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partying with mary pickford's brother

By John G. Sayers (jasayers[at]saybuck.com)

When the only way to cross the Atlantic was by ship, menus for private parties and for special events like Farewell Dinners could be an insight to the rich and famous - or infamous.

The tiny 6-inch by 4 ˝ inch menu fully opened (the menu cover is only half those dimensions!) is illustrated above was purchased by me initially because it was from the RMS Imperator, a large German passenger ship that was seized and allocated to Britain under First War Reparations and sailed for Cunard under her original name for only about a year, before she was renamed as the RMS Berengaria. As an Ocean Liner collector, I like to see slices of the careers of each liner and the Cunard Inperator period was a thin slice indeed.

Then I noticed the name 'Jack Pickford'. A bit of Internet research confirmed that he was the brother of the famous actress Mary Pickford, and reportedly had a reputation for wild and dissolute living. In 1920 he went to France, and now we know how he got there! En route, on August 18th, he celebrated his birthday.

Mary Pickford was the darling of the Silent Film era. Her brother had a number of smaller film roles, but was never a real success. Some of the signatures of people attending this private shipboard birthday party include silent film star Norma Talmadge and silent film actor George Burton as well as Joseph N. Schenk, who was a business associate of Mary Pickford. It was the Norma Talmadge name that originally jumped out at me.

This was Jack Pickford's 24th birthday. We can see the customized menu, but we can't guess at the amount of alcohol that might have been consumed. Clearly this would have been 'quite the party' - particularly when one recalls that this was during the era of Prohibition in the U.S.A. and alcohol was not readily available.

The menu looks modest, but it was no doubt Jack's own choice of menu items. There may have been other influences such as limitations to the kitchen facilities, since Imperator had been used as an American troopship as recently as the year earlier, after having been laid up in Hamburg since 1914. In 1920 she was only on lease to Cunard from the British government which had received her as War Reparations. She wasn't refitted by Cunard until just over a year later, after she had actually been purchased by Cunard.

Back to Jack Pickford. With reported ongoing financial support from his film star sister, he continued his lifestyle. His first wife, Ziegfeld showgirl Olive Thomas, had her own busy career, and the two had planned to have a second honeymoon together in Paris in August, 1920. However, Olive Thomas' signature of good wishes is not on this menu. Does this mean that they were totally estranged by this stage? And in early September, at the Ritz in Paris, Olive Thomas overdosed and died. A police investigation ruled the death to have been accidental. Hmmmm…?

Jack Pickford died in Paris in early January, 1933 and so had only 12 more birthdays before allegedly succumbing to the ravages of drink, drugs and syphilis. But we have had the opportunity to be with him and his friends for a brief moment, thanks to the wonders of ephemera.



This regular feature shows special items from members’ own collections. Submissions by email should include a scan of the item.