Friday, August 29, 2014

Mary Pickford's Nightmare Honeymoon

Pickford & Fairbanks on their honeymoon

UK TOUR DAY THREE (LONDON): It was 1920. Mary Pickford was the most famous woman in the world. She'd been born in Toronto in the late 1800s: on University Avenue — where Sick Kids is now — and made her stage debut as a young girl at the prestigious Princess Theatre on King Street. Her early days here launched a career that took her all the way to Broadway and then to Hollywood where she became one the greatest silent film stars of all-time. She was at the height of her career in those early days of cinema when the movies were redefining what it meant to be famous. Her golden curls became a global icon. One columnist went so far as to call her "the most famous woman who has ever lived".

Now, Pickford had fallen in love with another one of the most famous movie stars ever: Douglas Fairbanks. They were married in a small, private ceremony outside Los Angeles. Their honeymoon would take them to England and to Europe. And it would be unlike anything the world had ever seen.

At first, the couple was worried about what people might think. Pickford had recently been divorced — a scandal back in those days. But they needn't have worried. The world was longing for good news after the horrors of the First World War. The idea of a real-life fairytale love story would do quite nicely.

It was raining when their ship docked at Southampton. But that didn't stop a huge crowd from gathering to greet the newly weds. It started before they even got off the boat. Airplanes flew by overhead, parachuting garlands of roses and sacks of fan mail onto the decks below. When the couple disembarked, it was chaos. Fans threw flowers. The stars were welcomed onto a dais with the mayor. An escort of 30 police officers was needed to get them safety through the crowd and into their waiting train. 

That was nothing. London was up next.

It was a near riot when the train pulled into Waterloo Station. The crowd pushed through the barricades and surrounded the couple's carriage. When it finally did break free and made it all the way to Piccadilly — to the Ritz Hotel where Pickford and Fairbanks were staying, and where I left a dream for her during the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour — it was the beginning of a siege. Thousands of people crammed into the streets around the hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of the couple. Traffic was staled for miles in all directions. They say even King George couldn't get by; his limousine had to wait a full twenty minutes before it could push through the crowd. The newly weds did their best to give the people what they wanted. They waved out their window to their fans. Fairbanks even climbed out onto a balustrade and straddled it like a hero. 

The Ritz Hotel
But things were quickly getting out of hand. That night, Pickford and Fairbanks went to a play in the West End. They were delayed by the crowds and were late arriving. When they did finally get there, the play was interrupted by a ten-minute standing ovation for the Hollywood couple. Fairbanks was forced to give a speech from their seats in the Royal Box before the play was allowed to continue.

They say Fairbanks seemed to be enjoying himself, but Pickford was starting to get tired of it all. So at one point, on the advice of a doctor, they took a brief break from London, heading to a friend's house in the country. Even that didn't work. When Pickford opened her window in her nightgown, there was a crowd of admirers perched on the wall outside. They broke into applause.

Things finally came to a head at the Theatrical Garden Party. It was an annual event held in London on the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. Celebrities were invited to organize tents, selling their wares for charity. Famous film stars told fortunes or sold hats or made tea to raise money for an orphanage.

But Pickford and Fairbanks were a whole new kind of famous. Never mind running a tent, they could barely even get out of their car. When they pulled up to the party in their Rolls Royce convertible, they were mobbed yet again. This time, as Pickford shook hands with her fans, they nearly pulled her from the vehicle. She lost her cloak. Fairbanks had to grab her by the ankles to keep her from being swallowed up and crushed. They were, said The New York Times, "besieged by all sides. Well dressed women seemed suddenly to have lost their heads... all mad to shake her hand... There was a frightened look on her face as the mob became more and more pressing in its attentions, and for a brief second or two she appeared to have been pressed down to the ground." As the police fought off the mob, Fairbanks swept in and lifted his new bride into his arms, up onto his shoulders, and rushed her inside the Garden Party.

