Monday, June 6, 2011

Meeting Mary Pickford's Last Sweetheart: My Visit With Charles "Buddy" Rogers

Mary Pickford and Charles "Buddy" Rogers, who became her third husband.

It began one day in the early 1980s, when I was a reporter in Washington D.C. and Charles "Buddy" Rogers, recently a widower after the death of silent movie star Mary Pickford, was in our nation's capitol to donate her film collection to the Library of Congress ... 

... Back then, there were not a lot of fans of old movies around and few resources for those there were. No Turner Classic Movies.  No Blockbuster.  No Netflix.  The best one could do was to find the one "revival" theater that seemed to pop up in every community and go there to see and learn about the "classics."

I had been encouraged by my husband to enlarge my collection of out-of-print-books by and about classic film stars, and after several years in Portland--and many hours at Powell's Books--I had a pretty good library.

When the press release came across the assignment desk that day, some jaded producer rolled her eyes and dropped it on my desk.  She raised her right eyebrow when she noticed my excitement. "Buddy Rogers? " I said. "Are you kidding?  He was married to Mary Pickford and was in Wings [1927/1928], the first movie to win the Best Picture Award!"

"Well whoop-de-doo.  Let's use him live on the 5:30 show. There's no news in that newscast today anyway. By the way the old geezer is in the lobby."

Rogers was Pickford's third and last husband.  He had been twelve years younger than she, and the two had met and fallen in love on the set of My Best Girl, the same year Pickford's marriage to the legendary Douglas Fairbanks was ending.

I found Buddy Rogers sitting quietly in the lobby of WJLA-TV.  Our television station was, at that time, in a dreary, somewhat down-at-the-heels little mall on N.W. Connecticut Avenue.  The station itself was in (allegedly) what had once been an old skating rink.  Hence the banked turns on all the corridors.

Rogers stood up when I entered. When was it that gentlemen stopped doing that? He was dressed in a beautiful sport coat, and tan trousers--a fairly uncommon combo in Washington D.C., home of the grey three-piece-suit--and he had a beautiful head of lovely white hair that surrounded a reddish face which seemed to light up like a lamp when he smiled.  If this was about 1983, then he would have been 79 years old that year. Not so old when I think about it now, but to me at the time, pretty ancient.

I told him I had seen and loved him in his famous film Wings and he seemed genuinely surprised and delighted that I even knew he'd had a film career.  He had been the spouse of the much-more-famous-in-her-day actress Mary Pickford for more than four decades.  He was used to living in her shadow, and had the reputation for bearing his role with charm, grace, and kindness.

At least that is what I had heard about him at the Los Angeles Times, where I'd had a college internship several years before this. The newspaper still had a lot of old time photographers on its staff who remembered the heydays of Hollywood and they were great sources of information on all things Los Angeles. They knew that Pickford was a recluse up in her famous house "Pickfair" at the top of Summit Drive in Beverly Hills and that Buddy Rogers was her faithful gatekeeper. ("She drinks," the photographers would say with knowing looks. "Never goes out at all, anymore.")

After we talked, I told him we wanted to use him in a "live" segment on our newscast in about two hours.  Did he have some shopping to do? "Is there someplace close I can go to get something to eat?" he asked.

I told him there was a little dive right next door where we all grabbed a bite between shots, or shots between bites (to paraphrase the Big Sleep) and the shots part seemed to catch his interest. We agreed he would meet us back in the lobby at 5:00.

I raced down the hall (speeding up at the banked turns) and called my husband who worked out of our house.  ("Worked out of our house" is an entire blog post for another day.) He was home and I told him of my adventure, and asked if he would mind finding the Paramount Pictures edition of the out-of-print Wings with the Buddy Rogers photo on the flyleaf and drive down to the station with it so I could ask for Rogers' autograph.  I didn't do that often, as I didn't want to insult my interview subjects; but, with a nice old gentleman like Rogers, I didn't think it was a terrible journalistic sin.

