Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Olive Thomas The Life and Death of a Silent Film Beauty by Michelle Vogel

At the time of her death she was one of Hollywood's first and foremost stars, she was hailed as "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," adoring fans knew her as "Everybody's Sweetheart," and artists, including Alberto Vargas, vied to immortalize her likeness, she excelled at schoolgirl roles and baby vamps (devious dewy-eyed ingenues, the physical opposite of exotic, sultry, alluring sirens like Theda Bara), and was the first actress to portray that icon of the roaring 1920s--the flapper, yet today Olive Thomas is remembered for how she died, not how she lived, or for her films, most of which survive only in fragmented condition on decaying nitrate film.

Except for the tragic ending, her life story reads like a scenario for one for the rags to riches, poor little shopgirl makes good, roles that were a staple of Hollywood film fare. Born in the dingy coal-mining town of Charleroi, Pennsylvania in 1894, Olive grew up a poor girl dreaming of bright lights and big cities, particularly New York. She married at sixteen to get out; Pittsburgh was a step up the ladder, but not good enough, and when her marriage crumbled Olive quickly high-tailed it to New York. She worked as a shopgirl to pay her way and entered a beauty contest. With her abundant brown ringlets sheened with gold, melting violet-blue eyes, Olive Thomas looked like a porcelain doll, and no one was surprised when she won. She quickly became a popular artists' model, and from there it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to Broadway, and in 1915 she made her debut in the Ziegfeld Follies, sharing the same stage as The Dolly Sisters and Will Rogers, and the bed of that great glorifier of the American Girl, Florenz Ziegfeld himself. But she didn't stay in the Follies or his bed long as both Hollywood and romance soon beckoned.

Olive found her soulmate when Jack Pickford danced his way into her heart. Jack was the brother of that star of stars, "America's Sweetheart," the little girl with the golden curls, Mary Pickford. But Olive was determined to succeed on her own, she would never let it be said that she had traded on the Pickford name to become a star, and the couple kept their marriage a secret until Olive's star was secure in the Hollywood firmament. Olive made her way in the movies on the strength of her talent, vibrant personality, and beauty, but her in-laws never ceased to look down on her. Jack was the adored darling of his mother and big sister Mary, and in their eyes he could do no wrong, they always bailed him out of trouble (and with Jack there was always a lot of trouble), covered up for him, and made excuses for him; Jack learned early he could always depend on his sister to rescue and take care of him.

Despite her porcelain doll prettiness, Olive Thomas was no saint, she and Jack Pickford were two of a kind. Olive was a wild, kick up your heels party girl, who loved to dance, drank champagne as if it were water, a spendthrift who frittered her fortune away on luxuries like fancy clothes and fast cars that she and Jack invariably wrecked, and expensive jewelry she handled carelessly and often lost, including a $5,000 (approximately $45,000 in today's currency) diamond and sapphire bracelet. She once spent an entire week's worth of her generous movie star salary to buy her husband a dog. And Jack was equally, if not more extravagant and wild. He was a confirmed womanizer who didn't let the gold wedding band on his hand and his frequent declarations that Olive was the love of his life slow him down. He contracted syphilis a year after they were married and may even have passed the disease on to Olive. In Hollywood he was known as Mr. Syphilis and his entire adult life was spent in thrall to alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. The two fought as hard as they partied, endured lengthy separations because of their work, which led to tension, jealousy, and accusations of infidelity, then made up with lavish gifts and ardent expressions of love.

In 1920, amidst rumours of escalating fights and divorce lurking on the horizon, they embarked on a belated honeymoon to Paris. And here the mystery Olive is remembered for today begins.

