When Florence Annie Bridgwood was born on January 2, 1886, no one could have predicted that she would become a movie star... because movies weren't exactly being made yet!!! There had been several advancements in technology leading up to the establishment of "motion pictures," but it wouldn't be until 1889, three years hence, that Thomas Edison would invent the Kinetoscope, which would alter the entire realm of cinematic possibilities. True, Florence was far from "Hollywoodland," born in Hamilton, ON to George Bridgwood (carriage builder) and Charlotte "Lotta" Dunn (actress). The baby of the family, with four step siblings and two biological brothers (George and Walter), she was destined to be lost in the shuffle. Not so at all!
Flo never really knew her father. She spent the majority of her childhood away with her mother, George, and Walter, touring with the Lawrence Dramatic Company. An impassioned and gifted woman, Lotta was not meant to be some boring housewife, so she took her kids along with her as she tried to make an independent living, though she never divorced her husband. While George and Walter did not act past their adolescence, Flo got the itch young and couldn't scratch it for the rest of her life. She began appearing with her mother on stage at the age of 3. The company had noticed her ability to pick up dances and mimic expressions, so they worked her into the routines. She would wander on stage, seemingly lost, and the audience would giggle at the supposed mishap. Then, she would slowly join in with her mother's act, which of course left the audience in stitches. She would become known for her uncanny abilities as a tune whistler as she grew older, and having clearly received her calling, she and her mom went pro, changing their last names to "Lawrence," after the company.
As a little performer, Flo was a quick learner and a natural talent, who could light up the room with her abilities and energy. Passionate like her mother, she had a fire within her that would not be quenched, and the audience merely radiated in its warmth. A lovely singer, dancer, and comedienne, Flo also had a penchant for the dramatic, although as a young child she let the weight of the subject matter overcome her at times. She would often cry herself to sleep at night, worried that she had made her audience sad. Her deep attachment to her work would always be a part of her life, but as she grew she did not let the gravity dampen her spirits quite as much. Ups and downs in her demeanor were always a present factor, but most people didn't notice. She tended to put her best face on and put all of her energy into pleasing the crowds, while remaining equally professional behind the scenes.
At 10, Flo's father passed away, though the loss had little effect on her. It was her mother that was her true compatriot. Lotta was definitely an intelligent and ambitious woman, but luckily she wasn't a control freak. She inspired her daughter to be the best she could be, and Flo would spend her life trying to do so, but Lotta would not put her own hopes on Flo's shoulders. She had dreams of her own and did not expect Flo to fulfill her own failed ambitions. They were a separate but equal team. After her husband's death, Lotta took her three children to live with her mother, Grandma Ann Dunn, in Buffalo, New York, and the kids finally got the pleasure of a public education. Flo was the class clown and a tom boy, who led a "gang" of boys, played baseball, road horses, and (after breaking her nose playing ball) took up cheerleading as well. She was still an artist though, and she was quite proficient at both the violin and the cornet.
Though she had enjoyed the slow pace of a normal life, Florence wanted something new... a change! This was also an aspect of her personality that would dictate many of her decisions in life. Impulsive and mercurial, Flo would begin one thing to drop it not much later, then pick it up again, then drop it, etc. What she wanted now was the stage! She and her mother began actively seeking employment with different companies to little effect. There weren't too many plays being produced due to the fact that there was new competition in town: motion pictures. The Great Train Robbery had been released in 1903 when Flo was 17. She also recalled seeing Rip Van Winkle. She found flicker shows entertaining, but had no real interest in pursuing a career in front of the camera. There was still a stigma attached to "film acting," and most of the beginning motion picture actors weren't even actors at all... Just regular Joes and Janes looking to make a buck. Eventually, due to the latter necessity, Flo began submitting herself for screen work. At least it was acting!
