Pickfair: Inventing Celebrity

Silent Winter 2013 Special Article

“Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were a living proof of America’s belief in happy endings.”

When Mary Pickford met Douglas Fairbanks in 1915, she was already “America’s Sweetheart,” one of the most popular movie stars in the world, and he was a Broadway star just starting to make his mark in motion pictures. According to Pickford’s autobiography, Fairbanks won her over by telling her, “you do less apparent acting than anyone else I know, and because of that, you express more.” It was the film business that drew them together and cemented their union. By the time they married more than four years later, they were both at the top of their profession and completely in charge of their own careers. They had become not only the first superstar couple, but also the first actors to become power players in Hollywood.
Although she was the highest paid woman in America, earning $2000 dollars a week, Pickford chafed at the control that Famous Players studio head Adolph Zukor had over her career. When her contract expired in 1916, she negotiated a new one that guaranteed her one million dollars over the course of two years and her own production unit. A separate company, Artcraft, was created to distribute her films. By the end of the year, Fairbanks, whose film career was booming, set up his own production company under Zukor, also with distribution by Artcraft.
At the same time, the couple’s secret affair was intensifying, although both were married to others. They hesitated to divorce, worried that it might affect their popularity, yet they remained fearless in their pursuit of professional independence. In early 1919, Pickford, Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, and director D.W. Griffith joined forces to take control of the distribution as well as the production of their films through the collectively owned United Artists. Chaplin and Griffith set up their own studios; Pickford and Fairbanks bought a single property to house their respective companies. There, for the next decade, they turned out hit after hit.
Their professional lives in order, Pickford and Fairbanks finally wed in March of 1920. Following a European honeymoon during which the newlyweds were greeted by adoring mobs, the king and queen of the movies sailed home to their remote hilltop castle. In the previous decade, Hollywood had grown from a sleepy village to a bustling company town, but locals still looked down on movie people, and there were only two hotels where they could hold parties and dances. Once Pickford and Fairbanks married, they helped invent the lavish celebrity lifestyle that made Hollywood famous.
Shortly before their wedding, Fairbanks had bought an 18-acre hunting lodge in the sparsely settled outpost of Beverly Hills. He hired architect Wallace Neff to redesign it into a 22-room Tudor mansion. A press agent probably dubbed the estate “Pickfair,” but its proud owners quickly adopted the name and emblazoned it on the graceful gates. The estate took five years to complete. The rooms were large and sunny with stunning views. There were stables and horses, and a sandy beach ringed a swimming pool so huge that Pickford and Fairbanks were photographed canoeing in it. The gregarious Fairbanks loved to be surrounded by people, and an invitation to Pickfair quickly became a mark of social success among the film colony. Other stars soon followed their migration to Beverly Hills.
Pickfair’s guests included not only the film industry’s upper echelons, but also business leaders like Henry Ford, intellectuals such as Albert Einstein, and European nobility. The couple took frequent trips abroad, and jealous rivals sniped that their sole purpose was to line up titled houseguests for the following season. Royal visitors included the King and Queen of Siam, Britain’s Lord and Lady Mountbatten, and the Duke of York (later King George VI). Fairbanks especially enjoyed hosting sports stars like Babe Ruth and tennis great Bill Tilden. Yet for all Pickfair’s splendor, the insecurities of the owners sometimes showed through.
Pickford associated steam heat with the shabby rooming houses she had lived in during her itinerant theatrical childhood, so the great mansion was unheated. Fairbanks was very possessive and did not allow Pickford to dance with anyone else, bragging that the Duke of York had once asked her to dance and she had refused. The couple always sat next to each other at dinner, both at home and when out with others, often disrupting carefully planned seating arrangements. Some of the guests found Pickfair gatherings stuffy or boring, especially since Fairbanks was a teetotaler and the couple served no liquor. Actress Miriam Cooper, then married to director Raoul Walsh, later recalled, “We’d go all dressed up, and sit down at this huge table with the lovely china and servants falling all over themselves serving you, and not even one lousy drop of wine.”
By the time Pickford and Fairbanks divorced in 1936, both their acting careers were effectively over, although Pickford remained active in United Artists for two more decades. She put Pickfair up for sale and, for a time, it was rumored that it would be turned into a museum. However, even after marrying her third husband Charles “Buddy” Rogers and taking up residence in his home briefly, Pickford could not give up the great house and eventually the couple returned there for the rest of her life. When Pickford received an honorary Oscar in 1976, a camera wandered through the halls of Pickfair like the ghosts of those who had partied there, coming to rest on a tiny, diminished Pickford sitting in an oversized, throne-like chair.
After Pickford’s death in 1979, Rogers sold Pickfair to the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. After buying it in 1988, starlet Pia Zadora tore down the house, claiming it was infested with termites, and built a Venetian palazzo in its place. It was eventually sold to a Korean-born tech mogul who later put it on the market for $60 million. There were no takers, and it is now used occasionally for corporate events. Wrought-iron scrollwork on the gates still reads “Pickfair.”
British-American journalist Alistair Cooke once observed, “Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford came to mean more than a couple of married film stars. They were a living proof of America’s belief in happy endings.” Even if the marriage did not have the fairy-tale happily ever after, the couple’s enormous legacy is evident in the current fascination with celebrity romance and lifestyle but, more substantially, in those creative artists who take control of their careers, take risks, and reap the rewards of fame and talent.