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Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
Fairbanks was, on the other hand, always— triumphantly, irritatingly, ingratiatingly —Fairbanks, both on the screen and away from it. Indeed, there is about his career a certain inevitability; one can’t quite imagine what he would have done with himself if the movies had not come into existence and provided him with precisely the kind of showcase his spirit and his talents required. Many of his peers might have been just as successful (if not quite so wildly prosperous) as stage personalities. But there was no stage that could contain Fairbanks’ energy or fully exploit his natural gifts. And he was, from earliest childhood, different from other kids in ways that no one at the time could quite specify. From his personal history we gain a sense that none of the usual livelihoods would have satisfied him; that he had no choice but to carve his own, singular path.
At the very beginning, in fact, there was some fear that he might be “exceptional” in the most dismal sense of the term—that is, retarded. He was by all accounts a strangely glum infant, incapable of sending out the signals of contentment—smiles, cooings, gurglings that parents wait so anxiously to observe. His principal pleasure, observable apparently even in the crawling stage, was risk taking. By the time he was three he had, according to his daughter Letitia, who (with a journalist’s assistance) wrote an excessively discreet biography, “climbed everything in the yard and had swung from every limb and rail.” Indeed, on his third birthday his mother, overseeing the preparation of the celebratory cake, was interrupted by Robert Fairbanks, Douglas’ senior by a year, crying, “Mama, he’s on the roof again.” And sure enough, there he was, on top of the barn, having climbed a trellis to achieve his precarious perch. What bothered Mrs. Fairbanks more than the physical danger was his owlish expression.
There was reason for the withdrawn nature Fairbanks exhibited in early childhood. For one thing, he had a remarkably dark complexion. “I was so dark … my mother was ashamed of me. When all the neighbors came around to look at the new baby, Mother would say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to disturb him now—he’s asleep and I’d rather not.’ ” In later life that darkness, burnished by the southern California sun, would be largely responsible for the tanning craze that has proved to be the most enduring of the twenties fads. For the moment, however, his complexion was simply one of the many factors that made him feel profoundly isolated not only from parental love but from his whole milieu.
One always distrusts easy psychological explanations for the basic patterns of a man’s behavior, but Fairbanks was a simple man and in his case a simple explanation will probably suffice. As a child he needed more love than he received; his best weapon in the fight for approval was his natural athletic talent, and since a glum athlete seems (or seemed in those more innocent days) a contradiction in terms, he developed a personal style that would suit his strongest skill. Everything began and ended for Fairbanks with his zealously developed, jealously guarded physical skills and well-being. Almost all the other prominent features of his character were based on his athletic ability—the bouncing, boundless optimism, the perpetually youthful manner, the lack of concern about the future, even his taste for practical jokes of a very physical kind.
What, then, were the wounds he tried to heal with this balm? They were classic—an unhappy and domineering mother, a failed and finally absent father. Ella, his mother, was a New Orleans belle brought up in socially secure, carefully sheltered comfort, which did not prepare her for the vicissitudes she was shortly to experience. By the time she bore Douglas, her fourth child, she had been once widowed and once divorced. Her third marriage was to H. Charles Ulman, her attorney in the divorce proceedings, who took her from New York to Denver in search of a silver fortune that stubbornly eluded him. The boy they christened Douglas Elton Ulman was born on May 23, 1883, two years after their arrival in Colorado and only a year after the birth of his brother Robert.
There is no doubt that in time Ella came to love both of these sons in an excessive, even smothering sort of way. But for the moment, trying to maintain a prosperous front without adequate help, she resented them because they added to her feeling that she had been ill-used by life and that under its pressure she had betrayed her best self. For one thing, she had been raised a Catholic and had, of course, been forced to abandon her faith when she divorced her second husband. Then, her third husband was Jewish, which only reinforced her feeling that she had strayed far too far from her background. Her pain might have been eased had Ulman’s mining ventures worked out, but they all proved worthless. In 1888 Ulman took a position as a paid speaker for Benjamin Harrison, the Republican Presidential candidate; Ulman went back to New York and returned only once to Denver on some mysterious business. Douglas, then twelve years old, encountered him on the street during that stay and persuaded him to come home and visit Ella, but the reunion was painfully strained. Douglas never saw or heard from his father again. His mother was forced to move to a smaller house and take in boarders.