Fame and remembrance. These are two elements of life that most aspire to, and some achieve. However, how one reaches the pinnacle of fame, and how one is remembered, should always be considered in one’s quest. For Sylvia Ashley, this could not be truer, for hers is a legacy, and a memory, that was chiefly defined by who she was with at any given time, and only fleetingly for what she, herself, accomplished.
Born in 1906, Sylvia Hawkes aspired to, and had a brief career, in musical comedy. Soon, her profession changed, from chorus girl to well-placed wife. And, in this new vocation, she had many bookings.
Sylvia’s first marriage was widely rumored to be simply a purchase of a title, as she wed Lord Ashley of London, the heir to the Ninth Earl of Shaftesbury. On November 28, 1934, Lord Ashley obtained a divorce in London, naming a famed actor as co-respondent. Meanwhile, in 1933, the golden couple of Hollywood, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, announced their retirement from motion pictures and, soon thereafter, their separation. On January 14, 1936, Fairbanks’ divorce from Pickford became official. As a consequence to the Ashley divorce, Fairbanks did not contest the suit, and agreed to pay all the legal costs. On March 7, 1936, he married his longtime mistress, Lady Sylvia Ashley, in Paris. Sylvia was strangely attracted to her new husband, despite the fact that, at the time of their marriage, bride was 29, husband, 52. But a new element was added to his life; Sylvia liked to stay up late at night and party. It has been said that Fairbanks never took a drink in his life until those last few years with Sylvia, in an effort to please his new wife and appear sociable. Mary Pickford was not so kind in her comments about the new Mrs. Fairbanks: “That woman will kill him,” Mary said, shortly before her own marriage to bandleader and actor Charles “Buddy” Rogers in 1937. Other friends who were close to Fairbanks at the time agreed with Mary, including his own son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. They all worried that the late nights, his drinking, rich diet, and three-pack-a-day cigarrete habit were taking a toll on him as he struggled to keep up with his energetic young wife. They were right. Doug’s health was starting to fail him; he began to experience heart trouble. The doctor’s diagnosis was straightforward: no more leaping from balconies. The final years of his life were spent between an endless flurry of cruise ships (Fairbanks was an experienced world traveler) and in quiet retirement at his home at 705 Ocean Front (now Pacific Coast Highway), in Santa Monica. On December 12, 1939, at 12:45am, Douglas Fairbanks died in his sleep of a heart attack at age 56. Sylvia Fairbanks learned of the death of her husband after responding to the baleful moans of Fairbanks’ mastif bulldog, Marco Polo; she collapsed at the news, and was placed under the care of Dr. Philip Sampson. Soon, her sister, Mrs. Basil Bleck, arrived to stay with Sylvia.
Say what one will about Sylvia Ashley — her arrangements for the final resting place of her second husband were without fault. And it was in this element that she, perhaps, shone as at no other time in her life, simply for being kind, creative, and selfless. The funeral service for Douglas Fairbanks was held at the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather Church, on the grounds of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California. Afterwards, a temporary vault in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn was Fairbanks’ resting place for the next seventeen months. In that almost-year-and-a-half, Mrs. Fairbanks commissioned a memorial, and decided on Hollywood Cemetery as her late husband’s permanent plot. After many proposals, Howard Seidell won the right to design the powerful monument, with long rectangular reflecting pool, raised tomb, and classic Greek architecture; Catherine Steubergh designed the model of the Fairbanks plaque and laurel wreath. The final cost of the stunning Fairbanks memorial: $40,000. It was dedicated on what would have been the 58th birthday of Douglas Fairbanks, May 23, 1941. Mrs. Fairbanks, who had final say in every stage of design, was pleased with the final result, as she stated in a letter to the designer, Seidell: “The memorial is indeed exquisite, with all the classic dignity and perfect symmetry that my husband loved so well.”
Meanwhile, on January 16, 1942, an airplane, carrying actress Carole Lombard and others who had just returned from a War Bonds drive, crashed into the rugged terrain of Table Rock Mountain, near Las Vegas. Everyone on board was killed; the death of Lombard ended her storybook-romance, and marriage of less than three years, with debonair actor Clark Gable. Soon thereafter, the devastated Gable enlisted in the Air Force. Upon his release in 1945, he returned to acting, but he was not the same after Lombard’s tragic death: he gained weight, took to drink, and began to look older than his years. Perhaps still in the throes of intense grief, he sought to re-capture the magic of his great love … he took, as his fourth wife, Sylvia, who bore a great resemblence to Lombard. The two were married, on a ranch near Solvang, California, on December 20, 1949. The reality of the sacred institution of marriage hit soon: Sylvia Gable received a divorce, in Santa Monica, on April 21, 1952, after testifying that Gable had told her, “I wish to be free. I don’t want to be married to you or anyone else.” The property settlement in the dissolution of the marriage awarded Sylvia $6002.47 in cash, plus 10% of Gable’s $500,000 a year salary for the first year, and 7% for the next four years (Clark Gable’s MGM contract expired in 1954, and was not renewed; he married Kay Spreckels in 1955, and died on November 16, 1960, five months before Kay gave birth to his only son, John Clark Gable).
Sylvia was involved with more men than she married: notable among her minor conquests were fashion designer Oleg Cassini, and tall, dark, and handsome Robert Sweeny, Jr., a lanky California-born millionaire, a R.A.F. hero, and one-time (1937) British amateur golf champion. Sweeny had also, at one time, been engaged to heiress Barbara Hutton, who was once married to actor Cary Grant. Sylvia’s last husband was Prince Dmitri Djordjadze. He is best known, today, not for his nobility per se, but for his participation in a 24-hour race in Belgium, on July 4 and 5, 1931. Thirty-three machines lined up on July 4, 1931 for this race on the Spa circuit, ten being sports models and the other cars of standard type. The greatest distance was covered by Djordjadze and M. Zehender on a Mercedes-Benz; they covered 1,580.7 miles at a speed of 65.8 miles per hour. Seventeen cars were running at the end of the twenty-four hours, and all won prizes, owing to the numerous sub-divisions and classes into which the entrants were divided.
Throughout her adult life, she was always known, formally, as Lady Sylvia Ashley. She died on June 29, 1977, at the age of 71, and is buried in Section 8 of Hollywood Forever Cemetery — rather nearby the site of Douglas Fairbanks’ memorial — under her last married name, Sylvia Djordjadze. Hers was a life filled with scandal, short-lived and less-than-successful wedded unions, and great leisure and wealth. More often than not, it seemed as if she defined herself not as an individual, but by the man on her arm, and that is a shame, particularly owing to her intelligence and sensitivity, both exhibited so gracefully in her handling of the memorial to her second husband, Fairbanks. Her life, as well as her example, reminds us all to consider our desired roads in life with care, and with an eye towards how we will be remembered.