A century ago, she was ‘America’s Sweetheart’
September 14, 2016
She stood just a fraction over 5 feet tall and was largely self-educated. Yet, 100 years ago, Mary Pickford loomed larger than life as "America's Sweetheart, a silent film era actress who in time would leave a lasting legacy as director, producer, writer and savvy businesswoman.
The life and times of Pickford were portrayed at the Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park on Wednesday night when Anita Watson gave a Chautauqua performance that included discussion of the autobiography, "Sunshine and Shadows," Pickford published in 1955. And the program provided insight into a story of Pickford's brief stay in Genoa during the middle of a divorce case that was headline news of the day.
"I love my fans, but the trade-off is a lack of privacy, and I don't like that," Watson explained as part of her own performance during the finale in a summer series of storytelling, Chautauqua and concerts hosted by the park.
Watson, a Douglas High School graduate and currently program coordinator for the Nevada Humanities' Great Basin Young Chautauqua program, took her audience through a series of events in 1920 that led Pickford to Nevada and what was reported to be her new home at Campbell Ranch, north of Genoa on Jacks Valley Road.
"I have never seen such a small town," Watson said of Genoa, which had a population of about 100 at that time.
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Pickford said she planned to move to Nevada for health. In reality, she was involved in divorce proceedings with her first husband, Owen Moore, and decided to take advantage of the state's "relatively lax" divorce laws that only required six months residency. Thanks to what could be described as an Academy Award-winning performance, not to mention the legal maneuvering of her attorney, Pat McCarran, her stay in Nevada would be much shorter than that.
Pickford was 27 and at the height of her career when she arrived in Reno by train on Feb. 15, 1920. McCarran drove Pickford from the train station to Genoa, and on March 2, she testified before District Judge Frank Langan in Minden.
"I talked to the judge and said, 'Yes, I love Nevada. I'm going to live here," Watson said during the presentation. "That afternoon, I was on the train (leaving the state)."
Moore, an actor who reportedly was doing a film in Virginia City at the time, "just happened" to be in Minden for lunch and signed the divorce papers, which opened the door for the divorce to be granted immediately. McCarran, who would later become a U.S. Senator, had found a loophole in the six-month residency requirement passed by the 1915 Legislature.
Later, author Scott Eyman would write in a biography of Pickford that she gave Moore $100,000 to go along with the scheme.
And so Pickford and famed actor Douglas Fairbanks were free to take the next step in an affair that had already existed for at least two years.
"I wanted to wait a year to get married," Watson said during the performance. "But Douglas Fairbanks was a very persuasive man. We were married on March 28, 1920."
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Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8, 1892 in Toronto and in time would come to be known by such names as Little Mary, Blondilocks, The Girl with the Golden Curls and America's Sweetheart.
"And I enjoy all of them," Watson said. "If they're talking about me, then they're going to pay me. I wanted to make money because I hated being poor."
Pickford passed away on May 29, 1979 at age 87 in Santa Monica, Calif. due to complications from a cerebral hemorrhage.
In between, Pickford lived a full life in which she worked her way from impoverished stage performer, starting from the age of 7, to the top of stardom during the silent film era. Watson explained that when Pickford started out in 1914, Pickford was the highest paid actress in the world at $1,000 per week. A year later, that salary was doubled. By 1916, the Mary Pickford Foundation website reports Pickford signed a new deal worth $10,000 per week salary plus she became the first movie star to form her own production company (Mary Pickford Film Corporation). And in 1919, Pickford teamed with Adolph Zukor, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Fairbanks to form United Artists Corporation.
The movie industry was moving forward at a fast pace during that era, Watson explained.
"One of the biggest mistakes," Watson said. "They started putting sound to it. … They ruined it.
"Silent film is universal. Anyone can watch it and appreciate the film, so it was all over the world."
In 1929, Pickford appeared in her first sound production, "Coquette," and won the Best Actress Academy Award. In 1976, she would take home an honorary Oscar for contributions to motion pictures.
Watson, who received her PhD in history from the University of Nevada and has been doing Chautauqua performances for more than 15 years, received a round of applause for her own performance. The Dangberg Home Ranch audience was even louder with its second round after Nixon announced this was her debut as Pickford. Nixon said her interest in Pickford began only a few months ago after listening to a performance by one a Young Chautauqua student.
Watson did consider one question after the performance. What actress — or Hollywood celebrity — of today would be comparable to Pickford?
"Oprah Winfrey," she replied after a few moments of thought. "Oprah is a fabulous actress — The Color Purple — but she's also a producer, director, writer … and she makes a lot of money."