Friday, February 26, 2010

Miss Olive Thomas

Love her! Miss Ollie Thomas. I first heard about her in the trashy "Hollywood Babylon," but then I went on and learned much more about her. She was a beautiful young girl who was living life to the fullest and enjoying her new found fame and it seems got caught up the excesses. Who could blame her though? In her short life, she had a chance to be in the Ziegfeld Follies, be a silent film star, and marry Jack Pickford. The untimely and mysterious death of Olive has caused her to live on in Hollywood legend, but she deserves to be remembered for a beautiful young actress who was gone too soon. I would have loved to have met her...

She was born either Oliveretta Elaine Duffy or Oliva R. Duffy on October 20, 1894 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania. Her father died when she was young, so her mother had to raise her and her two younger brothers, James and William alone. Olive eventually had to quit school to help take care of the family.

At age 16, she married Bernard Krug Thomas. They were only married for two years (I saw in a documentary about Olive, that there are no known photographs of Bernard in existence...interesting). After the divorce, she moved to New York and worked in a department store.

She, like Clara Bow, made her break by entering her photo in a magazine contest. Olive won the chance to work as a model for artist Harrison Fisher and was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. It was Fisher who wrote a letter to Flo Ziegfeld, recommending Olive as a Follies Girl.

Olive mainly worked in the Midnight Frolic show, a more risque version of the Follies. One of the most famous parts of the Frolic was the fact that sometimes the girls wore only balloons as costumes, and the men who came to the show would pop them with their cigars. She, along with the other showgirls met plenty of wealthy men who showered them with money and jewelry.

After posing nude for artist Alberto Vargas, she was signed to the International Film Company. She appeared in the serials Beatrice Fairfax at this studio.

She then signed with Selznick Company. There, she honed an image of a baby vamp. She really popped onscreen in the film The Flapper. It was the first film where this term was used. (And look close to see Norma Shearer in the film as well!)

Olive married Jack Pickford on October 25, 1916, although the public didn't find out about it until a year later. She was afraid that people would think she was riding on the coat tails of the Pickford family in Hollywood, and she wanted to make a name for herself. Olive and Jack both liked to party and live life fast. They loved to drink and spend money and were often careless with it. In one instance, Olive bought Jack a new car...which he then crashed. Jack bought Olive a diamond bracelet...which she then lost. They were just two kids in love and having fun.

The Pickfords (namely Mary and her mother Charlotte) had mixed feelings about Olive apparently. They thought that they were too young to get married and that they were too wild to settle down. Mary did write fondly of her in her biography, and many of the Pickford clan attended Olive's funeral.

In August 1920, Jack and Ollie decided to take a second honeymoon in Paris, France. They lived it up and partied every night.

On September 20, 1920, after a long night out partying, the pair returned to their hotel room. The only two people who really know what happened that night are both dead, so there are many different speculations on what exactly occurred. But, the general idea is that Jack retired to bed (he may have been drunk or high) and Olive was having trouble sleeping and somehow managed to ingest mercury bichloride. It has been debated for the past 80+ years whether or not she drank the mercury on purpose as a suicide attempt, if she grabbed the wrong bottle on accident, or if Jack killed her by forcing her to drink it. Either did not end well.

She screamed "Oh my God!" and then collapsed into Jack's arms. He stated that he forced her to drink egg whites to help ease the pain and a doctor was called to pump her stomach. She was rushed to an American hospital where she lingered in agony for days. Her vocal chords were burned through and she was stricken blind. She died on September 10, 1920 with Jack and former brother in law, Owen Moore by her bedside.

Her body was brought back to the US and her funeral was held on September 29, 1920 in New York. She as interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. She was buried in a small mausoleum with the name "Pickford" on the stone marking, with the intent that Jack was to be buried beside her when he died. It did not happen. Jack was buried with his mother, and two sisters at Forest Lawn in California.

Poor Olive. It breaks my heart when I read about how much she suffered when she died. My take on how she died was that it was in fact an accident. I don't think she intending to die, nor would I ever believe that Jack would kill her. I think she was disoriented from being out drinking and partying all night, it was dark, and the label was said to be written in French and she was confused. No matter what happened, it was a tragedy. Its said that she haunts the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City. I want to pay that place a visit one day. It would be pretty great to run into Olive :)

"I think that you die when your time comes and not until then. " ~ Olive Thomas


  1. First off, great site. I stumbled upon this today and really am enjoying it. I just came from the 14th annual Kansas Silent Film Festival (which was a hoot) and wanted to find and discover more if these lost gems. After reading about Olive Thomas, it's a shame that she didn't live very long. That would be a terrible and painful way to die. Hopefully she lives on in the celluloid...can't wait to watch one of her films.

  2. Glad to have you stumble upon it!

    I am very jealous that you attended a Silent Film Festival...what kind of films were shown? And what all did you do? That must have been wonderful!