The frenzy still wasn't over; the crowd followed them. In her Pickford biography, Eileen Whitfield describes the scene: "As hundreds of rioters crashed the turnstiles, Mary, to her horror, saw a branch approaching. She was winded by a limb and scratched before Fairbanks, on whom she perched, swooped down. Next, in a rare ungraceful moment, he crashed into a tent serving buns and jam and the canvas came down around their ears. Fairbanks emerged again, holding his bewildered bride..." They raced back to their car and sped off to safety. "Fans threw themselves at the hood, the doors, and the dashboard as they drove away."

Fairbanks later called it "a lynch mob — except that it was smiling." Pickford tried to be more diplomatic: "You British people are so wonderful," she said. "You don't do things by halves."

London was stunned. And embarrassed. As the newly weds headed off to continue their trip, letters flooded in to the city's newspapers. Editorials struggled to understand the new phenomenon. "Imagine," one wrote, "if at the heyday of Charles Dickens's popularity, when an impatient public waited eagerly for each instalment [sic] of his stories... all the humble heroines of his creation had suddenly come to town. Well, that is what has happened now."

But England was only the first stop on the honeymoon. Pickford and Fairbanks headed from there to the Continent, where in France and Italy and Switzerland, it was all the same. In Paris, Pickford had to hide among the carcasses in the freezer of a butcher shop to avoid being swarmed. She eventually had to climb out over the cages of meat. The newspapers compared the riots in France to the storming of the Bastille. Finally, the film stars gave up on daylight altogether. They did the rest of their sightseeing under the cover of darkness.

By the time they returned home to Beverly Hills, it was clear: modern celebrity culture had arrived.


A dream for Mary Pickford at the Ritz


Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here

You can read some of Eileen Whitfield's Pickford biography, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, on Google Books here. You can buy it here or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here.

There are lots of great photos to accompany this post, but I haven't included them above because the places that have posted them have watermarked them and claim they own the copyright (although I'm pretty sure that's bullshit): at the Garden Party, the crowd outside the Ritz, waving from their window at the Ritz (which is exactly where I left the dream), arriving in London, in their car, plus the house where Mary Pickford was born on University Avenue, her with her family in Toronto, and her during her very first year performing in Toronto.

You can read newspapers reports from the honeymoon by The New York Times, The Daily Express, The Malborough Express and The Galveston Daily News. The New York Times also more about their time in Europe here

I've got another post about Mary Pickford's life and career here.

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Mary Pickford, 1900

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Dream for Sydney Newman at the BBC

UK TOUR DAY TWO (LONDON): At the end of my first full day in England, I found myself outside the BBC. They opened their brand new headquarters here just last year — on Portland Place a few blocks north of Soho and Piccadilly Circus — at the exact same spot where their original headquarters are still standing. Broadcasting House first opened in the very early 1930s as a home for BBC Radio. It's a gorgeous Art Deco building. The new Broadcasting House was built as an extension to the original — they call the new bit "The John Peel Wing" in honour of the legendary BBC DJ. It's made of beautiful curving glass and at night it's lit up with colour. After sitting across the street for a while, soaking it all in, I casually wandered over to the courtyard entrance, trying to avoid getting noticed by the security guards or the smokers by the doors, and left my dream for Sydney Newman taped to the side of a bollard.

Newman — as I wrote in a big post last year — was the creator of one of the most popular television shows the BBC has ever aired: Doctor Who. He was born and raised in Toronto; he spent most of his life in Canada working for the CBC, the NFB and the CRTC. But for a few years in the 1960s, his career took him to London, where he soon became the Head of Drama for the BBC. He was the driving force behind the new science-fiction show, and he assembled a groundbreaking team to make it.

That didn't happen here at Broadcasting House, though. Up until last year, BBC Television was headquartered a few kilometers away at the appropriately-named BBC Television Centre. I wrote a little post about it, too. And on my very last night in England, I made sure to stop by and leave a copy of the dream for Newman there as well.

I also left the dream at a couple of other spots in London. One was on Westminster Bridge. It was the site of one of the most iconic shots from the early years of Doctor Who — back in the days when Newman was still overseeing the show. When the Daleks invaded the Earth, they rolled across that very same bridge.

