Defending Jack Pickford

I’ve been dying to share the following posts for a long time, and rather than just hit “reblog” a few times and call it a day I’m going to give them a proper introduction!

As Mary fans know, she wasn’t the only Pickford in Hollywood. Her two younger siblings, Lottie and Jack, were also in the movies. Lottie had numerous (mainly small) roles in films from 1909-1912. Post-1912 her career became sporadic and her personal life grew increasingly messy (according to the more reliable accounts).  Jack, on the other hand? He not only had a prolific career, but he became a star in his own right.

Jack Pickford mot pic mag '17

Motion Picture Magazine, 1917

After appearing in bit roles in dozens and dozens of shorts, mainly at Biograph, Jack began starring in features, starting with Seventeen (1916). Hit after hit would follow–Great Expectations (1916), Tom Sawyer (1917), His Majesty, Bunker Bean (1918), etc–making Jack one of the most popular young male actors in the nation. He was a charming, sensitive performer, and while the Pickford name obviously helped him it was undeniably his talent that kept audiences wanting more. And kept exhibitors happily raking in the dough: he made 11 features in 1917 alone. (I feel exhausted just thinking about it!)

Offscreen, Jack was an irrepressible, party-hardy charmer, often a few drinks ahead of everyone else. He also had a tendency to get himself into scrapes–one anecdote tells of how he got thrown off a Ferris wheel for standing on his head. Mary adored her little brother, although he sometimes exasperated her with his antics. He married fellow film star Olive Thomas in 1916. Their relationship could be tempestuous, but often very affectionate.

Many of you know the rest–Olive’s sudden, tragic death, the flurry of press coverage, Jack’s increasing depression, his dependence on alcohol and death in 1933. And you’ve probably heard some other things about Jack. Darker things. Rumors of drug use, of syphilis, even of possible murder. And, bizarrely enough, many of these rumors are taken for granted even by the finest film researchers–people who can usually spot an unsubstantiated fact from a mile away. In a book that isn’t even open. (That is, usually. *cough*)

Researcher Steve Vaught tackles these dark rumors in three brilliant posts at his blog Paradise Leased. The posts are a few years old, but I can not love them enough. They have the exact kind of commonsense, non-lurid, fact-based rumor-stomping that I want to see more of from every researcher. Here’s the magnificent links:

You Don’t Know Jack – A Second Take on Jack Pickford – Part I  Vaught shares why he feels Jack’s been maligned for far too long without hard evidence to back up the widespread disdain. Begins his fine defense.

You Don’t Know Jack – A Second Take on Jack Pickford – Part II Delves more into Jack’s character and career, and reminds readers that it couldn’t have been easy to be the lone guy among the strong-willed Pickford ladies.

You Don’t Know Jack – A Second Take on Jack Pickford – Part III The most intriguing of the three, examines every little detail of the circumstances around Olive’s death and shows how ridiculous the rumors of murder/suicide really are. If you read just one of Vaught’s posts, read this one. And share it.

It’s not that Vaught 100% solved the mystery of Olive’s death–if that’s entirely possible–but that he shows how important it is to take off your “lurid film noir Hollywood” glasses and consider Occam’s razor once in awhile. Imagine if such level-headed analysis was applied to more of those scurrilous Hollywood rumors! Hollywood Babylon wouldn’t exist, for one thing. And…well, that’s actually the ultimate ideal right there.

I have reasons myself for wanting to take a fresh look at Jack. People seem to assume that he was a nasty individual in real life–he loved wine and women after all, the odious ingrate! And yet, in contemporary newspapers and magazines I’ve come across more than one reference to his friendship with Thomas Meighan (who was a witness at his wedding to Olive) and Robert Harron (one of Biograph’s finest young actors). According to everything I’ve seen, they were two of the nicest, most squeaky-clean gentlemen in Hollywoodland. Their friendship with a supposed vile pig like Jack makes no sense unless maybe, just maybe, he was more endearing in person than he’s given credit for.

There’s still a little research wiggle-room in Vaught’s posts–I hope he does more work on Jack’s story one day, because I’d love to hear it. But in the meantime, when it comes to lurid rumors about the stars lets remember to put on our skepticism hats. Because the stars were real people, they can no longer defend themselves, and as fellow human beings we have a responsibility to get their stories straight. You would want someone to do the same for you, after all–or, in Mary’s case, to do the same for a much-loved younger brother.

12 thoughts on “Defending Jack Pickford

  1. In all honesty, I’m not at all familiar with Jack Pickford. But your post has piqued my interest; I look forward to reading the articles you linked. Thanks for posting 🙂

    • Yes, not too many people know Jack nowadays! (Hurr hurr.) And unfortunately, when you run across references to him in bios he’s usually described as a scoundrel, a selfish jerk, someone who coasted off his sister’s success…he had his faults, but I think authors have painted a dark picture of him that doesn’t square with reality.

