Thursday, June 1, 2023

HGB Ep. 489 - Pickfair

Moment in Oddity -  USS O'Bannon (Suggested by: Jared Rang)

There's an interesting Navy legend involving the USS O'Bannon which was a Fletcher-class destroyer. It was the Navy's most decorated ship of that class during WWII, having earned 17 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. The legend surrounding this ship involves a battle with a Japanese submarine. The event took place in April of 1943. The O'Bannon spotted the Japanese sub cruising on the ocean's surface. Initially the plan was to ram the sub, however the captain was uncertain if the submarine could be a mine layer which would have resulted in blowing up the USS O'Bannon. At the last minute the captain ordered the rudder swung hard to avoid collision. This caused the O'Bannon to align directly along side the sub, making it impossible for the destroyer's guns to hit the submarine. As it turned out, there were several Japanese on top of the sub appearing to have been sunbathing. Many different versions of this legend have the sailors then pelting the submarine with potatoes the Japanese undoubtedly believing the potatoes were hand grenades. The distraction gave the USS O'Bannon enough time to pull far enough away from the submarine so as to take aim and fire upon it. The sub was hit but still submerged, allowing the destroyer to sail over the top of it and deploy a depth charge assault. Of all the battles the USS O'Bannon participated in, employing a strategy of pulverizing a sub by pelting potatoes so proficiently as to gain the upper hand, certainly is odd.

This Month in History - The Eruption of Mount Pinatubo

In the month of June, on the 15th, in 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted. This was the second largest volcanic eruption of this century. A precursory 7.8 magnitude earthquake in July of 1990 added to the stressors in the earth's crust. Although the volcano had a short period of time with an increase of steam emissions after the earthquake, its 500 year old slumber appeared relatively undisturbed. However, by March and April of 1991, magma began rising towards the volcano's surface, causing several small earthquakes. Steam blasts created three small craters on the northern side as well. Sadly the surrounding communities were densely populated and the eruption was determined to be the largest on record to affect such an area. It was truly a cataclysmic event, ejecting more than one cubic mile of matter. The ash cloud rose 22 miles into the sky and a blanket of volcanic ash covered the surrounding areas. Some ash fell as far away as the Indian Ocean and satellites tracked the ash cloud several times around the earth. The eruption initially killed 350 souls however due to disease break outs in evacuation camps, the total loss was brought up to 722. The event left more than 200,000 people homeless. The impacts of Mount Pinatubo's eruption continue to this day.

Pickfair (Suggested by: Jennifer Almond)

The Pickfair estate was once one of the most lavish properties in Hollywood. This had been the home of old Hollywood stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and was previously a hunting lodge. Pickford would be the first to talk about haunting activity in her home starting in the 1930s. Stories would continue through the years until Pia Zadora bought the property and demolished the historic mansion, claiming that the paranormal activity was getting out of hand. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of Pickfair!

The Golden Age of Hollywood started around 1915 and this launched the Silent Era of film making. The Silent Era would last until 1929 and two of its biggest stars were Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Mary Pickford went from playing waifish young girls in silent movies to becoming one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. She was born in 1892 as Gladys Marie Smith in Toronto, Ontario. Her father worked odd jobs, but he had a hard time as he struggled with alcoholism. He eventually abandoned his family and died when Mary was seven-years-old. Her mother Charlotte took in boarders to make ends meet and one of those people was the theatrical stage manager for Cummings Stock Company. He hired Charlotte to play the organ and her daughters Mary and Lottie to act in a play called The Silver King. And the Smith family was off and running, touring the US by rail and performing in small theaters. This not only included Mary, her sister Lottie and mother Charlotte, but also brother Jack. Mary, who was still known as Gladys then, would finally land a Broadway play in 1907 and that is when she took on her stage name, Mary Pickford.

D.W. Griffith screen tested Mary and hired her for a part in the silent film "The Lonely Villa" in 1909. Mary was drawn to the big screen because it was simpler than stage acting. Pickford signed with the Biograph Company, Griffith's company, and landed more money than other actors they had signed, $10 a day with a guarantee of $40 a week. Pickford played all kinds of parts, both bit parts and leading roles. In her first year, she appeared in 51 films. Pickford moved onto Universal Pictures for awhile, but eventually went back to Biograph. Pickford was being referred to as "Blondilocks" or "The Girl with the Golden Curls." She was a star and famous by the 1920s and a silent-film journalist wrote of her, "The best known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history." Pickford starred in 52 feature films and managed to score a record-breaking salary. She was the first actress to sign a million-dollar contract. And she became "America's Sweetheart."

