“Things didn’t work out that much, you know. But I’ll never forget her. I think that she was a good woman.” Ron Pickford Rogers, Mary Pickford and Buddy Roger’s adopted son, who later became homeless.
THE PICKFORD FAMILY portrait, probably taken in 1945, was most likely Mary Pickford’s and Buddy Roger’s first official photo with their two adopted children, baby Roxanne and six-year-old Ronald “Ronnie” Charles Rogers, who had only been adopted a year earlier. Standing next to his instant infant sister and new mother and father, it is hard to imagine what Ronnie is thinking. After all, the two children had joined one of America’s most famous households.
In fact, when Pickford and Rogers confirmed their engagement in November of 1936, the headline, “Buddy Rogers to Marry Mary Pickford,” actually dwarfed another headline that 150 women and children had been killed by a bomb in Madrid, casualties of the Spanish Civil War.
Roxanne and Ron came into a marriage that was not only well established, the couple’s wealth and standing in Hollywood was beyond doubt — Pickford was the Queen of Hollywood, and Rogers her prince. They met on the set of Roger’s first film, My Best Girl in 1927, in which Pickford played the lead role.
The photo was most likely taken at “Pickfair,” one of the country’s most famous residences, and originally Mary Pickford’s home with her first husband, actor Douglas Fairbanks.
Pickford, still very youthful looking at 52, beams confidence and for good reason. By that point she had achieved more than any other woman in the film business, appearing in over 200 films, starring in 50 of them; a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; and one of just four founders of United Artists, with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths, and Douglas Fairbanks. In fact, she even headed the studio’s production unit.
Not only was she worth millions, but Mary Pickford had been extraordinarily wealthy for decades. In fact, in 1918, when Pickford filed her income tax return in person (as it was evidently done in those days), she arrived with her lawyer. Her six figure earnings startled the cashier, as did her tax payment. I am sure it was a day he never forgot.
Mary Pickford, originally born Gladys Marie Smith on April 8, 1892 in Toronto, Canada, began her stage career at just five-years-old, alongside her entire family: mother Charlotte Hennessy, sister Lottie, and brother Jack Pickford. Together they crisscrossed America, along with the hundreds of traveling theatre troupes that were common at the turn of the last century, and survived until the ‘moving picture’ business transformed audiences’ tastes. Many of the grand theatres they had performed in, including ones owned by my great uncle Louis B. Mayer in Haverhill, Massachusetts (near Boston) were renovated into cinema palaces.
Just five feet tall in stockings, Pickford joined the motion picture business in its infancy and became so popular with audiences she was known as “America’s Sweetheart.” Her sweet face, long curly hair and slight figure became the nation’s young feminine ideal.
Paradoxically, Mary Pickford’s fame did not transfer to the ‘talkies’. Instead of fading into obscurity, though, she somehow made the leap from star to star-maker. There would be no other women with her status in the business end of Hollywood for at least 40-45 years.
Buddy Rogers, twelve years her junior, was originally from the small hamlet of Olathe, Kansas where his father was a probate judge and the family ran a 160-acre farm. Rogers was a talented musician and much-loved actor; thanks to his standard good looks and his film roles he had been dubbed “America’s boyfriend.”
Yet, it was Rogers’ later career as a band leader of Hollywood orchestras, and then his marriage to Pickford that brought him the greatest recognition. When he brought his bride-to-be to meet the family in Kansas, she caused the kind of sensation that can only occur when a mega star, known to generations, steps out of the screen and into real life.
Here is a news report from the day about her visit, one of the biggest events in the region’s history:
“Kansas City was quick to learn of what was amiss and contributed a long stream of autos to the crowds of visitors who poured into Olathe all day. Many of them recognized the actress at Union Station and followed the Rogers’ auto. At the Methodist Church, Miss Pickford sat in a rear pew and heard BH, one of the three Rogers boys, sing in the choir. She was moved to tears by Rev. Eugene M. Frank’s Mother’s Day sermon and she accommodated practically the whole congregation that lined up outside after the services to shake her hand.
In the Rogers’ parlor, she arose to greet the constant stream of old and not so old friends of the Rogers who called. Judge Rogers took her to town to show her the courthouse and she stopped in the streets to sign autograph books. Later she went out to the Rogers’ 160-acre farm, where BH, the manager, showed her the wheat, corn and oat crops, newly planted, and the six new calves, a horse, mule and chickens.
Miss Pickford remarked that she had gathered eggs in her time and that the farm was ‘lovely’. She stopped in the chicken house to sign her autograph for Mrs. Sally Hiatt, who had followed her from Kansas City and pursued her to the farm.
It was a big day for Judge Rogers. ‘Yes sir, she shook hands with every single member of the congregation at church, and a lot of others. She never missed a one and she had something to say to everyone, too.’”
Their marriage was Rogers’ first and Pickford’s third. Much was made of her refusal during their wedding to say “obey.” Instead, according to a report from the time, “In a low voice she said she would ‘love, honor and cherish until death do us part.’” The bride wore blue and their wedding — a small affair with just 17 of their closest friends and family — was held in the garden of Louis Lighton, whose wife was her matron of honor. The church choir-singing B.H. Rogers was his brother’s best man.
Every angle of the event was covered in incredible depth by the newspapers, knowing that their readership was hungry for every last detail:
“When Mary Pickford became Mrs. Buddy Rogers today, she was wearing a sky blue crepe gown and dregs-of-wine shade accessories. The dress had a tubular skirt, a high waistline accentuated by front shirrings, short sleeves, empire length jacket. The sleeves of the jacket repeated the shirring motif of the skirt.
Her ‘going away’ gown was of sapphire and rust, threads of these colors running through the material. With it she wore a little turned-brimmed felt hat stitched in blue and rust leather. Gloves and shoes were of rust-shade suede.
