FOR TRACEY GOESSEL, COLLECTING DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS MEMORABILIA IS ABOUT KEEPING A LEGEND ALIVE
Story by Lynn Morgan • Portrait by Axel Koester
FOR MOST MOVIEGOERS, the image of Douglas Fairbanks is dim and flickering, fading into oblivion on silent, black and white film. His name is associated with the Roaring Twenties, flappers, bathtub gin, Hollywood’s colorful but distant past.
Here are five critical things Tracey Goessel says she’s learned as a collector:
▸The hunt is generally more fun than the win.
▸We are the caretakers of these items. Then they move on to other people. Hopefully, someone 200 years from now will cherish these items and their history as I do, so I take good care of them.
▸Some dealers will cheat you, and laugh about it later.
▸Others will never cheat you.
▸Wisdom comes from figuring out who is who.
In the home of Dr. Tracey Goessel, however, Fairbanks is a vivid and energetic presence. With the publication of her new book, The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks (Chicago Review Press, 2016), the retired ER physician and eminent collector of Fairbanks memorabilia is his biographer as well.
The actor’s extravagantly tanned visage smiles down from every wall in the Mediterranean style Los Angeles home Goessel shares with her husband, Robert Bader (who himself is an expert on the Marx Brothers). The couple bought the house because its abundant wall space provides plenty of room for displaying Goessel’s collection of movie posters featuring Fairbanks’ films. At the top of her “want list” are posters for The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Good Bad Man (1916). The latter is one of Fairbanks’ “lost” films; there are no complete copies known.
In addition to the posters, Goessel has also acquired personal photographs, props (a pair of battered brown suede boots worn by Fairbanks in 1922’s Robin Hood decorate the fireplace mantle), and pieces of furniture from Pickfair, the legendary Beverly Hills estate Fairbanks (1883-1939) shared with Mary Pickford (1892-1979). Goessel uses the enormous steamer trunk that accompanied Pickford on several trans-Atlantic voyages as a coffee table.
“My ‘gateway drug’ was Lillian Gish,” Goessel says of the screen star often called the First Lady of American Cinema. “I was 12 or 13, and I saw a copy of her autobiography in an airport bookstore. I liked the cover. I bought it and read it on the plane, and I have never looked back since.”
Goessel’s fascination with Hollywood’s early days expanded to include stars such as comedian Buster Keaton, Louise Brooks, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin – men and women who were rapidly becoming little more than ghostly images in pearlescent black and white on rapidly deteriorating reels of unstable film stock.
“So much history has been lost,” Goessel says sadly. “There was no serious effort to preserve the legacy of film until the ’70s, and by then it was too late. Some of the old films got lost in fires, some of it was recycled to retrieve the silver content, and some of it was so badly stored and allowed to decay and it crumbled.”
Today, Goessel runs a nonprofit foundation dedicated to finding, saving and restoring America’s silent film heritage. She does detective work: locating lost films, piecing them back together from multiple sources if necessary, and preserving the restored prints. It is urgent work. Aging film stock is fragile and flammable. “Nitrate won’t wait,” Goessel says.
FROM ACTOR TO EXECUTIVE
Goessel’s collection includes pieces related to early film stars such as the Marx Brothers and “Fatty” Arbuckle (1887-1933). She proudly displays a coiled serpent headpiece worn by Theda Bara (1885-1955) in her signature role of Cleopatra (1917).
But her Fairbanks memorabilia overshadows them all.
“I read an article in 1971 or ’72 by Richard Schickel,” Goessel recalls. “It was all about Douglas Fairbanks and his legacy. He sounded so fascinating.”
Fairbanks was indeed fascinating, as readers of Goessel’s book will discover. She spent eight years meticulously peeling back layer upon layer of entrenched Hollywood legend and intransigent self-mythologizing to get to the facts beneath an artfully constructed glossy illusion.
“It was very important to Doug to be seen as an uber-WASP,” Goessel explains. “He took great pains to obscure the fact that his father was Jewish. In the late 19th century, to be Jewish meant occupying a very low rung on the social ladder. Only people of color faced more discrimination.”
