Articles

Mary Pickford's AMAZING MOTHER

What does a woman do when she's left a widow with three children? Mrs. Charlotte Smith, of Toronto, took her daughter Gladys, turned her into the world’s first movie star, and won her a million dollars a year

JAMES DUGAN September 15 1951
Articles

Mary Pickford's AMAZING MOTHER

What does a woman do when she's left a widow with three children? Mrs. Charlotte Smith, of Toronto, took her daughter Gladys, turned her into the world’s first movie star, and won her a million dollars a year

JAMES DUGAN September 15 1951

ONCE UPON a time there was a little working girl from Toronto who made a million dollars a year. Her name was Gladys Smith, but she went by her great-grandmother’s name, Mary Pickford. She earned and still has about twenty million dollars, which she got before income taxes reached out for little rich girls. Today, at fifty-eight, she lives in retired seclusion in the Carlyle, an elegant New York Hotel, still venerated a generation after her face disappeared from the motion-picture screen.

Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” was an ikon of the movies when we were younger and more sentimental. Do you remember the Little Mary pictures—Cinderella, Amarilly of Clothesline Alley, Such a Little Queen, Tess of the Storm Country, Rags, Little Pal, Hearts Adrift, Suds, and Daddy Long-Legs? If you do, you are over thirty. Mary Pickford’s acting career ended twenty-two years ago when her mother died.

Mary Pickford’s mother, Mrs. Charlotte Smith of Toronto, is the key to the Mary Pickford legend. She was a broad little widow with an Irish brogue and magnificent maternal ferocity. Charlotte Smith bowled down everyone who stood in Mary Pickford’s way to the stars, including such opponents as the famous theatrical producer, David Belasco, the greatest of American film directors, D. W. Griffith, and Hollywood financiers by the dozen. She rose from a poor education and widowed poverty and died with a million and a half dollars. Charlotte Smith was literally the creator of Mary Pickford. She was the most awesome of “movie mothers”—that unsparing matriarchal type which film magnates fear more than a posse of agents.

The complete history of the fabulous Charlotte is locked in the Pickford memories. Today Mary will not talk about herself except in official platitudes, and will not talk about her mother at all. Elderly Torontonians who knew the Smiths of 211 University Avenue, which has disappeared to make way for a new hospital, have vague and contradictory memories of them. One who knew them well is Mrs. J. A. Titherington, of de Savery Crescent, who lived next door. Her father was the Smith landlord. She remembers Charlotte’s ability at embroidering large bump roses on piano covers, “sticking right out at you like real rose.”

John Smith, Mary Pickford’s father, died in 1897. He was English-born and married Charlotte, an Irish immigrant, about 1891. Their three children in order were Gladys, Lottie—nicknamed Chookie—and John, Jr., who had a brief movie career as Jack Pickford. John Smith is something of a mystery. Mary Pickford has said he was a purser on the lake steamer Chicora. Captain Benson A. Bongard, of Toronto, who sailed with him, says he tended bar on the S.S. Corona. Even his death is a riddle. He died either by a shipboard accident, or of tuberculosis.

One demonstrable fact does appear, however: Charlotte was left with three babies and no funds. From this the career of Mary Pickford came. When Smith died his widow went to work at everything she could lay hand to. There are memories of Charlotte sewing, taking in roomers, running fruit stands on a steamer and on Toronto’s Queen Street, clerking at a candy counter and reporting for the News. These could well be true. Charlotte was a demon business woman and she had three fatherless children.

That she could have done all these jobs is out by her next occupation. Charlotte was on the stage. The Valentine Stock Company at Toronto’s Princess Theatre, placed an ad in the paper in 1899 for an actress. Such an ad would be incredible today, but in Victorian Toronto young women of good family did not take up acting. The young widow got the job.

Charlotte was not pretty; she had the body of a hard-working, child-bearing woman, a round, rather pugnacious face and thick chestnut, hair. Her theatrical assets were bounce, wit and an appealing Irish accent, which served for the portrayal of housemaids and character females in the farce repertory of the Valentine Stock Company. She brought her three babies to the theatre. Mary Pickford’s baby-sitters were stagehands.

Soon after Charlotte joined the troupe the company manager had difficulty casting a child part in a romp called Bootle’s Baby. Charlotte signaled to the wing, announcing “Gladys will do it,” and her golden-haired daughter, age six, vaulted into the director’s lap. Gladys performed so successfully that Charlotte could pull out of a show or two and become manager of the prodigy.

The future Mary Pickford was a short agile strong kid with big blue eyes, dimples and gorgeous yellow curls. She caught eyes. She “carried” to the back row of the gallery. She suggested Little Eva, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and the tear-jerking tikes in popular storybooks and plays.