Included in her trousseau also was the ice blue romaine crepe gown she had intended to be married in. A small veiled flared brim hat accompanied it. She also has a hunter’s green cable net evening gown with a coque feather bolero jacket. To wear with her collection of rubies, Mrs. Rogers has a white chiffon evening gown of simple lines, to be augmented by a white chiffon cape.
Two day-time ensembles include a mist grey crepe, to be worn with an all-plaited chiffon coat, and a wine and white print crepe to be worn under an all-tuck chiffon coat. Included among her 30-odd honeymoon outfits was a red, green and white evening gown with a crisp print bolero jacket.”
Journalists covering the news couldn’t resist mentioning ex-husband Fairbanks or their grand home, Pickfair, which was reportedly for sale, valued at $500,000, a staggering sum at the time. Most reports also mentioned her first husband, Irish-born actor Owen Moore, who Pickford had married in 1911. Their divorce was finalized in 1920 and almost immediately afterward Pickford married Fairbanks.
No one could say that Mary Pickford had picked Buddy Rogers to type. He was night and day to her previous husbands, especially the dashing Douglas Fairbanks, who was very much a scion of Hollywood’s establishment, and also had a penchant for multiple marriages.
Unfortunately for their relationship, as their movie careers foundered Fairbanks became notoriously restless, repeatedly traveling overseas, with or without his wife.
The Pickford/Fairbanks relationship, spanning nearly 20 years, was an indelible part of a rising fandom in America centering around Hollywood’s star factory. The couple were the first to be called “Hollywood Royalty.” Their every move was reported alongside major national and world events. Even their marriage was dubbed “perfect.”
Their castle, christened “Pickfair” by the newspapers, was a mansion high up in San Ysidro Canyon, and was finessed into every article about the couple. And yet no marital home, no matter how hallowed or magical, can save a marriage — the couple separated in the early 1930s. A potential reunion and a “secret meeting” to patch up their marriage was covered as front page news. But it was not to be and when her divorce proceedings were heard in court, Mary Pickford claimed “mental cruelty.”
Fairbanks was overseas with his new lover, the former Lady Ashley, and had his own court troubles: Sylvia Ashley’s husband, Lord Ashley, named Fairbanks as co-respondent in a civil suit charging them both with infidelity. Still, they married, but it would last three years.
Fairbanks never lived in Pickfair again, and despite its perennial association with the previous marriage, it became a family home to Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers, and later to Ron and Roxanne.
Around 1940, Pickford became a dear friend of my great-grandmother Ida Mayer Cummings, and through her became one of the greatest supporters of Los Angeles’ Jewish Home for the Aged, a cause Ida was devoted to for decades.
The family legend, and perhaps known by others, was that Mary Pickford was an anti-Semite, which was fairly common at the time. As the story goes, Ida transformed her views by appealing to her generally warm-hearted and fair nature. In her role as a primary JHA benefactor, Pickford went to endless luncheons and gala events, and raised hundreds of thousands toward a new wing. She strategized behind the scenes with Louis B. Mayer, who by then she had known for decades.
Our family’s photo collection contains several of Mary Pickford, and in all of them she is impeccably dressed — almost regal.
Sadly, like many in her family before her, including her brother, Pickford slipped into alcoholism. Pickfair went from opulent mansion to the island of her self-imposed exile. In the last ten years of her life, she became a recluse and rarely left her bedroom, much less her home.
In 1976, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized her with a special Oscar “in recognition of her unique contribution to the film industry.” She did not attend the ceremony in person but instead appeared briefly during the telecast. But even this fleeting glance of a woman who had once been America’s Sweetheart was enough to cause an out-pouring of affection from the public. Pickford reportedly received hundreds of letters from around America and the world. She was evidently stunned and delighted at the reaction, but it didn’t bring her out of seclusion.
Three years later, in 1979 at age 86, she died of a stroke. At her death, Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers had been married 42 years.
Rogers later sold Pickfair to Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, who sold it to entertainer Pia Zadora and her husband. The couple demolished it and constructed a new home on the site. There was a huge outcry about the destruction of such an historical property, but Zadora claimed it had been left in great disrepair and was riddled with termites.
Buddy Rogers died in 1999 at age 94. He was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1986.
As for Ron and Roxanne, sadly the family portrait belies the truth. Though they had the trappings of a dream life, the reality was entirely different.
Pickfair was a grand house but never a home.
As Ron and Roxanne grew up, perhaps their cuteness and novelty wore off, or Pickford’s alcoholism became more of an issue, but her relationship with her children has been described as “tense” and “turbulent.” She criticized them for their physical imperfections: Ronnie for his short stature and Roxanne for her crooked teeth, among other things. Certainly, she was too self-absorbed to be maternal and perhaps Buddy Rogers was overwhelmed and also detached.
Both Ron and Roxanne married in their late teens and drifted into odd jobs. Evidently, Pickford couldn’t stand Roxanne’s husband; they would have one daughter together. In a PBS American Experience documentary about her famous mother, Roxanne appears haggard. She died in her 50s from osteoporosis.
Ron fared no better. His suicide attempt in 1958 was widely reported. Despite being the son of one of America’s wealthiest women, Ron’s occupation is noted by the papers as a machinist. According to one of his chidlren, who contacted me out of the blue, Ron became involved in drug running for a bikie gang, and did hard time in a federal prison. He died a toothless drifter, never reuniting with his own family.
The odd thing about parents — adopted or otherwise — flawed as they can be, is that children are hardwired to forgive.
When remembering his adopted mother Mary Pickford, her adopted son is gracious:
“Things didn’t work out that much, you know. But I’ll never forget her. I think that she was a good woman.”
Official photographs are a world unto themselves – everyone smiles, everyone looks hopeful. ♛