  2. Fascinated to hear more about Jack Pickford. I have never thought he had anything to do with Olive’s death. I think that her death was a huge accident on her part. (I had an uncle who did the same thing, and suffered the same consequence. It happens). I have heard Jack was a wonderful boy, but was tainted by the seedier side of 1910/20s Hollywood which he was influenced by from an early age.

    • I agree that Olive’s death was almost certainly accidental. Every fan/decent historian I’ve seen always comes to the same conclusion, too! Which makes the books that try to say otherwise even more baffling.

      Yes, Jack seems to have had his innocence taken away from him pretty early. There’s a story (I don’t know the source) of some fellow actors taking him to a brothel when he was only 14. I’d like to have a word (or seven) with those actors…!

  3. “Because the stars were real people, they can no longer defend themselves, and as fellow human beings we have a responsibility to get their stories straight. You would want someone to do the same for you, after all–or, in Mary’s case, to do the same for a much-loved younger brother.”

    Yet again, you are the loudspeaker for my mind. People act like celebrities are public property. And dead ones, who can’t defend themselves…..just so well-put, Lea, as usual. Literally, you have to break out the old chestnut: “I couldn’t have said it better myself”. I couldn’t. I’m going to memorize that.

    This is Mary Pickford Month on SIlentology……and let me say…Mary would have loved that you wrote this. She would have appreciated THIS probably more than all the stuff you wrote about her!

    I love, in the Kevin Brownlow book, when he screens Jack’s movie for her….and her reaction, as a proud sister, is palpable. (I get chills reading that entire article, don’t you?! When he gets to finally meet her, that one time?)

    And if we think Jack gets a raw deal, how about Lottie?

    As far as Jack’s “bad” behavior….boys will be boys. If he wasn’t Jack Pickford, the kid brother of Mary Pickford, but instead was John Barrymore or Erroll Flynn, it would, oh, what a colorful maverick! What an artist, who didn’t give a hoot and lived in the moment!

    (I also feel Mary’s alleged “alcoholism” is similar. I mean, I’m sure she drank, and drank regularly. Guess what! Everyone did! My grandmother would drink and get tipsy. Maybe I’m wrong….but I actually lived with a full-blown “Leaving Las Vegas” alcoholic, with the shakes, and the blackouts and the whole bit. I get the impression Mary probably drank and got a little slurry in the evening, or on occassions…..but I don’t get the impression she was rolling out of bed and reaching for the bottle. Maybe not. Brownlow makes it a point to say that he didn’t notice any signs of alcohol or drunkenness.)

    I have read those articles about Jack, they’re fantastic, I’m convinced!

    I tried watching “Tom Sawyer” once and through no fault of Jack’s or the film itself, I just wasn’t in the head at that moment. If i were to start with one Jack Pickford film, which would you recommend?

    • I would actually say Tom Sawyer! 😀 It was a major film for him. His films are tough to find in general, Poor Little Peppina is another one that’s at least readily available.

      Honestly, why is Jack painted as such a villain most of the time? When I read different anecdotes about him he always sounds hilarious–like a mischievous, irrepressible type of guy. Mary clearly adored him, he had tons of friends, and I seriously doubt that he wasn’t a nice fellow in person. And like I said, some of the most upstanding gentlemen in Hollywoodland considered him a friend (Harron and Meighan).

      On the topic of Mary’s alcoholism, I was a little taken aback by that part of the Whitfield bio. She seemed to revel a little too much in painting a picture of Mary as a Norma Desmond-type recluse. It got a little distasteful. More research in that area of her life would probably be welcome!

      • “Poor LIttle Peppina” cracks me up when Mary is on the deck of the ship, dressed as an Italian boy, taking photos of the tourists, so funny. Very Chaplin….and Italian, that moment!

        Yeah, Eileen seems to suddenly despise her subject towards the end of the book, there’s no other way of putting it, and it gets so that you just want to hug Mary! No wonder why Mary didn’t want to go out!

  4. Several years ago, I watched “The Flapper” and was delighted by the performance and personality of Olive Thomas. Googling to learn more about her led me to Paradise Leased and Vaught’s 3 witty, wise, and enormously entertaining blog articles on Jack Pickford, wherein he exposed the absurdity of the accusations heaped upon Jack in virtually every article or book written in later years that mentioned his wife’s tragic death. Rather than passively accept and repeat the folklore, Vaught did something very unconventional – he questioned dogma. And all that was necessary for Vaught to discredit the scandal mongers was skepticism and a willingness to go to the archives and read the newspaper articles, interviews with Jack’s friends and associates, and other original source materials that were published at the time Olive’s death was a major story.

