IN A RARE COMMENT on an issue of the times, Mary Pickford said recently: "I don't go along with the women's liberation movement. Not at all. I don't see why women aren't happy just being feminine. Let the men take care of things." It was a characteristically disarming remark from the shrewd and charming woman who made her art and fortune in a life that was the female version of the Horatio Alger story, precisely by never letting the men take care of things. The day in 1914 when Adolph Zukor first lit up her name on a marquee was the day she chose to touch him for a raise: "I must have beamed unashamedly at the prospect of $1,000 a week." Not even the biggest men in Hollywood took care of things for Miss Pickford: "Nobody ever directed me, not even Mr. [D. W.] Griffith. I respected him, yes. But when he told me to do things I didn't believe in, I wouldn't do them."
That was in 1909, at the age of 16 when she, Gladys Smith from Canada, entered what her family called "picture work." In a way she remained age 16 throughout her professional life, until she retired after "Secrets" in 1933; and 16 was the only age the country wanted her to be. Not for nothing was she called "America's Sweetheart," a high and holy designation in a country built on romance. Neither Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow nor any of a dozen other glamorous, overtly sexy stars was ever considered the national "sweetheart." Nor did they come close to the deep, frantic public adoration achieved by the good, sweet, spunky, curly-headed heroine who was so perfectly "Pollyannna," "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," "Poor Little Rick Girl" and, most especially, "My Best Girl" to a nation that, like Miss Pickford, sought to remain young as long as possible. Even in very old age, Miss Pickford knew how to preserve her illusion, living as a recluse in the enchanted, nutty mansion, Pickfair, sending messages to guests on tape.
For a woman who espoused dependent femininity, she controlled her life fairly well. She once planned to destroy all the films she made that she owned personally because she simply did not wish to be compared with modern actresses. She knew the proper lighting she wanted. She knew the parts she wanted. She knew when to quit. Most of all she knew what America wanted in a woman - a sweetheart making millions.