Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was born in New York City. He was the only child of actor Douglas Fairbanks and his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, daughter of a very wealthy cotton mogul. His parents divorced when he was nine years old, and both remarried. He lived with his mother in New York, California, Paris and London.

I was a shy, awkward sort of a boy and my father’s frequent absences from home, along with my hero worship for him, made me even shyer. Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

He appeared in approximately 100 movies or TV shows, but never really intended to take up acting as a career. He proved a gifted boy early in life. To the end of his life he remained a multi-talented, hyperactive man. Handsome, distinguished and extremely bright, he excelled at sports. He also excelled academically, and attended the Lycéee Janson de Sailly in Paris, where he had followed his divorced mother.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr
Douglas Fairbanks Jr

Very early in his life he developed a taste for the arts as well and became a painter and sculptor. Not content to limiting himself to just one field, he became involved in business. He was involved in fields as varied as mining, hotel management, owning a chain of bowling alleys and a firm that manufactured popcorn.

His film career began at the age of 13 when he was signed by Paramount Pictures. He debuted in Stephen Steps Out (1923) but the film flopped and his career stagnated despite a critically acclaimed role in Stella Dallas (1925). Things really picked up when he married Lucille Le Sueur, a young starlet who was soon to become better known as Joan Crawford. The young couple became the toast of the town (one “Screen Snapshots” episode echoes this sudden glory) and good parts and success followed, such as the hapless partner of Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (1931) a favorably reviewed turn as the villain in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) or more debonair characters in slapstick comedies or adventure yarns.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr on the set of Gunga Din
Douglas Fairbanks Jr on the set of Gunga Din

The 1930s were a fruitful period for Fairbanks, his most memorable role probably being that of the British soldier in Gunga Din (1939); although it was somewhat of a “swasbuckling” role, Fairbanks made a point of never imitating his father.

Like many beautiful women, New York looks wonderful from a distance. From across the river. But the closer you come, the more you see the makeup. Sure, the Algonquin Hotel is still here. I roller-skated across the lobby as a boy. And the Netherland Hotel is now the Sherry Netherland. And there’s bits and pieces of the Upper West Side I still know. But how dirty it all is now. And dangerous. But it’s still exciting and it’s still my home. So I’m loyal to it, in a way.Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

During World War II he headed London’s Douglas Voluntary Hospital. He was also President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s special envoy for the Special Mission to South America in 1940 before becoming a lieutenant in the Navy and taking part in the Allies’ landing in Sicily and Elba in 1943. A fervent Anglophile, was knighted in 1949 and often entertained Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in his London mansion, “The Boltons”.

After retiring from the screen in the early 1950s Fairbanks, an avid Anglophile, settled in London for many years with his wife and three daughters. He thrived on eminent social and political connections, which included a close relationship with the royal family.

“I am not a socialite,” he once declared, “though I seem to have got the reputation for being one. I have some very good friends who happen to be in so-called Society; but Society as such is a bore and holds no fascination for me.”

He made his feature swan song in “Ghost Story” (1981), acting with fellow old timers Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and John Houseman. Fairbanks favored the stage in his later career, playing Professor Henry Higgins in a 1968-69 national tour of “My Fair Lady,” as well as touring in “Present Laughter and “Sleuth,” among other shows. As one of the last links to a glorious Hollywood past, he has frequently turned up in numerous feature and TV documentaries “American Cinema” (PBS, 1995), the Oscar-nominated “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” (1995) and segments of A&E’s “Biography” devoted to Loretta Young and John Wayne.

Personal life

His first notable relationship was with the actress Joan Crawford, whom he began to date seriously during the filming of Our Modern Maidens. Fairbanks and Crawford married on June 3, 1929 at St. Malachy in New York City. They travelled to Britain on a delayed honeymoon, where he was entertained by Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Beatrice Lillie, and Prince George, Duke of Kent.

He became active in both society and politics, but Crawford was far more interested in her career and had an affair with Clark Gable. In his first autobiography he would later admit that he was also unfaithful during that period and that he unsuccessfully pursued Katherine Hepburn during the filming of Morning Glory. The couple divorced in 1933 but the divorce would not become final for another year.

I never kissed my father until he was on his death bed. Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

On April 22, 1939, Fairbanks married Mary Lee Hartford, a former wife of Huntington Hartford, the A&P supermarket heir. He remained devoted to her until her death in 1988. They had three daughters: Daphne, Victoria and Melissa, as well as eight grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.

He wrote his autobiography, Salad Days, in 1988. In addition, Fairbanks wrote a chronicle of his experiences during the Second World War, A Hell of a War published in 1993. Beyond his two volumes of autobiography, Fairbanks collaborated with Richard Schickel on the illustrated survey of Fairbanks Sr. and Jr. called The Fairbanks Album (1975) and Jeffrey Vance with a critical study/biography of Fairbanks Sr. ultimately published as Douglas Fairbanks (2008).

On May 30, 1991, Fairbanks married Vera Lee Shelton, a merchandiser for QVC Network Inc.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr and his 3rd wife Vera
Douglas Fairbanks Jr and his 3rd wife Vera

Death and legacy

On the morning of May 7, 2000, Fairbanks died at the age of 90 of a heart attack and was interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California, in the same tomb as his father.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr Death
Death of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

He was awarded three Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Motion Pictures at 6318 Hollywood Blvd., for Radio at 6710 Hollywood Blvd. and for Television at 6661 Hollywood Blvd.

Further reading:

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Tells His Story (Some of It, That Is) – New York Times (1988)

“A Hell of a War”: An Interview with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. – U.S. Naval Institute (1993)

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