    A fellow researcher who, like Vaught, carried out a first-rate piece of detective work is Brian Taves. A few years ago he wrote a biography of Thomas Ince wherein he investigated the validity of 90-year-old rumors that W.R. Hearst invited Ince onto his yacht, shot him, and then covered up his crime. Taves dug through voluminous source material from the early 20s and found that the rumors were false. In Chapter 1, Taves’ meticulous comparison of the rumors and the substantiated facts is a textbook lesson of how to conduct a search for the truth. All biographers should, like Vaught and Taves, do their due diligence before putting pen to paper.

    Though I’ve given up waiting for Part IV of Vaught’s promised series on Jack, I’m hoping his silence is an indication that he’s hard at work on a biography of Jack, one that includes Parts I, II, and III transferred in their entirety from his blog onto the pages of a book. We fans of silent films don’t need any more books about Mary or Doug or Charlie or Valentino or Gloria. What we now want is info on the stars who didn’t glitter as brightly as the well-known icons, but who still have the power to enchant and pique our curiosity to know more about them. Mary’s kid brother, Jack, was one of these stars. While Jack is now considered to be a nobody, during all his years working in motion pictures, he was a somebody. Jack deserves a biography not only because his sullied reputation needs to be restored but because his film career has substance, as evidenced by his extant films available for viewing.

    In addition to the wonderful ‘Tom Sawyer’, Jack is superb in ‘The Goose Woman’, in which he co-starred with Louise Dresser. This film was made late in his career when, as we are told by those who haven’t done their due diligence, he was a dissolute alcoholic or worse, but Jack could not have given the sensitive and moving performance he gave if he had been blotto on booze at 9 in the morning when the director called “action.” In this film he was the spitting image of a clean, sober, and serious young man – not the gin-soaked, emaciated, bleary-eyed zombie that his detractors said he was. The truth is there on the screen for all to see.

    The idea that Jack’s dissolute lifestyle ended his career is nonsense. No silent era star, excepting Mary and a few others, kept an iron grip on stardom for more than a few years. And then in 1927, the year after ‘The Goose Woman’, technology transformed stars into has-beens. It’s obvious, too, that Jack wasn’t the dedicated artiste and workaholic that Mary was and that for Jack, making movies was just a part of his life, the other part being enjoying the pleasant lifestyle that came with being a successful young actor and the popular brother of Mary. While speculation is pointless, it appears that Jack’s Achilles heel was a lack of purpose and goals. Drifting along thru the long sunny days, doing nothing much other than sipping champagne with one beautiful woman or another, his regrets accumulating, led him to become increasingly weary of life. Jack’s yellow-brick road ended in an early death.

    Jack is long gone, but his films live on, both the ones that are in circulation and the ones that are still locked away in the film archives, awaiting public demand to bring them forth. The story of Jack – his life, his membership in the Pickford family, his films, his contribution to the success of a major industry in its early years, and the unjust despoliation of his reputation – makes Jack Pickford deserving of a biography.

    • Hi Judy! I really appreciate this comment. Especially this: “And all that was necessary for Vaught to discredit the scandal mongers was skepticism and a willingness to go to the archives and read the newspaper articles, interviews with Jack’s friends and associates, and other original source materials”. BINGO. Yes. I completely agree. We need to see much more of this, especially in this Internet age when research can be much easier to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to interact with some amazing fans and historians who quickly made me realize that skepticism is key, and that there are countless ridiculous rumors out there muddying up film history. So I always try very hard in my own articles to compare/contrast info and go to sources like vintage newspapers and magazines when I can. It’s amazing what you can find out!

      I like your assessment of Jack, and 100% agree that a young man who starred in 11 features in one year alone was not some lazy bum coasting on his sister’s fame. Stars back then became stars because the public loved them and demanded to see their films, not merely because he was Mary’s brother (if that were true, why didn’t Lottie have a similarly spectacular career?). I join you in hoping that Jack will get a proper biography one day.

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  6. I realize that I’ve arrived “late to the party.” But I’m ticked off big time! Because I don’t understand why people keep saying god-awful things about Jack Pickford: “He never lived up to his potential.” So who’s setting the bar for Jack’s potential? Are we comparing him to his sister “little Mary?” Because Mary Pickford was so driven by ambition and was such an absolute workaholic she borders on the supernatural! Even Alexander the Great would have had trouble keeping up with her. As for Jack, he was an alcoholic, he was a drug addict, he freeloaded off his mother and his sister, he had syphilis, he was a depraved sexual deviant, he was a murderer, and the condemnations are endless. The fact that this guy’s been dead for 88 years doesn’t seem to soften the blows one bit. Someone needs to write a well-researched biography to kick some of these lies to curb and stomp them out of existence!

    • Agreed, Deborah! Many rumors seem to be based on hearsay but for some reason are taken as Gospel. Maybe it has to do with some slightly over zealous loyalty to Olive Thomas, not sure.

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