period - - hardly lazy although that charge was and continues to be leveled at him and often.  What many people tend to overlook or forget is that Jack Pickford was a star back in the 1910s and 1920s and not just because of his sister.  Mary certainly helped him secure jobs in the beginning but his films made money and it wasn't because Mary was putting patrons in the seats.  Even Jack's detractors, of whom there were many, admitted that his movies were successful and that was due to Jack's charisma.

Jack in a clip from Seventeen, around the time he married Olive
Jack played Boy Next Door types on screen, which obviously meshed well with Mary's casting of the eternal Little Girl Next Door; busting out of Pickford type didn't go over well - - just ask Lottie.  By 1919, the dapper and always nattily attired Jack was called "America's Boyfriend," even while he was drinking hard and driving fast around Hollywood.  Like Lottie, he abused alcohol but he was allegedly never a drunk, always pleasant and always good company.

His meeting of and eventual marriage to actress Olive Thomas was the stuff of which legends are born and fluff writers dream of.  Olive was a gorgeous dark headed, brilliantly violet blue eyed former model from the east who started out as a Ziegfeld Girl before hitting up the movies. They reportedly met while dancing on the Santa Monica Pier and felt an instant attraction.  They shared a lot of similarities; both were impulsive and fun, liked fast cars and believed in grabbing life by the balls.  They married in 1916 but kept the news of their betrothal under wraps until 1917 because Olive did not want anyone to think her burgeoning success in films was due to her connection with the Pickfords. Smart lady.

August 1920. Olive and Jack leaving for destiny in Paris
While the press may have labeled Mr. and Mrs. Jack Pickford as having an ideal marriage - - and surely they were the Crown Prince and Princess of Hollywood, with Mary and her future husband Douglas Fairbanks as the top royal couple - - the union was not without its issues.  Both were young, Jack only twenty-one when he married the twenty-two year old Olive. Both were known to enjoy parties and drink.  And both were kept apart for stretches due to their shooting schedules, which could oftentimes be on opposite coasts. Their decision to take a second honeymoon in August of 1920 would be the end for Olive and the beginning of the end for Jack.

Olive would die in Paris in September of 1920 after ingesting poison. There have been many theories throughout the years about her death but the most obvious and simple explanation is that she ingested the poison accidentally, with no intention of killing herself and not being killed by anyone else; i.e., Jack.

The press had a field day with Olive's premature demise and that jubilation continued for many years. Jack was accused of possibly killing Olive; she allegedly planned on leaving him.  Or she was unfaithful and he killed her for it. Or he killed her because he needed her life insurance money to continue to fund his deplorable and hedonistic lifestyle. He was indirectly accused of pushing her to suicide because she had found out that he was unfaithful.  Or given her syphilis.  Or was a drug addict.  Or was a drug addict with syphilis who expected his wife to score him drugs on the streets of Paris and she couldn't deliver.

Olive
The truth was that Jack was devastated by Olive's horrific death.  He found her screaming in agony, called for help and performed life saving techniques until help arrived.  Not exactly what you'd expect if he intended to cause her exit from this world. He watched her suffer for five days while her organs shut down and she lost the ability to speak, see and hear, before she mercifully slipped away.

Like the rush to judgment that would befall Roscoe Arbuckle almost exactly a year later when bit actress Virginia Rappe died after a rowdy party in his hotel suite in San Francisco, the public believed they knew what happened and were okey dokey with labeling Jack Pickford a monstrous louse who caused his lovely young wife's death, either directly or indirectly. Unlike Arbuckle, Jack didn't care enough to fight for his reputation.  At least not much.

Jack returned to Hollywood to continue making films, some of which were very well received, but his popularity, already sliding, would fall off with the advent of sound.  He remarried twice.  First to Marilyn Miller in July of 1922, in a big bash hosted at Pickfair, Mary and Doug's infamous residence. Miller had become a widow the same year as Jack, in 1920, when her husband had died following a car accident.  Miller was famous in her own right, as a celebrated Broadway musical star.  The marriage to Jack wouldn't take and the two would divorce in 1927.  Miller would die young, at age thirty-seven, following nasal surgery; she would be the inspiration behind Norma Jean Baker taking on the first name "Marilyn," at the start of her film career.

As for Jack, he had been roundly thrashed by the press when he married Miller, accused of betraying Olive's memory.  It should be clear by now that Jack simply could not and would not win.  Upon his separation from Marilyn, rumors started that he was abusive to her.  However, this sounds like nothing but something being rotten in the state of Denmark, so to speak.  Those who worked with Jack, who associated with him, described him as a jolly, pleasant fellow, even when perpetually intoxicated.  Accounts of being an abusive drunk, however, sold more papers and went hand-in-hand with the suggestion that Jack had betrayed his first wife's memory - - that wife that he clearly must have killed in some fashion - - by remarrying two years later.  And it gave the papers another reason to dig up the Olive Thomas scandal.

At the same time Jack was being roasted on the regular, the press was fawning over Doug and Mary, the perfect film and real life couple. Of course the public didn't know or didn't want to know that Doug and Mary had far from a perfect marriage and that their relationship had begun while both were married to others.  Any faults of Mary's were glossed over and/or quickly swept under the rug while Jack's were magnified and exploited. Nobody said life was fair for Jack or Lottie.

In August of 1930, nearly a full decade after Olive's tragic death, Jack married for a final time to a twenty-two year old former Ziegfeld girl (just like Olive had been.)  He was not destined to be happy, at least not maritally.  This marriage would survive only two years before his new bride left Jack, claiming that she was mistreated. She would file for divorce but Jack would not live to see it granted.

By 1932, his lifestyle and the stress of being Jack Pickford, had caught up with him. He began to appear emaciated and ill, with his formerly jaunty clothing hanging off him.

Jack died on January 3, 1933, at the young age of thirty-six; ironically enough, it was at the same Paris hospital where Olive had died back in 1920.  Even in death, Jack was not remembered for his successful films, his good heart or loyal friendship.  Instead, articles incorrectly referenced his "short" "never highly successful" career and rehashed the thirteen year old Thomas tragedy.

Doug, Mary, Charlotte, Jack, Gwynne and Lottie in 1922


Since their deaths, Lottie and Jack have come to be characterized by the scandals and rumors that dotted their lives; they have been relegated to footnote status by many, as those less talented and lazy siblings of Mary Pickford who did not deserve the fortune and good luck handed to them.  While some of that may apply to Lottie, who was lazy when it came to acting, it's a brutal and unfair assessment of Jack and minimizes the very real popularity he had in the late teens.   The blanket statement against both younger Pickfords does a huge injustice to them personally as they were both considered kind, sweet and enjoyable people to be around.  Mary was an amazing and astute businesswoman and a talented actress but she was strung so tight in her desire to grab those professional accolades that she was probably rarely, if ever, described as a fun-loving person.

Of course, it was Mary in the end who outlived them all.  She would survive to see her mother, her sister, her brother and her former husband Doug all pass on.  While her career would peter out with sound pictures and her desire to leave the little girl image behind, she would retreat to Pickfair, which she retained after her divorce from Doug, and become a virtual recluse. She too would become dependent on alcohol but, being out of the public eye, she managed to hide it better.  When she died in 1979 at the age of eighty-seven, she left behind a legacy as a pioneer of the film industry, a female dynamo who controlled her career with an iron fist and will of steel and who was determined and strong enough to found United Artists with four men.  Mary was interred in the Pickford family plot at Forest Lawn with her mother, sister and brother.  Her niece, and Lottie's biological child, Gwynne Rupp, would only outlive her famous aunt by five years, dying herself in 1984.


The final resting place of the Pickfords 




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