Gladys Marie Smith was born in Toronto on April 8, 1892, the daughter of John, the son of English Methodists, and Charlotte, an Irish Catholic. Young Gladys was baptized in the Methodist faith as an infant. This was at the behest of her father’s family. Four years later, she was again baptized. This time, as a Catholic, while under the care of her maternal grandmother and during an infectious quarantine.
Gladys wasn’t an only child for long with a sister, Charlotte, being born the following year. A brother, John Jr. (nicknamed “Jack”) arrived on the scene in 1896. At birth, the junior Charlotte was given the nickname “Chuckie” by her father who was convinced she was a boy. Nevertheless, she was her father’s favorite child.
Not long after Jack’s birth, John, now a raging alcoholic, abandoned the family. In 1898, while working as a purser with the Niagara Steamship Lines, John was killed in an accident aboard a vessel.
With her father no longer in the picture, young Gladys took on a larger role in the household by helping to raise her younger siblings. Because of this, the younger children developed a closer bond with one another. They subsequently resented their older sister, who they deemed as being too strict.
In order to make ends meet, Charlotte began to take in boarders. One of these boarders was a man named Murphy, who was employed as a theatrical stage manager for the Cummings Stock Company.
Cummings suggested to Charlotte that her two young girls perform at his theatre. Charlotte agreed and ended up playing the organ at the theater herself. The sister’s debut came on January 8, 1900, during a production of The Silver Kingat Toronto’s Princess Theatre. Soon, Gladys was part of Toronto’s Valentine Stock Company, performing in The Silver King as well as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
It wasn’t long before Jack was in show business as well with the Smith family traveling across the United States by train. The three young children performed all across the nation. Despite a full schedule of work, the family barely made ends meet, standing on the precipice of poverty during this time.
In 1906, the Smith family was living in New York City. They had reached the make-it-or-break-it point with Charlotte deciding that the family would give up show business if things didn’t turn around soon. Luckily, Gladys, Lottie, and Jack Smith were cast in the Broadway production of Edmund Burke, starring Chauncey Olcott.
The following year, Gladys earned a supporting role in the 1907 Broadway play, The Warrens of Virginia. This was the most important thing to happen to Gladys’ career for many reasons. The most obvious of them was landing a plum role on the Great White Way.
The play’s producer, David Belasco, hated Gladys’s name and stipulated that she would have to change it to “Mary Pickford.” This was stipulated so that she could land the role of Betty Warren in the play. She did so without hesitation. In addition, the play was written by William C. deMille. William’s brother, Cecil, was also in the cast. Mary would form a friendship with Cecil that would last decades, impacting her life monumentally along the way.
Early Film Career
After the Broadway run of The Warrens ofVirginia, the show went on a national tour in 1908. When that was finished, Mary found herself out of work once again.
However, on April 19, 1909, Mary did a screen test for director D.W. Griffith at the Biograph Company. This was for the role of Pippa in a film called Pippa Passes (1909). The part went to Gertrude Robinson. However, Griffith was so impressed by her performance that he signed her to a contract that paid her a guaranteed rate of $40 per week, double what most actors he worked with are offered.
“(At Biograph) I played scrubwomen and secretaries and women of all nationalities…I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible, I’d become known, and there would be a demand for my work.”
– Mary Pickford
Mary soon secured work for her brother and sister (now called Jack and Lottie Pickford, respectively) at the studio. During the next year and a half, Mary appeared in eighty films (almost one per week), while Jack in twenty-eight and Lottie in twenty-five.
Mary’s first starring role was in The Violin of Cremona (1909) in which she co-starred with Owen Moore, her future husband. Mary was extremely popular with audiences prior to this, however, even though studios such as Biograph did not list their actors in the credits. She was popular with audiences immediately. Biograph had no choice but to use her image to market their movies dubbing her “The Girl with the Golden Curls.”
In January of 1910, Mary Pickford was given the opportunity to travel to Hollywood with a Biograph crew. The studio made films in California during the winter months in order to take advantage of the warm weather and better outdoor lighting.
