Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood

When Mary Pickford (Robson Books) was published in 1990, it was considered by many to be the definitive biography on “America’s Sweetheart.” Through painstaking research and excellent writing, Scott Eyman revealed many facts and facets about Mary Pickford’s professional and personal lives that had only been speculated about in the past: her unshakable devotion to her strong-willed mother, Charlotte, her iron-clad reign as a movie mogul and her post-career decline into chronic alcoholism.

After Eyman’s exceptional biography, any subsequent book on “The Girl with the Golden Curls” would undoubtedly be held up for comparison. Eileen Whitfield’s latest treatment Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood (University Press of Kentucky, 1997) is the first work to be placed in that unenviable position. How does Whitfield’s book hold up to Eyman’s? Or, more to the point: which is the better depiction of Little Mary’s amazing life and trailblazing career?

He Said / She Said

A comparative appraisal is not an easy task. In terms of professionalism, the authors are equals: both books are very well researched and expertly written. But when the subject of approach is considered, it makes a comparison next to impossible. It’s simply a case of apples and oranges. Of the two Pickford biographers, Ms. Whitfield takes a more emotional approach. She begins by discussing Mary’s shocking 1931 revelation: America’s Sweetheart wanted to destroy her silent films – her terror of ridicule during the burgeoning days of talkies was overwhelming. This declaration is also in Eyman’s book, but under Whitfield’s handling, it sets the tone for her entire study: maintaining an image over real life and nurturing a popular persona over creating art for the artist. It’s a conflict that would eternally plague the actress, with her emotional well-being often suffering as a result.

Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood includes more detailed personal anecdotes than Mary Pickford, both from Mary and her contemporaries. Peering more deeply into the camaraderie and career struggles that Mary and her peers faced, one gets a deeper personal feeling for the many faces of the public and private Pickford: Baby Gladys, the determined child performer without a childhood; Little Mary, the ultra-popular star, a slave to her image, and to her domineering mother; and Miss Pickford of “Pickfair,” the motion picture matriarch during her post-fame decline, after Hollywood and the public had all but abandoned her – and she them.

Whitfield also probes into Pickford’s strained relationships involving her adopted children with Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Ronald and Roxanne. She relates the first truly detailed account of what went wrong between mother and children. It’s a tragic but not uncommon phenomenon which faced many movie-star moms unable to emotionally bond with their in-the-shadows offspring. Movie Queens Norma Shearer, Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford also come to mind.

In essence, Whitfield’s is a poignant study of a woman reaching her peak early in life, and having to cope with loss of work, fame and family while still relatively young. She gives more of a feeling for the real woman behind the legend – and the woman Pickford wanted the world to think she was.

Eyman’s book is less sentimental than Whitfield’s. He also provides less detailed information and insight about Mary’s early, seemingly endless touring days. But herein lies the major difference between the two authors and their respective approaches: Eyman deliberately tackled his book as if no one had written about Pickford (including the woman herself) at length, prior to his coverage. He chose, instead, to use as many primary sources (contemporary trades and interviews with surviving friends and family) as possible. Feeling that Pickford’s memoirs, Sunshine and Shadow (Doubleday, 1955) were too “cranky and subjective,” his use of her book is minimal and only critical.

Whitfield, on the other hand, utilizes Pickford’s tome much more liberally. That it not to say that Whitfield always takes Mary’s word as gospel – far from it. Nor does it mean that all of Pickford’s anecdotes are not truthful. But the possibility for embellishment from either author does exist simply because their accounts are built upon emotion.

Whitfield made a conscious decision to include Mary’s own insights because they help explain the Pickford persona; Eyman possibly excluded them because they could not be substantiated as fact. This certainly reflects his approach to Pickford’s life: more academic, with a greater emphasis on facts than on self-perpetuated image.

Eyman’s book is an exemplary study of the corporate Pickford as both a producer and founding member/major stockholder of United Artists. The author also gives a highly detailed – and enlightening – account of the business woman who still kept her hand in film production long after disappearing from the screen. His generous supply of behind-the-scenes business dealings, production costs, box office revenues, etc. provides a fascinating picture of the struggles, the concerns, and the insight of Hollywood’s first female mogul. Ironically, it is Whitfield’s book title which more aptly suits Eyman’s approach than her own.

As a chronicler of Mary’s times, Eileen Whitfield excels, bringing turn of the century conventions and detail to vivid life. Her passages concerning the acting styles of theater and film in the early 1900s are illuminating. Her discussion on the inherent complexities of converting from the emoting styles of stage to silent film is well expressed. She also provides an eloquent explanation of why silent acting, with its own sensibilities, shouldn’t be compared with sound performing. In the process, we are transported to another time and place – Little Mary’s professional world. It’s an enlightening experience.

When it comes to new Pickford revelations from Whitfield, there are a few, but not many, proving the depth and accuracy of Eyman’s initial research. One of the seemingly unimportant new pieces of information, however, turns out to be the catalyst for a fresh understanding. According to Toronto city directories from the mid 1890s, Mary’s father, John Charles Smith, lived apart from his wife and children for a full three years before his death. Whitfield is the first biographer to uncover this fact. While it may seem inconsequential, it reveals the possible source behind Charlotte’s incredible obsession with maintaining the image of “Little Mary.” Charlotte Smith, a deserted wife and mother of three young children, chose to present herself as a widow because it was a more socially acceptable remedy to her unfortunate situation. Abandonment meant humiliation; widowhood meant respectability. It was her only way of saving face.

For three years, Charlotte pretended her husband and father of her children, was dead. For those same three years, from the very impressionable ages of three to six, Gladys was also expected to live the lie. Later in life, Mary amended the story, but still maintained the aura of propriety: John Charles stayed with the family until his death.

It is this revelation that inspires one to take a second look at the Smiths – the developing personality of the child that would become Mary Pickford. Suddenly, there is some clarity and understanding to her devastating family dynamics, especially the actions of Charlotte. She was not simply a stage mother living chiefly through her daughter. (It was also through her daughter that she propelled the careers of her other children, Jack and Lottie.) Instead, she was a woman frantically clinging to her self-learned concept of salvation: public propriety at all costs – and the cost to Mary’s seemingly strong psyche was substantial. Whitfield’s new revelation helps to explain why Mary submitted to her mother’s incredible demands, even as an adult: she grew up believing that image was tantamount above all else – including happiness – and adopted it as her own philosophy. Personal satisfaction meant guilt, a guilt which gnawed at her day and night. This same guilt contributed to her life of workaholism, two failed marriages (both disastrous in their own publicized and private way), a reclusiveness that would make Greta Garbo look like a social butterfly and, ultimately, a self-imposed exile to her permasealed “Camelot” – Pickfair. How could this embedded pattern of thinking disappear as the years went on? As long as she lived, worked and gave back to the world, the pain that America’s Sweetheart concealed from the public would never fade to black.

I highly recommend Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. It proves that two different, but equally compelling, approaches can complement each other. Whitfield’s emotional sensibilities nicely balance Eyman’s corporate slant on the world’s most beloved Sweetheart.

Madison Morrison