Olive Thomas burst onto the scene at the age of eighteen, a violet-eyed brunette with delicate looks and a zest for life. She won New York’s Most Beautiful Girl Contest and from there joined Ziegfeld’s Follies. By all accounts, Olive was sweet, funny, and a natural bon vivant. She married Jack Pickford, and the two endured a brief, turbulent marriage.
Despite the puritanical atmosphere of America, stars led wild and debauched lifestyles. Popular leading man Wally Reid battled a morphine addiction. Fatty Arbuckle hosted alcohol-fueled orgies, one of which led to the death of actress Virginia Rappe and a highly-sensationalized murder trial for Fatty. Chaplin married nymphets; Garbo was rumored to sport with other women. Notoriously, William Randolph Hearst shot a man on his yacht. For all the propriety and decorum of the silent film, the realities behind the camera were shocking.
Jack and Olive fought constantly. Jack himself was rumored to have a heroin addiction, and Olive certainly had her own demons. She was an alcoholic who loved to cavort with other stars at parties and events. She nearly killed a child with her automobile and survived several other wrecks, but wised up enough to hire a chauffeur.
Despite their epic tangles, Jack and Olive loved one another fiercely. They were described as gay and wild “brats,” two beautiful youths who made up as passionately as they came to blows. They licked one another’s wounds with lavish and magnificent presents. Olive was making at least $3,000 dollars a week from her contract with Selznick, and life was good. Or so it seemed until the party was over, and Olive grappled with career dissatisfaction.
The problem was that Olive felt she didn’t fit in as other starlets did. She bemoaned not having a “type,” and worried about her future marketability. In those days, most actors capitalized on having a type, a role they epitomized in every film. Jack’s sister, Mary Pickford, was known for playing young girls. Pola Negri was a vamp, sexy and sultry. Jack himself played affable young boys. Olive didn’t feel that she fit into a particular type. In today’s acting world, this would be somewhat of a gift. Back then, it could mean the death of a career. Olive’s fears may or may not have been unfounded, but she didn’t live long enough for the world to find out.
Olive and Jack felt they had been cheated of a decent honeymoon, so the two headed for Paris in August 1920. Some accounts, such as Ken Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, maintain that Jack wasn’t even there when Olive died. He was finishing work on a film and planned to follow Olive, who had gone ahead to shop and explore the city. Other accounts maintain that Jack was in Paris with her. Whatever happened, Olive spent her time partying, shopping, and drinking.
On the night of September 5, accidentally or purposely, Olive ingested mercury bichloride. This liquid was a topical treatment for chronic syphilis, a disease from which Jack suffered. The label on the bottle was in French, Olive was exhausted from a long day, and it’s believed she assumed the bottle contained a sleeping aid. She was taken to a hospital where she died several days later, Jack and actor Owen Moore at her side.
Olive was 25 years old. Jack never recovered from her death, considering her to have been the love of his life. He remarried several times following Olive’s death, but passed away in 1933, an emaciated and ruined man.
Olive never attained enduring stardom. She’s one of the lesser known silent film stars, but she was one of the first starlets associated with the term flapper. Olive was high spirited, gorgeous, and generous. She adored a good time and lavished love, attention, and gifts on her friends and lovers. She stood out onscreen and could have been a great talent of the era. The death of Olive Thomas was senseless, but not extraordinary in a sordid and shadowy industry.
Labels: actress, Jack Pickford, Olive Thomas, silent film