Friday, October 2, 2015

The First King of Hollywood: Douglas Fairbanks

He was a teenager when he left home to act in a traveling troupe and hit Broadway before he was 20. He shot to fame in film, reigned at the box office for fifteen years, and retired at age 51.

He was not a particularly handsome, but had a winning smile and a charismatic personality. In his closet were up to 70 suits and 35 overcoats, 50 pair of shoes and 300 neckties.

He signed a vow to not drink as a boy and kept it until the last ten years of his life. He avoided overt sexuality yet loved nude sunbathing in privacy.

He did his own amazing stunts, and even when a stunt man was requested by the producer (who knew that an accident would delay the filming), he would demonstrate the stunt to the stand-in.

He was the inspiration behind Batman and Superman.


He mythologized his own life with idealized, made up stories of his family and childhood. He downplayed his achievements, even listing his name last in the credits.

He supported charitable causes. President Wilson nixed his volunteering for service in WWI, saying he was more valuable on tour promoting Liberty Bonds.

He married the love of his life, and lost her, and neither ever really recovered.


Tracey Goessel's new biography The First King of Hollywood  contends that Douglas Fairbanks is relatively unknown today. His film career shot to the top and held its own for about 15 years. Then "talkies" changed everything and Fairbanks lost his heart for making movies. At 51 he was a "has-been". He wanted to enjoy life. Always on the move, he decided to travel around the world.

His second wife--and love of his life--Mary Pickford was a workaholic who didn't enjoy traveling. She wanted to continue her career as a talking actress. She was also a closet alcoholic.

Mary and Doug were the first Hollywood power couple, creating crowds and turmoil everywhere they went. She was "America's Sweetheart". Doug was not threatened by her success, but gloried in it.
Mary and Doug on Honeymoon
Fairbanks was complicated and interesting. He was a decent man. Yet his impetuous and impatient nature could cause difficulties and even harm to others. He befriended the common man and hobnobbed with royalty. Charlie Chaplin said Fairbanks was his only friend. Fairbanks was able to persuade his first wife to plead his case to his second wife Mary Pickford. And after ignoring his only child Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as he grew up, he forged a decent relationship with him in later years.

I was heartbroken over how Mary and Douglas lost each other. Differences in goals and temperament, coupled with jealousy, came between them. What if marriage counseling had been around, would they have understood before it was too late that they still loved each other? When Mary at the last minute offered to drop her divorce suit Doug was already on his way to marry another woman and Mary was waiting for her lover's divorce to finalize.

Neither found true happiness. Doug died ten years later of a heart attack, and Mary's drinking became toxic. She died in 1979, lonely and forgotten.

Mary and Doug in happier times
I so enjoyed reading this book. I already watched one Fairbanks movie online and plan to see more.

I thank the publisher and NetGalley for a free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks
by Tracey Goessel
Chicago Review Press
Publication October 1, 2015
ISBN: 9781613734049
****
At an antique mall many years ago I found a piece of silky fabric with a photograph of Mary Pickford. Using heirloom laces and pins, and vintage handkerchiefs and buttons, I made my first 'crazy quilt' collage wall hanging. It remains one of my favorite quilts.

made by Nancy A. Bekofske

detail of Mary Pickford quilt by Nancy A. Bekofse