As a result, Fairbanks painted a picture of a perfect, upper-middle class, even aristocratic, background. “He told everyone his mother, Ella Adelaide Marsh Fairbanks Wilcox, was a transplanted Southern belle, and his father, whose real name was H. – for “Hezekiah” – Charles Ulman, was a lawyer and a successful businessman,” Goessel says. “That was sort of true, but Doug left out the part about his father being a bigamist. He hadn’t divorced his first wife when he married Ella. He abandoned his second family when Doug was 5.”
The one sheet for 1926’s The Black Pirate is a centerpiece of Goessel’s collection. Fairbanks “shaped our idea of the hero to fit his own loopy mold,” she writes in her book.
Ella changed the family name to Fairbanks in 1889, and Doug expunged his father from his personal history.
Fairbanks also told people he had gone to Harvard. It wasn’t true. He began his acting career while still in high school and never went to college at all. He also embellished his early theatrical history, making it seem both elegant and effortless, even when making himself the butt of gently self-deprecating humor. “Doug was a fabulist,” Goessel explains, putting a kindly spin on Fairbanks’ shameless self-invention. “He was a great storyteller, and he wanted to control his own narrative. He had a very specific, well-defined vision of himself, and how he wanted to be seen, so he art directed his own image.”
That image, in many ways, became the template for American leading men, then and now.
There is something of Fairbanks in the personae of stars that came immediately after him, legends like Cary Grant and Clark Gable. Errol Flynn seems to have shoplifted his screen presence completely from Fairbanks, down to the signature role they both played: Robin Hood. There are echoes of Fairbanks’ suave charisma in stars like George Clooney, Denzel Washington, Pierce Brosnan and Will Smith. Fairbanks virtually invented swagger.
His image permeates popular culture in more subtle ways as well: When Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created Superman in 1934, they drew him in the iconic fists-on-hips pose inspired by the heroic posturing of Fairbanks. When Batman retreated to the Batcave to strategize, it is because creator Bob Kane got the idea from The Mark of Zorro, which hit movie screens nearly 20 years earlier. French actor Jean Dujardin based his character in the acclaimed 2011 film The Artist on Fairbanks, and won an Academy Award for it. We wouldn’t even have movies in Technicolor, Goessel notes, if Fairbanks hadn’t intervened and saved the color film processing company in its infancy.
“Doug saw the possibilities of movies early on,” Goessel says. “He was appearing on Broadway and enjoying success there, but he understood something other actors didn’t: The movies were about to become the dominant force in entertainment. Most theater people and serious intellectuals looked down on the ‘flickers.’ They thought they were just nickel entertainment for immigrants and working-class people. Doug saw the potential for more and wanted to be a part of it.”
Typically, Fairbanks was less than truthful about breaking into the movies. As he told it, it was effortless, almost nonchalant. He actually campaigned for three long years before landing his first movie contract in 1915.
The camera loved him. Fairbanks was surprisingly short, standing about 5 feet 7 inches, with a gymnast’s build: broad shoulders, a trim waist, impressive biceps. His olive complexion tanned deeply in the California sun. Along with Coco Chanel, he helped launch an international craze for suntans. His tan and slender mustache framed a smile that lit up the screen.
He was stunningly athletic. There are thrilling clips of his fearless, hyper-physical acting available on YouTube. Fairbanks was unstoppable: running, leaping, climbing and vaulting his way through scene after scene, like an early version of the training discipline known as parkour. Fairbanks made the image of a man running towards catastrophe with a smile, and emerging, winded, but laughing on the other side, uniquely his own.
AN ARDENT ROMANCE
Fairbanks and Pickford were married to other people when they met and fell in love. The potential for scandal was enormous, and professional ruin was a real threat.
“Actors were still seen as less than respectable,” Goessel explains. “Middle America was horrified by the rumors that were coming out of Hollywood. Doug and Mary were both essentially Victorians. They believed in discretion and propriety. Mary, especially, saw herself as a role model, a standard bearer for the entire industry. She didn’t want to be seen as the ‘other woman.’”
