Jack Pickford (August 18, 1896 – January 3, 1933) was a Canadian-born American actor and film director, brother of early filmstar Mary Pickford.
After their father deserted the family, all three Pickford children had to take work as child actors. When Mary broke into films, Jack went to Hollywood with her, but was never in her league. When she signed her first $1 million contract, he was mostly playing the boy-next-door in B-films. Some claimed that he had great talent, but suffered from living in her shadow. At any rate, his life of drink, drugs, syphilis and scandal ruled out any career success, and his three marriages to showgirls all ended in failure. Pickford died in Paris of progressive multiple neuritis, aged thirty-six.
Born John Charles Smith in Toronto, Ontario, 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 Gladys 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 saw to it that 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. In 1917 he starred in one of his first major roles as “Pip” in the adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as well as the title role in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.
After his stint in the Navy, Pickford continued making films. By 1923, his roles had gone from several a year to one. In 1928, he finished his last film, Gang War, as Clyde Baxter. Through the years he dabbled in writing and directing; however, he never pursued either form further.
Most of his films were considered B movies, though he was able to make a name for himself. Pickford’s image was that of the All-American boy or the boy next door.
Despite his image of the “boy next door,” Pickford’s private life was one of alcohol, drugs, and womanizing, culminating in the severe alcoholism and syphilis that would eventually kill him. In the early days of Hollywood, movie studios were able to cover up almost all of their stars’ misbehavior, but within the Hollywood crowd, Jack Pickford’s behind-the scenes antics made him a legend in his own time. 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. 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. Both Pickford and Thomas were constantly traveling and had little time to spend together. For many years the Pickfords had intended to vacation together and with their marriage on the rocks, the couple decided to take a second honeymoon.
In August 1920 the pair headed for Paris, hoping to combine a vacation with some film preparations. On the night of September 5, 1920, the couple 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 Hôtel 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 ingested a large dose of mercury bichloride, which had been prescribed for Pickford’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 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.
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 he 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.
Pickford was seen as someone with great talent, though he rarely had ambition to use it. Some believe that if he had not been Mary Pickford’s brother, he would have aspired to be a great actor in his own right. However, he enjoyed partying and a dangerous lifestyle far too much to focus on his talents. He suffered from alcoholism, which ran in the family. When he would run out of money he would head over to Pickfair and find the alcohol Mary had secretly hidden. He was a drug user as well, though the extent of this is not known.
Pickford met actress and Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas at a beach cafe on the Santa Monica Pier. Thomas was just as wild as Pickford, possibly having an alcohol problem herself. Screenwriter Frances Marion remarked “…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 had no 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.”
After Thomas’s death in 1920, Pickford married two more times. In 1922 he married celebrated Broadway dancer and former Ziegfeld girl Marilyn Miller. By most accounts he was not kind to her and the marriage was an abusive one. Miller eventually sought a French divorce in 1927.
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 1932, 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 staircase, an inner voice spoke to her. “That’s the last time you’ll see Jack”, she remembered hearing it say.
Jack Pickford died in American Hospital of Paris on January 3, 1933. The cause for his death was listed as “progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centers”. Mary Pickford arranged for his body to be returned to Los Angeles, California, where he was interred in the private Pickford plot in Glendale, California’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Jack Pickford has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1523 Vine Street.