A little after 10:30 p.m. on March 28, 1920, “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford married the love of her life, dashing actor Douglas Fairbanks, in a secret ceremony witnessed by only a handful of trusted people.
Mary had agonized that fans might frown on their marriage — both were wed to others when they started their affair — but her worries were baseless. Throngs of well-wishers greeted the couple at every stop on their European honeymoon.
“They were more beloved and better known than anybody in the world,” explains Tracey Goessel, author of The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks. “The fact that these two adored people were in love with each other made everybody feel good.”
In the nascent years of the motion picture industry, no stars shined brighter than “Mary and Doug.” The first to ever have her name in marquee lights, Mary, with her trademark curls, built her career playing sweet, innocent heroines, while Douglas brought daredevil heroes like Zorro and Robin Hood to the big screen.
“They embodied the youth, optimism and energy of their era,” says Goessel. “And the public interest in their marriage only added fuel to the fire of their fame.”
Douglas brought his bride home to a hunting lodge in then-unglamorous Beverly Hills. They christened it “Pickfair” and turned it into a 25-room mansion complete with a home theater and LA’s first in-ground swimming pool. “For the first seven years of their marriage, they were never apart for a single night,” notes Goessel.
The couple threw lavish dinners with guests including Charlie Chaplin, Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They would get prints of films from other studios and everyone would get together and watch,” says Goessel.
END OF A DREAM
The late 1920s began to tarnish the luster of this golden couple. In 1928, Mary’s mother died of cancer and the grief-stricken star began drinking. She and Douglas also had trouble adapting to the new technology of “talking” pictures. Finally, seeds of distrust began to cause cracks in their marriage.
After Mary heard whispers of Douglas’ flirtation with a teenage actress, she allowed her husband to catch her getting cozy with a costar. “Fairbanks was pathologically jealous, so he assumed she had strayed,” says Goessel. She hadn’t, but the damage was done. “Each thought the other had sinned first, so Douglas became a discreet rake. And Mary did begin an affair with her co-star.”
Their marriage proved unsalvageable and they divorced in 1936. “After trying to get Mary to take him back, Douglas rebounded and married his lover,” says Goessel. “He regretted it every day for the rest of his life.” The actor filmed his last feature in 1934 and died of a heart attack in 1939.
Mary’s Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930 would become her swan song. She retired from films in 1933. Although she would remarry and adopt two children, she became an alcoholic and spent her last decade as a recluse at Pickfair, the mansion she and Douglas had built together. She passed away in 1979 at age 87.
— Louise A Barile, with reporting by Katie Bruno