This Day In History: June 21

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Swarms of admirers mob the Hollywood film actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who arrive in London on their honeymoon on June 21, 1920. Two of film’s earliest stars, Pickford and Fairbanks had been business partners since 1919, when they teamed up with Charlie Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith to form United Artists. As a wedding present for Pickford, Fairbanks bought an estate boasting 22 rooms and Beverly Hills’ first swimming pool. The couple dubbed the sprawling property “Pickfair.”

The couple had married in March 1920, just three-and-a-half weeks after Pickford’s divorce from her first husband, Owen Moore. On June 12, they left New York on the Red Star cruise liner Lapland for a much-delayed honeymoon in Europe. As reported in the New York Times: “Arriving in London, the pair were ‘mobbed’ to such an extent that they had to spend one week-end at Lord Northcliffes’ place in the Isle of Thanet and another at one of the country seats of the Duke of Sutherland.” According to the Times, Fairbanks bought an “Italian fast car” in Switzerland and hired a chauffeur to ferry him and his wife through Europe; during their trip, they visited the ex-Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and were honored at a dinner in Paris attended by 200 of France’s most prominent actors.

Pickford was born Gladys Smith in 1893. Her father, a laborer, was killed on the job when she was five years old. She helped support her mother and two younger siblings with her vaudeville act, which she performed as “Baby Gladys.” At age 14, she won a lead role on Broadway and adopted her stage name, Mary Pickford. Two years later, she signed with Biograph for $40 a week. Pickford appeared in many silent films, starting with The Violin Maker of Cremona, Her First Biscuits and more than a dozen other films in 1909, working at a similar pace over the next few years. Her golden curls soon won her attention from movie audiences, even though at the time studios did not release actors’ names, for fear that celebrity would drive up their wages.

A shrewd negotiator, Pickford hopped from studio to studio, boosting her salary each time, and she was soon billed by name. At age 18, she married her first husband, Owen Moore. By 1912, she was earning $500 a week at Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Company. Four years later, her salary had grown to $10,000 a week, with a $300,000 bonus, plus her own production company, The Mary Pickford Co. Pickford exercised veto power over her films and had her pick of scripts, directors and co-stars. She typically played young, innocent girls but occasionally branched out: In 1929, she cut her trademark curls and played a flapper in the talkie Coquette, for which she won an Oscar.

Fairbanks was born in Denver in 1883 and began appearing on stage in 1901. He married his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, in 1907 and had one son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., but the marriage ended in divorce. By 1915, he had switched to the fledgling film industry, where he was regularly cast as a swashbuckling hero. His films included The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Unlike many other early stars, Fairbanks successfully made the transition to sound, but his career faded as he aged, and he appeared in his last film in 1934. For his part, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. became a leading man in films of the late 1930s and 1940s, playing roles similar to those of his father.

Pickford retired from acting in 1933 but continued to be a powerful movie producer and influential Hollywood force for many years. She and Fairbanks divorced in 1936; he died three years later, at the age of 56. Pickford remained a partner in United Artists until 1953. In 1975, she received a special Oscar for her contributions to American film. She died in 1979 at the age of 87.