Wandering over to the Edison Studios at 41 East 21st Street with Lotta, Flo was introduced to a slew of girls looking for work. Fortunately, Edwin Porter and Wallace McCutcheon singled her out, mostly for the needed physical characteristics she possessed, and cast her as one of the daughters in Daniel Boone. Exteriors were filmed in zero degree weather in Bronx Park, and interiors were filmed atop the studio on the single set roof. It was fortunate that Flo knew how to ride a horse, for it would be required of her role. In 1907, Flo saw herself on film for the first time... and was horrified! Not by her performance, but by the inconsistencies of her frontier character wearing high-heeled shoes! She liked the look of herself on the screen, and became fascinated with the new medium. She vowed to educate herself as much as possible about it, and seeing the future of film, decided to quit the stage and enter a life on the screen. Surprisingly, Lotta protested, worried that Flo would shame the family as a film actress. Flo didn't care. This was it!
Flo auditioned everywhere, finally landing at Vitagraph Studios. Her next big picture was The Despatch Barer, a Civil War drama in which Flo was almost killed! While riding a horse through the woods, she was nearly driven right into a tree. This would not be the last time she put her life in danger. Early filmmakers were true renegades; pioneers in a new world with no rules, no limits, and no protection. Their bold, and often crazy, moves paved the way for those who would follow. Vitagraph was an important example of this. One of the first official film companies, it was experimental and innovative, pushing the envelope in terms of storytelling with adaptations of Mark Twain and Shakespeare. Their film Romeo and Juliet is a subject of some controversy, with regard to Flo. Some historians credit her as playing Juliet, and others credit her contemporary Florence Turner. Vitagraph films remain some of the best preserved and most accessible silents to this day.
Flo made movie after movie at her new home with Vitagraph, including The Athletic Girls of America, which put her tomboy past to use, and The Viking's Daughter. She had another stroke of luck when she met Harry Solter, a fellow struggling actor. He was given a break when, much like Flo, he was cast at Vitagraph due to the fact that he matched the physical description of a needed character. Actually, he matched the build of his director, who wanted to perform the stunt driving in his next film and needed a lead with a similar body type to perform the non-action oriented portion! Solter, coincidentally, had become friends with one David Wark Griffith in San Francisco. He tried to get his pal DW a job at Vita, but David wound up working at Edison.
Harry and Flo, however, got on swimmingly, and Harry fell hard for the golden haired beauty, but he had more than his share of competition! Flo seemed to favor Harry's advances, and in time he grew closer to her than her other suitors. He came to see how hard a worker Flo was, how much she sought her mother's approval as well as her own high standards. She was at times dangerously self-critical. But he admired her perseverance and courage, as well as her abundant acting talent. When Harry and DW made the move to Biograph Studios together, Harry decided to take his girl with him. When sent to find a new lead actress for the studio, Harry, now an assistant director, was supposed to get Florence Turner. He brought back Florence Lawrence instead. Luckily, she had the acting chops to make his bold move worthwhile. Flo would now be earning $25/wk at the new studio, and she was no longer required to make her own wardrobe or paint back-drops! Finally, she was paid to act and act alone!
The First Star in the Constellation
Movies were becoming big business! By 1909 there were 9000 theaters operating nationwide. Because Flo was a legitimate actress, she became a real asset to Biograph. In fact, other film producers saw her talent and came calling, trying to lure her away to their studios. For now, she was content to rotate with Linda Arvidson and Marion Leonard for the lead female roles at Bio, and the rest of the time contributed in supporting or background work. Her first big leads with the new company were Betrayed by a Handprint and Behind the Scenes. Flo was in bliss, though as a hot-headed business woman she more than once got miffed when DW went to her boyfriend Harry to negotiate her career and not her! She was definitely a pre-feminist.
On Aug. 30, 1908, Harry went from being her boyfriend to being her husband when the two eloped to Elizabeth, NJ. They kept their union a secret, as many actors in the early studios did. Even DW kept his relationship with Linda Arvidson a secret when she became his wife. Harry was not the only one smitten with sweet Flo. By this time, the first fan mail had begun to arrive at Biograph. Normally, the letters were from lovesick boys or solicitous married men, but a good deal came from women too, who indentified with Florence's honest portrayals. Despite her histrionic and exaggerated acting style, audiences still saw something they could relate too. The humility she gave her characters was felt and more than appreciated. DW loved working with her, because she could keep up with his specific directing methods. These were strange days, when actors would arrive to work with no idea who they would be that day! Scenarios were often written on the spot and the possibilities were endless, so you had to be on your toes-- especially with DW, who of course did all of his own writing.