Not only was her star rising, but Pickford's power in Hollywood grew as well. In 1919, she formed the film production company United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Through the 1920s, her films each grossed over $1 million. She was flying high and then came...the talkies. Pickford won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her first talkie, Coquette, but it was downhill from there. There were many reasons that her star faded. She was taking on older characters and audiences just weren't interested and Mary cut off her famous ringlets and went for a bob. Pickford retired from acting in 1933. She was married three times. Her first husband was Owen Moore and they married in 1911. The marriage struggled with Moore's alcoholism and there were reports of domestic violence. They rarely lived together and divorced in 1920. This was after she had already started an affair with Douglas Fairbanks. 

We've visited the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and we saw Douglas Fairbanks burial. It's a large plot with a reflecting pool. He only lived to the age of 56. He was born as Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman in 1883 in Denver, Colorado. His father was pursuing mining interests in the Rocky Mountains and abandoned the family when Douglas was five-years-old. Douglas' mother decided to name him and his brother for her first husband who had died from tuberculosis, John Fairbanks. Just like Pickford, Fairbanks started acting at a young age and started in the theater. He quit school at 15 and traveled across the country with an acting troupe. In 1901, he settled in New York and got his first Broadway part. In 1907, he married the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Anna Beth Sully. The couple moved to Los Angeles and Fairbanks signed with Triangle Pictures and he began working with D.W. Griffith. That was in 1915, but by 1916 Fairbanks was ready to be on his own and he formed his own company named for himself. He then got signed with Paramount.

Pickford and Fairbanks met at a party in 1916 and were immediately drawn to each other. The two began an affair and traveled together to sell war bonds in 1917 with Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin and Pickford were the highest paid stars in Hollywood and Fairbanks was the most popular. They all made a force to be reckoned with and their formation of United Artists would solidify that fact. Sully granted Fairbanks a divorce in 1918, but as we mentioned earlier, Pickford wasn't divorced until 1920. Fairbanks would marry her twenty-six days after the divorce was granted. The press referred to the event as "Everybody's Hero" marrying "America's Sweetheart." They were Hollywood royalty and they would own their own noble manor, Pickfair. Clearly named for the both of them.

Fairbanks bought 18 acres in Beverly Hills that held a hunting lodge. This was a building designed by architect Horatio Cogswell for attorney Lee Allen Phillips of Berkeley Square. Lots of renovating needed to be done to transform the lodge into the couple's perfect mansion. They hired architect Wallace Neff and over the next four years he transformed the house into a mock Tudor 4-story, 25-room mansion and a swimming pool was added, which made this the first house in Los Angeles to have a pool. The property also had tennis courts, garages, stables, a large guest wing and servants quarters. The interior was decadent with mahogany and bleached pine lining the halls, frescos on the ceilings, mirrored decorative niches and parquet flooring. Larger windows were installed to let in as much light as possible. There was an underground running track so Fairbanks could run in the nude and there was also an Old West-style saloon, which would later hold a collection of 1907 Remington rifles. The couple filled the house with the finest furnishings - much of it antique 18th-century French and English period pieces - and high quality art with a vast collection of Chinese objects and art that Pickford and Fairbanks had collected on their many trips to Asia. A couple of pieces from that collection include a pair of fine Chinese carved rhinoceros tusks and a Thai damascene silver lotus form covered urn, which the King of Siam had given Pickford.

Life Magazine described Pickfair as "a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House... and much more fun." And everybody wanted to visit Pickfair. The 1920s were a grand time for Pickfair and for Pickford and Fairbanks. The mansion was the social center of Beverly Hills. The house hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Charles Chaplin, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, George Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, H.G. Wells, Lord Louis Mountbatten, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Crawford, Noël Coward, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, Pearl S. Buck, Charles Lindbergh, Max Reinhardt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Edison, Gloria Swanson, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Jack Dempsey, The King and Queen of Siam and the Crown Prince of Japan. Will Rogers even said in 1928, "My most important duty as mayor of Beverly Hills is directing people to Mary Pickford’s house." 

The glamour wouldn't last as the couple's marriage unraveled. Fairbanks and Pickford divorced in January 1936. Accounts we read claimed that Fairbanks continued to live in the house until his death in 1939 and that the couple just lived in separate wings. Fairbanks would remain the love of Pickford's life, but she found companionship again with actor and musician Charles "Buddy" Rogers whom she married in 1937. It seems hard to believe that he would be okay with the ex-husband living in the same house. Buddy and Mary remained married until Pickford's death in 1979 and they resided at Pickfair until her death as well. During that time they held parties and fundraisers for charitable organizations, including an annual Christmas party for blind war veterans. The public got a rare peek inside the mansion during the 48th Academy Awards in 1976 when Pickford was given a second Academy Award for her contribution to American film, which was presented to her in the formal living room of Pickfair. There are accounts that claim Pickford became a recluse towards the end of her life and that she had become an alcoholic like her father. After Pickford passed, Buddy Rogers moved out of PickFair. He had such a fondness for the place though that he built a new home that was a smaller scale version of PickFair.

