As are too many of our fallen idols, Olive Thomas is famous for dying. However, unlike all of the other Movie Town tragedies history has accrued over the years, unlike all other saucy scandals and continuing tales of human debauchery, Olive maintains the notorious position of being the First: Hollywood's first major movie star death and Hollywood's first major "Uh-oh" moment. At her death in 1920, she also served as our first glimpse into the true power of cinema celebrity: immortality. While Olive's body made the transport from Paris to New York City to be laid to rest, her movies were being shown in theaters across the nation. How was it possible? She had died, and yet she lived??? Audiences gasped at the sight of her face-- once remarked upon as the "most beautiful" in the world-- still laughing and smiling, still vibrant, though her skin was ice cold. This was the start of a whole other level of human fanaticism and adoration for the screen star: we had at last tapped into the fountain of youth, and none of us would ever be the same.
But who was this girl who started it all? She was just that. A girl. The girl. Even at a young age, growing up in Charleroi, PA, Oliveretta Elaine Duffy marched to the beat of her own drummer, though she more likely skipped and twirled. Life was a sweet nectar she chose to savor to the fullest extent, and she made big plans for herself from the get-go. After losing her father, a steel worker, in a tragic accident at work, Olive was forced to step up and help take care of her mother and two younger brothers. The naive, bustling energy of youth convinced "Ollie" that she was ready for the real world anyway, and she promptly dropped out of school and got a job. But small town life wasn't enough for a girl with such huge dreams, especially with her drop-dead gorgeous looks. More than one head turned when she passed by, including that of clerk Bernard Krug Thomas, whom she promptly married. After trying on married life for a time, Ollie decided it was a bit too glum, and though she kept quite a handsome home, her spending habits often cramped Krug's style. Divorce was the next logical step. Armed with nothing more than courage, Olive left her husband and struck out on her own to pursue life in NYC, having decided that-- heck-- she was just as good-looking as those Ziegfeld girls she kept seeing pictures of. The world would disagree: she was better. After spending some time working as a salesgirl in Harlem, Olive blithely entered a beauty contest for artist Howard Chandler Christy-- who was looking for the "perfect model"-- and won. She was thus labeled as "The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City," only to top herself when Harrison Fisher would name her "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World"-- Not too shabby for a teenager from Pittsburgh.
Olive's gorgeous features made her a popular model, and soon her face was on magazine covers and advertisements everywhere. It wasn't long before Florenz Ziegfeld came calling with an offer, and Olive found herself in the Follies (though she would protest that she brazenly had asked for the job herself). An affair between the gorgeous new muse and her notoriously womanizing patron began, despite his marriage to the long-suffering Billie Burke. Due to her public appeal and her natural charms, she soon became a featured girl in the act, participating in several numbers. Wealthy men from all around the world would lavish at her feet and douse her with jewelry. She would thus strut around bedecked in accoutrement that was worth more money than most people would make in a lifetime. Only thing was, while Ollie enjoyed the pretty stuff, she never took any of it seriously, and she was constantly losing these baubles. As her popularity grew, she was moved to the new and uber-risque Midnight Frolic. While she could have had her pick of any of the many swooning men left gasping in her wake, Ollie would finally succumb to ladies' man and scalawag Jack Pickford, whose irresistible charms immediately won her over-- much to Ziegfeld's chagrin. In addition to her incredible beauty, Ollie's general goodness, wit, and spirit, won Jack over as well. The two fell madly in love. Ziegfeld was about to lose his main attraction, but not just to Jack.
On the surface, Jack and Ollie seemed to be the perfect couple. They both spent exorbitantly, buying expensive gifts for each other and for themselves. They enjoyed throwing caution to the wind and living loud and large. Both had "lead feet" and got into constant fender benders, both enjoyed the night life and party crowds, but only Olive seemed to possess the ability to keep it from affecting her work. There were strains: jealousy, fiery tempers, high-strung personalities... but these volatile qualities also amplified the duo's passions, and it honestly seemed that they were the only people who could keep up with each other. Distance was a contributing factor to marital discord: Jack was often making movies back West in L.A, always with Mary's help, while Olive was in New York. Her fame increased after she signed with the newly formed Selznick Pictures in 1918 as its first official star. With Myron Selznick at the helm, father L.J. and brother David Selznick all put their faith behind Ollie and advertised her out the wazoo. She had the great honor of having her name up in electric lights for her film Upstairs and Down. In addition to being the center of the largest electric advertisement of the time, she had countless ads drawn up for her in magazines, and once had three billboards up in Times Square at the same time, setting a record in doing so. Not even Mary Pickford ever accomplished that. Of course, all of the attention may have had something to do with the fact that Myron, like many men, had fallen in love with her. She seemed to have that effect. Selznick Pictures certainly did its best to make her feel safe and loved, even sending her more cash when she (frequently) overdrew her accounts.
