By J. L. Starkey
“Whatever you do, don’t be selfish today. Forget other plans you may have made and…make sure that your boy or your girl sees Little Mary.”– Mae Tinée, April 1918
We all knew about the photo, and we all wanted to see it. After all, it wasn’t every day that a family member had a celebrity encounter of that magnitude.
“It was taken at a war bonds rally,” mom said. Apparently, Little Mary Pickford visited Chicago in the late 1910s to support the war bonds effort, and my Gram, Little Mary Hansen, was lucky enough to pose for a photo with her.
Often referred to as America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford was “…one of the richest and most famous women” in the world at that time . In Gen-X terms, the photo op was comparable to attending a meet-and-greet with Julia Roberts at the height of the Mystic Pizza/Pretty Woman era.
There was just one problem. Though the story stuck around, the photo itself had disappeared. Even mom had never actually seen it, and though she suspected an aunt had it stored in a safe place, when that aunt passed away, it was anyone’s guess what happened to it.
I wanted to prove the legend, but my obsession with it really didn’t begin until I researched our third cousin, Clarke Irvine. A pioneer of the silent film era, his circle of friends included A-listers such as Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore, and (surprise!) Mary Pickford .
Clarke and Mary were colleagues as well as friends, and he often reported on her activities in Screamer, a newspaper he created in the 1910s . He also wrote a feature about her for a 1916 issue of “Moving Picture” magazine . Obviously, the two knew each other well, which made me wonder how much “luck” was involved in Gram’s photo op. Was the photo planned, or perhaps even staged?
Yes, I had to learn more about this legend, but since the details were so vague, it made sense to remove it from my 2020 goal list.
Sometimes, life is funny, isn’t it? Sometimes, discoveries happen when we’re least expecting them. And sometimes, the facts are way better than the legends.
So it was with Little Mary – and Little Mary – and the war bonds rally of 1918.
Raging Pandemics and Research Plans
While 2020 was a year of rediscovery, it was not without its share of frustrations. After countless hours spent researching Reedy and Kennedy records, some days begged for a change of pace. May 28 was one of those days, because the parish records were just not cooperating, and that made me cranky, irritable, and downright frustrated.
Hoping to clear my head, I decided to research the 1918 Pandemic, focusing on newspaper articles about my great-grandfather, Charles Hansen. And since his surname tended to return an abundance of (mostly unusable) results, I decided to use one of my favorite newspaper hacks: the address search.
And just like that, a shift of focus – and a single query – led to the best discovery of the year.
Miracle at 7721 Union Avenue
Hoping to learn more about how a pandemic and a world war affected my great-grandfather’s life, I created a newspaper search limited to Chicago, Illinois, for 1917 and 1918. According to records, Charles Hansen lived at 7721 Union Avenue at that time .
Next, I entered the house number and street name in the search bar, using quotation marks to limit results to exact matches only.
Fingers crossed, I clicked “search” and was pleased to see four matches returned.
As I scanned the previews, I noticed the words “Another Little,” “actress,” and “Mary H” in match number four.
“Is that…Gram?” I wondered. I clicked on the link…and then stared at the image in absolute shock.
Her surname may have been misspelled, but the little girl in the photo? That was undoubtedly my Gram, better known as Little Mary Hansen. And seated next to her, smiling and looking glamorous, was Gladys Marie Smith…better known as Little Mary Pickford.
Fifteen Minutes of Fame
There are moments when you call your mom. You call when you need advice, or when you need to have a good cry, or when just need to hear her voice. Oh, and if you’re a family historian, you call your mom when you find the Mary Pickford photo. (I don’t make the rules, by the way. I just follow them.)
Mom was as shocked and thrilled as I was with the discovery. Neither of us had any idea that the photo of Gram and Mary Pickford had made the paper. (Had I known that, proving this legend would have been a whole lot easier!)
I promised to send mom a copy of the photo and hung up the phone to do a bit more sleuthing. Within minutes, one thing was pretty clear: April 22, 1918, was the day that Gram got her fifteen minutes of fame.
In the days leading up to the USA’s entry into World War I, legislators realized that taxes alone would not finance war costs, so on April 24, 1917, the first Liberty Loan Act was passed to persuade citizens to “…invest in war bonds, even in small amounts, [that] would be repaid…after the war was won.”
Early sales were disappointing, so Treasury Secretary Douglas McAdoo recruited celebrities to help with the effort with the hope of increasing investments . Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford all agreed to lend a helping hand, perhaps not yet realizing their star power. According to one account, “The Chicago rallies produced crowds like they had never seen gathered in one place before….[and] thousands of people showing up for just a glimpse made them realize the full power of their fame for the first time.” .