An important step in the acceptance of film, not just as entertainment, but as art, came when the magazine "Motion Picture World" began publishing film reviews. At the start, the reviews were clumsy, basically recapping the action, but later the writers really began to look at interpretation, performance, technicality, and style. A difficult part about writing these reviews, however, was that none of the actors' names were released. Performers were referred to by their characters' names only. The studios' reasoning for this was a) they didn't want their actors to get too much power, resulting in the inmates running the asylum, and b) studios hadn't actually realized how beneficial it would be to profits to market their performers. So, Flo remained nameless in her reviews, which were always stellar.
1909 was an important year for Flo, in that it marked the beginning of what would be her most popular film series- The "Jonesy" Comedies. They were slapstick vehicles in which she played Mrs. Jones opposite John Cumpson, Mr. Jones. A favorite costar of hers whom she would also collaborate with often was Arthur V. Johnson, an early silent heartthrob (and alcoholic). They were fast friends and allies with very similar humors. On May 9th of this year, Florence performed in The Resurrection, her most praised and remembered film to date. She played Katusha to superb effect in this Tolstoy adaptation, with Arthur played opposite as Dmitri. Her performance is said to have been remarkable; the world was falling under her spell. The film was also an accomplishment technically speaking, for people couldn't believe that such an epic novel could so succinctly be translated into a mere 15 minutes of film! By the time Flo appeared in Lady Helen's Escapade, she had been given her first of many nicknames: The Biograph Girl.
Ironically, it was at about this time that Flo would meet the little golden girl who would later take this title from her: Gladys Smith aka Mary Pickford. Not knowing that the pretty little thing was a threat, Flo liked her right away. In fact, she, Mary, and Gertrude Robinson would often joke about who was the shortest between the three of them, for all were incredibly petite. Lilian Gish also began to appear on the scene, and she and Mary would be two of the women most responsible for elevating film acting to a whole knew level- one of subtlety and understatement. Their performances would in time render Florence's "balls-out" style obsolete, but for now the Queen was safe.
Despite her current success, Flo was beginning to get a case of the "antsies." She had been at the status quo for too long-- she had divided and conquered, and now she was ready for new territory! She and Harry decided to break out on their own and freelance. (Sound the death knell). Such a move went against the newly established "Trust" that had pooled all of the studio patents and awarded licenses to all within the said group. It was essentially a way to maintain order and control by the bigger guy over the little guy in the business.Only those with a license could buy film, and thus make films. By defying the hierarchical system, Flo and Harry were taking a real risk, one that left them black-listed and unemployed. Flo didn't care. She knew the power she had with audiences, and she trusted that it would get her somewhere.
In the meantime, while Flo was idle, audiences demanded to know where their favorite actress had disappeared to?! Letter upon letter arrived to Biograph, asking why no sign of her was to be seen in any of the new films being produced. People bought tickets to movies at this time not really knowing who would be in it, or even what the story would be about-- there weren't trailers yet, remember-- so when they were disappointed again and again by their favorite Biograph Girl's absence, they grew miffed. Flo was doing her very best to get back into the limelight. She tried to get work at Essanay, but they wouldn't hire her for fear of upsetting the Trust. It was the equally bull-headed and independent producer Carl Laemmle who would take her on. His company, The Independent Motion Picture Company of America (IMP) scooped her right up and made her the "IMP Girl." In the Summer of 1909, Flo joined their already superb roster: William V. Ranous, George Loane Tucker, John Brownwell, J. Farreli MacDonald, Owen Moore (soon to be Mr. Pickford), John Cumpson, Thomas Ince, and the real coup- King Baggott.
