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.