In the days leading up to the rally, Chicago papers ran a steady stream of stories and ads promoting Pickford’s visit. Columnist Frances Peck Grover (better known by the pseudonym Mae Tinée) implored parents to change existing plans so they could bring their children to the event, since “…to see Mary Pickford has been the life’s ambition of so many youngsters I know that…I must put in a plea in their behalf.” .
Donald Ogden Stewart, a young draftee, was one of the soldiers assigned to guard Pickford during the event. Later, he would say that he felt woefully unprepared, and that the day ended “in a crowded corner, hatless and rifle-less, trying to get back to my squad…[but] the fans very kindly gave me my rifle back and I was saved from court martial.” .
The fundraising efforts were creative and lucrative. During a stop at the Chicago Board of Trade, Pickford auctioned off a lock of her hair for the astronomical price of $15,000, an amount equal to almost $260,000 today.
She made several other stops before speaking to “…hundreds of area children at a meeting staged by the women’s Liberty Loan committee” in Chicago’s Grant Park. There, according to reporters, “Another Little Mary pushed through the crowd to buy a bond from the actress.” .
That other Little Mary? That was my Gram. And all could think was, “I can totally picture her doing that!”
Gram never changed, and now we really did have the evidence to prove it.
Hugs from Gram
Little Mary Pickford helped to raise $1,000,000 in bond sales during that Chicago event, an amount equal to over $17,000,000 today. Her star power surely helped push the total higher than expected, as did the cuteness factor provided by one Little Mary Hansen.
Finding the photo of Gram and Mary Pickford was one of the best things that happened in 2020, but it created several new questions to be answered in 2021. For example, was this purely a chance encounter, or was Gram specifically chosen to play a part in the event? And just how does Clarke Irvine fit into the scenario (if at all)? Was he involved in the planning because he had extended family in Chicago?
Even if I never answer those questions, though, I’ll still call this discovery one of the sweetest of them all. Last year was tough on all of us, but Gram showed up just when we needed her. On difficult days, it’s comforting to look at her photo and think of her final words in the last letter she wrote to me. I’ve saved the letter for more than four decades, and even after all these years, I am comforted by the knowledge that Little Miss Mary was always on my side.
We miss you, Gram…now and always.
To learn more about using newspapers in your research, check out “Newspapers For Genealogy: 8 Mistakes To Avoid” at Genealogy Stories. Natalie’s excellent article is well worth your time!
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Mary Pickford”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 May. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Pickford. Accessed 8 March 2021.
- “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” Hollywood Dish: More than 150 Delicious, Healthy Recipes from Hollywood’s Chef to the Stars, by Akasha Richmond, Avery, 2006, pp. 48–50.
- Irvine, Clarke. “This Is Good.” Screamer, 8 Mar 1917, p. 6, archive.org/details/screamer1916191700scre/page/n165/mode/1up.
- Irvine, Clarke.“Mary Pickford’s Sister and Charlie Chaplin’s Brother.” Motion Picture Magazine, Vol. XI, No. 4, May 1916, pp. 86-87. Internet Archive, The Motion Picture Publishing Co., 15 Aug. 2012, 17:04:24, archive.org/details/motionpicturemag111moti/page/86/mode/2up.
- “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K68T-NR5 : 23 February 2021), Charles Henry Hansen, 1917-1918. (See also: “People Who Have Moved,” Englewood Times, Chicago, Illinois, 22 June 1917, p. 1, col. 6. Retrieved from newspapers.com; and “Auburn & Gresham 75th to 95 Sts. News,” Englewood Times,18 June 1920, p. 4, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- Liberty Loan Spring drive / Wilson-Craig. New York: Greenwich Litho. Co. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/93502259/>.
- “Mary Pickford on the Road Selling Liberty Bonds,” The Mary Pickford Foundation. Retrieved 6 March 2021 from https://marypickford.org/caris-articles/mary-on-the-road-selling-liberty-bonds/.
- “Mary Pickford in City Today to Sell Bonds,” Chicago Tribune, 20 April 1918, p. 14, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Donald Ogden Stewart on guarding Mary Pickford,” Retrieved from The Mary Pickford Foundation, https://marypickford.org/stories-from-marys-contemporaries/donald-ogden-stewart/.
- “More Ways Than One of Laboring for Liberty,” The Chicago Sunday Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 21 April 1918, p. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Little Mary Adds a Million to Bond Sales,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 23 April 1918, p. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Mary Pickford Adds Millions to Bond Sales Here,” Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 23 April 1918, p. 3, col. 7. Retrieved from newspapers.com.