Prologue to a Family

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.

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