The Salad Days

By the time Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was seven years old, his parents were separated, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., had established a relationship with Mary Pickford prior to either Pickford’s or his own divorce. Forever seeking the approbation of his athletic, usually preoccupied father, the son recounts their sometimes stormy interchanges without concealing the shortcomings of both. Fairbanks is without rancor, but his memory is a long one. He grew up in a world of silent-film personalities, most of whom he liked, yet he is never loath to puncture pretension, to recall slights, and to describe thoughtless, selfish behavior.

Because of Fairbanks’ diffidence, it is difficult to evaluate his other talents--drawing, sculpting, and stage performance. Certainly, his prose is warm, gallant, and diplomatic, and sufficiently skillful to enable the reader to draw inferences beyond what Fairbanks reveals of emotional liaisons with famous and with lesser-known or anonymous partners. Married to Joan Crawford at the age of nineteen, he later enjoyed relationships with Marlene Dietrich and Gertrude Lawrence. Close male associates included David Niven, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, and Robert Montgomery. When he was sober, John Barrymore, and, when he was available, Lord Louis Mountbatten sometimes served as mentors.

Through travels in Europe during the 1930’s, Fairbanks early became aware of Germany’s threat to world stability. As war approached, he devoted increasing time to espousing preparedness, establishing working connections with such figures as Robert Sherwood, Herbert Swope, Harry Hopkins, and Walter Lippmann. When war came in 1939, Fairbanks turned to enlisting support for Great Britain. Through Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., he met the president and served on a South American fact-finding tour at the request of the White House.

In this, the first of two autobiographical volumes, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., integrates his film career, sexual peccadillos, political adventures, and the burdens of being born to a famous father in an engagingly candid style.