Lady Sylvia Ashley
Born Sylvia Edith Louise Hawkes in Paddington, London on April 1 to Arthur, a poor pub keeper and his wife, Edith. Year of birth has been stated to be anywhere between 1906 and 1911.
5’3, blonde, blue-eyed.
“We’ve both been married before, and we know it takes two to make a quarrel, and we are not going to make the mistakes either of us made in any previous marriage. Besides, we have so many things in common. I love to fish, and I love my home. There is only one thing we won’t share together, and that’s hunting. I’ll go with him while he hunts, but I couldn’t shoot a gun, nor could I kill anything.”
“I’m crazy about the man and I always will be.”
“My marriage to Douglas Fairbanks was perfect. He was ideal, gay, intelligent and charming. My other husbands? It would not be dignified to discuss them.” (1954)
Sylvia ran away from home at the age of fifteen and became a lingerie model and soon after, a chorus girl. She was dancing in a revue in London when she met Lord Anthony Ashley, the Ninth Duke of Shaftesbury and married him soon after. She became the subject of great scandal when, in 1934, her husband filed for divorce and named Hollywood heavyweight Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (then the husband of “America’s Sweetheart “Mary Pickford) co-respondent. For nearly three years the drama dragged on until their divorces were final. Sylvia met great resistance in Hollywood as the new Mrs. Fairbanks, as Douglas and Mary were Hollywood’s royal couple. After Douglas died of a heart attack in December 1939 (at the young age of 56), leaving Sylvia the bulk of his estate, Sylvia split her time between London and Hollywood, counting among her friends Norma Shearer and Loretta Young. In 1944, she married Lord Stanley of Alderly and he filed for divorce a year later. After much mudslinging and lawsuits back and forth, they were finally divorced in 1948.
How They Met
Clark and Sylvia first locked eyes at a party at his agent Minna Wallis’ house in the summer of 1949. He had arrived at the party with socialite Dolly O’Brien as his date, but spent most of the evening dancing with Sylvia. They dated off and on for a few months but nobody thought much of the relationship because Clark was also dating Dolly and Virginia Grey, among others.
Clark called his pal and MGM publicity man Howard Strickling and told him he was getting married and to arrange a private wedding. Howard, like all of Clark’s friends, said, “Married? To who?” and was surprised at the answer. Clark and Sylvia were married in the living room of one of Howard’s friends homes in Solvang, near Santa Barbara. Sylvia’s sister and brother-in-law, Clark’s personal secretary Jean Garceau and Howard (the best man) attended. The quick ceremony was performed by Lutheran minister Reverend Aage Miller and afterward the newlyweds cut their tiered wedding cake with an antique sword. They drove to San Francisco then took off on a two week honeymoon to Hawaii, where the press followed them and took shots of them planting a palm tree together and smooching on the beach.
Upon their return from their honeymoon, Sylvia promptly took it upon herself to redecorate Clark’s beloved ranch, which had not been altered since Carole had decorated it years before. A crystal chandelier was added to the entryway, her English antiques were spread around the house, two new rooms were constructed and, most surprisingly, she received no complaints from Clark when she replaced all the furniture in Carole’s bedroom and painted the walls pink (his least favorite color). He called her “Bird” or “Ducky Doodle” and confided in friends that she was a “wildcat in the sack.” But it didn’t take long for Clark to tire of Sylvia’s extravagant ways. She had weekly salon appointments, was constantly shopping for clothes, required her own personal maid and was frequently giving money to her teenage nephew whom Clark couldn’t stand. In sharp contrast to Clark, she liked to throw lavish formal dinner parties and attend Hollywood social events. She had no respect for his privacy and would invite her relatives and friends to be guests at the ranch, sometimes for weeks on end. Sylvia accompanied him on hunting trips, but proved only to be an embarrassment to him. She refused to hunt, she couldn’t fish well (especially not with all the jewelry she refused to remove hanging from her wrists and fingers) and Clark’s attempts to show her how to cook over a campfire failed. His friends referred to her as “her ladyship” and laughed at Clark carrying around Sylvia’s little terrier and buying it a diamond collar.
Friends noticed Clark had become increasingly irritable and tense as the months wore on. He became very distant toward Sylvia and started drinking heavily. She soon started spending more and more time in her native England. After she returned from one trip and was in the bath soaking in her tub, he came in, said “I want a divorce” and walked out. She later recalled, “At first I couldn’t believe Clark was serious. I stayed on at the house for several weeks, during which time he rarely spoke to me. When he did, he was very sullen. I tried everything I knew how to get him to change his mind. Ultimately, I had to give in.” After she finally moved out, Clark promptly fired any help she had hired, changed all the locks, and started to undo her renovations to the house. Sylvia filed for divorce on May 31, 1951.After nearly a year of separation, the divorce was final on April 21, 1952. At the divorce hearing, Sylvia tearfully testified that she was neglected and that Clark repeatedly told her he wasn’t cut out to be a married man any longer. Clark told reporters afterward that he considered Sylvia a good woman and he was sorry it didn’t work out. Privately, he told friends he “must have been drunk” when he proposed and that he was relieved she as out of his life for good.
Life After Clark
Sylvia wasn’t alone long and married Prince Dmitri Djordjadze (a Georgian race car driver and hotel developer) in 1954. They became estranged less than a year later but ultimately never divorced. She refused all requests for interviews about Clark after their marriage. Even after his death, she would say, “It’s a period in my life I do not care to discuss.” and “It was a bad time in my life and I don’t like to talk about it.”
Sylvia died of bone cancer on June 29,1977 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery under the name “Princess Sylvia Djordjadze”.
Sylvia Ashley section in the gallery
Sylvia Ashley category in blog posts
My visit to Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where Sylvia is buried
My 2015 News Clippings Series:
Articles in The Article Archive: