A Fairbanks Encounter
by Susan Marie Gordon
When I discovered that Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was going to be at the 1990 Virginia Film Festival at UVA in Charlottesville, less than 150 miles from my home, I knew I had to attend. He’d been one of my favorite actors ever since I first saw him in Sinbad the Sailor on TV back around 1978 when I was just 13-years-old. I loved his charm, his wit, his grace, and his melodious voice. I’ve always adored both swashbucklers and suave, sophisticated, dashing English gentlemen. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was always the latter and quite often the former. OK, so he wasn’t really English. Still he was about as close to being English as you can get while still being an American-the perfect Anglophile.
The festival was showing his father’s The Thief of Baghdad and Fairbanks had been asked to introduce the film. First, Governor Wilder introduced Fairbanks, Jr. listing all, well at least a great many, of his honors and accomplishments in the entertainment industry, the military, and the field of diplomacy. Fairbanks then took the podium and, perhaps pleasingly embarrassed at how very glowing his own introduction had been, remarked, “I wish my daughters had heard that.” He then proceeded to talk about his father and film making in the 1920s.
I had been advised by my father to take my copy of The Salad Days along with me in case I had an opportunity for Fairbanks to autograph it. I had scoffed at the idea thinking to myself, “Right, like I’m going to have a chance to get up close to him.” Still, I had taken my father’s advice all the same and was I ever glad I did. During the film’s intermission when the lights when up, I turned around and noticed that Fairbanks and the governor were sitting not too far from me. I also noticed to my great surprise that hardly anyone was paying all that much attention to our star. I was so star struck I was afraid I would not have the courage to do what I knew I wanted to do so badly-approach him. Oh sure, I’d fought my way through a mob the year before to greet Jimmy Stewart, but when a hundred others were doing the same, it didn’t seem so frightening. And I’d likewise approached Jane Wyatt after she’d participated in a panel discussion [She is quite a fine lady.] and had had friendly, albeit brief, conversations with Susan Strasberg and Edward Albee in college. This, however, was one of my idols standing there before me, and a fear of saying something absolutely stupid suddenly seized me. But I screwed my “courage to the sticking place” and bravely made my way toward him.
Just as I reached him, he started to exit. It seems the governor wanted to show him something in the lobby. I was sure that my moment of cowardly hesitation had cost me my one and only chance of ever speaking to him, and I was inspired with a sudden boldness, “Could I please have your autograph?” I asked. He was already starting to leave and began to beg off when he saw that what I was asking him to sign was not the evening’s program but rather a copy of his autobiography. He stopped and most graciously complied with my request. I knew he was in a hurry to leave and I had better say something quick if I was going to say something at all. All that came out was a heartfelt, “I loved you in The Prisoner of Zenda.” That’s when his eyes met mine, and he smiled at me. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. smiled at me! I don’t know what he was thinking, but I like to think he was pleased to know that his work from more than fifty years past was still enthralling young viewers like myself. Fifty years from now I’m sure other young girls will likewise find themselves falling for Rupert of Hentzau, Sinbad, Ballantine and all his other roles as well-and best of all the man, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., himself.