Prologue to a Family: Part II

August 17, 2008

The following are a series of excerpts from Mary Pickford’s 1955 autobiography “Sunshine & Shadow”, unless otherwise noted.

Gladys Smith age 5

Gladys Smith age 5

“During many of my illnesses we had Dr. G.B. Smith, who was head of the Children’s Hospital of Toronto.  I believe Mother later estimated that this man, who was known as “Little G. B.,” had saved my life four times.  I remember I wasn’t yet seven when I became terribly anemic after one of my attacks.  I would lie down on the floor and go to sleep wherever I happened to be.  When Mother noticed I was having night-sweats she took me to the clinic.  God bless those clinics! I’ve always been so appreciative of the privilege of going there – because it was there they discovered I had a spot on my lung.  They told Mother that if she had let it go a little longer, it might have been too late.  Medicine was prescribed, and Mother saw to it that I also got the special food that Dr. Smith recommended.  It wasn’t long before I had fully recovered.

One day Dr. Smith came to see Mother.  He began by reminding her that he and his wife were childless; that for some time now they had been thinking the matter over and had finally come to a decision.  Would Mother consent to their adopting me?  They would give me every advantage beyond Mother’s reach, and since their name was Smith too there wouldn’t be any need of changing mine.  Mother politely but firmly and promptly refused.

“I couldn’t think of it Dr. Smith,” she said.  Later she reported the whole thing to Aunt Lizzie, who lashed out at her. “You have no right to stand in her way.  All my life I have regretted that our mother and father didn’t allow me to go to that rich couple who wanted to adopt me.”  So Mother dressed me up in my best bib and tucker and took me to Dr. Smith’s house.  On the streetcar and during the short walk to the dotor’s house I noticed that Mother, usually very talkative, was pale and silent.  The house was large, comfortable, and extremely well furnished.  I was shown the pretty little bedroom that was to become mine.

“You can have anything you want, Gladys, ” said Dr. and Mrs. Smith.

“A pony and cart?”‘


“Chicken every day?”

They assured me I could, and ice cream too.  Mother said nothing throughtout the interview.  While waiting for the streetcar I said gleefully to Mother, “Think how Chuckie and Johnny will love that pony and cart!  And you and Grandma can have half of my chicken, and we’ll all be rich and happy.”  “No, darling,” said Mother.  “We won’t be there.  You see you’ll be Dr. Smith’s little girl, and Chuckie and Jack will stay with Mother.”

Mother was kneeling down in the grass in front of me to look me straight in the eyes.  The sidewalk was lined with shady trees, beautiful big chestnut trees, and she went on explaining how I wouldn’t be her little girl any more, but Dr. Smith’s…I felt a terror clutching at my heart.

“Mama”, I said, “don’t you want me anymore?”  With that she started to cry.  “I’ll always want you darling, but I can’t give you chicken and ice cream everyday….”

I stopped her.  “I don’t want to be Dr. Smith’s little girl and I don’t line ponies and I want to go home with you, Mama!” And Mother took out a handkerchief and wiped away my tears and hers, and with a very determined set of her shoulders she said: “That’s the end of that, and I’m certainly going to tell your Aunt Lizzie a thing or two.  There will be no more of this nonsense.

If you only knew how my mother loved me.  You see, as a baby, I looked like my daddy.  In later years she told me that when the pain of losing my father was too great for her, she would put me on the table and study my face, my features being so much like his.

A determination was born in me the day of our visit to Dr. Smith that nothing could could crush: I must try to take my father’s place in some mysterious way, and prevent anything from breaking up my family.  There then began a devotion for my mother that the passing years only made stronger and deeper.  In years to come we were to be known as the Four Musketeers – Mother, my sister Lottie, my brother Jack, and myself.  When the money began to come in, we had one pocketbook for it, and Mother remained the custodian to the end.

The Smith Family

The Smith Family in Toronto Canada (Gladys at left)

I never had any young companions my age except for my brother and sister.  Also as Mother and I grew closer Lottie and Johnny banded together against us. All this matured me very early, I suppose, but it cheated me of any real childhood.  I am grateful this was not so with my brother and sister, and I have treasured a remark Jack made to me one morning in my dressing room during the filming of Little Lord Fauntleroy. He was sitting beside me as I was brushing my curls before going to the movie set. I noticed that he was studying me intently in the mirror.  Our eyes finally met and he said:

“You poor kid, you’ve never lived, have you?”

“Certainly I have, ” I said.  “I’d doing exactly what I always wanted to do.”

“Well, I don’t know.  You see, if Chuckie and I were bumped off tomorrow, the world would owe us nothing.  We’ve had a million laughs.  You’ve had everything, yes, but, Mary you’ve never really lived.  And you don’t know how to play.”

I don’t believe I was more than five years old when I became Mother’s deputy, a kind of little mother.  Bringing up Johnny and Chuckie was a very serious business to me.  The thought of the two of them plaing in the street with dirty hands and faces would distress me.  I can’t recall the number of times I chased them back into the house to tidy them up.


Prologue to a Family

August 12, 2008

The following are a series of excerpts from Mary Pickford’s 1955 autobiography “Sunshine & Shadow”, unless otherwise noted.


Mary Pickford at an early age.

Mary Pickford at an early age.


