On December 9th, 1909 Douglas Elton Fairbanks, Jr. was born to Douglas Fairbanks and his first wife, Anna Beth Sully in New York. Fairbanks’ upbringing consisted mostly of moving back and forth from the east to the west coast and overseas. He was raised by his mother and seldom saw his father after his parents divorce in 1919.
In his autobiography, Fairbanks describes his education as being “very dicey.” He reluctantly began his education at an exclusive school in Los Angeles, California called the Hollywood School for Girls. After the divorce of his parents, he and his mother moved to New York and he experienced his first educational slump. After a period of no schooling, he was finally enrolled in New York’s Bovee School, an exclusive boys grammar school. At this time, his mother entered him into an after school drill academy called the Knickerbocker Grey’s institution. Fairbanks was assigned to the Drum Corps. and only lasted one year in the institution before leaving. He moved back to the west coast and was enrolled in the Harvard Military School in Los Angeles. The last school he attended was the Pasadena Polytechnic School. The school was far away from home but the drive allowed him to spend some quality time with his father. The school also provided him with his first experience as a stage actor. Not long after, he and his mother moved to France where he was tutored and took lessons in painting, drawing, and sculpting (all art forms that Fairbanks continued to create during his lifetime). His private lessons continued upon moving back to Los Angeles where he was to begin making his first film.
In 1923, Fairbanks entered the movies. He struggled through the silent years of cinema to make a name for himself. He gained recognition for films such as Stella Dallas (1925), A Woman of Affairs (1928), and Our Modern Maidens (1929). It was during his rise to stardom that he met and fell in love with Joan Crawford. The two married in 1929 and carried on a widely publicized romance. Hollywood’s biggest female star had married the Prince of Hollywood. To many movie fans, it was a marriage as perfect as that of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. to Mary Pickford (The King and Queen of Hollywood). Unfortunately, the marriage was too good to be true and fell apart in 1933.
Fairbanks’ star continued to rise throughout the 1930s. Splitting his time between Europe and the United States, he made 38 films in the 1930s. Notable films include Little Caesar (1931), Catherine the Great (1934), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and Gunga Din (1939). It was also during this time that he met his second wife, and true love, Mary Lee Epling, who had been previously married to the heir to the A&P Grocery Corporation. Fairbanks remained married to Mary Lee until her death in 1988. They had three daughters together – Victoria, Daphne, and Melissa.
In 1934, Fairbanks created his own film company called Criterion Films, Ltd. The company had inadequate funding and was only able to release three films with the help of United Artists (the company founded in part by Fairbanks, Sr.). Fairbanks acted in three of the films: The Amateur Gentleman (1936), Accused (1936), and When Thief Meets Thief, also known as Jump for Glory (1937). Fairbanks resigned due to dissatisfaction with how the company was being managed.
By 1937, Fairbanks had become increasingly involved in political affairs surrounding the growing tensions in Europe. It was during this period that he began to work closely with President Roosevelt. He performed official and semi-official tasks for the President including a trip to Latin America where he was to attempt to convince Latin Americans to side with the Allies. In 1940, he became the national vice president and head of the Southern California branch of the White Committee. The White Committee was an organization that attempted to shift public opinion by encouraging Americans to defend and aid the Allies in Europe. To show his support of the Allies, Fairbanks established Douglas Voluntary Hospitals in the British countryside from 1939 to roughly 1943.
In 1941, Fairbanks joined the United States Naval Reserve as a lieutenant (j.g.) and headed out to the seas. Over the next few years, he served on destroyers, helped develop deception tactics, was the brains behind the creation of the Beach Jumpers unit, and was involved in several invasions in Italy and France. For his achievements in the war, he won several medals and was made an honorary knight by King George VI (See Military). Fairbanks left the service as a Lieutenant Commander. He continued to serve in the Naval Reserves until his retirement in 1955. He retired as a Captain.
Fairbanks continued to act throughout the 1940s. Before heading out to war, he starred in The Corsican Brothers (1941). After the war, he made one of his most memorable films Sinbad, the Sailor (1947). Another notable film from this period is The Exile (1947) in which he produced, wrote, and starred.
By the 1950s, Fairbanks’ film career had slowed down quite a bit. He started to produce and act in a television series called Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Presents: The Rheingold Theatre. From 1952-57, Fairbanks produced 160 episodes and acted in around 40 of them. Fairbanks continued to work in television throughout the 1960s-80s by starring in several television specials and making appearances on various series (See Television). Fairbanks also worked in the theatre and participated in several plays (See Stage).