Charlotte grasped the meaning of their new fortunes. In 1901. she took Gladys with a touring road company and they played on the road for five years. In Elizabeth, N.J., in 1906 Charlotte packed Gladys’ hamper and ferried her across the river to Broadway. The widow selected producer-playwright-director David Belasco as her target. When Belasco arrived at his office he had to pass what looked like a picket line of yellow-haired tots, all of them consisting of the rapid Gladys. He eluded the tot until the day he was casting The Warrens of Virginia. Gladys got up a burst of speed and broke past the doorman to the stage. The doorman pursued her while Gladys mugged toward Belasco, exhibiting her range of emotions while she had the producer’s astonished eye. Belasco dismissed the guard, changed the child’s name to Mary Pickford, and for seven years used her in his historical romances.

When Mary was fifteen she was a full-grown five feet tall. She was preserved, as if in amber, in the unvarying effigy of the innocent plucky child which she was to play for twenty years for twenty million dollars. Belasco had taught Mary all she would ever need. Charlotte was ready to move on. She took Mary down to Union Square, where strange men were manufacturing photoplays in loft buildings. There a stage actor could pick up five to ten dollars for an easy exercise before his evening performance.

She Stole Their Hearts

Film acting was not considered respectable by theatre people, but this bothered Charlotte not at all. She took Mary to a lean long-jawed gallant named David Work, who was single-handedly turning out four or five one-reel films a month.

His legal name was David Wark Griffith. His later film masterpieces, The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, today stand as the pioneering pinnacles of American movies. On the day in 1908 that Charlotte and Mary came to him Griffith had an idea for a one-reeler in which he could use Mary. Charlotte agreed on five dollars for the job. The Lonely Villa was a maudlin sketch about burglars who try to break into a house occupied by a mother and three children, while father hurries home to save them. Mary played the eldest child, in white cotton stockings.

The Lonely Villa, one of thousands of primitive one-reelers, is valued today as a milestone in movie history, not because it was Mary Pickford’s film debut, but for a revolutionary leap in film technique by Griffith. He did not film his little piece in chronological stage fashion, but cut and assembled his footage to shuttle between the burglars, the family and the father, successively shortening the three elements toward a pulse-hammering climactic rescue. Griffith had introduced the editing principle, the bedrock of contemporary movie making.

The audiences who saw the Lonely Villa were taken by the yellow-haired child actress. A few intellectuals recognized the epochal technique and wondered who made the film. Charlotte got Griffith up to twenty dollars a picture. As new Pickford films appeared the nickelodeon audience, consisting mainly of poor immigrants, gave their hearts to the golden-haired girl. The film stories were of an idealized poverty that Charlotte and Mary had known in a less ideal form in real life.

This year sees the fortieth anniversary of the movie-star system. Mary Pickford was the first movie star. In the early days movie producers called themselves “manufacturers” and their studios were known as “factories.” When Mary broke in no performer had ever had his name on the marquee, in an advertisement, in a fan paper or on the screen. Actors and directors were as anonymous as so many grains of oats in a box of breakfast food.

The star system began with Mary because people wanted to know the identity of the “girl with the golden curls.” A pioneer manufacturer of Pickford films, Carl Laemmle, decided after several conferences with Charlotte that he could make more money if he revealed Mary’s name. It was a sound decision and raised Laemmle in money and prestige.

A War for Film Control

Five years after Charlotte accepted her first five dollars from Griffith the ante had been raised to a thousand dollars a week. Two years later, in 1915, Charlotte had a contract for two thousand a week, plus half of the net profits of Mary’s films. In 1917 she hit ten thousand a week, plus fifty percent of the profits. When Mary was twenty-five Charlotte had managed her into ownership of her studio and over a million dollars a year. The peak came a few years later when Mary netted more than a million a picture.

The first time Mary’s name appeared in print came in 1911 after she had been a public favorite for three years. Newspapers reported her elopement in Jersey City with actor Owen Moore. Mary ducked Charlotte, got married and took a boat for Cuba, where she and Moore were engaged to make a film for an independent manufacturer defying the movie trust. The mother pursued them in a tugboat hired by a corporation called the Motion Picture Patents Company, which loaded it down with process servers to catch both the runaway pair and the Cuban film company. In proper scenario fashion the lovers escaped. Mary and Charlotte had been caught up in the gang wars then raging in the film industry.

The Motion Picture Patents Company was attempting to control the film business. But the small pitchmen and exhibitors fought back without quarter and won. The war helped found Hollywood, which began as a convenient place from which the patent-jumpers could lam out for Mexico.

