Olive Thomas (October 20, 1894 – September 10, 1920) was an American silent film actress and socialite. She was a Ziegfeld girl and the original flapper. She is perhaps best remembered for her marriage to Jack Pickford and her untimely death.
In 1914, after answering a newspaper ad, she won "The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City" contest run by the celebrated commercial artist, Howard Chandler Christy. She then modeled for artist Harrison Fisher and eventually landed on the cover of Saturday Evening Post.
Fisher wrote a letter of recommendation to Flo Ziegfeld resulting in Thomas being hired by the Ziegfeld Follies. However, Thomas later disputed this claiming she walked right up and asked for the job. She subsequently performed in the much more risqué Midnight Frolic, a show staged after hours in the roof garden of the New Amsterdam Theatre. Unlike in the Follies, the women in the Midnight Frolic maintained a strict decorum on stage no matter how skimpy the costumes. The performers were clad only in balloons, allowing the virtually all male audience the opportunity to burst the balloons with their cigars. Thomas's reputation may be the reason the Pickford family later rejected her. However, the rest of society did not frown on these performers. Former stage performers who took on similar arrangements included Céleste Mogador, who became the Duchess of Chibrillon, Liane de Pougy, who became Princess Ghika, and Sarah Bernhardt, who became a legendary actress.
The Midnight Frolic was primarily a show for famous male patrons with plenty of money to bestow on the young and beautiful female performers. Before long, the attractive Thomas was the center of attention of the in-crowd associated with Condé Nast. She soon found herself being pursued by a number of very wealthy and powerful men. She received expensive gifts from her admirers, with rumors that the German Ambassador had given her a $10,000 string of pearls. As part of her sudden fame she posed nude for famed Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas.
In 1917, Thomas moved to Triangle Pictures where she worked with Thomas Ince. Shortly after, news broke of her engagement to Jack Pickford, whom she had actually married a year prior. Of her marriage, Thomas said, ""I didn't want people to say that I'm succeeding because of the Pickford name." During her time with Triangle, Thomas was referred to as The Triangle Star. Thomas' role as Betty in 1917's Madcap Madge proved one of her most successful. It would be three more years before she did another 'teenager' role.
In December 1918, Thomas was persuaded by Myron Selznick to sign with Selznick Pictures Company. She hoped for more serious roles, believing that with her husband signed to the same company, she would have more influence. She soon became the first Selznick star and created the image of the "baby vamp".
In 1920, Thomas once again played a teenager in the Frances Marion movie The Flapper. In a time when actors were defined by the type of role they played, Thomas felt she had no film type, saying, "But I want to create a certain role, you see Mary is the kid in pictures; Norma does drama; Constance is the flippant, flighty wife; Dorothy the hoyden; Nazimova is exotic and steeped in mystery, my Jack does boys, while I--I--why don't you see, I am just nothing at all!"
Thomas was the first actress to be described by the term flapper, preceding the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Joan Crawford. She would go on to play the flapper role in her final films including A Youthful Folly and her final film Everybody's Sweetheart. The formula proved successful and by the time of her death, Thomas was making $3,000 a week.
Thomas was known for her great beauty and yet she was down to earth. Of fame she said, "Life's too short and fate too funny to get upstage, Today they may be showering us with roses on Broadway and tomorrow some fool director who used to be a waiter may be rejecting us as atmosphere in a five reel five cent feature...". Despite being down to earth, Thomas was sometimes seen as crass and lacking class.
Thomas was known for being extremely inquisitive and enjoyed learning things, "Well, you see, I'm only a 'Follies' girl, and may turn out a flivver star in pictures, so I'd better be prepared for a carpenter's job if necessary." She wanted to be taken seriously as an actress and wished to not piggyback on the Pickford name.
Thomas was known for her partying and wild ways which was also increased after marrying Pickford. Alcohol began playing a large role in Thomas' life (alcoholism ran in the Pickford family), fueling most of the drama with her husband and possibly car crashes as well. She had 3 automobile accidents in 2 years, one seriously injuring a 9 year old. She eventually hired a chauffeur.
Thomas met actor Jack Pickford, brother of one of the most powerful silent stars Mary Pickford, at a beach cafe on the Santa Monica Pier. Pickford was known for his wild partying and together the pair was trouble. Screenwriter Frances Marion remarked, \"...I had seen her often at the Pickford home, for she was engaged to Mary's brother, Jack. Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway. Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.\"
A year after they met, Thomas commented in an interview, "Jack is a beautiful dancer. He danced his way into my heart. We knew each other for eight months before our marriage, and most of that time we gave to dancing. We got along so well on the dance floor that we just naturally decided that we would be able to get along together for the rest of our lives."
Thomas eloped with Pickford on October 25, 1916 in New Jersey. None of their family was present, with only Thomas Meighan as their witness. In a 1919 interview with Louella Parsons, Thomas expressed her desire to have children, "One of these days we are going to have a family. I love children." The couple would never have children of their own, and in 1920, they adopted her then six year old nephew when his mother died.
