Olive Thomas has popped up for me a few times over the last few years. I don’t remember where I first heard of her; I know I’ve seen that picture of her before. She resurfaced for me at the end of June, when I read The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. To give away her ending, Olive Thomas died in Paris from accidentally taking a bichloride of mercury potion. Before her tragic end, Olive had been a Ziegfeld Dancer and a successful actress for Selznik Studios, appearing or starring in twenty-four films in just five years. But, back to the beginning.
Oliva R. Duffy (or Oliveretta Elaine Duffy, depending on who you’re going by; Olive claimed Oliveretta), was born in Charleroi, Pennsylvania on October 20, 1894, the oldest of James and Rena Duffy’s three children. James was a steelworker, and died when Olive was just twelve. After his death, the family moved and Rena got a factory job. When Olive was fifteen she left school in order to work and help support her family; she sold gingham at a department store. In April 1911, when Olive was 16, she married Bernard Thomas. During their marriage he worked at a steel car company while Olive took care of their home. By 1913, she had separated from Bernard, and had moved to New York to live with a family member. Again, she worked at a department store to support herself. Olive finally divorced Bernard in September 1915; Olive cited desertion and cruelty.
In 1914, Olive entered “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest which was being sponsored by Howard Chandler Christy, a commercial artist. With her “shining bob of curly dark hair, big violet-blue eyes, and a pale heart-shaped face,” she won (1). Winning the contest established her as an artists’ model and she was eventually being featured on magazine covers such as the Saturday Evening Post. One of the artists Olive modelled for was Harrison Fisher. Fisher knew Florenz Ziegfeld at this time and recommend Olive to Ziegfeld, who hired her as one of his Ziegfeld Follies. Olive always claimed she just marched right up to Ziegfeld and asked for the job. However it happened, Olive debuted in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1915. Her popularity in the Follies got her cast in Midnight Frolic, a more risqué show for famous male customers with money to spare on the performers. It was rumored that the German ambassador gave Olive a $10,000 pearl necklace.
While Olive was employed by Ziegfeld, she was also having an affair with him. Ziegfeld was married to Billie Burke at the time (Glinda in the Wizard of Oz). Olive broke off her relationship with Ziegfeld when he wouldn’t divorce his wife and marry her instead. Around this same time, Olive was painted by Alberto Vargas, becoming the first Vargas Girl; the future famous pin-up artist was working for Esquire at the time. Ziegfeld purchased Vargas’s painting, Memories of Olive, and hung it in his office. Ziegfeld may even have commissioned the painting, but sources differ; Vargas also kept a copy of the painting.
In July 1916, Olive signed with the International Film Company, making her debut in “Episode 10” of the Beatrice Fairfax serial. Olive’s full length debut came the next year in A Girl Like That for Paramount. Olive would eventually help to get her brothers work in the movies too, after their service in World War One; one as a cameraman and one as an assistant director.
Late in 1916 Olive met Jack Pickford at a beach café; they eloped that October in New Jersey. Jack adored Olive, but his family did not approve of their relationship; Olive was viewed as “a cheap chorus girl from a poor steel town” (2). Both Olive and Jack were known for partying and, although they loved each other, their relationship was tumultuous, filled with quarrelling over Jack’s supposed affairs. Additionally, since they were both acting at the time, Olive and Jack could go months without seeing each other. When they met up again they would exchange expensive gifts, “like cars and jewelry” (3).
In 1917, Olive signed with Triangle Pictures. After her signing, news broke that she was engaged to Jack Pickford. While they’d secretly been married since October, Olive didn’t want it to seem like she was only successful because of her connection to the Pickfords; Jack’s older sister was the famous actress Mary Pickford. At the end of 1918, Olive signed with Selznik Pictures Company, hoping she would finally get some more serious roles to play. Her first film for Selznik, Upstairs and Down, established her as more serious and sexy. According to Sarah Baker, co-writer and –producer of Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart, Olive “served as a bridge between the reserved, Victorian heroines played by Mary Pickford (her husband’s sister) and the hot Clara Bow, a sexy, full-blown flapper” (4).
In 1920, Olive starred in The Flapper. This was a new direction for women in film; she was the first actress to play a flapper, and the film was the first to portray the flapper lifestyle. The film made Olive a celebrity almost overnight, and was one of her most successful movies. In August and September of 1920, Olive and Jack went to Paris as a second honeymoon, staying at the Hotel Ritz. Olive had just finished shooting Everybody’s Sweetheart, which would come out that October, so they both finally had some time to get away.
That’s where I’m going to leave off today. If I put everything about Olive in one post it would be ridiculously long, and nobody likes reading really long blog posts. So, next time, Olive’s poisoning, hospitalization, funeral, and the aftermath. I’ll leave you with this: The Flapper on YouTube. Maybe you can watch it between posts or after both or… whenever. Until next time.
1 Deborah Blum, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 106.
2, 3, 4, Marylynne Pitz, “Olive Thomas, the original ‘Flapper’ and a Mon valley native, still fascinates,” Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, September 26, 2010.