After Mary’s return from Cuba Charlotte forgave the elopement and joined her in Hollywood in 1911. Owen Moore had enjoyed an overly convivial honeymoon. Mary tried hard to make the marriage work but Owen was said to be jealous of his wife’s fame. Once when Mary came downstairs in a new party frock he cried, “You look like something on top of a birthday cake.”

Mary’s marriage was unhappy but it did not interfere with the Pickford business operations. Charlotte had discovered early that the world was full of rough people and she later found that manufacturers of sentimental movies were among the roughest. The Pickfords walked demurely into the middle of the industrial war and skilfully played one faction against the other, always flourishing the trump—Mary’s fantastic hold on the public. The keen robust widow and her five-foot daughter with the golden curls were holy terrors in a business conference. Mary was playing child parts with the same audience appeal Shirley Temple had later, but when Charlotte took Little Mary into a business conference the child’s mittens were lined with bricks.

Still with Griffith in 1911, Mary starred with Lionel Barrymore in The New York Hat, another famous movie first. It was the first film with a true scenario, sold to Griffith for fifteen dollars by a high-school girl named Anita Loos, who was later to write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In 1915 Charlotte switched Mary from Griffith to Adolph Zukor of Famous Players for a thousand dollars a week. Griffith was outraged. He cried that he had made Mary Pickford and Mary would vanish now that she had left Svengali. He said he would make Mae Marsh bigger than Mary. Mary was hired by Zukor to make one-reel B pictures. He wanted her as a solid box-office attraction to anchor his Famous Player films. One day Charlotte overheard a Zukor salesman remarking, “As long as we have Pickford we can make the exhibitors take everything.”

Fast Money for Mary

This unfortunate slip cost Zukor two thousand a week and half the proceeds of Mary’s films. Zukor was helpless but not inconsolable. Mary’s ten films a year cost ten thousand apiece to produce; her salary was one hundred and four thousand and Famous Players grossed two millions from them. After paying the Pickfords nine hundred and forty-three thousand Zukor was left with roughly the same amount.

Charlotte did not stand still even after she made the Pickfords millionaires. The manufacturers were still making almost as much as Little Mary and this needed correction. Also she noted that Charlie Chaplin was becoming as great a craze as Mary and had indeed surpassed her in money-making. The Pickford ladies marched in and demanded seven thousand a week, plus the traditional fifty percent of the profits. The widow’s gambit this time was a threat to form her own company. This skirmish ended with Zukor setting up a corporation known as Artcraft and paying Mary ten thousand a week. (Zukor said some years later: “Mary Pickford is the best businessman in Hollywood.”) Artcraft also began producing films starring a breezy grinning actor named Douglas Fairbanks.

The gold rush was on. The early subpoena jumpers, muzzlers and pitchmen had been thinned out in the tribal wars. Movie palaces had supplanted the nickelodeon. Griffith had produced that astonishing giant, The Birth of a Nation, which grossed around fifty millions. World War One ruined the adolescent European movie industry and left the U.S. film manufacturers in almost sole command of the field. When Mary’s pictures played on the silver screen the projector gates, clicking at a steady twenty-four frames a second, seemed to mint a dollar a click.

She separated finally from Owen Moore in 1917. That year she and Doug Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin went on a tour which sold three hundred million dollars worth of war bonds. Gossips talked of an affair between Mary and Doug. Fairbanks made a stalwart defense of Mary’s honor in an interview in which he declared the rumors were “German lies” planted by the Boche to undermine Doug’s war effort. Doug’s wife, Mrs. Beth Sully Fairbanks, said in an interview, “The gossip has foundation in fact.”

Now the Pickfords were publicly challenging the movie-star machine—the unique technique by which the studio exploits an actor’s private life as a profitable extension of his acting work. Until 1920 the machine did not allow divorce; the taboo was so strong that no prominent actor had defied it. In addition the Pickfords were Roman Catholics. Douglas Fairbanks, a Protestant of Jewish antecedents, was also unhappily married.

In Europe They Were Cheered

In 1918 Mrs. Fairbanks divorced Doug, naming “other women, especially one.” In 1920 Charlotte and Mary quietly bought a house in Nevada and one day a poorly dressed woman named Gladys Smith Moore appeared with her mother in divorce court in the small town of Minden. The judge granted a quick divorce. Mary and Charlotte returned to Hollywood in the midst of a vast newspaper clatter. The papers claimed that an idol lay shattered in millions of homes. Charlotte and Mary held an interview in which Mary said, “I have no intention of marrying again.” A week later she married Fairbanks in a private ceremony to which neither the Press nor Charlotte were invited.