Because the studio was independent, conditions weren't as spiffy at IMP as they had been at Bio. Laemmle was often going into near bankruptcy to keep his small studio afloat, and he was also in constant legal battles with the Trust. The studio was operated very shoddily with little in terms of money, tech, costume, or props. Still, they pressed on. Flo's first IMP film was Love's Strangers, and she worked steadily making a one-reel film, and later two one-reel films, per week. Laemmle was also the one responsible for starting the first publicity campaigns to get Florence's name into the public. He recognized the benefit of having a recognizable actress to advertise his films, draw in audiences, and thus draw in money to his theaters. Previous to this, theater owners hadn't considered the ability of a performer to sell a film, but Laemmle was a real business man, and his smarts would change the biz forever.
The use of actors in advertising began slowly with lobby cards and photographs of the players. This failed to please audience demand. Seeing gold, Laemmle decided that he wanted the world to know Florence-- for her face and name to be as familiar to them as the President's! So, he pulled a little stunt and found a way to start a rumor that the IMP Girl, FLORENCE LAWRENCE, had been run over by a car. When it hit the presses, it was hot news. People were devastated, until of course it was revealed that Flo was alive and well. Then Laemmle took it a step further by having Flo make a hugely publicized personal appearance in St. Louis to prove to her fans that she had not "met her tragic end beneath the wheels of a speeding motor car." When she arrived at the station, her fans were so ecstatic to see her that they tore her hat from her head and the buttons from her clothes! Florence was both terrified and invigorated! She quickly became the highest paid actress in showbiz. After this, Laemmle would use the name of the "Girl of a Thousand Faces" to advertise all of her movies. Other studios followed suit, like Vitagraph, who made Florence Turner their #1 actress. But, there was no denying who the real star was. The first true star. All hail Florence Lawrence!!!
What Goes Up...
It seemed that Flo had everything she wanted: the career of her dreams, wealth, stardom, adulation... But inside her still lurked the insecure and sensitive girl whose emotions, so effective on screen, weighed her down in her private life. Not only did Flo empathize too heavily with her dramatic roles, just as she had as a child, but she continued to place incredible stress and pressure on herself to constantly improve, or at the very least maintain her position at #1. The obvious result of this was the collapse of her marriage, which was beginning to show strain of its own. Of course, Harry was no help. An emotionally needy man, he was threatened by the attention Florence was getting, and thusly the attention she gave her work and not him. In a way, he seemed to want to sabotage her career, and unfortunately, Flo, who was too spontaneous to be a good business woman, often followed his bad advice. As a result, she ended her contract with the man who had made her a star, Laemmle, and said goodbye to IMP. She quickly signed up with Sigmund Lubin sometime around Nov. of 1910. Laemmle sued her for breaking her contract, which didn't help Flo's finances, since she was supporting her mother and brother Walter. It seemed a smart move when she invested in real estate, but this was plagued as well when the home she purchased went up in flames after the contractor disappeared with her money! The final blow came when Flo learned that Mary Pickford had taken her place at IMP, once again swooping in to take advantage of the opportunities Flo had naively given away.
Flo focused on work, making His Bogus Uncle in January of 1911. In 1912, "Photoplay" appeared, the first magazine completely dedicated to film fans who could finally read all about their favorite celebrities. Flo was a constant and favorite featured artist. Harry experienced some luck this year as well when he was recognized as one of the greatest directors of his day. However, Flo was getting antsy as usual. Upset with the doldrums of her life, she craved something more, but seemed to be struggling with finding out what it was. Co-stars would often see the quirky girl banging her head against the wall to exercise her frustrations. She really wanted to break through to freedom and independence. At one point, she abruptly disappeared without a trace, and people were relieved when she returned from her vacation, which she had taken to calm her nerves, relax, and breathe. When time came to renew her contract with Lubin, she and Harry declined. Her last film with the friendly Lubin was The Surgeon's Heroism.
