Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Douglas Fairbanks Jnr: A life more thrilling than any film
It's exactly 100 years today since the birth of the great actor Douglas Fairbanks jnr. Below is my Daily Express piece on Fairbanks's incredibly eventful life.
While above, you're in for a real treat. A clip from the Dick Cavett Show from June 1970, where Fairbanks, his usual debonair, very well-mannered self, appears alongside Janis Joplin and Raquel Welch. What a trio of guests! And what interesting conversation. They don't make chat shows like that anymore.
Sadly Joplin died less than three months after the show was recorded, at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose. What a huge loss.
DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS JNR: A LIFE MORE THRILLING THAN ANY FILM
HE was not only one of the most famous Hollywood stars of the golden era but a war hero who received the highest awards for bravery and a man who counted the Royal Family among his many friends.
A man famed for his debonair manner and good looks, he had affairs with the most beautiful women of the day and was involved in one of the most sensational divorce trials of all time.
Given his family background, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr – who was born 100 years ago this week – was always going to be a film star.
His father Douglas Fairbanks Snr was the first great icon of the movie age and was known as the The King of Hollywood. His stepmother Mary Pickford, “America’s sweetheart”, was the most famous female silent movie star of all time.
However, having such well-known parents did not guarantee happiness for the young Fairbanks and his relationship with his father was not a close one. “He was very undemonstrative,” Fairbanks later recalled. “There was no outright unpleasantness between [us] but there was no great warmth either.”
Fairbanks was keen to escape from his father’s shadow. “I was determined to be my own man,” he wrote. He did however admit that having such a famous surname was no disadvantage.
Born on December 9, 1909, Fairbanks made his film debut at the age of 13 (in Stephen Steps Out) and by the time he was 19 he was already receiving star billing (The Forward Pass). It was also in 1929 that the youthful heart-throb married the first of his three wives, actress Joan Crawford.
On their honeymoon to England Fairbanks got his first taste of British high society as the couple were entertained by Prince George, Duke of Kent, the brother of future Kings Edward VIII and George VI.
Fairbanks’s marriage to Crawford was not a success – she had an affair with actor Clark Gable – but despite their divorce in 1933 Fairbanks bore no grudges.
By the mid-Thirties, Fairbanks was established as one of Hollywood’s leading stars, appearing in films such as Catherine The Great (1934) and The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937).
He then became great friends with British actor David Niven, another keen ladies’ man. In his biography of Niven, Graham Lord describes the time when Niven and Fairbanks met a couple of prostitutes in London’s West End during the blackout.
Niven suggested taking the girls back to his flat, where they paid them £5 each, but the girls recognised the two film stars as soon as the lights were switched on. “I have never before or since seen Niv at a loss,” Fairbanks later recalled. “But we shared a silly, embarrassed grin.”
Among Fairbanks’s lovers was actress Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich was famously promiscuous and on one occasion Fairbanks was leaving her suite at Claridge’s in the early hours when he passed another of Dietrich’s lovers on the way up. “I know where you’ve been,” said the other man accusingly, to which Fairbanks replied: “Yes but don’t tell Marlene!”
But there was more to Fairbanks than films and women as he proved during the Second World War. Fairbanks became a US Navy officer and was assigned to Lord Mountbatten’s commando staff in Britain. His involvement included taking part in the US landings in southern France and sailing on the Arctic convoys, used to bring supplies to the Soviet Union.
For his exploits Fairbanks received the Silver Star Medal and Legion of Merit from the US, the Légion d’honneur and Croix de Guerre with Palm from France and a Distinguished Service Cross from Britain.
After the war, Fairbanks spent much of his time in Britain. He received an honorary knighthood in 1947 from George VI for “furthering Anglo-American amity” and became good friends with the Queen and Prince Philip. He and his second wife Mary Lee Eppling, whom he married in 1939 and with whom he had three daughters, were famous society hosts. It was during his time in Britain that Fairbanks became involved in one of the most sensational divorce trials of all time.
In 1963 the Duke of Argyll brought a divorce case against his wife Margaret for infidelity. Among the evidence produced at the trial were photographs of the Duchess performing oral sex on an unidentified man.
There was enormous speculation as to who the “Headless Man” might be and the Duke produced a list of 88 men he believed had enjoyed his wife’s favours. The list was then whittled down to five, one of whom was Fairbanks.
Judge Lord Denning was hired by the government to identify the “Headless Man” and it was claimed that writing on the reverse of the photo belonged to Fairbanks, though no announcement to this effect was ever made. Fairbanks always denied his involvement, but a Channel 4 documentary made after his death claimed that there were actually two different ‘Headless Men’ featured in the photographs- Fairbanks, and Cabinet minister Duncan Sandys, the son-in-law of Winston Churchill.
Fairbanks returned to films at the age of 71 in the 1981 with Ghost Story. His wife Mary Lee died in 1988 and three years later at the age of 81 Fairbanks married again, this time to Vera Lee Shelton.
Fairbanks died, after a heart attack, at the age of 90 in May 2000.
Film star, lover, war hero and debonair man about town, there’s no denying Fairbanks lived life to the full. “I’ve led an enormously lucky life,” he reflected in 1989.
“I’ve done what I wanted to do. I worked hard and played hard and it was all tremendously rewarding. I just wish it could go on and on and on.”