Biograph was not interested in either Lottie or Jack making this trip. However, Charlotte decided fourteen-year-old Jack should, in fact, make the trip, after he pleaded with her, much to Mary’s dismay. Lottie stayed behind in New York with Charlotte.
“Our (Hollywood) studio consisted of an acre of ground, fenced in, and a large wooden platform, hung with cotton shades that were pulled on wires overhead. On a windy day our clothes and the curtains on the set would flap loudly in the breeze. Studios were all on open lots—roofless and without walls, which explains the origin of the term ‘on the lot.’ Dressing rooms being a nonexistent luxury, we donned our costumes every morning at the hotel. Our rehearsal room was improvised from a loft which Griffith rented in a decrepit old building on Main Street. A kitchen table and three chairs were all there was of furniture. Mr. Griffith occupied one of the chairs, the others being reserved for the elderly members of the cast. The rest of us sat on the floor.”
– Mary Pickford
At the end of 1910, Mary parted ways with Biograph. She subsequently signed on with Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP). Soon after, on January 7, 1911, Mary Pickford married Owen Moore.
Mary stayed with IMP (which became Universal Pictures in 1912) for about a year, before going back to D.W. Griffith’s Biograph. The primary reason for doing so was what Mary deemed as the poor quality of IMP’s productions.
Back at Biograph, Mary befriended Dorothy and Lillian Gish at the behest of Griffith. He had wanted the new arrivals from Ohio to have somebody at the studio to help them get acclimated to the movie business. They remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
In 1912, Mary decided it was time to return to Broadway, starring in A Good Little Devil. She soon realized that she had lost interest in the theatre, and only wanted to act in movies from that point on.
After finishing The New York Hat (1912) at Biograph, Mary left the studio. She signed with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players in Famous Plays (later known as Famous Players-Lasky and finally Paramount Pictures). They were adapting A Good Little Devil into a movie. The resulting film was so poor that it was shelved for over a year.
While that film did not work, Mary’s other films during this period did. She quickly rattled off a string of hit movies including In the Bishop’s Carriage (1913), Caprice (1913), and Hearts Adrift (1914). The latter was so popular that Mary demanded and got a pay raise.
Five weeks later, Tess of the Storm Country(1914) was released. This cemented her status as the most popular female star in the world. She trailed only behind Charlie Chaplin for the overall top spot. For the next two decades, she would be the most famous woman in the world.
Meanwhile, Jack and Lottie were still trying to make their marks. In 1914, Lottie finally got top billing in a movie, The House of Bondage, for The Photo Drama Motion Picture Company, where she played a prostitute. It was poorly received by critics and audiences alike. Jack, however, still waited for his opportunity for a big break.
Lottie, Alfred and Gwynne
In 1915, Jack, Lottie, and Mary appeared in the film Fanchon, the Cricket. This was the only movie in which all three Pickfords appeared.
Around this time, Lottie became pregnant and wed New York stockbroker Alfred Rupp. She was then cast in The Diamond from the Sky (1915) after Mary passed on it. When the producers learned she was pregnant, she wasn’t replaced but was essentially blacklisted. Lottie only appeared in five movies from 1915 through 1918, whereby she took a lengthy break from acting.
Lottie’s daughter, originally named Mary Rupp, eventually adopted the name, Gwynne Rupp. After Lottie and Alfred divorced in 1919, the young child went to live with Charlotte. This was due to Lottie’s party-filled, jazz-age lifestyle.
When Charlotte died in 1928, the child went to live with her Aunt Mary. This lasted until Gwynne married radio announcer Hugh “Bud” Ernst in the summer of 1939.
Jack and Olive
Jack also got married around this time to Ziegfield girl, and actress, Olive Thomas. The pair met at a cafe on the Santa Monica Pier in 1916. The duo soon earned a reputation for attending wild alcohol and cocaine-fueled parties.
“I had seen her often at the Pickford home, for she was engaged to Mary’s brother, Jack. Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway. Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.”
– Screenwriter Frances Marion
On October 25, 1916, the couple eloped in New Jersey. The only witness was actor Thomas Megan. None of the members of either family were even aware this was taking place.
