< Return to Adherents.com's Guide to Movies
< Return to Famous Jewish Catholics

The Religious Affiliation of
Douglas Fairbanks
actor, American screen legend

From: Gary Carey, Doug & Mary: A Biography of Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford [alternative spelling: Doug and Mary: A Biography of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford], E.P. Dutton: New York (1977), pages 32-33:
Born in Denber in 1883... [Douglas] Fairbanks grew up on the legends of the Old West... He was the first child of Ella and Charles Ulman, an odd couple if there ever was one. By the time she reached Colorado, Ella had led a checkered, much-married existence. Catholic by birth, she came from a well-to-do New Orleans family, and while still a petite, teen-aged Southern belle, she married a wealthy industrialist and plantation owner named John Fairbanks... [who] contracted tuberculosis and died a few months [after the birth of their first son, John]... Ella hastily married a handsome, smooth-talking Georgian named Edward Wilcox. He turned out to be an abusive and violent drunk, and Ella divorced him...

Ella then fell in love with her divorce attorney, New York lawyer Charles Ulman. The romance did not go smoothly--Ella was Catholic; Ulman, Jewish--but eventually they were wed. Shortly afterward Ulman gave up his law practice and invested all his money in a Colorado mining venture. He then moved Ella... to Denver... the Ulmans seemed a happy and close-knit family until Charles's mining investments collapsed, and he returned East as a paid speaker for Benjamin Harrison's presidential campaign. Ella never heard from him again.

She turned to her children, especially 5-year-old Doug, for consolation...

Carey, pages 8-9:
Mary [Pickford] accepted Doug's [Douglas Fairbanks] pretense [for inviting her to visit his home, after they first met] without pretense, and on a January afternoon in 1916, she [Mary Pickford] and Charlotte [Mary's mother] came to Ella's [Douglas Fairbanks' mother's] apartment for tea. Charlotte might have preferred something more potent than orange pekoe, but she had been forewarned that Mrs. Fairbanks [Douglas' mother] was an evangelical teetotaler. When Doug was still a wisp of a boy, Ella made him swear he would never touch liquor, and except for a glass of dinner wine or an occasional watery cocktail, he kept his promise until the last years of his lfe.

In the next few weeks, Mary and Charlotte were frequent guests at Ella's home. And it was only a short time before the two mothers realized that Doug and Mary were hoving on the brink of a full-fledged affair. Charlotte didn't mind--she had never liked Owen Moore [Mary's husband at the time] and her Irish peasant blood didn't boil over at the thought of extramarital shenanigans. Ella, howeer, was disturbed by what was happening. She was tolerably fond of her daughter-in-law, Beth [Douglas Fairbanks' wife at the time], and she firmly believed that a man's first duty was to his wife and children. Still, she liked Mary, and above all else, she wanted Doug to be happy.

The tea parties came to an end in February 1916 when Doug went West to resume resuem his film career . Mary's schedule also scheduled a spring visit to California, and she realized, as did Doug, that when they met again in Hollywood they would have to resolve their feelings for each other.

At this time it seems unlikely that either of them thought as far ahead as marriage. Doug had been tutored in the horrors of divorce by his mother (who knew what she was speaking of), and like his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, he considered himself married for all time. And Mary, who had every good reason to divorce Moore, had never done so because of religious scruples. The Catholic Church regarded divorce as a permissible, if regrettable, step, but remarriage meant instant excommunication.

It would also mean the end of her career. Divorce was then a very ugly word, though it was not an uncommon practice. As early as 1904, Edith Wharton had written (in The House of Mirth), "There is a divorce and a case of appendicitis in every family one knows." But Edith Wharton's families were not the kind of people who went to the movies--they were rich and aristocratic, with enough social crust to flout convention and live as they pleased.

Many of the people who went to Mary Pickford pictures were working-class, a social stratum where man-made conventions were still honored as the laws of God. And for her fans, Mary was the personification of the American girl. What would happen if they learned that beneath the golden curls there lurked a tarnished soul, a divorcee, one of those wicked screen vamps who lured men away from hearth and home? No one knew for sure how the picture public regarded its idols.