The other was on Earls Court Road, where a TARDIS — with a fresh coat of paint — stands outside the tube station. You can even go inside the time machine on Google Maps.

But most of the dreams I left for Newman during the UK Tour were left in a whole different country. Today, Doctor Who is filmed in Wales. So I left a few dreams for him there, in Cardiff, in locations that would be familiar to any current fan of the show, including Clara Oswald's house, Cardiff Bay, and even on the TARDIS itself. You can read a post about all of that right here.

And if you're a fan of the show, I'll be writing lots about it over at The Little Red Umbrella as it returns to our screens on Saturday.

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Sydney Newman, 1956

Friday, August 15, 2014

William Kurelek's London

UK TOUR DAY TWO (LONDON): William Kurelek was one of the most successful artists in the history of our country. He's famous for his quaint, Canadian scenes: lumberjacks, snowballs fights, city streets and prairie fields. But he also had a darker side: apocalyptic visions, battles with depression, suicide attempts and a long stint in England to get psychiatric help at a couple of hospitals in London — including about a dozen bouts of electroshock therapy. I wrote a whole big blogpost about his life a few months ago, before heading to the UK to leave dreams for him at some of the Kurelek-related spots in London.

The first dream I left for him was this one, which I dropped here on my first full day in London. This is 48 Barons Court Road, where Kurelek lived for a while in the 1950s. It's in West Kensington, just a few kilometers from the heart of the city, and it wasn't far from my hotel — I passed by almost every day on the way to catch the tube at what would have been Kurelek's local station. It opened all the way back in 1874:

It would have been Gandhi's tube station for a while, too. While studying law at University College in the late 1800s, he lived just a few doors down from Kurelek's place:

The next day, I headed to another Kurelek landmark. The Church of the Assumption is right in the middle of London, in Soho, just a few doors down from Carnaby Street. Kurelek was a regular visitor after he'd checked himself out of hospital — in the wake of his electroshock treatments. That's when he discovered God and converted to Catholicism. He joined a social club for young Catholics that was held at this church. He said it played an important role in his recovery — a welcoming home for a disturbed artist who was deeply uncomfortable in most social situations.

At the same time, he was working at Blue Ball Yard. It's just up the street from St James's Palace — the official residence of the Sovereign — and not far at all from Buckingham Palace. Today, it's home to luxury suites and a swanky restaurant — I felt totally out of place while I quickly dropped this dream and headed on my way. But Blue Ball Yard started out as a bunch of stables all the way back in the 1700s. And when Kurelek was living in London, it was home to a picture framing business. That's where he worked, making frames.

It proved to be a valuable experience for the artist. He went on to make custom frames for many of his own works, incorporating them into the design of his pieces. And when he returned to Toronto after London, the skills he'd learned here at Blue Ball Yard helped him pay the bills. When Kurelek got his big break with the famous Canadian art dealer Avrom Isaacs, Isaacs gave him a job making frames at a shop on Front Street until his paintings started making enough money on their own.

My final Kurelek-related stop came on my last night in London. As the sun was (quite literally) setting on The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, I headed to South London. I came here to the Maudsley Hospital:

This is where, 62 years earlier, William Kurelek had come on his very first day in London. In fact, this hospital was the reason he'd crossed the Atlantic. After a troubled childhood, battles with depression, and a long struggle with psychosomatic eye pain and blindness, he knew he needed help. And he didn't think he could get that help in Canada, where it was even harder to find support for psychological illnesses than it is today. Back then, mental health facilities were still brutal places — but Maudsley was on the cutting edge. The doctors here embraced bold new techniques like art therapy. Painting would play an important role in Kurelek's treatment. They gave him his own supplies and even a studio to work in. He painted some of his most famous work here, at this hospital, expressing his inner torments on canvas. The most famous of them all — "The Maze" — would even be used to teach psychology students.

Kurelek struggled with his demons for the rest of his life. But it was here, at Maudsley and at a second London hospital called Nertherne, that he began the process of confronting those demons head on, learning the personal and emotional skills that would eventually allow him to become of the most successful artists our country has ever known.


Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here

Read my full post about Kurelek's life — "An Apocalypse in the Beaches — William Kurelek's Nightmare Visions" — here

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William Kurelek, 1968

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

UK Tour Photos: The Rhondda Valley

On my third day in Wales, I took the train from Cardiff up into the South Wales Valleys. This spot in the Rhondda was ground zero for the world's coal mining industry in the 1800s and early 1900s. This lush green Eden was turned into a Mordor of slag heaps and smoke. Hundreds of men and boys lost their lives in the darkness under the ground here. There were strikes and riots. And eventually, the industry collapsed. Today, there are no deep coal mines left anywhere in the South Wales Valleys. And while the slopes turn back into spectacular green, the region is left struggling economically. A couple of years ago, it was declared — along with west Wales — to be the poorest place anywhere in the United Kingdom.

While I was in the Rhondda, I took the chance to track down an ancient holy site: St. Mary's Well. It's marked by a big stone statue of the Virgin Mary and a natural spring which is said to have miraculous healing powers. Pilgrims have come here for centuries — maybe even stretching back all the way into pagan prehistory. But the site was shut down by King Henry VIII during his attacks on Catholicism. I wrote a whole post about it as an excuse to talk about the impact the Reformation had on Toronto hundreds of years later. You can read that post here, a post about Cardiff's economic recovery — and the role played by a TV show created by a Torontonian — here, and check out all my photos of the Rhondda here:


And, as always, you can follow me on Instagram at @todreamsproject.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A.Y. Jackson Paints For His Life

UK TOUR DAY SIXTEEN (LONDON): On my very last morning in London, I left this dream for A.Y. Jackson at the top of Earls Court Road — because this, it seems, is the spot where he once saved his own life by painting a portrait during the First World War.

This was back before Jackson was famous. In fact, none of the painters in the Group of Seven was famous yet. They weren't even called the Group of Seven yet. So while Jackson would eventually become known as one of the greatest painters in Canadian history, he started the war as an anonymous soldier crawling through the blood-soaked trenches of Flanders outside Ypres.

It didn't go well. Within a few months, Jackson was injured in the shoulder and hip during a German bombardment. And while he was recovering from his injuries, he received word from back home in Canada that his friend, Tom Thomson, had died mysteriously in Algonquin Park. Those sad and dangerous months took a toll on the painter. When another member of the Group of Seven — Fred Varley — saw what the war had done to Jackson, he was worried. "I'm sure if he had to go through the fight any more," he wrote in a letter back home, "he would be broken."

Things didn't look like they were going to get any better. While Jackson was away recovering, his unit was in turmoil; there was a mutiny gathering steam. And soon, they'd be back on the front lines outside Ypres, at the bloody Battle of Passchendaele, where most of them would die — along with hundreds of thousands of other men — in just a few short months.

But then suddenly, out of nowhere, Jackson was offered a way out.

It came at the best possible moment: while he was digging a latrine. An officer came to see him with a proposition. A Canadian newspaper baron turned British politician — Lord Beaverbrook — had started something called the Canadian War Records Office. The idea was to have artists document the Canadian war effort. They were looking for men who were already enlisted. And they'd heard that Jackson could paint. If he were able to land the gig, his days as a soldier in the trenches would be over.

That's how he ended up at 3 Earls Court, in a big art studio the War Records Office had taken over. There, waiting for him, he found paint and canvas and a war hero.

Corporal John Chipman Kerr had been awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honour for military valour you can get in what was then the British Empire. He'd had a finger blown off by a grenade during the Battle of the Somme, but refused to have his wound treated until he'd rushed the enemy lines, taken 62 prisoners and captured their trench. The Canadian War Records Office wanted a portrait of him. That was Jackson's first assignment.

And that was a problem. Jackson was a landscape artist; he wasn't used to painting portraits. It had been years since he even tried. Worried, he hoped to talk his way out of it. But it didn't work. He would have to give it a go. 

