In this corner, weighing in at approximately 300 combined pounds, we have the team of Mary and Charlotte Pickford.
That would be “America’s Sweetheart,” the silent movie queen, and her mother, intent on managing the lives of her other two children based on what’s best for Mary’s career. Newly rich, the Pickford ladies look down their noses at their opponent, originally a workman’s daughter from Charleroi, Pennsylvania.
In the opposing corner, weighing in at a respectable 115 pounds, we have the challenger, showgirl Olive Thomas. Recently departed from the Ziegfeld Follies, and a newcomer to Hollywood, Ollie is intent on marrying Mary’s brother (and Charlotte’s son), Jack. But it may not be as easy as she hopes. After all, by Pickford standards, only LOOSE women become artists’ models and join the Follies or the Midnight Frolic.
Mary and Owen’s Home, Los Angeles – June 9, 1917
As we neared the house, I clutched the present in my lap. It was all wrapped up in festive paper, and I fidgeted, playing with the bow. Jack reached over and patted my hand, reassuring me.
“She’ll adore it. Don’t worry, darling.”
“I’m just nervous, that’s all.” Remembering what Owen had told me about these women, I’d have been nuts not to be.
I’d chosen my most demure dress, a deep navy in a simple style with matching kid shoes, and I’d worn my hair up to seem more ladylike.
“You’ll love Lottie,” Jack said, speaking of the birthday girl, whose party it was. “She’s the fun one. We call her Chuckie.”
“It was our dad’s idea. Her real name is Charlotte, like our mother. But when she was born, my father thought she was a boy. They were going to name her Charles, but…”
“Oh, I get it. Chuckie.”
We were let in by a colored maid, whom Jack introduced as Nina. I could hear the guests in the living room, so we crowded in. Jack stopped to speak to some of the party-goers, and as he did, Owen handed us both a drink. He was soused.
“How are you, Ollie?”
“Nervous. How are you?”
“Desperately needing another of these. Good luck with the dragon ladies.”
“Jesus, he looks like shit,” Jack said, as Owen moved off into the crowd.
The living room was elegant, but nothing at all like I’d imagined for a movie star. I was surprised that such a wealthy woman lived so frugally. I saw Mary and her famous blonde curls in a sitting room, speaking to a petite, pretty lady with silky chestnut hair wrapped in a tidy chignon. There were fewer people in here, but the same no-nonsense décor.
They both waved, and the brunette gave a big smile. Mary’s face lit up when she saw her brother, then stopped when it got to me. Her eyes, usually wide and blue, full of charm and spunk in her films, were now blank. She wore a dress that would have cost me a year’s salary- a blue tricotine number with black soutache embroidery at the cuffs and hem.
We approached them, and Jack introduced me.
“Mary, Frances, this is my sweetheart, Olive Thomas.”
I shyly took each of their hands in turn.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“Hello, Olive,” the other woman said. “I’m Frances Marion, and I’m a scenarist. It’s nice to meet the most beautiful girl in New York.” She winked, and I laughed.
“Your reputation precedes you, darling,” Jack said.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Mary said, taking my hand, but touching it as little as she could, like it was a rotten egg.
“I love your films, Mary. Ever since I first saw Willful Peggy,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said. The smile didn’t reach her eyes.
“Is Jack here?” I heard a smoky voice say.
A woman broke from the crowd, gathering him in an affectionate hug, and smothering his face with playful kisses.
“Chuckie!” he yelled. “You must be Olive!” she said, reaching out a hand. “I’m Lottie!” She was darker than her sister, and her large dramatic eyes were her most attractive feature. She wore a deep burgundy dress with a mink collar and shoes of the same color. The aroma of Caswell Massey’s #6 and Murad cigarettes clung to her like a coat.
“This is for you,” I said.
She took the gift I handed her, giving me a sideways hug.
“This is so sweet of you!” she said, ripping at the red bow on top.
When she got to the box inside, she squealed. I’d splurged on a diamond bracelet in a bid for her to like me. She gave me another hug as she set the box on the bar.
“This is one of my favorite presents ever!” she said, fastening it around her wrist.
Right then, a little girl of about two or three crept out from behind Lottie, her face dwarfed by a pair of the same eyes as her mother.
“This is my daughter, Mary,” Lottie said, with her hands on the girl’s shoulders. I knelt down to be at the same level and smiled at her, opening my arms to see if she responded. When she scampered over, I was overjoyed.
“How sweetly she toddles! Do you talk yet, sweetheart?”
“Only when she feels like it,” Lottie said.
“Dat?” the little girl asked, pointing at Lottie’s glass.