On September 5, 1920 Olive and Jack set out on a tour of the nightclubs of Montmartre, including the notorious Cafe du Rat Mort (Dead Rat). There are some contradictory accounts of their movements that night and how much of it they spent together and whether they returned to their hotel, The Ritz, together or separately. Regardless of their itinerary, around 3:00 a.m. the exhausted, partied-out pair were back in their hotel room. According to Jack's version of events, he went straight to bed but Olive, claiming a headache and that she couldn't sleep, stayed up to write a letter to her mother. Around 4:00 a.m. Jack awoke briefly to complain that the desk lamp was bothering him and to urge Olive to take a sleeping pill (some accounts say aspirin) and come to bed, they had to get up early the next morning to make a flight to London. Olive went into the bathroom--whether she turned on the light or not is unknown--and a little while later there was a crash of a glass bottle hitting the tile floor and a scream. Olive had ingested a fatal dose of mercury bichloride, which was used to treat syphilis before penicillin came along (It was a common saying that one night in the arms of Venus led to a lifetime on Mercury). Jack bolted out of bed and rushed to his wife's side. He tried desperately to save her, calling for doctors, and while he waited for them to arrive he endeavored to flush the poison from Olive's system or at least counteract it by forcing eggs, milk, melted butter, and 12 to 15 glasses of water down her throat. But it was too late, there is no going back from mercury poisoning, and by diluting the poison Jack only prolonged Olive's agony. Olive vomited repeatedly, which resulted in the caustic poison burning her vocal chords so that she could never tell what truly happened, and causing such severe chemical burns to her face, neck, and throat that a closed casket funeral would be necessary. Olive lingered for almost a week in agony, going blind and deaf before acute nephritis ended her suffering. She died on September 10, 1920.

The mystery of what really happened that night endures to this day. Was Jack's version of the story true or was the accident not an accident at all? Was it in reality suicide or something more sinister? Was it, in fact, murder? The only thing we know is that we will never know for certain. Theories abound and all are fully discussed in Michelle Vogel's fascinating book, the first full-length biography of this almost forgotten star.

Despite its brevity, only 203 pages, though the book itself ends on page 144, the remaining pages consist of a filmography and index, this book offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of a silent screen star, a girl who spent her all too brief life in the fast lane with her foot slammed on the gas pedal, and died much too young, only a month shy of her 26th birthday and became enshrined in the annals of unsolved mysteries. There are numerous photographs, both portraits and film stills, paintings, posters, lobby cards, and advertisements throughout, including the beautiful erotic nude "Memories of Olive" by Alberto Vargas, and extensive quotes from magazines and newspapers of the day.

Olive Thomas, despite her wild child personality, was gifted with an inquisitive mind that sought and sucked up knowledge like a sponge. She often drove people to distraction asking "Why?" and "How?" She wanted to understand every aspect of moviemaking, both in front of and behind the camera, she had ambitions to direct and write; who knows what she might have achieved had she lived. It is a tragedy that the "Why?" and "How?" of her death should be her legacy instead of the golden talent she was blessed with. Perhaps this is why Olive's spirit cannot rest, her ghost is said to haunt the New Amsterdam Theatre where she once graced the stage. She is said to appear--forever the flirt, Olive usually only shows herself to men--in a green-beaded gown with a blue glass bottle (the one that contained the fatal dose of poison?) in her hand. She is also sometimes seen in the white and silver dress she was supposedly buried in with a champagne glass in her hand.

Jack Pickford spent the rest of his short life wallowing in grief, drugs, alcohol, and self-pity. He married twice more, both times to Ziegfeld Girls. First to Marilyn Miller, the golden-toed darling of musical comedy, and a martyr to sinus infections, which eventually took her life, then to Mary Mulhern, but both marriages ended in divorce, and in 1933, at age 36, Jack lost his battle with syphilis, drug and alcohol addiction, and died in the same hospital where Olive spent her last days. From his hospital bed he could see the window of the room where she had died.

It all goes to show that Beauty + Money + Fame don't equal happiness, and in Hollywood more movies end happily than the lives of their stars.

You can read my article about Olive Thomas at www.brandypurdy.com

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