As a woman of firsts, Olive would also be the first "Flapper." Colleen Moore would later be credited with truly defining this version of feminine youth, but it was Olive who initially breathed life into one of the most notorious characters of the Twentieth Century. She still maintained her long, light-brown locks, no 'bob,' but what she possessed that would indeed translate to those eternal girls of the 1920s was her spirit. A new woman was about to be born in a new decade: one potently sexual, rambunctious, liberated, and independent. Her appearance in The Flapper seems like a far cry from what Clara Bow or Louise Brooks would later bring to the table, but the spark is still there, and the world would soon catch fire. After wrapping on the film, Olive decided to reunite with Jack, with whom she was still having problems, and the duo went on a well deserved vacation and shopping spree in Paris. Jack would return. Olive would not.
Just what happened to Ollie remains a mystery. What is known is that she and Jack went on the town on Sept 5, 1920, partying and dancing with the Dolly Sisters at infamous Parisian hot-spots like The Dead Rat, before returning to The Ritz somewhere between 1 and 3am. In the early morning hours, Jack claimed he went to bed and was awakened by Olive's screaming. She had swallowed a fatal dose of bichloride of mercury and was dying. For years, it has been debated as to whether the act was one of accident, suicide, or even murder. The truth may never be known, since the only man to witness it all, Jack, had his own reasons for distorting facts. See, the only reason that the bichloride of mercury was even present in the room was because Jack, who was now popularly known around Hollywood as "Mr. Syphilis," had been using the substance to topically treat his disease. It has been alleged that when Olive discovered her husband's malady, and equally the fact that he had been unfaithful-- and perhaps had infected her-- she had killed herself. It too has been suggested that in the midst of one of their many turbulent arguments, the oft impulsive Olive had defiantly taken the poison as a way to enact revenge against her husband and end her own personal suffering. However, the idea of suicide to many just doesn't seem to be in keeping with Olive's light-hearted demeanor. This leaves murder a possibility, but though Jack was imperfect, this too is often ruled out-- the only person Jack ever really hurt was himself. This leaves the theory that it was an accident, and author Michelle Vogel suggests that Olive stumbled into the bathroom in the night to take a sleeping pill-- as she often suffered from insomnia-- and mistakenly ingested Jack's concoction in the dark. Then again, perhaps there were darker corners to this bright, young woman's mind that may have driven her to a desperate state. The mystery continues...
It took 5 days for Olive to finally die, during the span of which she both lost her ability to see or speak. Early attempts that Jack had made to have Olive regurgitate the poison had only served in burning her vocal chords further and prolonging her painful death. It was unfitting for a woman so full of life, so beautiful... On the morning of September 10, with friend Dorothy Gish and Jack by her side, Ollie finally succumbed to acute nephritis. Ironically, Jack would pass away 12 years later in the same hospital, The American Hospital in Paris, at only 36 years of age. Olive's death was ruled an accident, and the incident sent shock waves across the world. The first Hollywood tragedy, society had as yet no idea how to handle the situation. For now, Hollywood itself was safe, pointing the finger at dirty, debaucherous Paris as the true villain-- a nasty city of depravity who had seduced a young girl to ruin! Magazine articles vividly depicted and exaggerated Olive's last night, painting her as an innocent woman tempted by drugs and booze who had taken her own life in shame. But, in almost exactly one year's time, the death of Virginia Rappe would bring the finger of blame back to Hollywood, and this time there would be no scapegoat except for poor Fatty Arbuckle. Olive became, thus, our first martyr; a symbol of the highest of highs, the most beautiful of girls, brought to the lowest and ugliest of lows. After Fatty came William Desmond Tayor; after WDT came Wallace Reid, and so on and so on and so on. The train wreck continues.
But there is more to Ollie than her death. Her life is just as forgotten as her silent grave in Woodlawn Cemetery, where she rests alone without her Jack, whom was buried in the family crypt in Forest Lawn of Glendale-- again, the lovers separated by a continent. Olive will never go down as an amazing actress, but she was one of Hollywood's brightest personalities. What she brought to the camera wasn't her grand emotional skill nor her malleable abilities of characterization. She brought energy and fun. She brought her "A" game and left plenty of room to play. Too few of her films remain, with only The Flapper being available to mainstream audiences. But still, in just this one film, or any of the meager scraps and scenes that haven't been ravaged by time and decay, you catch a glimpse of Ollie's magic; as in her life, you can't take your eyes off her. And so, Olive Thomas, dead too soon at 25, continues to live forever, and we continue to drink from the great silver screen chalice of her eternal youth. Before Elizabeth Taylor, Olive was the first girl with the violet eyes. Before Marilyn Monroe, Olive was the first sex symbol, influencing Alberto Vargas even after her demise in one of his most famous paintings. Before David O. Selznick, there was just David, who added the "O" to his name in memory of the woman whom he said had helped cement his family's reputation in Hollywood. Before now, there was then; and then, Olive was very "now"-- present, alive, vivacious, always.