“I regret to say that none of us approved of the marriage at that time. Mother (Charlotte Hennessey) thought Jack was too young, and Lottie and I felt that Olive, being in musical comedy, belonged to an alien world. Ollie had all the rich, eligible men of the social world at her feet. She had been deluged with proposals from her own world of the theater as well. Which was not at all surprising. The beauty of Olive Thomas is legendary. The girl had the loveliest violet-blue eyes I have ever seen. They were fringed with long dark lashes that seemed darker because of the delicate translucent pallor of her skin. I could understand why Florenz Ziegfeld never forgave Jack for taking her away from the Follies. She and Jack were madly in love with one another, but I always thought of them as a couple of children playing together.”
– Mary Pickford
For Jack, this was a turbulent time as he saw his career hit its highest point. This was due to his roles as Pip in the adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1917) as well as the title role in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1917), and the follow-up Huck and Tom (1918). Separate from his success in the movies, Jack also felt obligated to serve his country. He enlisted in the United States Navy during World War I.
Jack and Olive often fought and then made up by buying each other lavish gifts. In 1920, the couple decided to take a second honeymoon to Paris. This trip resulted in tragedy.
On September 13, 1920, Olive accidentally drank a bottle of mercury bichloride while intoxicated. Her death was ruled accidental. She was just twenty-five years old.
“We arrived back at the Ritz hotel at about 3 o’clock in the morning. I had already booked airplane seats for London. We were going Sunday morning. Both of us were tired out. We both had been drinking a little. I insisted that we had better not pack then, but rather get up early before our trip and do it then. I went to bed immediately. She fussed around and wrote a note to her mother…She was in the bathroom.
Suddenly she shrieked: ‘My God.’ I jumped out of bed, rushed toward her and caught her in my arms. She cried to me to find out what was in the bottle. I picked it up and read: ‘Poison.’ It was a toilet solution and the label was in French. I realized what she had done and sent for the doctor. Meanwhile, I forced her to drink water in order to make her vomit. She screamed, ‘O, my God, I’m poisoned.’ I forced the whites of eggs down her throat, hoping to offset the poison. The doctor came. He pumped her stomach three times while I held Olive.
Nine o’clock in the morning I got her to the Neuilly Hospital, where Doctors Choate and Wharton took charge of her. They told me she had swallowed bichloride of mercury in an alcoholic solution, which is ten times worse than tablets. She didn’t want to die. She took the poison by mistake. We both loved each other since the day we married. The fact that we were separated months at a time made no difference in our affection for each other. She even was conscious enough the day before she died to ask the nurse to come to America with her until she had fully recovered, having no thought she would die.
She kept continually calling for me. I was beside her day and night until her death. The physicians held out hope for her until the last moment, until they found her kidneys paralyzed. Then they lost hope. But the doctors told me she had fought harder than any patient they ever had. She held onto her life as only one case in fifty. She seemed stronger the last two days. She was conscious, and said she would get better and go home to her mother. ‘It’s all a mistake, darling Jack,’ she said. But I knew she was dying.
She was kept alive only by hypodermic injections during the last twelve hours. I was the last one she recognized. I watched her eyes glaze and realized she was dying. I asked her how she was feeling, and she answered: ‘Pretty weak, but I’ll be all right in a little while, don’t worry, darling.’ Those were her last words. I held her in my arms, and she died an hour later. Owen Moore was at her bedside. All stories and rumors of wild parties and cocaine and domestic fights since we left New York are untrue.”
– Jack Pickford
Olive’s body was brought back to the United States. While on the transatlantic voyage with her remains, Jack contemplated suicide by throwing himself off the luxury liner. However, he couldn’t bear to do that to his mother and sisters and changed his mind.
Her funeral was held in New York City at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on September 29, 1920. She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx.
Since Olive had no will, her estate, valued at $27,644, was divided amongst her family. Jack wanted nothing and gave his share to Olive’s mother. On November 22, 1920, the personal effects of Olive Thomas were auctioned off in an estate sale. The sale netted $30,000 for her family.
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