“This is mommy’s drink, darling. Can you say Scotch?”
Lottie kneeled down and let her sniff it. Little Mary made a face.
“She obviously doesn’t take after my side of the family at all!” Lottie said with a guffaw. Then she downed her drink and poured another.
At that moment, the temperature in the room dropped. An older woman marched toward us. She wore a dark dress, of the style favored by withered matrons, and her gray hair was pulled into a severe bun. No one had ever stared at me so critically in my life. Anyone would have sworn she’d just stepped in dog shit.
“Mother, this is Olive,” Jack said. “Ollie, this is my mother, Charlotte Pickford.”
“It’s very nice to meet you,” I said, smiling.
“Charmed,” Mrs. Pickford said, holding her hand out for me to shake, but her glacial demeanor did not thaw one bit. Her face remained frozen and unreadable.
“Mother, see the gorgeous bracelet Olive bought for me?” Lottie shook her arm so it gave a little tinkle.
“It’s lovely,” said the iceberg. “But obviously very pricey. How does one pay for such a costly piece of jewelry?”
“I’m an actress,” I said
“I have it on good authority that your contract at Triangle pays you a pittance, Miss Thomas. So once more I ask myself what you had to do to pay for a gift like that.”
“Excuse me?” I said, almost snorting Scotch out my nose. “What are you saying, Mrs. Pickford?”
Sensing a change in the mood, Frances looked out into the living room.
“Oh, there’s Owen. And I haven’t said hello yet. Please excuse me. Olive, it was lovely to meet you.” I smiled back at her as she moved into the living room, but inside I was seething.
“Jesus Christ,” I heard Lottie mutter. She slipped behind the bar and poured herself another Scotch, then opened a jet cigarette case and lit one. Jack joined her and poured himself one too.
“As warm as ever, mother,” Jack said, using the flame from Lottie’s cigarette to light his own. “No ‘welcome to our home’ or ‘thank you for Lottie’s beautiful gift.’ You leap right in and call my sweetheart a tramp.” He crossed to a couch and sat down.
“I did no such thing.”
Just as I thought they were ready to pull on boxing gloves, Mary entered the fray.
“Yes, how did you pay for it? I didn’t think the Follies paid that well, unless you count the fringe benefits, of course.”
“I saved my money.” It was true, for once. I’d put some money in savings. And spent it almost immediately.
Between Mary and Charlotte, I had never felt such coldness. I’d always been able to charm almost anyone, but these two were a brick wall. So that was how they wanted it. Fine, I could play along. If I could deal with a professional bitch like Kay, I could handle ‘America’s Sweetheart.’ And her mother too.
She’s like buttermilk, I thought. Bright and sunny on the outside, but sour once you’ve had a taste.
Instead of sitting in the chair that she gestured to, I plopped down next to Jack on the couch, where he was already relaxing. Then I defiantly took his hand and downed the rest of my scotch, setting it down on the table without a coaster, reveling in the determined clonk it made. The hard stare I received in return told me everything I needed to know. War had been declared.
Little Mary followed me and leaned on the friendly lap she had just encountered.
“I see you’ve met Little Mary,” the elder Mary said.
“Yes,” Lottie said, “She’s quite taken with Olive.”
“As is our Jack,” Mary answered, glaring at her brother as if to say “You idiot. How could you do this to the family?”
“So you were in the Follies.” Charlotte said.
“Yes ma’am,” I said, wary of what would come next.
“And the Frolic too?”
“You took your clothes off for money, then.”
“Now see here, mother…” Jack began.
“It’s true, isn’t it?” protested Mrs. Pickford.
It didn’t matter what I said. I’d be damned if they’d condemn me like this. I was no whore, and I was ready to come out swinging on the old hag.
“Mrs. Pickford, Jack has told me that he grew up poor when your husband died. Do you know the same thing happened to my mother? My father died of pneumonia when I was five. I watched him die.” I narrowed my eyes to let her know I would not be cowed. Then I continued.
“She also had three children to raise—my two brothers and me. And like you, she struggled. For weeks and weeks we lived on nothing but cabbage soup. But she managed to get food on the table. When I went to New York and became a model and joined the Follies, it was the most money I’d ever seen in my life. And I was able to help her, just like Mary was able to help all of you. I’ve sent Mamma money and household gifts, and pretty things that she likes because I know how hard she worked to raise me. She’s never judged me for what I do, and neither has Jack. I’m perfectly happy with my life. I met some nice people at the Follies, and I loved working there. Anything else you’d like to ask me?”