Carey, page 34:
A flair for the dramatic was not the only trait Douglas inherited from Charles... he dreamed of going on the stage... Whatever the reason, Ella was appalled. Unable to disuade her son from joining a vagabond profession [acting], she consulted a priest who advised her to let the boy have his way. Ella was forced to agree--Doug had deliberately flunked out of school so he could go on stage.
Carey, page 64:
Doug [Fairbanks] had hoped that his divorce [from his first wife, Beth] would encourage Mary [Pickford] to take the same step, but she continued to bide her time. She was held back by her religious beliefs and pride--she hated to admit publicly that her marriage to Moore was a failure. And she was still not prepared to marry Fairbanks. In her autobiography, Mary remembered asking Doug, "If we both lose our careers, will our love be sufficient for our future happiness?"
Three weeks after Mary Pickford's divorce from her first husband, she married Douglas Fairbanks. From: Carey, pages 74-75:
Three weeks later, the license clerk for Los Angeles County was guest of honor at a Fairbanks dinner party. R. S. Sparks ("Cupid" to his friends) was not accustomed to hobnobbing with the Hollywood rich, so he suspected there was some devious reason for the invitation. "I had a hunch I might be asked for something in the license line when I was asked to dinner," he said. "So I took along the necessary document."

On the Friday night "Cupid" came to dinner, Doug was already living in the stucco and shingle house (actually a converted hunting lodge) that would soon be named "Pickfair." There were several guests that evening, including Bennie Ziedman, Charlotte Pickford and Mary (looking, Sparks remembered, "real pretty in a sparkly white dress"). Doug asked "Cupid" if he had any idea why he had been invited.

Pulling the license out of his pocket, "Cupid" replied with a wink, "I knew I'd get you two sooner or later." After Mary and Doug had filled out the form, he said, "Jeepers, this is my masterpiece in marriage licenses. I can never stage anything better than this."

Doug wanted to be married the next day, but Mary insisted on a Sunday wedding. So the date was set for two days hence, Sunday, March 28. Reverend J. Whitcombe Brougher, a Baptist minister known across the country as a kind of bush-league Billy Sunday, agreed to perform the ceremony at his home in Glendale. All arrangements were private--Lottie and Jack weren't invited because they couldn't be trusted with a secret. To keep up an appearance of normality, Doug spent Sunday afternoon at one of his favorite haunts, the Los Angeles Speedway, where he signed autographs and joked nonchalantly with his fans.

At ten that evening the guests started to arrive at Reverend Brougher's house. Among them were Doug's brothers, Robert and John, and their wives; actress Marjorie Daw, who served as Mary's maid of honor; Charlotte, dressed in Georgette crepe; and the bride, wearing (in the words of novelist Djuna Barnes, then a syndicated fashion columnist) "a pearl santoir" (whatever that may have been) and "a lovely dress of white satin and overdrape of net, caught up with contrasting knots of green and mustard."

The double-ring ceremony ended with Brougher reading the famous passage about marriage from St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians. ("Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands, as unto the Lord . . .") Doug chose the selection and asked Brougher to read it from a Bible that had been a childhood present from his mother. Later he passed out expensive Havana cigars to the men, each encased in a souvenir box. Autographing one, Mary signed "Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks" for the first time, and one of the guests pointed out that she was now entitled to American citizenship. Just as the guests were sitting down to a midnight supper, Lottie called, crying because she hadn't been invited to the wedding. Suddenly Doug remembered that in all the excitement he had forgotten to tell Charlie Chaplin and rushed to the phone to correct this oversight.

Cary, pages 76-79:
The harshest criticism of the marriage [between Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks] came, as expected, from the Church. Though there was no mention of Mary and Doug, Bishop Cantwell of the Catholic diocese of Monterey and Los Angeles issued a statement on divorce, calling it "the greatest of all modern evils." He feared that "the people of Los Angeles are not giving to the world at large an example of the Christian life . . . Laws wisely made for the government of civil and social life should not be easily set aside. . . . [they] must be obeyed for conscience' sake."

Reverend Brougher was openly rebuked for taking part in the ceremony. He defended himself by saying that the Baptist church had no rules or laws regulating remarriage and that most ministers would marry divorced persons provided that the cause of divorce had been "a scriptural one." He had known Mary and Doug for five years, and had interviewed them at length before deciding their divorced were "scriptural." Several of Brougher's colleagues disagreed, and he came close to being ousted from the executive committee of the Northern Baptist Alliance.

The final blow was delivered by Leonard J. Fowler, attorney general of Nevada, who announced that he was reviewing the Pickford-Moore divorce, and might start proceeding to annul the decree. A week later, he did bring suit against Mary and Doug on grounds of collusion... if found guilty, she [Mary Pickford] would be open to prosecution for bigamy...

