"She was an excellent businesswoman," National Portrait Gallery historian Amy Henderson observes, adding, "but there were a couple of eccentricities about her. First, when her mother died, Pickford was in her forties, and she cut off all her ringlets, almost as a reaction to being rid of her 'Hollywood mom' type mother. Those ringlets are in a box in the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History; I've seen them. Second, after she lost her star status in the 1930s, she set her mind to destroying the old nitrate films that made her famous. Luckily, she was stopped by friends."
Pickford was born on April 8, 1892, in Toronto as Gladys Louise Smith, and as a child she acted in theater first in Toronto, then in New York. By seventeen, she was in the movies—before the first decade of the twentieth century had closed. Before she was thirty, she was co-founder of United Artists—before the second decade of the twentieth century had closed. She was powerful, pretty, and loved by the world, not just America. Sometime after filming Taming of the Shrew in 1929 with her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, biographer Eileen Whitford records:
Fairbanks's wanderlust demanded they continue on to Athens, where their undimmed fame caused a gratifying riot. A group of stevedores who had climbed up on the running board of the car even asked the visitors to autograph their ears. . . . In Tokyo a crowd of ten thousand nearly crushed her. Fearing for their lives, her husband hopped on the shoulders of Chuck Lewis, his trainer, and skipped through a window, then reached down and pulled Mary up behind him.
After cutting her hair in June of 1928, Pickford was largely criticized by her fans, and as Whitford notes, "Pickford lashed back, threatening retirement if nothing but a head of hair was keeping her in pictures."Another act of destruction, this one with more long-term cultural ramifications, was thwarted by Pickford's cronies; rather than destroy her films as she had once intended, she eventually donated a large body of her work to the Library of Congress, although the donation fell short of being a complete one. Mary Pickford, Hollywood's first starlet, made more than two hundred films, her last being in 1933. She died in Santa Monica in 1979.
- Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery
Eileen Whitfield, Mary Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood (New York: Faber and Faber, 1997).
Kevin Brownlow, Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999).
Image: Mary Pickford / Henry Major / Pencil on paper, c. 1929 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution