Monday, January 31, 2011

Writing the End

"I pleased my own generation. That's all that matters." (Mary Pickford.)

I've come to the end of Mary's story. This is proving to be the hardest part of the book for me to write. Mary Pickford's last years were not happy. When the age of silent films ended, and she had trouble adjusting to talkies, she tried to re-invent herself. She did some writing, turning out a couple of books, she spent some time doing radio broadcasts, and she worked tirelessly fundraising for her many charities.

But she was grieving the loss of her youth, and with it her adoring audiences. Her fans weren't interested in seeing "Little Mary" play more mature roles. She tried, but after two unsuccessful pictures, she bowed out.
From the first time she'd felt the love of the audience, as a tiny child on the stage at the Princess Theatre in Toronto, she knew it was something she needed. But the public wanted her to keep playing young girls, and that became impossible as the actress grew older.

If she had conquered talkies, and then been allowed to grow old in front of the camera, as her friends Lillian and Dorothy Gish had, things might have been different.

Instead, Mary retreated inside her beloved Pickfair where, starting to show signs of heart disease, she eventually she took to her bed. Her leg muscles atrophied to a point where she could no longer walk. She became a recluse, seeing only a handful of friends and family. And then there was the tragedy of her alcoholism, the old Pickford/Smith family curse.

How to write this part without excusing her excesses. A biographer must tell the truth. Mary was grieving the loss of her youth, her beauty, and the love of her life. Her husband Douglas Fairbanks Sr. had left her for a younger woman. One of her friends described the fifty-year-old Mary as extremely handsome. What woman, whose youthful beauty had been called "dazzling," would later want to be referred to as handsome?

I can't sugar-coat the truth. This is the way Mary's life ended. I am required to tell it as it was. But now I can go forward to record her legacy, all that Mary Pickford meant to the world of motion pictures, and of her philanthropic work, and I can end on a triumphant note.


Dean Burry said...

Hi Peggy, I currently have a Mary Pickford musical running in Toronto (Sweetheart) and grappled in the same way with her "fall" from stardom. I end with the bittersweetness of her Academy Award, but there is a real sadness knowing where things are going. Fortunately as a playwright I have some freedom not afforded to a biographer. Best of luck as you finish your project.

Sheila Berenson said...

Wow. How easily we forget these goddesses of the past, and how their personal lives evolved behind closed doors. Thanks for the posting and the project.

Peggy Dymond Leavey said...

Thanks Dean. It was good of you to comment. I've been reading in the Toronto papers about the musical and wish I lived closer. I'll watch for it to one day come to a theatre near me.
Break a leg!

Peggy Dymond Leavey said...

Hi Sheila,
So pleased you enjoyed the post. I can't help feeling that I knew Mary, and hope you'll watch for the book late this summer. I hope I've made her come to life again.