“Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse” perfectly describes actress and model, Olive Thomas. She did all three.
She was born Oliva R. Duffy in the tiny Pittsburgh-area borough of Charleroi, Pennsylvania on October 20, 1894. At just 16 years old, she left her widowed mother’s home and married a man named Bernard Krugh Thomas. The marriage didn’t last long. Olive and Bernard divorced just two years later in 1913, and she left Pennsylvania to for New York City to stay with an aunt.
And New York City is where her legend began….
In 1914 she entered and won a contest held by artist Howard Chandler Christy to find the most beautiful girl in New York City. Her long, dark curls, gray eyes, and curvaceous build were an artist’s dream, and she quickly found work as a model for artists such as Harrison Fisher, William Haskell Coffin, and others.
Fisher allegedly wrote a letter to Florenz Ziegfeld and recommended that he use Olive in the Ziegfeld Follies. But Olive claimed that she simply walked up to the impresario and asked for a job. It really doesn’t matter how she got into the Follies, the fact is, she got there, and was prominently featured in the racy Midnight Frolic, an after hours show in which the girls paraded around half-dressed (or wore nothing but balloons) for wealthy businessmen.
Olive collected a long list of powerful suitors during her time at the New Amsterdam Theatre—and a large pile of gifts worth thousands of dollars.
Thomas could have any man she wanted—and she chose Jack Pickford, the wild younger brother of screen legend Mary Pickford. He had built up a reputation for himself before he turned 20 years old, and was known by many as “Mr. Syphilis” (Charming, eh?) The couple secretly eloped in New Jersey in October of 1916 and began a married life full of drugs, alcohol, drunken car crashes, and volatile fights. It was a marriage made in hell, but they couldn’t stay away from one another. And, as you will find out later in this post, it ended in tragedy.
In addition to getting married in 1916, Olive entered into the burgeoning world of motion pictures. Her first screen appearance was in Beatrice Fairfax, as a character named Rita Malone. She went on to star in 22 other motion pictures, including a role that defined an entire generation of women—1920’s The Flapper. Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore and many other famous actresses throughout the 1920s played flappers, but Olive was the very first to bring this modern woman to the big screen.
Thomas played a pampered teenage Senator’s daughter named Genevieve “Ginger” King from Orange Springs, Florida. In the first five minutes of the film, dad speaks with a priest and decides to send Ginger to a boarding school near New York. He thinks that this school and its stern headmistress will straighten up his unruly daughter. It didn’t. When she got there she became involved with a much older man and participated in all sorts of hijinks with the other girls in the school. And she was eventually strong-armed by a girl named Hortense and her creepy boyfriend into holding a trunk full of stolen jewelery and expensive clothes.
The Flapper is a cute film and really showed off Olive’s potential as a great actress. (Keep your eyes peeled for Norma Shearer…she has an uncredited role as one of the girls at the boarding school…) Olive was well on her way to becoming a superstar in the cinema—she probably wouldn’t be as big as her sister-in-law Mary, but she was talented. That was obvious.
In August of 1920, she and Jack Pickford headed for a much-needed vacation in Paris. Their schedules made it almost impossible to have any time alone together, and when they did manage to see one another, it was usually disastrous. So France was a second honeymoon for them.
Several weeks later on September 5, 1920, the couple returned to the Hotel Ritz in Paris after a night of heavy drinking and possible drug use. Sometime after 3 A.M., Olive entered the washroom and ingested a large amount of the mercury bichloride prescribed as a topical treatment for Jack’s syphilis.
It is unclear where Jack was when she ingested the mercury, and there are rumors about why she drank it—some say she thought it was a flask of drinking water or alcohol, some say she knew what was in it and intentionally committed suicide after finding out she had contracted an STD. We don’t really know what happened in the hotel room that night, and we never will. All we do know for sure is that Olive Thomas was poisoned, and that Jack Pickford allegedly tried to offset it by shoving eggshells down her throat. It was of no use. The poison severely burned her esophagus and blinded her. She was taken to the American Hospital in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, but there was nothing doctors could do. She died 5 days later, a little less than one month after her 25th birthday.
She still lives on in motion pictures (copies of The Flapper and Beatrice Fairfax are widely available), and some people believe that Olive haunts the stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street where she entertained so many people as a Ziegfeld Girl.
Let me know what you think about Olive Thomas’s wild, short life by leaving a comment below. This post is part of an ongoing series featuring silent film stars; if you would like to see more posts like this, please feel free to subscribe via RSS or e-mail to receive updates. I look forward to your feedback.
- NYC’s Ziegfeld Theatre facing money woes (upi.com)
- Ziegfeld Follies Girl on the cover of Theatre Magazine, 1925 (weheartvintage.co)