Peggy Dymond Leavey had never seen a Mary Pickford movie when she was approached by Dundurn Press to write a biography of a Canadian woman for their Quest Biography series. The publisher gave her a list of suggested names, and Pickford stood out, partly because Leavey had an interest in the history of motion pictures. She gave herself a crash course on Mary, and the result is Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart
, a highly readable biography, with sharp detail and deep compassion for its subject.
Peggy was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her whirlwind trip through Mary's world:
Q. How did you approach the research for the book?
A. I concentrated on reading as many biographies of Mary Pickford as I could, and using the bibliographies, I found other books to read. Mary's autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow
, was especially helpful, as was being able to hear her radio interviews through the CBC Digital Archives. The website of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education provided a wonderful source of information, filmography, and pictures. (I wish the Mary Pickford Foundation would restore the funding and let the MPI continue their work of preserving Mary's film legacy.)
Q. Was there anything you learned about Pickford that surprised you or that you found especially fascinating?
A. I was stunned by the scope of her fame, how wildly popular she became. She and Charlie Chaplin were the first worldwide celebrities. She couldn't go anywhere without being mobbed by frenzied fans.
Q. Did the process of researching and writing the book change the way you felt about her?
A. I didn't expect to like her as well as I did. But the more I learned about her life, the more I felt as if I knew her. She was a woman I could understand. I believe that inside this powerful personality was a frightened little girl.
After the death of her father when she was only six, she was terrified of losing her mother. She also feared the breakup of her family and did everything she could to keep the four of them together, even vowing to become the “father” of the family herself.
Although Mary was making more money than anyone in Hollywood, she was afraid it wouldn't last. She was haunted by her early poverty. Then too, she feared the loss of her fans if she divorced and married Douglas Fairbanks. And ultimately, she feared the loss of youth and beauty. However she appeared on the outside — shrewd businesswoman, fiercely independent — I think she was very insecure. I believe this may have contributed to the alcoholism. She found safety inside the walls of Pickfair and hid herself away there during the final years of her life.
Q. What kinds of roles do you think Mary would have done if she had kept working, like her long-time friend Lillian Gish?
A. That's an interesting question, one I've never asked myself.
Humor was an important element in Mary's films. She was in her sixties and long retired when she remarked that perhaps what was missing in films nowadays (the 1950s) was humor. So, I would imagine her choosing roles that allowed her to make the audience laugh. I also think she would look for meaningful roles, ones that showed women as important members of society, and I'm sure she'd continue to champion of the underdog.
In her last film, Secrets
, with Leslie Howard, her character ages from a young woman to an elderly lady, and Mary is quite believable in the part. She could have gone on, but she chose to retire.
Q. Are you planning to write any more books about film subjects?
A. I've been doing some preliminary research into the life of one of Canada's pioneers of early film, a man who began his career as a title artist in the 1920s. Later he moved to New York and the Astoria Studios, then returned to Canada to head the production department at Associated Screen News. It's too soon to say where this will go.
Q. Do you have a favorite Pickford film? And if so, what do you like about it?
A. My favourite is one of Mary's Biograph one-reelers, The New York Hat
, made in 1912. I find her acting in it so natural. This could be because she's playing a character who is the same age as she was at the time. Mary has such a wonderfully expressive face; she lights up the screen. There's nothing overdone in this film, and Mary is totally believable.
Q. I noticed that your eleven-year-old granddaughter helped you to create a collage of Pickford photos for your blog. Has she watched any of her films? If so, what did she think?
A. My granddaughter, Zoë, saw The New York Hat
at the launch of Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart
. She told me it was “cool,” and she remarked on how different movies were back then from what she sees on the screen today. In her opinion, Mary Pickford was “an amazing actress,” one who didn't have to use words to be able to “wow” an audience.
There you go: out of the mouths of babes! Here's one young girl who says she'd be thrilled to see more of Mary's silent pictures.
Peggy Dymond Leavey is a retired librarian and the author of several books. She has been shortlisted for the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice award, the Arthur Ellis Award and the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award. You can learn more about Peggy at her website
and her blog