Never underestimate the drawing power of an old trouper named Mary.
Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart, the girl with the endless golden curls, had one last hurrah this past weekend. More than 1,000 items from her estate and her fairytale life with Douglas Fairbanks at Pickfair were put up for auction in a former Masonic temple. Auctioneer J. M. Goodman called the results "phenomenal."
"The bidding far exceeded our expectations. Doug and Mary had a great deal more appeal than any of us anticipated," said Goodman, who estimated that the auction -- 20-plus hours of it spread three days -- brought in between $300,000 and $400,000. "If America had a royal family, it was them.
If not America's very first silent-movie star, Pickford was certainly the greatest, perhaps the most popular worldwide celebrity in the history of the medium, someone whose personal appearances caused literal riots in cities everywhere. Her charming screen presence had such an appeal that by 1917 she was earning $350,000 per picture, and when she married swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, Alistair Cooke was later to write, it was "a-living proof of America's chronic belief in happy endings."
Yet her marriage with Fairbanks ended in divorce, and Pickford, who then married former costar Charles "Buddy" Rodgers, spent her very last years as a recluse, dying in 1979 at age 86.Her will stipulated that her estate, minus what Rodgers wanted, be auctioned off, the proceeds to go to the Mary Pickford Foundation, a charitable foundation.
Two hundred and thirty-nine people, including "Dallas'" Charlene Tilton and actress Jane Withers, paid $25 each for the privilege of bidding on the estate. "When I was a child growing up, she was the ideal of lovely feminine womanhood, someone refined whom you could emulate," said Dorothy Frieden, explaining why she'd drive two hours from the beach community of Dana Point for the chance to own something from Pickfair. "She was a lady. Her husband was a gentleman. It's just an ear that's gone.
Some bidders, however, found the reality of the goods much different from their expectations. Film historian Anthony Slide, who'd visited Pickfair, dryly noted the absence of things like "the Picassos that covered a whole wall, and a Napoleon and Josephine dining service that filled an entire floor-to-ceiling display case." And auctioneer Goodman admitted that "people have been coming up to me and saying, 'Boy, does this look bad. Mary Pickford lived like this? She should have lived like I live.'"
Yet once the bidding started, people forgot their reservations and bid an average of 20 percent over what Goodman had estimated. Among the items bringing the highest prices the first two days were a six-piece, 14-karat-gold-monogrammed vanity set ($3,750); a 17-century European sporting gun, which Rudolph Valentino had given Fairbanks ($2,000), and an elaborate Japanese fan doll made in Pickford's image ($1,100).
Many of the choicer items were saved for the final day. A Louis Vuitton upright desk steamer trunk brought $6,000, an oil painting of Pickford as a World War I nurse $4,000, a selection of riding clothes $1,700 and the size 4 wedding dress she married Fairbanks in, $1,200.
Not all the items were this special and less affluent bidders made do with such ephemeras as an award from the United States Potters Association, a porcelain carp and an old Argentine bola, among other goodies.
Noticeably absent from the auction was widower Buddy Rodgers. "My feelings are so strong, I couldn't go near the thing," he said earlier in the week. "After 45 years together, it's just too close to me."
Pickfair has now been sold to Los Angeles sports figure Jerry Buss -- some people are now calling it Busfare -- and Rodgers is building a small lodge on the property for himself "and all our treasures. We had a little pact before Mary left me for heaven that I wouldn't stay at Pickfair if Mary left before me. In this new house everything that was really close to us will be with me. Our marriage was like a fairly tale. I wanted it to be forever."