Over the next few days I will be sharing more of Mary Pickford’s letters to my great-grandmother Ida Mayer Cummings as they are all remarkable individually, but as a collection also speak to a deep and interesting friendship between the two women that spanned at least two decades.
The family story goes that it was Ida who cured Mary of anti-Semitism, but whether true or not, at the time of writing this letter, Pickford was by now a dedicated philanthropist and activist. She and Ida had teamed together to support the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aged (JHA), and their fundraising events were attended by the who’s who of Hollywood, and other notable and influential Americans. They were both politically active, as was Ida’s younger brother, M-G-M studio mogul, Louis B. Mayer, and his secretary (really right hand woman), Ida Koverman.
This letter is written just two and a half weeks before the 1940 presidential election, which was playing out under the shadow of World War II in Europe, so it has an intense sense of urgency. Mary Pickford is clearly making a final push in the campaigning on behalf of the Republican candidate, lawyer Wendell Willkie, who was up against Franklin D. Roosevelt, the incumbent seeking an unprecedented third term as president.
I do also have a scan of the speech “written by a Jewish man,” which Pickford refers to, but unfortunately she does not state who wrote it. Mary writes to Ida, “…because I have such a love for your people I am sending [the speech] to you,” and urges her to make copies of it and send it to her friends, which I am assuming is exactly what she did. The speech is certainly compelling and strident, and makes for an interesting read, but I’ll need to type it out so I can also share it in full.
Of course, by October 1940, everyone knew the stakes were very high – Hitler and his Nazis had to be stopped – but Americans were deeply divided about entering the war. Willkie wanted the U.S. to join the fight, whereas Roosevelt promised there would be no involvement in foreign wars if he was re-elected.
Added to this, the U.S. was still recovering from the Great Depression and many had criticized Roosevelt for not doing enough throughout his first and second terms. In the midst of this tension, and horrific daily headlines, Mary Pickford writes:
“I think there is a very real danger in segregating any religious or racial group… To me one of the most despicable of the things Mr. Roosevelt has done in his long list of transgressions is that he has pot shotted the Jewish race, the under privileged, the unemployed, and the colored race and has created this terrific class hatred and class distinctions. The old addage about the house being divided is only too true in this instance, but we are divided not once but dozens and dozens of times.”
She goes on to state that her attorney, Herbert Maass, who was Jewish, “and many of the intelligent Jewish people are definitely for Willkie but, unfortunately, the great masses, like the sweat shop workers in New York, are being ruthlessly used to further Roosevelt’s mad ambition…”
It’s a powerful letter and full of emotion and a tremendous sense of urgency. Of course, as we know, FDR would be returned for that controversial third term, but even he had admiration for Willkie saying, “I’m happy I’ve won, but I’m sorry Wendell lost.” Evidently, so were many Americans, as Willkie received over 100,000 letters commiserating his defeat.
President Roosevelt later asked Willkie to become an informal envoy to Britain, which he accepted. In 1942 he also visited the USSR on behalf of the president and made a “Report to the People”, telling Americans about his trip in a radio speech heard by an audience of nearly 36 million. His book, One World, increased public support for the notion that the United States should remain active internationally after the war, and not withdraw into a new isolationism.
Wendell Willkie, essentially a ‘liberal Republican,’ struggled for support within his own party, attempted another shot at the presidency but was not successful in gaining the nomination.
Willkie also took up several important causes, including civil rights, even going on national radio in order to criticize both parties for ignoring racial issues. When he was made chairman of the board of Twentieth-Century Fox he worked with Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, to try to convince Hollywood to give black actors better treatment in films.
Changes were promised, and some films featured black actors in major roles, but faced with objections from white Southerners, the studios reverted to giving blacks stereotyped roles after Willkie’s death in 1944. Nevertheless, his influence was such that the NAACP named its headquarters the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building.
Mary Pickford, with her tremendous reach, and no doubt supported by my great-uncle Louis B. Mayer, other studio moguls and Republican stars, did what she could to help Willkie’s campaign, including numerous radio interviews. This letter reveals what she was also doing behind the scenes, working as many relevant angles as she could.
Mary Pickford believed America could do better and she did something about it. I can only imagine how deeply disappointed she must have been when Willkie lost and Roosevelt was returned to the White House.
In terms of his legacy, Willkie’s biographer Steve Neal wrote:
“Though he never became President, he had won something much more important, a lasting place in American history. ‘He was a born leader,’ wrote historian Allan Nevins, ‘and he stepped to leadership at just the moment when the world needed him.’
Shortly before his death, Willkie told a friend, ‘If I could write my own epitaph and if I had to choose between saying, ‘Here lies an unimportant President’, or, ‘Here lies one who contributed to saving freedom at a moment of great peril’, I would prefer the latter.'”
I don’t know about you but reading this letter has raised my already very high opinion of Mary Pickford and now I must read Steve Neal’s biography, Dark Horse: A Biography of Wendell Willkie.
*Thanks to Hubert Blair Bonds, Jr. for finding this image.