From her reaction, I could tell that no one else had ever spoken to Charlotte Pickford that way in her life. She squinted at me.
“Respectable women do not take their clothes off for money, no matter how hungry they are. My son cannot marry a harlot who has been an artist’s model. Everyone knows showgirls are loose. Billie Burke is a lovely woman. You had a lot of nerve trying to steal her husband.”
“That’s very nice of you to give me the benefit of the doubt, Mrs. Pickford.” I tried not to roll my eyes. “For your information, Mr. Ziegfeld initiated our affair. He invited me to his apartment, and took me to Long Island for rides on his yacht. But first, he introduced me to fellatio. I’m sure you wouldn’t have heard of it. It’s an unusual practice, where a woman uses her mouth on a man’s…”
“Stop! I do not want to hear this. Lottie, send little Mary to her room.”
“No? The truth not fitting with your judgements of me? Even though he was the one who began the affair? Come now, Mrs. Pickford. I was a showgirl, and I was paid to dance, nothing more. Ziegfeld was crazy about me. I wanted to be legitimate, and I told him that for things to continue, I wanted the sanctity of marriage. He wouldn’t give me that.”
“He had a wife and a child!”
“He didn’t have the child yet, ma’am. Only the wife. And Mr. Ziegfeld told me sob stories of their life together, and how miserable he was. Any man that dedicated to his wife does not tell his mistress how desperately he wants to leave that wife. Does he?”
She had no answer.
“At one point, he returned home, and that was when she became pregnant. He had already left her for me. Then he went back to her. So in reality, I am the one who was wronged.”
“That’s all ancient history,” Jack interrupted. “We want your blessing to marry, mother. And we’d like it soon, so we can arrange things when we get to New York.”
Charlotte was obviously horrified.
“Absolutely not. This woman is the most common tramp imaginable, and I will not allow it.”
“How dare you,” I said, between gritted teeth.
Jack patted my hand to get me to calm down.
“Why the hurry?” Mary said. “Something you’re trying to keep secret?” She glanced pointedly at my middle. The nerve of her! Suggesting he’d knocked me up. She didn’t have anything more original in her arsenal?
“I could have asked the same of you and Owen,” Jack said, casually blowing a smoke ring.
Mary paled. Owen had told me they’d run away to Jersey City. Everyone knew that she was seeing Douglas Fairbanks now, but was keeping it very hush-hush. The only reason they hadn’t divorced their respective spouses was that Mary was terrified bad press would end both their careers. I saw red when I thought of a hypocrite like her standing in judgment over me. And since Owen was a friend of mine, it made me twice as angry.
“You are not good enough for my son,” Charlotte announced.
“Oh, mother, please…” Lottie said, lighting another cigarette.
“I love your son and I want to make him happy,” I said.
“No. I forbid it. Your behavior reflects badly on this family, and Mary’s career will not be damaged due to your shoddy morals. You are trying to use the Pickford name to further your career in Hollywood, and that is not going to happen. You can step off our coat tails right this instant.”
“Are you kidding? I’m one of the most well-known faces in New York. I don’t need the Pickford name to build a career.”
“Nevertheless, I refuse to sanction this marriage.”
Lottie rolled her eyes. “So she was a model and a showgirl. She’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, mother. Imagine how adorable their children will be. Think how those lovely grandchildren will reflect on you. Now do me a favor. Look at your son.”
Charlotte reluctantly glanced over at Jack.
“If you weren’t such an old prune, intent on managing Mary’s career at the expense of everything else in all of our lives, you’d see how in love with her he is.”
Jack’s gaze was a silent plea.
“I only dream of having someone love me like that. Alf sure didn’t. Why do you think we’re divorced now?”
Charlotte and Mary both sat silent, digesting what she’d said.
“If you value your relationship with your son, you’ll let him marry her. He’s not Mary. He’s a grown man, able to make his own decisions. And it’s obvious that he loves Olive. He loves you too, or he wouldn’t have asked for your blessing. For God’s sake, let him do what he wants. Love’s all we can really hope for in life anyway.” She gulped the rest of her drink.
The room was quiet for a moment, as if everyone were afraid to speak.
“When?” Mary said.
“We were thinking just after the New Year,” said Jack. “All Ollie’s friends are in New York.”
At last, Mary acknowledged us.
“Fine,” she said. Then she sighed. A momentary cease-fire had been declared.
Lottie. A true romantic, and apparently, a good referee.
The above is taken from my (hopefully soon to be published!) novel The Forgotten Flapper. Thanks to Lara Gabrielle at Backlots for hosting the blogathon! Other entries can be found here.
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