Icons / September 2015

Boy Wonders: Douglas Fairbanks Sr & Jr

Douglas Fairbanks Sr didn't exactly give his son his blessing when Jr decided to copy his dad and become an actor, and it was many years before the 'boy' became a man - at least in his father's eyes.

It is a brave son who follows in the footsteps of his father's career, especially when that career has made the man one of the most famous people in the world. But then there always was a dark undercurrent to the relationship between Douglas Fairbanks and his son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, whose very naming seems to tempt fate with a call to emulation. Not for nothing did Fairbanks Sr refer to him as 'the boy'. The subtext: there could be only one Douglas Fairbanks. More ominously, Jr's Irish nurse pronounced the patronising moniker 'bye', as in 'goodbye'. 'Bye' became a nickname that stuck.

Of course, Fairbanks Jr didn't just disappear. As his father's romantic-hero looks were beginning to deteriorate - much as had his marriages, to Jr's mother, Anna Beth Sully, heir to a cotton fortune, and to an alcoholic Mary Pickford - Fairbanks Jr was, even at 14, the stuff movie stars are made of: good looking, artistic (he exhibited paintings and sculptures as a teenager), already on screen, and, in part thanks to the attention afforded his celebrity parent, relaxed in front of a camera.

'I never tried to emulate my father,' Fairbanks Jr once said. 'Anyone trying to do that would be a second-rate carbon copy. My respect for his work is so considerable that I don't believe anyone could emulate him.' Yet he proved himself wrong, even though his career spanned the competitive golden era of the all- colour talkies (Fairbanks Jr was up against the likes of Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman, for example). It was some achievement in such a fickle business, and few Hollywood sons can claim to have matched it.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.