05/28/2013 03:32 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

On Top of the Magic Flagpole of Celebrity

Getty Images

Mary Pickford was the best known and loved woman star of her glittering Hollywood decade. In her retirement years, when she lived in her Beverly Hills mansion, Pickfair, I was a youthful partner of hers in PRB, Inc., a production firm. (The initials PRB, Inc., the name of the firm, represent Mary, her husband Buddy Rogers and myself).

I left in 1951 to become an Episcopal priest. I still cherish many quiet conversations with Mary, who became a good and trusted friend. I remember one day when we were quietly caught up in an intimate conversation. We were looking to the past and those years when Mary reigned as the first global female star as well as the hard-working co-founder of United Artists.

Mary had long been at the top as a celebrity, a star, an executive and a world figure. Somehow our conversation drifted to the subject: What's it like for someone who has reached the top? Mary was in a talkative mood.

"It seems to me similar to finding yourself at the top of a flagpole," she said. "In the first place you're all alone up there. However, you must defend yourself from others who want to be where you are. They threaten you. At such a great height I've felt dizziness.

"Looking down, I could see others who were so distant they somehow resembled ants. But I lost all sense of a relationship with them. So a widening gulf distorted my perspective. It's cold at the top of a flagpole. Winds howl. The pole seems to be greased.

"If I should make just one slip, I'd slide down the entire way. There was no escaping the feeling that some people far below apparently hated me. Wouldn't they hate anyone who was at the top? It really hurt when some of them hurled mud and rocks trying to dislodge me."

Of course, Mary's response caused me to wonder why anyone would wish to be placed in a situation so emotionally precarious. Or, I might add, so often uncomfortable. It reminded me of a night in New York: It was my birthday. Mary planned a small dinner party for me at "21." Plans got changed, other events intervened. Well, Mary and I ended up late in the bar of the Sherry-Netherland. We would celebrate my birthday, come hell or high water. Suddenly I became aware the pianist in the bar was playing "Coquette." It was a part of the folklore about Mary's silent film "Coquette." The situation changed instantly when Mary nudged my arm and said, "Please be sure to tip him, darling." Suddenly it was no longer my birthday or anything personal. Mary, the star personality, was being acknowledged in a public place. Intimacy was out. Public relations was in.

All of us share in the obvious tragic-comic lives of celebrities. This was brought to the fore once again with the release of a new film "Behind the Candlelabra," about entertainer icon Liberace. Years ago, when his careeer was at its peak, he visisted London and was confronted by headlines he found upsetting when they involved his mother. "The 'Mom' cult is here," headlined a British newspaper. It added: "Liberace is their dimpled-cheeked god."

Liberace complained that British newspaper references to"Momism" had so upset his mother that she had been bedridden. Liberace said: "Everyone has to trust a certain number of non-believers or even enemies. I suppose that's why they shot Lincoln and crucified Jesus."

Maybe everyone -- whether a celebrity or a bystander, a critic or someone reading a newspaper or watching TV -- should strive for at least a modicum of humor or restraint or objectivity when it comes to celebrityhood. Both celebrities and non-celebrities get into pants one foot-and-leg at a time; find themselves thrust into family arguments and disagreements; worry about the calories in cookies; agree or disagree occasionally about what is actually sexy.

I wish that Mary Pickford could have been a bit more relaxed about her own fame. Perhaps a bit less threatened or disturbed by it.

Wouldn't it be great if all of us -- you and I, for instance -- might take ourselves a wee bit less seriously?