"Hanging over me," he wrote later in his autobiography, "was the prospect of being returned to the infantry if I failed in this first assignment."

So he set down to work and painted for his life.

Things got off to rough start. He kept having to give up, to scrape the canvas clean, and begin all over again. It was slow work. And it probably didn't help that Corporal Kerr — excited to be on leave — kept suggesting they play hooky and head down to the pub instead. But in end, Jackson was able to produce a half-decent portrait. Not great, they say — the legs look weird — but good enough that he didn't get fired.

And so, thanks to not screwing up that portrait, A.Y. Jackson was able to spend the rest of his war travelling across the Western Front, painting the ravaged landscapes in his trademark Impressionist style. Most importantly, he lived long enough to see the end of the fighting, long enough to return home to Toronto, to rejoin the group of friends who were about to change the Canadian art world forever.


The old Canadian War Records, 14 Clifford Street
A dream for Jackson outside the old War Records Office

Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here

I've already written a full post about the rest of Jackson's experiences during WWI here. And I've got a post about how England embraced the Group of Seven before Canada did here

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A.Y. Jackson, 1914

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Quick Thought About Toronto Sparked By London's Tower Bridge

UK TOUR DAY THIRTEEN (LONDON): Tower Bridge. It's one of the most famous historic landmarks in the entire world. When I was there on a Wednesday evening, it was packed with tourists. Foot traffic crawled across as people — like me — paused to Instagram the living crap out of it. When the drawbridge lifted to let a tall ship sail through, things got even crazier. And that kind of crowd isn't unusual: Tower Bridge is one of the Top 20 most Instagrammed tourist attractions on Earth. Photos of the thing get posted with a #towerbridge hashtag more than 200,000 times a day. That's two and a half times, on average, every second.

But what really struck me about the old landmark was just how new it is. I assumed Tower Bridge was ancient. But it was actually built in the late 1800s. It didn't open until 1894. That makes it only 24 years older than the Bloor Viaduct.

And that wasn't the only time I was struck by the age of historic sites in London compared to the age of sites at home. The majestic Natural History Museum opened in 1881. That's only about 30 years before the ROM did. The Houses of Parliament at Westminster were built in the mid-1800s. They weren't finished until after the first Parliament Buildings in Ottawa had already opened. Queen's Park had been around for 20 years by then. Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square is more than 30 years younger than Nelson's Column in Montreal. And while I was awed by the deep groves worn into Westminster Abbey's stone floors by hundreds of years of footsteps, when I got back to Toronto I noticed the same process is already underway in St. George Station.

Of course, there's lots of stuff in London that's waaaay older than the city of Toronto. And far more of their old buildings have survived. But while I expected the UK Tour might make our city's own history seem ever-so-brief by comparison, it was actually a reminder that our history is much richer than we give it credit for. Many of our landmarks are just as old as many of the most famous historic landmarks in Europe. And, of course, our history also stretches back into a time long before Toronto was founded — just like it does over there.

So the trip, in the end, actually made me feel optimistic about the future of Toronto's history. We may never have as many people Instragramming the Viaduct as they do Tower Bridge (though the plan to light up our bridge with LEDs sure won't hurt), but I do think that as we learn to take our history and ourselves more seriously — preserving our built heritage, telling our stories, investing in new landmarks that are worth Instagramming in the first place — other people will too.



Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

UK Tour Photos: Cardiff

The second leg of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour took me to Cardiff, the capital of Wales. I was there to leave dreams for two Torontonians in particular: Sydney Newman and Sir Charles Seymour Wright. Newman was the creator of Doctor Who; the science-fiction show is now filmed in Cardiff. And Wright was an explorer on the infamous Scott Expedition, which sailed from Cardiff to Antarctica in 1910. I've already written a couple of posts about my time in the city — about the legacy of Doctor Who here and about the many ways Cardiff remembers the Scott Expedition here. Now, I've uploaded my photos as well. You can find them all on Facebook — whether you have an account or not — right on over here:


And, as always, you can follow me on Instagram at @todreamsproject.