“I took the name by which I have long been known to the public from my Irish grandfather, John Pickford Hennessey, who came of a comparatively rich family from Tralee, County Kerry, in the south of Ireland. My grandmother was also born in Tralee, but she was a miller’s daughter and very poor. Had the two of them remained in Ireland they would never have met; they moved in entirely different social worlds. They met in Quebec, Canada, fell instantly in love, and were married. When my great-grandmother received the news of their marriage, she disowned her son and vowed never to speak to him again. This vow she kept till the day she died. It was she who bequeathed the name of “Pickford” to my grandfather.


I know positively that I would not have been in the theater if father had lived. For one thing, we would probably all have remained in Toronto. Father was a very charming man, handsome, lovable, with curly golden-brown hair, and graceful, delicate hands that must have been destined for better things. To make some extra money, Father worked all night in a local theater, pulling up scenery until he got big blisters on those graceful hands of his. Mother told me this later; I don’t remember it myself. But I do remember the first money he gave me: he was standing beside me telling me to open my hands, and into them he put the seventy-five cents he had earned that night. Seventy-five cents then was probably worth more than five dollars today. Of course I gave it to Mother, but with a sense of pride. Another recollection of the early lure of money was the time my sister Lottie dropped a Canadian five-cent silver piece between the keys of Mother’s beloved upright piano. The thought of this buried treasure tormented me so that I was determined to break all the keys to retrieve the priceless coin. Grandma caught me going from the kitchen to the “parlor”, a look of high resolve on my face and a hammer in my hand.


Whenever I got a penny, at the age of five or six, I would go to the florist and buy myself a rosebud, which I took home and carefully tended. One day, after making my purchase, I pointed to a full-blown rose that seemed to be falling, and asked the florist, “May I have that rose, if you don’t want it any more?” The florist gave it to me, for nothing, and that became quite a ritual: my rosebud for a penny, and a fading rose for the asking. After repeating this performance three or four times the florist asked me one day what I did with the rose that he no longer wanted. “I eat it,” I told him. And that was the simple truth. It had tasted very bitter at first, but I thought that if I were to eat it, the beauty and the color and the perfume would somehow get inside me.


Charlotte Pickford - Mary Pickford's Mother

Charlotte Smith - Mary's Mother

Mother was still in her middle twenties when she became Charlotte Smith a widow with three baby children and Grandma Hennessey, an invalid to support. My father worked as a purser on the steamship line that runs from Toronto to Lewiston near Niagara Falls. One day he bounded down the stairs to the deck below, not noticing a pulley dangling overhead. It struck him a fearful blow, causing a blot clot in his brain. Small as our resources were, Mother sent to what we called “the States” for the best doctors. They tried everything they knew at that time to dissolve the clot, but without success.


I can close my eyes now and hear that scream of Mother’s at the moment my father passed on. And I can still see myself climbing out of bed and going down the hall and looking in the door. I was the first to arrive on the scene, and I shall never forget the sickening sense of horror that swept through me. There was mother Mother shrieking hysterically and beating he head against the wall. She had long, thick, silken hair that fell down past her waist. It was streaming over her face, which had been cut apparently as she hit her head against the wall in her grief; her dressing gown was covered with blood. Through the streaming hair I could see the wild look on Mother’s face. But in all her sobbing she never noticed that I was standing in the doorway. I had not the slightest suspicion of what had happened. I gazed at my father lying in his bed and I thought he was sleeping. Finally Mother’s sister Lizzie heard the pounding and screaming, dashed up the stairs from the floor below, glanced into the bedroom and was startled to find me standing there, petrified with fear. Snatching me up hurriedly, she took me back into her bedroom and rocked me to sleep in her arms. The rest of the family went to Mother’s rescue.


The next thing I knew it was early morning. As aunt Lizzie carried me down to breakfast, she turned my head away from Father’s bedroom. And at that moment somehow I knew what had happened. I refused to eat my breakfast, jumped down from my chair and, crying hysterically for “my papa”, wedged myself between the serving table and the wall of the dining room. Most dreadful of all was the day they lifted me up to kiss my father good-by. What a barbarous practice to inflict on children! Yet, as I looked, I remember telling myself that I must photograph his features in my mind. Father had been such a handsome man and Mother adored him.

Sunshine and Shadow – The Memoirs of Mary Pickford

August 12, 2008


Sunshine and Shadow - The Memoirs of Mary Pickford

Sunshine and Shadow - The Memoirs of Mary Pickford

Since this is the first entry to what is hoped to be a fun and informative blog, I thought our first trip down memory lane should retrace her steps to become America’s Sweetheart.To that end, instead of giving one’s own opinion of how she blazed her trail, why not simply let her tell it in her own words. Hence, the title, “Sunshine and Shadow”.


What will follow will be a series of excerpts from her book, that will hopefully give you the reader an indication of what it “must have been like” to have been her, to be the world’s first “superstar”, to re-define the art of acting for a new medium and to be known all around the world.

As you read these excerpts from “Sunshine and Shadow”, (Double Day 1955), I highly encourage you to get a copy for your own enjoyment. While these memoirs do not reveal all of Mary’s story, it does whet the appetite for those of us still asking questions.If you are interested, simply point your browser of choice to Google and do a search for used books. I picked mine up from Abe books rather inexpensively. Now, since I have given you the coming attractions, it’s time for the main feature.

Miss Mary Pickford, your stage awaits you.