Olive Thomas: Such a Folly

Sometimes the is a perception that the old Hollywood was clean cut, whiter-than-white, well behaved. This is a falsehood. In the very early days of Hollywood (Pre-Hayes code) was debauched and decadent in a way that would make the current batch of stars blush. These past scandals included murder, rape and several deaths from ‘misadventure’. Here is one of the first.

Born Olivia Duffy on 20th October 1894 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her early life seems to have been uneventful. After separating from her first husband Bernard Krug Thomas in 1913, aged 18. Olivia left for New York.

Her first step into the limelight came after she won a beauty pageant held by renowned make up artist Howard Chandler Christy. Thus began her job as an illustration model, posing for the likes of Harrison Fisher and Raphael Kirchner. She was also the first ever ‘Varga Girl’, Vargas himself stated that Thomas was ‘One of the most beautiful brunettes Ziegfeld ever glorified’. In 1915 she joined the Ziegfeld Follies, her popularity resulted in her being cast in one of the Follies most risqué production; The Midnight Frolic Show.

1916 proved to be a momentous year for Thomas, both professionally and personally. She signed a film contract with International Film Company, making her full length debut in ‘A Girl Like That’. Thomas also married Jack Pickford, brother of Mary Pickford, who was possible the biggest star of the silent film era. After leaving her second studio, Triangle. she landed a contract with Selznick’s Company, where she was groomed into the persona of  ‘baby vamp’. Here she did achieve some success with ‘Love’s Prisoner’ and ‘Out Yonder’. Thomas’ most successful film was ‘The Flapper’ in 1920. Taking the title role of a flapper, just when the term was beginning to seep into the American diction. Maybe if time had allowed Thomas would have been one of the silver screen’s iconic flappers like Clara Bow or Louise Brooks. Tragically Thomas was not meant for such a title.

During a second honeymoon, with her husband in Paris. On 5th September 1920, after enjoying the best of Parisienne night life. Thomas and Pickford returned to thief hotel room, it was here that Thomas accidentally drank a bottle of Mercury Bichloride. A prescription medical for Pickford’s syphilis, she was rushed to hospital. Death came for Olive on 10th September 1920. Her cause of death was acute nephritis from consuming the Bichloride. Rumours were rife about the possibly debauched setting for Thomas’ demise; had Pickford killed her? Had Thomas killed herself? Had their been a champagne and cocaine orgy, was she a drug addict. Basically these headlines would not be out of place in any tabloid rag today. Thomas’s sad death is credited by many to be the first big Hollywood scandal.

Such a shame that Thomas never realised her dream of being a serious actress, instead she is best remembered as a precautionary tale of avoid the pitfalls of Hollywood decadence.

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  1. A fascinating read – thank you!

    1. Thank you sir x

  2. Wow! Fantastic. Hollywood was (and still is) a glamorous layer of candy coating over a seething cauldron of base human attributes; large egos, jealousy, greed, consumption, etc. Things haven’t changed that much. XO

    1. Well put! Human behaviour never changes, it was just easier to hide then it is today. 20’s Hollywood was pretty wild!

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