When Hollywood’s Hero met America’s Sweetheart in 1915, both were married to other people. Movie-going was a new national obsession, celebrity worship a nascent sport. The couple risked public scandal and reprobation. But in fact their glamorous fame outweighed sober morality.
It didn’t take long for their love affair to blossom into a fully formed romantic partnership that yielded even greater rewards than they had received independently. Indeed, it is as if Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks—the first power couple of the golden age of cinema—wrote the script that so many Hollywood couples follow to this day.
Mary Pickford was named Gladys Louise Smith when she was born in Toronto in 1892. Before she was 8, she—and her trademark golden ringlets—appeared on stage as Baby Gladys in a vaudeville act. With her mother and siblings, she toured the country performing in plays, and by age 15 had her first role on Broadway and her new name—Mary Pickford.
The year 1909 proved pivotal for the young actress—she landed her first role in the new medium of silent films and she met an Irish actor named Owen Moore, whom she would marry not two years later. Her career took off, even as her marriage foundered. A shrewd negotiator, Pickford parlayed her $500 a week salary in 1912 to a gasp-inducing $10,000 a week in 1916—plus a $300,000 bonus and her own production company. Her husband, however, was not so lucky: an ill-tempered and mercurial alcoholic, Moore was jealous of her success, and their relationship suffered.
Douglas Fairbanks was called Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman when he was born in Denver in 1883. Like Mary Pickford, he began acting early, appearing in a theater troupe in his teens. The name Fairbanks came from his mother’s first husband (not his father, who abandoned the family when Douglas was 5). He made his Broadway debut in 1902 in Her Lord and Master. He gained fame as a Broadway actor, and the attentions of a young Rhode Island heiress, Anna Beth Sully, whom he married in 1907 and with whom he’d have a son, Douglas Jr., who would also go on to film stardom. The family moved to Los Angeles, where Fairbanks began working in film under the direction of the famous D.W. Griffith.
Fairbanks and Pickford first met in November 1915 at a party in Tarrytown, New York, at the estate of fellow actress Elsie Janis that both attended with their respective spouses. With much in common, the two struck up a friendship that turned romantic within the year, though they kept their relationship secret. To elude public scrutiny, they disguised themselves in floppy hats and oversized sunglasses for clandestine meetings. At one point, Pickford’s mother hired a “fixer” to keep the scandal out of the newspapers. Secrecy electrified their affair, and the two wrote passionate letters to each other, which Pickford saved until her death, as recounted in the biography The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, by Tracey Goessel.
“I had been living in half shadows, and now a brilliant light was suddenly cast upon me,” Pickford wrote.
“Oh I am simply wild about you. I feel positively sure that no man could love a woman more than I love you,” Fairbanks wrote, according to Goessel. “You have completely taken possession of me, I cannot live without you.”
In April 1918, Pickford and Fairbanks toured the country promoting Liberty Bonds, along with Fairbanks’s best friend and the only star possibly more famous than him, the silent film star Charlie Chaplin. They sold $18 million in bonds, revealing the power of celebrity, not to mention the undeniable allure of the by-now obvious power couple. Fairbanks’s wife found out, and divorced him. It took another year for Pickford to secure a divorce from Moore, who used the opportunity to extort money out of his much-more-famous wife. They were issued a same-day divorce in Nevada, and three weeks later Pickford and Fairbanks wed.
The wattage of the Pickford-Fairbanks union extended beyond their marriage. In 1919, they teamed up with their pals Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith to form United Artists Corporation. They moved into a lavish 18-acre estate in Beverly Hills, complete with swimming pool, tennis courts, and stables, which they called Pickfair—possibly coining the first celebrity-name mashup. Wherever they traveled, they were swarmed by fans. Fairbanks founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and hosted the first Academy Awards ceremony, handing out 14 Oscars. They starred separately in huge hits, including for Fairbanks The Mark of Zorro and for Pickford Coquette, which won her a Best Actress Academy Award. And they starred in their only film together, The Taming of the Shrew.
Behind the scenes, however, their relationship eroded. Both were jealous; both likely strayed. Gossip queen Louella Parsons wrote a front-page story about the impending separation of Pickford and Fairbanks, and by December 1933, Pickford had filed for divorce.
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Both remarried, but their careers were already in decline, with the advent of “talkies.” Fairbanks married the English socialite Lady Sylvia Ashley, with whom he’d had an affair (and who had also been wed at the time). Pickford married Buddy Rogers, with whom she’d starred in a film and possibly also had an affair. Fairbanks died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. Pickford lived until 1979, although by then she had become an alcohol-fueled recluse. She lived out her final days at Pickfair, a box of letters by her side.