The second affront to the star machine was critical. Nevada politicians threatened to set aside the Moore divorce. The pastor who had married the pair narrowly escaped being defrocked. Mary collapsed on the set of her current movie. The newlyweds fled to Europe, where they were cheered by thousands. When they got back to Hollywood after six weeks the Nevada officials were still glowering and the papers were not above asking, in view of the possible reversal of the divorce, what would happen “if there was a little Fairbanks”? Mary and Doug went to Europe again. Charlie Chaplin, with whom they had helped form United Artists, was visiting his native England; everywhere the three movie idols moved in triumph. The British Press invited the trio to stay and work in Britain. Mary and Doug were known as “the king and queen of the movies” in an almost real sense. Mary refused England’s Prince George a dance, saying firmly, “I never dance with anyone but my husband.” She was determined to make the hard-won marriage an eternal happy ending.

In America the fans upheld Little Mary against the star machine. The Fairbanks had a happy return to Hollywood, which was soon gaping at the doings in their palace, Pickfair. This twenty-six-room dwelling in Beverly Hills is architecturally a marriage of the Swiss chalet and stucco-bungalow styles. It is surrounded by striped awnings, a pickle-shaped swimming pool and shrubs. To the palace came the great and noble—the Dukes of Alba and Sutherland, the Duchess of Sermonetta, Calvin Coolidge and the King of Siam. One of Pickfair’s blooded guests showed up with seventeen servants. Mary had fourteen of her own so she asked neighbor Chaplin to bunk the overflow.

A Tot in her Thirties

The cook at Pickfair had standing orders for dinner for fifteen. As the titled transients filed in Fairbanks was likely to enter on the fly through a window, followed by a snarl of playmates—gym trainers, stunt men and court fools. He specialized in wiring chairs for electric shock and crawling under the table to administer the hot foot. No intoxicants were served at Pickfair unless a guest made a parched outcry. Since the royal pair were actually working actors who got up at 6 a.m., the ceremonial dismissal of the court came at 10 p.m. when a queue of butlers entered with hot Ovaltine.

Charlotte exiled herself from Pickfair and plunged into making stars out of Jack and Lottie Pickford. The sister abandoned her career and married a non-professional with whom she had two children. Charlotte adopted Lottie’s baby girl and gave her the professional name of Little Mary Pickford. The widow sharpened up her talents as an entrepreneur and bravely assaulted the manufacturers to make another star, but Mary No. 2 proved to be redundant. Jack had a modest comedy talent in the bashful-boy-type role. He defied Charlotte to marry the beautiful Broadway star Marilyn Miller and faded out of films. Jack, Lottie and Marilyn Miller died while still young.

Mary, now in her thirties, still reigned as a golden-haired tot. In 1924 she lost a million dollars on a dress-up lady picture, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, to be reminded that she could not grow up. Charlotte read the ledgers and Mary’s next film was Little Annie Rooney, a return to the ragged-little-girl role. It went over big. At thirty-four she made a teen-age romance, My Best Girl, in which, as a ten-cent-store girl, she fell in love with the boss’ son. The juvenile was played by Buddy Rogers, a saxophone player from Olathe, Kan.

In 1925, Charlotte, the star-maker, heard the dread word “cancer” from her doctor. Mary and Doug took her to Europe for a gay holiday, but the trio could not hide from each other two bitter realities: Charlotte was dying and the perfect marriage was on the rocks.

Mrs. John Smith died in 1928. She was the greatest of star-makers. She left a million and a half dollars to Mary and trust funds for Lottie’s children. Charlotte had won every battle except the one for her children’s happiness.

In 1929 Mary bobbed her hair and made another attempt at a sophisticated role in the talkie Coquette. It made money and the surprised critics admitted that Mary could act. She won an Oscar, a new award established the year before. The climax of her career came that year when she and Doug appeared together for the first time in The Taming of the Shrew, “By William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” The picture flopped and from then on the royal marriage waned. They were divorced in 1935. That was the professional curtain for Mary.

Her Home Was Expensive

She married Buddy Rogers in 1937 and turned to other enterprises. She made money in miniature golf but lost on a flier in cosmetics. She signed her name to a book Why Not Try God? and said she would like to be a Congresswoman. But she never ran for office.

In 1938 Mary tried to buy her birthplace, the ramshackle brick house in Toronto, to open a tearoom which would give its profits to the Hospital for Sick Children. By this time that particular block on University Avenue had become a valuable real-estate parcel and the owners demanded two hundred thousand dollars. Mary indignantly refused. In due course the house was torn down.

With its disappearance went the last trace in Canada of Charlotte Smith, the widow who made her child the most famous actress in the world.