Flo was looking for the next rung on the ladder, and she was able to reach it when she and Harry established The Victor Company in the summer of 1912. She would of course be the leading lady, Owen Moore was leading man, and Harry was the director. With their own company, they could control what movies and projects they made and released. Flo loved having artistic control and essentially being her own boss. The studio was located at 575 11th Ave, NYC. The first film Victor produced was In Swift Waters. The Solters, in celebration, purchased a home in River Vale, NJ. Flo was glowing. She enjoyed the privilege of being the first female to own her own movie studio. However, the films didn't fare all that well. The scripts were barely tolerable, and fans did not like Owen Moore, who was never able to attain true leading man status. Flo didn't miss a step with fans, who still adored her no matter what lousy film she appeared in. She was beginning to feel the pressures of pleasing the masses as the discrepancy between her true self and the larger-than-life person they expected her to be became greater. She was hard on herself, especially when meeting a fan in person. She once remarked: "I always feel that people are so disappointed in me, when they see me for the first time." The new standard of celebrity was becoming quite a burden to bear.
Between personal and professional stress, Flo and Harry were on shaky ground, and it wasn't long before they were separated. They would argue, live separately, reconcile, drift apart, etc. Ad nauseum. Harry had become frustrated with Flo's extreme vacillations in temperament, as well as the fact that she worked herself to exhaustion. Flo was sick of Harry's violent temper and feeble threats of suicide. To add fuel to the fire, they were unable to conceive, though perhaps in the end this was a blessing for such a volatile match. Flo was nearing a point of complete collapse. After Harry moved out yet again, Flo vowed to quit the business. As with all the ups and downs and back and forths in her life, it would not be the last time. She filmed The Lady Leone and retired to her new home in Hillsdale. The 18th-Century Mansion became her pride and joy. In lieu of acting, Flo studied languages, read, and took up botanical pursuits, making it her mission in life to develop a new breed of rose. Unfortunately, she would never accomplish the task. This time was rejuvenating for Flo, for she had peace, relaxation, and time to re-evaluate her life and decide where to go next.
Many changes in film occurred while she was on hiatus. Edison created the kinetophone, the first step toward sound pictures. Then, two-reelers became five-reelers, now providing the ever increasing audiences with a full hour of entertainment. People of every social status were attending movies, which were no longer considered an idle and brainless past time for the lower class. This resulted in the creation of great and luxurious movie palaces, which made movie viewing a whole new experience. Acting styles had also changed to the subtle gestures exhibited by Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish. Soon, Flo began to feel herself being left behind, and the competitor in her wanted to make her way back into the industry. Ironically, she re-teamed with Laemmle at his new studio, Universal, and made one film for him every two weeks. Her return was a triumph and covered by all the magazines. So often was she in the public eye that Flo learned to be cautious of the way she presented herself: what she said, how she behaved, and how she dressed. She learned to be diplomatic, always being confident in stating her opinion and making a stand where she felt it counted, while remaining respectful and thus respected. She was a staunch supporter of the suffragist movement, being a pre-feminist, but she made sure to balance her tough demeanor with softer qualities-- dressing delicately, doing needlepoint, etc. It was all a game really, and she was learning how to play it.
She kept up with the new film innovations as well, playing a dual role in The False Bride, which experimented with double exposure photography. Reviews of her dramatic interpretations in Unto the Third Generation and Influence of Sympathy were also highly praised. It is interesting to note, however, that while Florence's reviews were stellar at the beginning of her contract at Universal, they became more lackluster as her contract reached its end. Always up and down, Florence would come out on a new adventure like a cannonball, then succumbing to the pressures and perhaps even boredom she would begin to lose steam and set her sights elsewhere. Almost as soon as she entered a situation, she was looking for a way out.
