Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. 1909-2000

N E W Y O R K, May 7 - Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the rakishly handsome actor, producer, author and businessman who was a real-life war hero and friend of royalty, died this morning. He was 90.

A spokesman for Manhattan's Frank E. Campbell funeral home confirmed Fairbanks' death. He did not disclose the cause of death. The son of the swashbuckling superstar of silent films, Fairbanks made his own mark in some 75 movies, including "Catherine the Great," "The Prisoner of Zenda," "Gunga Din," "Little Caesar," "Sinbad the Sailor" and "State Secret."

"I never tried to emulate my father. Anyone trying to do that would be a second-rate carbon copy," he once said. "I was determined to be my own man, although having the Fairbanks name did make it easier to get into an office to see someone."

His stepmother was America's sweetheart, Mary Pickford. His first wife was Joan Crawford. He said he had affairs with Marlene Dietrich and Gertrude Lawrence.

Honorary Knighthood

King George VI of England gave him an honorary knighthood for "furthering Anglo-American amity."

He became the first American officer to command a British flotilla of raiding craft during a commando operation in World War II. He served under Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten, who later introduced him to his nephew, Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth.

Fairbanks became a favorite of the royal couple, entertaining them at his home, much to the chagrin of Mayfair society. The first time they came he had a couple of singers to entertain them - Maurice Chevalier and Cab Calloway.

"Entree into the Fairbankses' home is a hundred times more difficult that getting a ticket for the coronation," sniffed one newspaper columnist.

'Enormously Lucky Life'

But Fairbanks and his wife knew how to entertain. When they gave a spectacular coming out party for their daughter Daphne in 1957, the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Margaret stayed until dawn.

"I've led an enormously lucky life," he reflected in 1989. "I've done what I wanted to do. I worked hard and played hard, and it was all tremendously rewarding. I just wish it could go on and on and on."

Fairbanks was born in New York City on Dec. 9, 1909-the only son of Douglas Fairbanks and his first wife, Anna. His parents divorced when he was 9 and he lived with his mother.

He attended private schools in New York and California and was tutored in London and Paris. He and his father were not close.

"He was very undemonstrative. There was never an embrace or a hug. And he was never around-he'd disappear for months on end. He'd never remember birthdays or Christmas," Fairbanks recalled in a New York Times interview.

Career Began As Teen

His movie career began at age 13 with an appearance in "Stephen Steps Out." The film was not a success and he resumed his studies for a time. But in 1925 he made several more films, and the influential movie magazine "Photoplay" said of Fairbanks, "he is considered a real bet, with much of his father's charm and artistry."

He made his stage debut in Los Angeles in 1927, earning good reviews. He began getting better movie roles, appearing with Greta Garbo in "A Woman of Affairs" and in a Frank Capra film, "The Power of the Press," both 1928.

His career picked up with the arrival of sound. In the early 1930s he had a string of film successes, including a showy role in "Little Caesar," then was able to write his own ticket. "I demanded and received approval of cast, story and director. I don't know how I got away with it, but I did!" he recalled.

Married Joan Crawford

At age 19 he married Joan Crawford, then the quintessential flapper in films such as "Our Dancing Daughters." They divorced four years later in 1933. He said they parted because he had many interests while "work to her was the only reality."

But he said they remained friendly until her death in 1977. "The Joan Crawford that I've heard about in 'Mommie Dearest' is not the Joan Crawford I knew back when," he once said.

In 1939, he married Mary Lee Epling Hartford, former wife of A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford. They had three daughters. Fairbanks had a lifelong interest in international affairs and cultivated friends in high places. In 1941 President Roosevelt appointed him a special envoy to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Panama.

Earned Chestful of Medals

A lieutenant, j.g., in the U.S. Navy Reserve, he was called to active service later that year and served until 1946. He trained and led commando units, doing convoy service on the dangerous Murmansk run.

He earned a chestful of medals, including an American Silver Star, the British Distinguished Service Cross and the French Legion of Honor. A French commendation said in part:

"With electric power gone, radio shot away, with German shells continually straddling or near-missing his ships, he successfully deployed the unit behind a smoke screen and emerged in a new and tactically superior position." He closed with the enemy and, after an intense exchange of fire, "both German ships were sunk."

After the war, Fairbanks was chairman of the fund-raising committee for CARE, which sent more than $150 million worth of food parcels and other goods to European countries.

Returned to Show Biz

He resumed his film career with "Sinbad the Sailor"-one of the biggest hits of 1946. His last movie was "Ghost Story" in 1981.

In addition to acting, he was involved in a variety of business interests-from ball point pens to land development, theatrical copyrights to film production.

In the 1950s, he produced 160 episodes of a television anthology series called "Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents." He starred in approximately a quarter of the 30-minute programs, which were filmed in England.

In his 50s and 60s he appeared in revivals of "My Fair Lady" and "The Pleasure of His Company" as well as a variety of TV specials and guest appearances on shows ranging from "Laugh-In" to "Love Boat." He once said he was proudest of his writings, the articles and stories he published over the years. He published the first volume of his autobiography, "The Salad Days," in 1988.

His biggest regret, he said at the time, "is not having written a play. I believe very strongly that you should follow your star. It doesn't matter if you succeed as long as you make the effort."

His second wife died of cancer in 1988. In 1991, Fairbanks married merchandiser Vera Shelton.

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