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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 471

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This is the grave of Olive Thomas.

Born in 1894 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, Olive Duffy was the oldest of three children born to Irish parents. Her father died in a factory accident of 1906, an incredibly common fate for workers of that era. She and her brothers then moved in with her grandparents while her mother married another man and started a new family. At the age of 15, she dropped out of school to work and help support the family. She got a job at a department store selling gingham. In 1911, only 16 years of age, she married a man named Bernard Thomas in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. She continued working and the marriage only lasted two years, though she kept his name. At that point, she moved to New York City to stay with a relative and found work in a department store there. However, Thomas was ambitious and beautiful. In 1914, she entered a contest titled “The Most Beautiful Woman in New York.” She then won that contest. This launched her career. She started working as a model, including as a nude model for artists. She was featured on many magazine covers and then got a position with the Ziegfeld Follies, the famous theatrical revue company of the day. She did very well and was promoted to the more risqué show. This brought her the wealth and fortune she desired, as these wealthy men showered her with expensive gifts. She started an affair with Florenz Ziegfeld himself, which she later cut off when he wouldn’t leave his wife for her. But she still worked for him and posed nude for the Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas in 1920, a painting Ziegfeld bought and put on his office wall.

In 1916, Thomas moved up to the next step of early 20th century stardom for beautiful working-class women: silent film. Hollywood had an insatiable need for new stars, as it pumped out thousands of films a year. Thomas was tailor made for this. She made her film debut in a series called Beatrice Fairfax and then the next year starred in the feature-length film A Girl Like That. Over the next three years, she starred in many films such as Indiscreet Corrine, Limousine Life, Toton the Apache, and The Follies Girl. By this time, she had married the actor Jack Pickford, younger brother of Mary Pickford. The family did not approve of the marriage, as Thomas was known for her hard-partying ways, was very young and was from a poor background. Mary Pickford later wrote in her 1955 autobiography:

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.

The screenwriter Frances Marion commented, “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.” And that did summarize Thomas’ career for, like many silent film stars, she lived very hard in an era where modern fame was being invented by these very people. After her marriage to Pickford, she switched to Myron Selznick’s picture company, which was a bigger studio than where she was. She saw some success too. 1919’s Upstairs and Down made her a big vamp figure in the silents and sold well. In 1920, she portrayed the first flapper in a film, with The Flapper, a story about a small-town Florida girl who wanted money and fame and to have fun. Pretty autobiographical except for the Florida part. Thomas played a huge role in putting the figure of the flapper on the cultural map, helping to define film roles for young women in the 20s.

Let’s watch The Flapper! I haven’t seen this, but as I am going to be in Mexico for the month of July and most streaming services don’t work out of the country, I am looking forward to watching some old movies on YouTube like this. So I’m putting it in the Mexico queue.

However, later in 1920, Thomas and Pickford were in Paris on a working vacation. Thomas was very drunk and wandered to bed. Thinking she was drinking water, or perhaps taking sleeping pills, she swallowed a bottle of Pickford’s mercury bichloride liquid medicine, which he took for his syphilis. She died five days later in a Paris hospital. The American media was very sensational about this, as they often were with the many young silent stars who died during these years. It really was akin to the rock and roll lifestyle in 1969. They claimed Thomas was suicidal and that she and Pickford had a huge fight, but that’s probably not true. She probably was just smashed and made a fatal mistake.

This is actually not the grave of Jack Pickford, who himself only lived until 1933, thanks to his syphilis and alcoholism. His career was made by his sister Mary, who got her family into the films once she became a big star. Jack was no big star himself, though he did play Pip in a 1917 adaption of Great Expectations and Tom Sawyer in two 1918 films that adapted Twain. That year though, he was drafted and served, but got involved in a scheme to let rich guys bribe their way out of service and procuring women for high-ranking officers, leading to his dishonorable discharge. His legendary drinking and drug use came to dominate insider knowledge of him, even as the studios kept it out of the news. He married a couple more times, but had become abusive toward women. When he died, Mary had him buried in Los Angeles instead of with Thomas, which was evidently his initial intent by putting his name on that tomb, which could easily hold him as well.

Olive Thomas is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other silent films stars, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Other than the already mentioned Pickford, Lon Chaney is in Glendale, California and Anna Mae Wong is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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