This would seemingly make her look like an inconsistent and even erratic personality, and perhaps she was, but it isn't unreasonable to think that she truly was suffering despite the pluses of her movie stardom. She had wealth and adoration, true... but movie stars at the dawn of cinema were not exactly the "babied" snobs they are now. Not only was there a constant flow of work with no seeming end, but working conditions were less than cushy. Before the time of the star trailer or catered lunches, performers would work in the freezing cold or the blinding heat. Before unions, they would work hour upon hour until the scheduled shoot was finished without today's 12 hour cut off. Most importantly, before the day of the stunt man, they would often perform dangerous feats, risking their lives to add a little action to a sequence. The number of people who actually died for the sake of their art is not insignificant. Everyone is familiar with the amazing acrobatics of Buster Keaton, whose physical wonders astounded audiences, but he was a professional, and even he broke his neck. Literally. Leading ladies were no different: Helen Holmes, Helen Gibson, Cleo Madison... they all did things that could have claimed their lives. Florence was no exception, and she was about to make a great sacrifice as an artist that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
In March of 1914, Florence was filming The Pawns of Destiny with Matt Moore and Harry (yes, still) as director. One sequence required her to pull the supposedly unconscious Matt Moore down a flight of stairs while the house burned down around them. Not only was Matt a grown man, who was more than a little too heavy for the petite Flo to carry, but the flames were also an obvious threat to her safety, and she had to perform the task 3 times. Something went terribly wrong. The exact situation is unknown, and many myths have appeared over the years. One story is that Florence was badly burned and that she went into seclusion to heal, after which movies did not want her anymore. Another is that she was injured while literally saving the life of Moore from the burning set. Neither are true. Florence was injured, but she would continue to work in films after the incident, so it didn't "ruin" her career, at least not immediately. She also did not seem to suffer burns, at least not severe or visible ones. The most traumatic result of what happened that day, was that Flo fell and hurt her back. A trouper, at first she thought nothing of the pain, but then it started to spread to the back of her head and neck, and she knew something was wrong. She went to bed to recuperate. She would get better, but things were never the same for her after, and Flo would persevere while incredible pain would plague her body until it eventually became intolerable. For now, fireball Flo was forced to slow down a little, though she would by no means quit.
While retiring for a little relaxation to her New Jersey abode with sometimes estranged and sometimes not hubby Harry, Flo underwent another disaster when she was in an automobile accident. Apparently, it wasn't fatal, but the fender bender was sure to exacerbate he back, which had just been operated on. In all the fan magazines, Flo tried to sound optimistic about her health and well-being, and mostly about returning to work, but privately she was suffering. As soon as she lost the ability to do the thing she had taken for granted, she wanted it more than ever. She saw clearly, and perhaps for the first time, her remarkable gift, and not having the ability to utilize it began to slowly break her heart. Not willing to take no for an answer, Flo insisted on going back to work. This was her destiny! She was one of the most talented and well respected actresses in the world. She belonged in front of the camera, and by God that's where she would go!
So, back to old friend Laemmle and Universal she went, and her first picture back was The Elusive Isabel. She also made personal appearances, such as at the premiere of the Sarah Bernhardt vehicle Jeanne Dore to prove to her fans that she was alive and kicking, and the applause she received always warmed her heart and gave her hope. The public still mimicked her impeccable fashion sense, which was classy and modern always, and songs were even written about her, such as Emma R. Steiner's "Florence Lawrence." Flo was filled with hope when Elusive Isabel premiered on April 24, 1916. It was a personal milestone, her first full-length feature film! Sadly, the reviews weren't great, and this disheartened her. Of course, the public never blamed her for a flop, and instead praised her for elevating a soppy film as best as she could. Still, it was a crushing blow.
This was the beginning of Flo's acting decline. It wasn't because her talent had diminished, nor that the love of her had died... But times were changing. Movies were moving west to a place that would become known as Hollywood. Movie theaters were turning into lavish and grandiose movie palaces, and the films that Flo was used to starring in weren't reeling in audiences anymore. Progress was being made and the original pioneers were being left in the dust, outmoded and obsolete. Birth of a Nation changed the way movies were viewed and made, and nothing could measure up anymore. Along with Flo's greatest friendly foe, Mary Pickford, a different kind of woman was stealing her thunder. Mary continued to pull off the beautiful girl next door thing, because her acting style was so fresh and authentic... But Flo became outmoded as audiences started wanting actresses a little more sexy and dangerous. Enter Theda Bara.