[page 78] Fowler's action backfired. Though not every aspect of Mary's divorce could stand up under legal scrutiny, she was no more guilty of playing fast and loose with the law than were hundreds of other women who had come to Nevada for quick divorces. No one had asked to review their decrees--so why pick in Mary? The answer was obvious: as a national celebrity, she would call attention to Fowler's crusade to make Nevada safe for clean-living, law-abiding Christians. The hypocrisy was too blatant to go undetected.

Public opinion began to turn in Mary's favor when the papers, carrying on their own review of her divorce, printed large hunks of her testimony about [her first husband] Moore. People were shocked by what they read. After so much misery, Mary was entitled to her share of happiness, and what form of happiness could be better than Douglas Fairbanks?

...Newspapers all over the country began carrying editorials in Mary's defense, with Variety being especially outraged at the way she had been maligned. A writer for this trade publication decried "the woodsmen" who used "the halberd and shield of the Protestant church to attack Miss Pickford..."

[page 79] ...This breathless mixture of money, religion, loose grammar and inflated rhetoric is only slightly more effusive than the other tributes paid to Mary. Practically overnight she was patronized as the patron saint of the film industry, a living emblem of all that was best about the American way of life.

Carey, pages 97-98:
Penny-pinching was not, however, the main reason why so many people describe life at Pickfair as "dull"... Mary and Doug felt it was their duty to live quiet, sober lives of respectability as a way of atoning for the scandal of their divorces and marriage. It was what the public expected of them, and though Doug sometimes chafed under the weight of the responsibility, Mary was determined she would never again disappoint her fans.

So Pickfair became filmland's leading embassy of middle-class virtue at a time when the rest of Hollywood was whooping it up wnd exploring the pleasuresof flash success and sudden wealth... when the epitome of "it" was the slave bracelet Natacha Rambova [the Mormon costume designer] gave Rudolph Valentino as an engagement present.

...There were few escapades at Pickfair, no flowing wine, no cocaine, no nude cavorting in the pool. When Mary told the press that there was no "jazzing" in her home, she wasn't kidding.

Carey, pages 99-100:
Following each of these [Hollywood] scandals [such as the "Fatty" Arbuckle murder/rape trial], the self-appointed guardians of public morality would rehash past history to prove that Hollywood was a hotbed of depravity and licentiousness. Inevitably Mary and Doug would be pilloried for making divorce "respectable for decent people." (Which, indeed, to some small degree, they had done.) In 1922, shortly after Taylor's murder, Reveredn Dr. John Roach Straton made headlines by denouncing them from the pulpit of his New York church for "demoralizing and corrupting the honorable institution of marriage." Hundreds of people rushed to their defense, but Mary and Doug wisely stayed silent except to hint that they were once again thinking of moving to London or Paris where no one cared about their morals.

But their best defense, as they both realized, was to steer clear of any kind of controversy or scandal, and mostly they succeeded.

Carey, page 92:
The guests at these early Pickfair [the home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks] dinners were a strange assortment... Prominent in this retinue were two prizefighters, Spike Robinson and Bull Montana, who drew weekly salaries for sparring with their boss whenever Jack Dempsey [the famed Latter-day Saint boxer] or Gene Tunney weren't around.
Carey, page 144:
For his fans, however, he was as youthful as ever, an illusion Doug [Douglas Fairbanks] caeefully nurtured with photographs of his strenuous physical activies: sparring bouts with Jack Dempsey, hurdle races with acrobat-actor Fred Stone, tennis matches with Wimbledom champions.
Carey, pages 175-176:
She [Mary Pickford] is, however, one of the few good things about The Goucho, which is certainly Doug's [Douglas Fairbanks] most peculiar film; also, arguably, his worst. In it, he plays an Argentine bandit with a Robin Hood complex, who tries to save a holy shrine from capitalistic desecration. In the process he falls victim to leprosy, goes through conversion and is healed by the waters of the shrine. He regains his faith when he sees a vision of the Virgin Mary, "a cameo role" played by Mary Pickford. Except for some unbilled extra work, this was the first time Mary had acted with Doug, and some fans were disappointed that she made such a fleeting appearance. But no one questioned the appropriateness of America's Sweetheart playing the Virgin Mary.

Despite the droopy atmosphere of religious uplift, The Goucho has its genuinely vigorous moments... but on the whole, neither critics nor public liked the picture very much. Robert Sherwood, the movie reviewer for Life, bemoaned Fairbanks's decision to include "religion, lust or loathsome disease" in one of his productions... The Gaucho... did pretty well at the box office, but for the first time there were comments in the press that Mary and Doug were "slipping."

Search Adherents.com

Custom Search
comments powered by Disqus

Webpage created 17 July 2005. Last modified 26 September 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: webmaster@adherents.com.