    It is sad about Olive, she lived a lot in her short life, but she could have accomplished so much more if she had only lived longer. Check out "Flapper" its a cute film!

    Come back and keep reading! :)

  3. The film festival in Topeka, KS has been growing steadily. Every year there are more and more people, young and old. It's been great to see. This year the highlights were 'Smilin Through' with Norma Talmadge and 'The Yankee Clipper' with William Boyd.

    Unfortunately 'Smilin Through' (imho) doesn't hold up very well by today's standards. I was a little restless, as was the audience but it was great to see Norma star in one of her few surviving roles. They did bring our surprise guest Melissa Talmadge Cox, the grand-niece of Norma and Constance Talmadge who shared some intimate details of her famous aunts.

    However the 'Yankee Clipper' was amazing. Even though the film wasn't a big hit back in its day, it holds up very well. The audience loved it. My wife even commented to me that after awhile you kind of forget your watching a silent movie. The film itself looked pristine, I hardly noticed any scratches. That was a little surprising.

    Of course there were many shorts staring Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton or Mary Pickford. I especially liked a little comedy gem, “The Moony Mariner” starring Billy Dooley, it had everyone in stitches.

    I’m currently looking for that ‘Flapper’ film starring Olive Thomas. Hopefully I can convince my local library to pick up a copy, if it’s available on dvd. Since most (if not all) of these films are available in the public domain it sure would be nice to be able to have a repository where you could go to download them. Wishful thinking I know.

  4. That festival sounds great. From what I hear, Melissa makes a lot of rounds to silent film themed festivals and such. She is the granddaughter of Buster, so she goes to things for him as well. It must have been amazing to see Norma on screen, even if it was a bit restless getting through it, which, I mean...some of them can be.

    The Olive film is available through a dvd collection of hers. "The Olive Thomas Collection" dvd has "The Flapper" and a documentary about her on it. It is definitely worth it to buy. It was helped paid for by Hugh Hefner, so I give him major kudos for that!

    I have never heard of "The Moony Mariner" Have to check that one out!

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  6. Great Video - music choice was different, I thought something from Olive's era would of been more suited.

  7. Miss Vera,
    Yeah, the music is a little different. I thought the beginning was cool because it added to the mystery surrounding her death. 1920's music would have worked too...that would have spoken to her flapper-ish attitude.

  8. Hi, I just wanted to say your site is really great and very informative so keep up the good work. It's lovely to know that there are other people out there who love these old stars and won't ever forget them. I love Olive Thomas especially, she looked like so much fun!

  9. Thanks Fiona! Olive does seem like she was quite the ball of fire in her time. What an amazing girl.

  10. Thank you SO much for not writing that Jack had Syphilis! That's the thing that drives me crazy, Jack never had Syphilis yet every blog/website I go to states that he did. Made me more mad when Michelle Vogel published that he contacted it in 1917. To publish such intimate and personal information about someone without proof is so irresponsible.
    I wrote a book on Jack and Olive, and it drives me mad when I see false facts everywhere.

    I enjoyed your post on Olive very much! You did proper research.

    - Lois

  11. Hello Lois! I apologize for taking so long to respond.
    Thank you very much for your compliments. I try to not only make sure these silent film stars are not forgotten but also that the facts are straight. So making sure that people know that Clara Bow didn't nail the entire USC football team or that Ollie and Jack weren't syphillis infected cokeheads.
    Here is my issue with Michelle Vogel. She writes books about actresses that haven't had books written about them. HOWEVER, she does have a very bad problem of not getting her facts straight. Her book, "Hollywood Blondes" is FULL of mistakes, so it makes me doubt any credibility. It is a shame. I am trying to be the opposite of that.
    Is your book available somewhere?

  12. Oh, it's fine! And your welcome!
    I just adore your blog! I've spent the past few weeks reading about every star you posted! You pick my favorite ladies. I'm glad there's someone out there that does proper research on people. I really like Michelle as a person, I own a couple of her books. I'll give her credit for writing half descent books on forgotten ladies but her researching skills aren't very good. Again, I'm a HUGE Jack Pickford fan and I was upset reading her book. Some people believe that if stuff's printed in a book it's true. In the Olive bio, it was printed because their dead. If that makes sense! Lol. Rumors of VD and other things started when Jack was alive, by Florenz Ziegfeld.
    My book will be printed in January, I think! It could be earlier or later, depending on my decision.

  13. Hearing/reading that means the world to me, so thank you 100x for that. I love knowing that there are other people out there who know who these people are or want to know more about them.

    After I read Marilyn Miller's biography, I got a better view on who Flo Ziegfeld really was and wow! Not only did he want to sleep with most of his Follies girls but if they turned him down, he would spread nasty rumors about them. What a little prick!

    I am moving to California sometime next year and hopefully get into more with silent films there. I would love to either write a book or make a documentary about silent film stars.

    Definitely send a copy of your book my way when you publish it!