Where would Flo fit into all this? And could she?! As she felt her place in movies disappearing, Flo made every attempt to stay in the public eye, and of course, being the first star, she would introduce the first taste of glamour. She bought silver evening dresses and furs as if to prove that she was still a Queen. She could not deny the inevitable, however, that things were indeed falling apart. This included her private life. Harry and she had finally reached the "D" word- Divorce. She was desperate to get out from under Harry's almost tyrannical control, but Flo did need guidance in her career. She was too impulsive to really be a shrewd business woman. With Harry gone, she lost a little stability, suffocating though it had been. She found herself strapped for cash, and even wrote to Laemmle for money. Later, she would try to sue in order to get some compensation for the injuries she had sustained, which plagued her. This was not an unreasonable plea. There were actors, like Grace McHugh who had died while filming, so a little compensation seemed in order. Though Flo came out "gun's blazing," she was no match for the studios. She was in trouble.
To keep her mind off the snowballing negatives in her life, Flo directed her impassioned focus elsewhere. She raised awareness for the Actor's Fund, returned to her rose garden, and did what she could to raise morale when WWI hit. She even managed to make another film, with ex Harry of course, The Face on the Screen, but it sank at theaters. Harry's career was also faltering. It seemed that any movie he tried to make without his beautiful wife was a failure. He made his last film in 1918, ironically titled The Wife He Bought. Growing closer to her mother in this time of despair, Flo became somewhat of an entrepreneur. Lotta, like her willful daughter, was always a go-getter, and inspired her daughter to follow her lead in checking out different ventures to pay the bills. Together, they worked in real estate, mining, and even inventions! Lotta developed the first windshield wipers and Florence is responsible for the first turn signal! Flo's creation consisted of an arm that would drop from the rear of the car saying "STOP" whenever the brakes were pressed. Sadly, she never obtained a patent for her invention and received no money or glory for it. Lotta, always a better business woman, did patent her many inventions, including another that kept glass from fogging up. When the influenza outbreak occurred, Flo also directed much of her time and attention toward helping the Red Cross.
At about this time, Flo began to see her old co-horts dropping like flies, either exiting the business or making their final exit, period. One of her first friends in film, Arthur Johnson, died of tuberculosis, though many assume that was a polite way of saying he died of alcoholism. Hanging on by a thread, Flo made The Love Craze hoping it would usher in a comeback for her career. It did not. Then Harry died of a stroke, and with him went almost all memory of his years of work and innovation as one of the earliest film directors. He did not even receive an obituary. Since their divorce had not yet been finalized, this made Florence a widow. Just another cherry on her sundae... As things in film turned sour, with Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford both dying tragic deaths, Flo turned her attention to the stage, signing up with the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles. She had finally gone West! Her new production manager, George Kern, was hoping the move would reignite her career, and falsely told newspapers that Flo would be welcomed at the station by the likes of Mack Sennett and Mary Pickford. Not true, and the charade did not work. Still, Flo went on to make The Unfoldment, and those who had worked with her and respected her continued fighting vigilantly for her career. In a world where Fatty Arbuckle was being accused of raping Virginia Rappe, and the public was beginning to turn on Hollywood, relying on an old, faithful actress would seem the logical step. Sadly, audiences did not latch onto Flo again. When The Unfoldment was released, it was overshadowed by yet another scandal, the murder of William Desmond Taylor.
Failing in business, Flo tried to put a little fire in her private life. She was married to Charles Bryne Woodring whom little is known about, other than that he fought in the Great War and was a car salesman upon his return. They had known each other just five days. But even marriage could not distract her from her lack of roles. She did a part here and a part there over the next few years, but a steady career evaded her. She was getting desperate- lying about her age, and even getting her nose "bobbed." She also opened a cosmetic shop: "Florence's Hollywood Cosmetics," which never had much hope of success. Then, on Aug. 20, 1929 Florence lost her mother. Not long after, she and Woodring were divorced. Flo was truly alone. She was easy prey when Henry Bolton, a mysterious man, found her and convinced her to marry him. She did in 1933, only to discover he was an abusive alcoholic who beat her mercilessly. By March 1934, Flo had removed herself from his grasp and obtained yet another divorce. She would not marry again.