The cover of the Paramount Pictures edition of Wings. Mine does not have this fine dust jacket.

My husband must have been in a good mood that day, because he agreed.  We only lived about five minutes away in Bethesda, Maryland.  Not long after I called he arrived at the station with the book.

"Now," I said, "let's go see if we can find Buddy Rogers." And off we went into the darkness of the "lounge" next to the station, where, at any given time of the day or night, one might--in those heady days--have found half the staff, imbibing adult beverages in preparation for the coming newscasts ahead.

Buddy Rogers was sitting at the bar, looking just a little bit lonely, consuming his "lunch," which was in the glass in his hand.  Once again, his face lighted up when he saw his audience:  two young people approaching with admiration in their eyes.

I introduced my husband and showed Rogers the book we'd found.  "What fun," he said, thumbing through the film edition of the John Monk Saunders novel.  "They must have published this to coincide with the release of our movie." That would have been slightly more than half a century before.

We chatted a while and he was warm and full of humility.  Would he sign the book for us?  Of course he would and did. "For Robin and Phillip," he wrote:

" ... Best always from your "Wings" friend.  Charles Buddy Rogers."

We said goodbye and the funny thing is  that I remember almost nothing of the live interview we did with him on the 5:30 news that evening. It really was an anti-climax.

You might think that since Buddy Rogers time in Hollywood had truly come and gone, he was a pathetic figure, but that wasn't true at all. His loneliness may have driven him to seek refuge on a bar stool that day, but he evidently decided not to make a habit of it.  He honored his late wife's memory with his donation of her films and papers to the Library of Congress, where there is now a theater named after her in which silent films are shown on a regular basis.

I later read he  sold the famous house "Pickfair" to Jerry Buss of the Lakers (Pia Zadora bought it later and tore it down.) But, he was wise enough to subdivide the acreage, saving a nice big chunk for himself on which he built a nice big new home. Buddy Rogers moved into it with the beautiful real estate lady he married, who had helped him broker the deal.

He had some time to enjoy his new life too.  Buddy Rogers lived on for another two decades, dying in 1999 at the age of 95.

Among his accomplishments he could count starring in one of the best aviation films ever made. And, though it won't go in the history books, he also brightened one memorable afternoon for me. I will always remember his gaciousness and think of him as my "Wings friend."

Buddy Rogers and Clara Bow, in a photo from the flyleaf of Wings, by John Monk Saunders, in its 1927 Paramount Pictures edition.

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Don Meuler said...

I really loved this account! What a charming gentleman, and not so very different from (some of) the current personalities I've met. I'm not surprised your interview with him is a blur; clearly, meeting him was the story of the day. :o)

"Pia Zadora bought it later and tore it down." There is so much wrong there I don't know where to start...

Robin Chapman said...

We could start with the word "Pia" and just go on from there. Doug Fairbanks Jr. who spent a lot of time in that house had a few choice words to say. You can Google that for more ...

FABION said...

great, what a story!!! i love Mary, and charles was her love for a long time

FABION said...

Great!! what a story!!! i love Mary, and charles was her lover for so many years. Old and great HOLLYWOOD.

FABION said...


Robin Chapman said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I'm so lucky that I got to meet him. I think he was loyal and kind to her and they both lived a good life together.

Jonathan LeBreton said...

Nice story, and what a treat to meet him.
I'm a little surprised that he seemed not to have known about the photoplay book which was published in conjunction with the film. These were quite common in the day.

Robin Chapman said...

He may have known about it at one time, but forgotten. It was more than half a century between the book/film and when I met him.

Doug Rogers said...

I am one of their Grandsons.
Nice to see them being kept in memory.
I can tell you they were not the Mother and Father to my Dad ( Ronnie) and his sister ( Roxanne)they should have been.
They both lived in virtual poverty until death.
Sad story on the other end of their story.
She was a great lady and innovative though.
I carry her last name as my middle.
I met Buddy when I was 11 or so at Pickfair. He was pleasant to me, even though I was poor and had long
Douglas Pickford Rogers