So, in the last post was Olive’s rise to fame, her marriage to Jack Pickford, and their second honeymoon to Paris. This time… The rest of Olive’s life.
On the night of September 4-5, Olive and Jack were out late, partying in Montparnasse. They returned to their hotel around 3am that night. Jack passed out pretty quickly upon their arrival back at the hotel. Olive went to the bathroom to take medicine of some kind: aspirin, sleeping medicine, cold medicine, or even just water, it’s not clear. What is clear is that, instead of taking whatever she had intended, Olive took bichloride of mercury liquid. This either had a label in French, or no label, causing the confusion over what she was taking. It seems like the mercury was Jack’s for his syphilis.
After she realized she’d taken the wrong thing, Olive started shouting. Jack woke up and “forced water, egg whites, milk and butter down her throat” (1). He carried her to the bed and called for an ambulance. Olive was taken to the American Hospital in Paris where doctor’s tried their best to keep her alive. Olive “lost the power of speech and sight” and so was unable “to explain how she came to make the mistake of drinking from the bottle” (2). Olive died at 10:15 on the morning of September 10, 1920, a month shy of her twenty-sixth birthday.
It’s not clear if she took the mercury “accidentally, committed suicide or was murdered by her husband” (3). The reasons for a possible suicide included: supposed trouble adjusting to fame, Jack’s infidelities, Jack’s having given her syphilis. There were also rumors that Olive had a drug addiction, or that Jack tricked Olive to take the mercury so he could collect insurance money on her. Michelle Vogel, author of Olive Thomas: The Life and Death of a Silent Film Beauty, believes that “the actress drank the poison accidentally” but that Jack’s “alcoholism and incurable womanizing contributed” (4). Whatever it was that caused Olive to ingest the poison, her death was ruled an accident, having been caused by nephritis from the mercury bichloride.
At the inquest into her death, “maids and valets of the hotel” were “unanimous that up to the hour of her death Miss Thomas was … of a happy disposition and serene and content with her life and its future prospects.” Additionally, it was reported that Olive “was planning to come back to Paris” to work for Mary Pickford’s ex-husband, and had “been busy buying frocks for new plays in which she was to appear” (5).
After Olive’s death, Jack gave interviews to newspapers and was quoted about how hard both Olive and the doctors struggled to keep her alive. He gave his full account of what happened to the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Jack brought Olive’s body back home to the United States. It was rumored that he tried to commit suicide on the voyage over, but was talked out of it. Years later in her autobiography Mary Pickford says he confessed that to be true.
Olive’s funeral was held on September 28 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York. Fifteen thousand mourners tried to pack into the church, so many more so than expected that “it was found necessary to increase the number of policemen on duty from ten to twenty-five” (6). Women fainted and men’s hats were crushed, the crowd was so thick. Olive’s casket was “blanketed in purple orchids, topped by a spray of yellow and brown orchids from Jack Pickford” (7). Olive was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, originally just in a vault, but in 1921 was “put in the recently completed Pickford mausoleum” (8).
Olive’s estate was split between her mother, brothers, and Jack. Jack did not take his share, giving it to her mother instead. In November, Olive’s things were sold off in an estate sale. “Nearly $20,000 was realized from the sale of the jewelry, and one of her two automobiles was sold for $5,000. The entire proceeds of the sale were about $30,000” (9). Items sold also included a cigarette case, a gold toilet set, and a sable coat.
Olive is fascinating in her death. This was one of the first times the media really sensationalized a Hollywood star. Her death was also one of the first Hollywood scandals; hers and others that soon followed led to morality clauses being written into actors’ contracts. As Dr. Jeanine Basinger, chair of Wesleyan University’s film studies program, said “Had he not been Mary Pickford’s brother, had they not been married, had they both not been in movies, the death would not have been sensationalized in the same way it was” (10).
Rumor has it that her ghost still haunts the New Amsterdam Theatre (the theater where she worked in the Ziegfeld Follies). In 1997, “a security guard resigned after seeing a woman in lingerie wandering the stage clutching a green bottle, and cast members still touch a portrait of Olive as they leave the stage door every night” (11). Others say her ghost is “crying, in a white dress trimmed in silver;” supposedly “she was buried in a white dress trimmed in silver” (12).
So that’s Olive Thomas. I’m not sure why I’m so drawn to Olive’s story. For sure she ticks off many boxes of my favorite things – old, silent Hollywood; flappers; tragic death – but some of those I didn’t really realize until I started researching her for this. I didn’t know the movie that made her a star was The Flapper, or if I had known I’d forgotten; maybe it still niggled in my head and made me want to know more somehow. At any rate, she has such an interesting history and such a tragic end; I wish more people knew of her.
1, 3, 4, 10, Marylynne Pitz, “Olive Thomas, the original ‘Flapper’ and a Mon valley native, still fascinates,” Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, September 26, 2010.
2 “Olive Thomas Near Death,” The New York Times, September 10, 1920.
5 “Miss Thomas’ Death Found Accidental,” The New York Times, September 12, 1920.
6, 7 “Women Faint at Olive Thomas Rite,” The New York Times, September 29, 1920.
8 “Olive Pickford Put in Mausoleum,” The New York Times, September 26, 1921.
9 “Olive Thomas Sale Amounts to $30,000,” The New York Times, November 23, 1920.
11 Tony Perrottet, “Traces of Ziegfeld’s New York,” The New York Times, May 8, 2015.
12 William Grimes, “A Gang of Ghosts Ready to Rumble,” The New York Times, October 29, 1993.