The Last Gasp
Broken hearted, but still determined, Flo made another stab at Hollywood. She landed a speaking role- talkies had entered cinema!- in The Hard Hombre starring Hoot Gibson. Flo surprised people with her youthful good looks, despite the fact that she was now 45. She also had a clear and unaccented speaking voice and handled herself very well in her cameo. This was pretty much her last hoorah, which is sad since she did such an amazing job. The rest of her work consisted of extra jobs and small roles in a handful of other pictures. In 1937, she developed a painful condition, in conjunction with her sore back, which was attacking her bone marrow. It would probably be diagnosed today as something akin to myelofibrosis. The symptoms included fluid and pain in the abdomen, joint and bone pain, and skin eruptions. There was no cure. In agony, Florence also endured anemia, which was reasonably followed by depression. Florence had resigned herself to oblivion. Her moment, her brief moment in the spotlight, was over. All she had left was misery and memories. The stubbornly optimistic golden girl put a smile on for friends, but she knew she was dying. Furthermore, she knew her career was dead.
On Wednesday, Dec. 28, 1938, Florence canceled an acting job with Metro. Sometime in the afternoon, her neighbor at Westborne Ave, Marian Menzer, heard her scream. She found her writhing on the floor and called an ambulance, which rushed her to Beverly Hills Emergency Hospital. She was pronounced dead at 2:45p.m. She had consumed a mixture of cough syrup and ant paste. The suicide note she had left her roommates said the following: "Call Dr. Wilson. I am tired. Hope this works. Good-by my darlings. They can't cure me so let it go at that. Lovingly, Florence. P.S. You've all been swell guys. Everything is yours." At the age of 52, after 31 years in the motion picture business, the first movie star was gone. Her funeral on Dec. 30 seems to have been a small, private affair. Her body was interred at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, now known as Hollywood Forever. For years, her grave was left unmarked, and Florence lay forgotten. Later, a sympathetic soul heard of her unmarked tomb and paid for a modest marker to be placed above it. I have heard rumors that this person was the gentlemanly Roddy McDowall. The stone says: "Florence Lawrence, The Biograph Girl, The First Movie Star, 1890-1938." Flo would have loved the fact that they shaved off a few years for her.
The brutal lesson of what Hollywood can do was taught to us early. The first star was raised up like a beacon of wonder, only to be shot down before it reached its zenith. Flo showed us the grandeur of celebrity, the effect of an actor's charisma and storytelling power on the public, and then equally taught us the repercussions of living life on a pedestal set far too high. Florence entered the biz an impetuous and spirited talent who could not be contained nor denied, and exited a forgotten and lost soul, betrayed by the very people who had once claimed to love her. As with everything: there is dark and there is light. In recalling Florence, as a woman and as a friend, those who did claim to know her could not believe that she would kill herself. It was so unlike her. She was too strong, too stubborn, too full of life. Perhaps it was in one of her all too impulsive moments that she made the decision to end it all. How I wish her films were available to us. How I wish her name were as known as Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts, Clark Gable or Jean Harlow. Sadly it is not, and yet we owe her so much for what we are-- not as ravenous rag-mag readers, but as human beings, who for brief periods of time let our guards down, entrust ourselves to the safety of the theater, and let filmmakers and actors guide our souls. Florence was one of the first to crack us open, to offer herself up to us as a martyr for our emotions, an outlet for our laughter and sorrows. I am grateful for this woman, whom I shall never know. (Is it strange to feel that I do)??? Before I close the book on her, I will let her say farewell to you in her own words. From the final entry of the auto-biographical series she wrote for "Photoplay" at the height of her stardom:
"And now I say goodbye, I love you all-- love you with all my heart and soul. When I look from my window at night I wonder if there is anything I have ever done to cause you pain. I hope not. So again, good-bye!"