Taking great pains to keep their relationship secret, they quietly divorced their respective spouses and married a short time later, becoming Hollywood’s first superstar couple. Almost a century after they were written, Goessel purchased a collection of the couple’s love letters at auction, and that acquisition led to The First King of Hollywood.
“Several dealers were interested [in the letters],” Goessel recalls. “They wanted to break up the collection and sell the letters one at a time. I couldn’t stand the thought, so I just kept bidding!”
Fairbanks’ letters to Pickford are now carefully preserved in elegant black leather albums. Extensively quoted in Goessel’s book, they reflect a love that was extravagant and ardent. It was clearly a great romance.
“Doug bought Pickfair for Mary,” Goessel says. “It had been a hunting lodge. In 1919, Beverly Hills was still a rural community of bean fields and orange groves.”
Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker, author of Early Beverly Hills (Arcadia Press, 2005) knew Pickford toward the end of her life, and he visited Pickfair many times. “They really put Beverly Hills on the map,” he explains. “They gave the city its identity as a glamorous place where the rich and famous lived and played. Fairbanks and Pickford entertained lavishly, and they entertained people from the arts, politics and world leaders. Charlie Chaplin was Doug’s best friend and he moved next door. Pickfair was very much the center of the social universe in the 1920s.”
Sadly, the house was demolished after Pickford’s death. Only the original gates and swimming pool still stand. “Tour guides go up there and tell people ‘This is Pickfair,’ but it’s really not,” Wanamaker says.
CONSERVING A LEGACY
Goessel has collected numerous artifacts from the original Pickfair. A dainty French chair upholstered in pale yellow silk, and the sea green dining room chairs. One of Goessel’s prize discoveries was a music box that plays melodies from the comic opera The Mikado that Fairbanks gave to Mary as a 10th anniversary gift. It was found in an abandoned storage container and carefully restored. She also displays a sterling silver vanity set, another anniversary gift to the actress.
Together, Fairbanks and Pickford were the ultimate power couple. They were formidable business people, and negotiated contracts that made them the highest-paid stars in Hollywood. They built their own production facilities, and with their friends Charlie Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith formed the first independent film studio, United Artists.
Their most important legacy, however, must be the creation of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and its annual awards ceremony.
Fairbanks and Pickford separated in 1933. He made his last film, a “talkie” called The Private Life of Don Juan, in 1934. Time and chain-smoking had taken a toll on Fairbanks’ body. The film was not a hit. He and Pickford divorced in 1936, and a few months later, he married English model and actress Sylvia Ashley (1904-1977). On Dec. 10, 1939, he had a heart attack. Two days later, he died at home in Santa Monica, and began to vanish from memory.
Goessel and collectors like her are making sure Fairbanks doesn’t slip into complete obscurity.
“Tracey is an extraordinary collector,” says Grey Smith, director of vintage movie posters at Heritage Auctions. “She is well-educated. She knows what she is looking at, and she is very focused on her specialty.”
Hollywood memorabilia has enjoyed steady growth in recent years. Examples with impressive provenances, like major Oscar statuettes or iconic props or costumes, not only command high prices, they also make headlines. On Nov. 24, 2014, a poster from 1927’s London After Midnight, the notoriously “lost” Lon Chaney film, sold at Heritage Auctions for $478,000, making it the most valuable movie poster in history.
Goessel has little interest, however, in watching the monetary value of her collection escalate. “I didn’t buy them so they would appreciate,” she says. “I bought these things because I appreciate them.”
Rather than a savvy investor, Goessel sees herself as an educator, sharing her knowledge and love of early Hollywood, and as conservator of an important legacy that she intends to pass on intact.
“When you build a collection,” she reflects, “you don’t really own it. You become its temporary guardian, and then you hand it over to the next caretaker.”
LYNN MORGAN is a Los Angeles journalist who writes for The Intelligent Collector magazine.
This article appears in the Winter 2015-2016 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine.