Jack Pickford (August 18, 1896 - January 3, 1933) was a Canadian-born American actor. He was best known for his tabloid lifestyle, marriage to the top starlets of his day, and being of the famous Pickford acting family.
Born John Charles Smith in Toronto, Ontario, Canada to John Charles Smith and Charlotte Hennessy Smith in 1896. His alcoholic father left the family while Pickford was a young child. This incident left the family impoverished. In desperation Charlotte Hennessy allowed Pickford and his two sisters Gladys and Lottie to appear onstage. This proved a good source of income and by 1900 the family was based in New York City acting in plays across the United States.
Due to the work the family was constantly separated until 1910 when Mary signed with Biograph Studios. By that time his sister 'Gladys Smith' had been transformed into ' Mary Pickford ' (Marie her middle name, Pickford an old family name). Following suit the Smiths' changed their stage names to 'Pickford'.
Soon after signing with Biograph Mary secured jobs for all the family including the then fourteen year old 'Jack'. When the Biograph Company headed West to Hollywood, CA only Mary was to go; until Jack pleaded he could join the company as well. Much to Mary's protest Charlotte threw him on the train as it left the station. The company arrived in Hollywood where Jack acted in bit parts during the stay.
Mary soon became a well known star and by 1917 had signed a contract for $1 million with First National Pictures. As part of her contract Mary seen to it her family was brought along giving the now named Jack Pickford a lucrative contract with the company as well.
By the time he signed with First National Pickford had played bit parts in 95 shorts and films.
Though Pickford was considered a good actor he was seen as someone who 'never lived up to his potential.' He spent money frivolously and frequently had to suffer the humiliation of asking his mother or sister for money. As his reckless lifestyle worsened, the number of movies he made declined and, therefore, his own income.
In early 1918, after the United States entered World War I, Pickford joined the United States Navy. Using the famous Pickford name, he soon became involved in a scheme that allowed rich young men to pay bribes to avoid military service, as well as reportedly procuring young women for officers. For his involvement, Pickford came close to being dishonorably discharged; it is speculated that Mary arranged for him to give evidence to the authorities in exchange for a medical discharge. However this was never proven.
Pickford's relationships were cause for tabloid scandal as well. All three of his marriages were to former Ziegfeld girls who had become popular movie stars. The most infamous scandal was the death of his first wife Olive Thomas in 1920. For many years the Pickfords' had intended to vacation together. Both Pickford and Thomas were constantly traveling and had little time to spend together. With their marriage on the rocks the couple decided to take a second honeymoon.
In August 1920 the pair headed for Paris, France hoping to combine a vacation with some film preparations. On the night of September 9, 1920 the Pickfords went out for a night of entertainment and partying at the famous bistros in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris. Returning to their room in the Hotel Ritz around 3:00 a.m. Pickford either fell asleep or was outside the room for a final round of drugs. It was rumored Thomas may have taken cocaine that night though it was never proven.
An intoxicated and tired Thomas accidentally ingested a large dose of mercury bichloride, which had been prescribed for her husband's chronic syphilis. She had either thought the flask contained drinking water or sleeping pills; accounts vary. The label was in French which may have added to the confusion. She screamed, "Oh, my God!" and Pickford ran to pick her up in his arms. However it was too late, she had already ingested a lethal dose. She was taken to the American Hospital in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, where Pickford, together with her former in-law Owen Moore, remained at her side until she succumbed to the poison a few days later. Rumors floated that she had either tried to commit suicide or had been murdered. A police investigation followed as well as an autopsy, and Thomas' death was ruled accidental.
Of that night Pickford gave his account, on September 13 to the Los Angeles Examiner:
- "...We arrived back at the Ritz hotel at about 3 o'clock in the morning. I had already booked airplane seats for London. We were going Sunday morning. Both of us were tired out. We both had been drinking a little. I insisted that we had better not pack then, but rather get up early before our trip and do it then. I went to bed immediately. She fussed around and wrote a note to her mother...She was in the bathroom.
- Suddenly she shrieked: "'My God.' I jumped out of bed, rushed toward her and caught her in my arms. She cried to me to find out what was in the bottle. I picked it up and read: 'Poison.' It was a toilet solution and the label was in French. I realized what she had done and sent for the doctor. Meanwhile, I forced her to drink water in order to make her vomit. She screamed, 'O, my God, I'm poisoned.' I forced the whites of eggs down her throat, hoping to offset the poison. The doctor came. He pumped her stomach three times while I held Olive.
- Nine o'clock in the morning I got her to the Neuilly Hospital, where Doctors Choate and Wharton took charge of her. They told me she had swallowed bichoride of mercury in an alcoholic solution, which is ten times worse than tabloids. She didn't want to die. She took the poison by mistake. We both loved each other since the day we married. The fact that we were separated months at a time made no difference in our affection for each other. She even was conscious enough the day before she died to ask the nurse to come to America with her until she had fully recovered, having no thought she would die.
- She kept continually calling for me. I was beside her day and night until her death. The physicians held out hope for her until the last moment, until they found her kidneys paralyzed. Then they lost hope. But the doctors told me she had fought harder than any patient they ever had. She held onto her life as only one case in fifty. She seemed stronger the last two days. She was conscious, and said she would get better and go home to her mother. 'It's all a mistake, darling Jack,' she said. But I knew she was dying.
- She was kept alive only by hypodermic injections during the last twelve hours. I was the last one she recognized. I watched her eyes glaze and realized she was dying. I asked her how she was feeling and she answered: 'Pretty weak, but I'll be all right in a little while, don't worry, darling.' Those were her last words. I held her in my arms and she died an hour later. Owen Moore was at her bedside. All stories and rumors of wild parties and cocaine and domestic fights since we left New York are untrue... "
Pickford brought Thomas' body back to the United States. Several accounts state Pickford tried to commit suicide en route but was talked out of it. According to Mary Pickford's autobiography Sunshine and Shadows, "Jack crossed the ocean with Ollie's body. It wasn't until several years later that he confessed to Mother how one night during the voyage back he put on his trousers and jacket over his pajamas, went up on deck, and was climbing over the rail when something inside him said: "You can't do this to your mother and sisters. It would be a cowardly act. You must live and face the future."
Pickford was outlived by both of his sisters. From a young age him and Lottie had been closest; while Mary by her own admission assumed a 'parental role'. Mary herself suspected there was some resentment towards her though the family maintained close contact their entire lives., "...I had seen her often at the Pickford home, for she was engaged to Mary's brother, Jack. Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway. Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers."
Pickford eloped with Thomas on October 25, 1916 in New Jersey. None of their family was present with only Thomas Meighan as their witness. In a 1919 interview with Louella Parsons Thomas expressed her desire to have children, "One of these days we are going to have a family. I love children." The couple never had children of their own though in 1920 they adopted her then six year old nephew when his mother died.
Although by most accounts she was the love of Pickford's life, the marriage was stormy and filled with highly-charged conflict, followed by lavish making up through the exchange of expensive gifts. In a March 1920 issue of Motion Picture Magazine Thomas said of the drama fueled relationship, "He's always sending me something and then I send him something back. You see, we have to bridge the distance in some way. At first I just couldn't get used to the idea of living this way, but I suppose one gets used to anything, given time. When we were together we used to use up the time fighting over things. I'd say, 'You were out with this person or that person,' and he'd come back at me in the same way, and we'd have a lively time of it, but we're over that now. We know that we can't sit home by the fireside ALL the time just because we cannot be together."
Pickford's family did not always approve of Thomas though most of the family did attend her funeral. The marriage ended with the death of Thomas in 1920. Her death devastated him and many claim he never recovered from it.
After the death of Thomas, Pickford married two more times, unsuccessfully. In 1922 he married celebrated Broadway dancer and former Ziegfeld girl Marilyn Miller.
His final marriage was to Mary Mulhern in 1930, though they never divorced the pair was separated at the time of his death.
Death and Legacy
In 1933, Pickford visited Mary at Pickfair. According to Mary he looked ill and emaciated, his clothes were hanging on him as if he were a clothes hanger. Mary Pickford recalled in her autobiography that she felt a wave of premonition that came over her while watching her brother leave. As they started down the stairs to the automobile entrance, Jack called back to her, "Don’t come down with me, Mary dear, I can go alone." As Mary stood at the top of the stair case, an inner voice spoke to her. "That’s the last time you’ll see Jack", she remembered hearing it say. The room in which he died was one from which he could see the window of the hospital room where Olive Thomas had died thirteen years earlier. His sister Mary arranged for his body to be returned to Los Angeles, California, where he was interred in the private Pickford plot in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Jack Pickford has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1523 Vine Street.