The property sat empty for several years until businessman and owner of the LA Lakers Jerry Buss bought it in 1980. Buss' daughter recalled when she and her father toured the house, Pickford's Oscar was still sitting there. Singer Pia Zadora bought it in 1988 and in 1990 decided to demolish the historic home. There was huge public backlash and Zadora claimed that there was just too much termite damage to restore the home. Later, however, Zadora claimed that the house had been beautiful and perfect when she moved in, but then weird things started happening. Her family experienced terrifying paranormal experiences, so she and her husband agreed that they should tear down the house and rebuild. UNICOM Global, an IT company bought the rebuilt Pickfair Estate in 2005. This new house is a Venetian styled mansion with an indoor spa, theater, gym, lavish master suite and several bedrooms. The company uses it as an executive meeting center. Parts of the original Pickfair still are part of the newer construction. The original gates are there along with the servants' quarters and the living room, which are part of the north wing. The guesthouse and the pool are still there.

Mary Pickford described many unexplained experiences in the house. These started as loud noises coming from the attic. Pickford claimed it sounded like somebody tramping around very heavily above her bed. She was a heavy sleeper, but these noises never failed to awaken her. Mary even told a newspaper columnist about a conversation she had with the spirit in her house. She said, "I sat up in bed and addressed myself to the ghost, 'I wouldn't treat you this way. It isn't ladylike. I don't expect to be treated in this manner.' The noises ceased." The cook for the couple also claimed to have experiences. Pickford said, "One day our cook, a practical, unemotional Swedish woman, ran out of the kitchen in terror, brandishing a knife, she declared she was being pursued by a strange, dark woman whom she had seen in the kitchen." 

A friend and house guest of Pickford's seemed to have seen this same ghost. The guest said, "I just saw a strange, tall dark woman in the hallway up there. She was looking at the alcove. Her eyes wandered about in a puzzled way as she looked from side to side, as if to say-something has changed here. At first, I thought she was Theresa, your maid; then I saw she was a stranger. I went to speak to her. She vanished." Now while Pickford believed the home was haunted, Douglas Fairbanks didn't and he figured there was some kind of explanation behind the stories. He maintained that he didn't believe in ghosts at all. Although he too heard the mysterious noises coming from the floor above them.

So Pia Zadora bought Pickfair and fairly quickly she realized that the house had ghosts. She appeared on Celebrity Ghost Stories in 2012 and explained that she had put her kids to bed and then went to sleep and had just drifted off when she heard a blood-curdling scream. She recognized it as her daughter and then her daughter came running into the room. She told Pia that she had seen what she thought was a ghost. She described a tall whitish woman above her bed when she woke up. The woman was wearing a white gown and looking at her and laughing. Pia didn't know what to do. She hadn't noticed anything about the house, so she thought her daughter was just having nightmares. Pia took her daughter to a therapist who said that her daughter seemed fine, but may be having a little bit of trouble with adjusting to moving to a new house. Pia said, "Years ago my husband and I tore down one of the most iconic Hollywood mansions because of termites … but that wasn’t the real reason. When we moved into the house it was beautiful, everything was perfect, it was a dream … but weird things started to happen … so my husband and I, after trying to figure out what to do, decided we were going to have the house razed." She continued, "If I had a choice, I never would have torn down this old home. I loved this home, it had a history, it had a very important sense about it and you can deal with termites, and you can deal with plumbing issues, but you can’t deal with the supernatural."
A fun story about Fairbanks and the house: One day he was driving home when he spotted an aristocratic Englishman with a familiar face walking along the road. He stopped to give the man a ride and the man accepted. Fairbanks was sure he recognized the man, but he couldn't place the name, so he invited him to Pickfair for a drink. The stranger accepted that as well. The two men drank while Fairbanks peppered him with questions trying to figure out why he knew him. This Englishman even seemed to know Pickfair intimately. Fairbanks wondered if he had been to a party there or something. Fairbank's secretary joined the two men in the room and Fairbanks whispered to him, "Who’s this Englishman? I know he’s Lord Somebody, but I just can’t remember his name?" The secretary replied, "That is the English butler you fired last month for getting drunk."

Pickfair is not like it had been during its Hollywood glory days. That old piece of history is gone. Nobody at UNICOM Global has claimed to have a haunting experience, but that doesn't mean that spirits don't still remain. Is Pickfair haunted? That is for you to decide!

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