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By Kirsten Amann
When it comes to drinking occasions, May is off to the races! Kicking off with the Kentucky Derby on May 4th, followed by Cinco de Mayo on May 5th, Mother’s Day (which might call for a cocktail depending on your family dynamics) on May 12th, and finishing strong with Memorial Day on May 27th. By now, most of us are ready to shake off the seriousness of down and brown cocktails and welcome drinks made with white spirits and a lighter vibe. For this, I am pleased to introduce two versions of a cocktail, perfect for spring sipping, which is also an homage to the star of the silver screen Mary Pickford.

Mary Pickford is, by some estimations, the most powerful woman who ever worked in Hollywood. Born Gladys Louise Smith in Canada in 1892, her father died when she was just 4 years old. Her mother Charlotte struggled to provide for her three children and took in boarders for extra income, one of whom was a stage manager. Through this connection, Pickford made her stage debut in 1900, along with her siblings, as “Baby Gladys Smith” at Toronto’s Princess Theatre. The family would continue to work in theater and vaudeville shows and go on to tour across the U.S. and Canada, eventually making their way to Broadway. In 1907 she received her break, as well as her new stage name Mary Pickford, from producer David Belasco in The Warrens of Virginia.

Mary started working in the budding film industry in 1909 at the Biograph Company. Films then weren’t the glitzy, Barbenheimer-style productions that dominate pop culture today: they were silent, took 2-3 days to shoot, and lasted just 15-20 minutes. “Flickers” were also considered unseemly by serious thespians who believed them to be a passing fad, but they offered consistent pay and by Mary’s logic, if she could appear in as many as possible, she could build name recognition and demand for her talents. In her first two years with Biograph she made 72 pictures, and with her iconic ringlets and innocent appearance, her brand was strong. Additionally, Pickford had a restrained acting style that few stage greats could master when adapting to the screen. In promotions for her 1919 film “Tess of the Storm Country,” she was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart”, a moniker that prevailed until her death in 1979.

Mary was the first true Hollywood celebrity, and the first actor (male or female) to have her name listed on a movie theater marquee. She was the most popular actress in America, if not the world, in her heyday and earned a record-breaking salary of $10,000 a week in 1916. Her mother Charlotte was a shrewd negotiator who advocated for her daughter throughout her career, securing her ever better compensation and creative control over her work. In 1919, Mary teamed with Douglas Fairbanks (who would become her second husband), Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith to form the United Artists film company. She scored box office hits with Pollyanna and Rosita which both grossed over $1 million dollars in 1920. Mary had a creative vision for her films at UA and a hand in who was hired at all levels. Writers, directors, actors, costume designers, and cinematographers could all be fired on the spot if their work wasn’t satisfactory — and she paid them top dollar if it was.

Mary’s first talkie was Coquette in 1929, garnering her a Best Actress Oscar from the Academy (which she also helped found.) Sound moved into film as Mary moved into her 30s, and because her starring roles depicted her as young even in adulthood, sometimes 10 or 11, her star began to fade. She moved behind the scenes graciously, producing and presiding over Hollywood as a grand dame. “Those who knew Miss Pickford well invariably remarked on her business shrewdness and her parsimony,” wrote THE NEW YORK TIMES in her 1979 obituary. “From 1919 to her retirement, she earned at least a million dollars a year as an actor‐producer with United Artists, and then there were large sums from real‐estate investments and her holdings in United Artists. Her fortune at her death was estimated at $50 million.”

THE MARY PICKFORD COCKTAIL Mary Pickford’s legacy has lent itself to two great cocktails with which you can raise a toast to this pioneer of American cinema, both named the Mary Pickford Cocktail. Both are made with light spirits (gin and rum, respectively) and are sure to lift yours, so work them into the spring libation repertoire. Many sources will tell you that the Mary Pickford Cocktail first appeared in the 1928 volume When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba by Basil Woon, chronicling the vibes of vacationing in Havana in this period. Woon was a British playwright and journalist who was hired by the Cuban government to promote the country, and When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba certainly makes Havana sound like a good time. In the game of telephone that is cocktail history, the Mary Pickford is understood as a Cuban classic (two-thirds pineapple juice and one-third Bacardi, with a dash of grenadine), whipped up for the starlet by American expat bartender Fred Kaufman at Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where she sipped it gayly alongside her husband, Douglas Fairbanks between film shoots.

“It’s a nice yarn,” wrote Cari Beauchamp in a 2021 VANITY FAIR story about the cocktail, “But a thorough review of Mary and Doug’s schedule reveals no trips to Cuba — and they never made a film there during their marriage.” Pickford did visit Cuba with her first husband, but that was way back in 1910. That said, it was trendy to name drinks after icons of pop culture (and remains so today; my Cowboy Carter cocktail list is currently in the works), and Pickford was not the only silent film star to have a cocktail named after her (hello, Charlie Chaplin!) The story of Pickford actually sipping on her namesake cocktail might be simply poetic license on the part of Basil Woon who, as Beauchamp points out, showed “little pretense of objectivity or accuracy in his works.” Woon was hired to elevate the image of the island, after all, and what better way to do that than to spread the word that Hollywood elites Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were fond of its cocktail scene.

That the drink originated in Havana is widely accepted, and the recipe appears in many of the important cocktail books published there during Prohibition. Four years prior to Basil Woon’s book, a recipe for a gin-based “Mari Pickford” cocktail appears in the Manual del Cantinero, a manual for Cuban bartenders by León Pujol and Oscar Muñiz in 1924. They were members of El Club de Cantineros de la Republica de Cuba, an early bartenders organization that was chartered in 1924. That Mary Pickford recipe is made with 1 glass Gordon’s gin, 1 teaspoon pineapple juice, 1/2 teaspoon maraschino, and 1/2 teaspoon grenadine.

What’s far more interesting than whether Mary sipped the drink when it was created is the vibrant mixology scene that existed in Havana pre- and during Prohibition. American tourism was already bustling on the island 90 miles to our south in the 1910s, but Prohibition would see out-of-work bartenders flocking to Cuba in droves. American-style bars proliferated: “estimates suggest there were some 7,000 bars in 1920s Havana,” writes Ian Cameron in the DIFFORD’S GUIDE. The effect was to Americanize cocktail culture in Havana, making the Cantineros club an important professional organization for Cuban bartenders looking to stake claim to jobs in their home city. “Cantineros were expected to be able to speak English and train at certain levels: there was an apprentice level, a Journeyman level, where the bartender had to demonstrate they could remember how to make 100 drinks; and the Cantinero level which required them to commit 200 drinks to memory and demonstrate their ability at national competitions,” writes Cameron. Manual del Cantinero was their guide.

During Prohibition the rum iteration of the Mary Pickford became a popular tipple in the U.S. and Europe, and appears in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book circa 1930, Harry’s recipe calls for 1/2 Bacardi Rum, 1/2 Pineapple juice, a teaspoonful of grenadine, and 6 drops of Maraschino. The drink is sweet and palatable as the silver screen star was herself, and a lovely homage to Mary Pickford.

1.5 ounces of white rum
1.5 ounces of pineapple juice
1 tsp of fresh grenadine
6 dashes of maraschino liqueur
SHAKE ingredients with ice.
STRAIN into a chilled cocktail glass.

1.5 ounces of Gordon’s gin (or any London dry gin)
1 tsp pineapple juice
.5 tsp maraschino liqueur
.5 tsp grenadine
SHAKE ingredients with ice,
STRAIN into a chilled cocktail glass.