By most accounts, she was the love of Pickford's life, the marriage was stormy and filled with highly-charged conflict, followed by lavish making up through the exchange of expensive gifts. In a March 1920 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, Thomas said of the drama-fueled relationship, "He's always sending me something and then I send him something back. You see, we have to bridge the distance in some way. At first I just couldn't get used to the idea of living this way, but I suppose one gets used to anything, given time. When we were together we used to use up the time fighting over things. I'd say, 'You were out with this person or that person,' and he'd come back at me in the same way, and we'd have a lively time of it, but we're over that now. We know that we can't sit home by the fireside ALL the time just because we cannot be together."
Pickford's family did not always approve of Thomas though most of the family did attend her funeral. In Mary Pickford's autobiography Sunshine and Shadows, she wrote, "I regret to say that none of us approved of the marriage at that time. Mother thought Jack was too young, and Lottie and I felt that Olive, being in musical comedy, belonged to an alien world. Ollie had all the rich, eligible men of the social world at her feet. She had been deluged with proposals from her own world of the theater as well. Which was not at all surprising. The beauty of Olive Thomas is legendary. The girl had the loveliest violet-blue eyes I have ever seen. They were fringed with long dark lashes that seemed darker because of the delicate translucent pallor of her skin. I could understand why Florenz Ziegfeld never forgave Jack for taking her away from the Follies. She and Jack were madly in love with one another but I always thought of them as a couple of children playing together..."
For many years, the Pickfords had intended to vacation together. Both Pickford and Thomas were constantly traveling and had little time to spend together. With their marriage on the rocks, the couple decided to take a second honeymoon. In August 1920, the pair headed for Paris, France, hoping to combine a vacation with some film preparations.
On the night of September 9, 1920, the Pickfords went out for a night of entertainment and partying at the famous bistros in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris. Returning to their room in the Hotel Ritz around 3:00 a.m., Pickford either fell asleep or was outside the room for a final round of drugs. It was rumored that Thomas may have taken cocaine that night though it was never proved. An intoxicated and tired Thomas accidentally ingested a large dose of a mercury bichloride liquid solution, which had been prescribed for her husband's chronic syphilis. Being liquid it was supposed to be applied topically, not ingested.
She had either thought the flask contained drinking water or sleeping pills; accounts vary. The label was in French which may have added to the confusion. She screamed, "Oh, my God!", and Pickford ran to pick her up in his arms. However, it was too late, she had already ingested a lethal dose. She was taken to the American Hospital in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, where Pickford, together with her former in-law Owen Moore, remained at her side until she succumbed to the poison a few days later. Soon after her death, rumors began that she tried to commit suicide or had been murdered. A police investigation followed as well as an autopsy, and Thomas' death was ruled accidental.
Of that night Pickford gave his account, on September 13 to the Los Angeles Examiner:
"...We arrived back at the Ritz hotel at about 3 o'clock in the morning. I had already booked airplane seats for London. We were going Sunday morning. Both of us were tired out. We both had been drinking a little. I insisted that we had better not pack then, but rather get up early before our trip and do it then. I went to bed immediately. She fussed around and wrote a note to her mother. ... She was in the bathroom.
Suddenly she shrieked: 'My God.' I jumped out of bed, rushed toward her and caught her in my arms. She cried to me to find out what was in the bottle. I picked it up and read: 'Poison.' It was a toilet solution and the label was in French. I realized what she had done and sent for the doctor. Meanwhile, I forced her to drink water in order to make her vomit. She screamed, 'O, my God, I'm poisoned.' I forced the whites of eggs down her throat, hoping to offset the poison. The doctor came. He pumped her stomach three times while I held Olive.
Nine o'clock in the morning I got her to the Neuilly Hospital, where Doctors Choate and Wharton took charge of her. They told me she had swallowed bichoride of mercury in an alcoholic solution, which is ten times worse than tablets. She didn't want to die. She took the poison by mistake. We both loved each other since the day we married. The fact that we were separated months at a time made no difference in our affection for each other. She even was conscious enough the day before she died to ask the nurse to come to America with her until she had fully recovered, having no thought she would die.
She kept continually calling for me. I was beside her day and night until her death. The physicians held out hope for her until the last moment, until they found her kidneys paralyzed. Then they lost hope. But the doctors told me she had fought harder than any patient they ever had. She held onto her life as only one case in fifty. She seemed stronger the last two days. She was conscious, and said she would get better and go home to her mother. 'It's all a mistake, darling Jack,' she said. But I knew she was dying.
She was kept alive only by hypodermic injections during the last twelve hours. I was the last one she recognized. I watched her eyes glaze and realized she was dying. I asked her how she was feeling and she answered: 'Pretty weak, but I'll be all right in a little while, don't worry, darling.' Those were her last words. I held her in my arms and she died an hour later. Owen Moore was at her bedside. All stories and rumors of wild parties and cocaine and domestic fights since we left New York are untrue...
On September 29, 1920, an Episcopalian funeral service was held at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York for Thomas. According to the New York Times a police escort was needed and the entire church was jammed. Several women fainted at the ceremony and several men had their hats crushed in the rush to view the coffin.
In 2004, with funding from Timeline Films, and with the help of Hugh Hefner and his film preservation organization, Sarah J. Baker premiered her documentary on Olive Thomas' short life titled Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart.
In 2007, McFarland Publishing Company released a biography entitled Olive Thomas: The Life and Death of a Silent Film Beauty, written by Michelle Vogel