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For sale: Pickfair -- and a couple of legends

Pickfair, the house that Douglas Fairbanks Sr. presented to Mary Pickford as a wedding gift back in 1920, has been placed on the market for $10 million. Crosstown, the same week, for a mere $6.7 million Francis Ford Coppola bought Hollywood General Studios, where Mary Pickford once starred in her very glamorous day.

In the Beverly Hills of 1920 only one house stood between Pickfair and the Pacific Ocean, seven miles away. Doug Fairbanks liked to make the ride on his horse. When Mary Pickford arrived in Hollywood to work for D. W. Griffith ten years before, she picked wild flowers at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

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On this last western frontier, springing up like a stage set itself when the movie industry took over, Pickfair was the fairy-tale castle, just as certainly as Mary Pickford was its princess.

In 1920, before the camera, she played a 10-year-old orphan in "Pollyanna," while in real life -- or almost-real life -- she presided over an even more fantastic entertainment at Pickfair. There were 14 live-in servants, and at formal dinners a footman stood behind every chair. The guests ate off solid gold plates. And what guests! The Crown Prince of Japan, Babe Ruth, Lindbergh, Lord and Lady Mountbatten -- the fabled names of the '20s.

At times the 45-room Pickfair was not large enough to accommodate all the guests and their servants. Then they were quartered with Mary's next-door neighbor, Charlie Chaplin.

For somebody born Gladys Smith who had worked from the age of five (after her father died), Pickfair was a happy ending beyond even the unabashed imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters.

Then things changed. Mary was 32 when she played "Little Annie Rooney," but finally she became too old to take those pre-adolescent roles -- the golden-curl darlings with the "glad-girl" smile. Neither she nor her public could imagine a way for her to grow up, so she retired to the fairy-tale castle with the fairy-tale prince. Only Doug Fairbanks did the unthinkable -- he wandered away from America's Sweetheart.

If the first half of Mary Pickford's life read like a fairy tale, the last half spun itself out like a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, full of immaculately landscaped and deserted lawns, sloping down to an unused swimming pool, where Doug Fairbanks had once canoed and Charlie Chaplin had once splashed with his clothes on.

For the last ten years of her life Mary Pickford retreated to her bedroom, watching westerns on TV and reading newspapers from which the unpleasant news had been scissored. In one corner stood the china doll she had used as a prop in her first Broadway success, "The Warrens of Virginia," in which she starred in 1908 with Cecil B. De Mille.

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But it has all been too pat -- the rise and fall-off of the American dream as symbolized by the white house with the wall around it, this museum of everybody's lost innocence -- now costing, it is said, $300,000 to $400,000 a year to maintain.

Something complicated and important escapes us both in the fairy-tale croon of "Once upon a time . . ." and in Fitzgerald's said whisper: "There are no second acts of American lives."

Long ago Mary Pickford's audiences became sated on the sugary optimism of "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." But now the despair that replaced it and persisted in seeing everything as "American tragedy" seems just as facile -- indeed, just as romantic.

We look at Pickfair -- begging for interpretation -- and we don't really want to see it as anym kind of a symbol. We are a little tired of our own myths. By their rosy overexpectations, by their black underexpectations, they limit us. Somehow glibness doesn't suit the moment. Something in us cries out: "No more explanations!" At the risk of losing a sense of high drama, the current mood opts for sobriety. "For sale," our cautious notice begins. "A fairly large building, in whose rooms specific people can lead specific lives, for which, like the previous owners, they must hold themselves responsible."


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