For a brutally brief period, Olive Thomas was the sweetheart of the silver screen. Yet behind her pert image lay a wild, uncontrollable past—from the lows of her humble beginnings to the highs of her scandalous stardom. Throughout it all, the actress’s life careened toward a death that would shock the nation. When Olive Thomas met her tragic end, Old Hollywood lost its innocence.
Olive Thomas’s early life reads like the beginnings of a Hollywood rags-to-riches story. Born Oliva R. Duffy in 1894 in the small steel town of Charleroi, Pennsylvania, there was nothing much to suggest that she would become one of the most electric and exciting ingénues of her day. Her early life was sleepy and quiet—until, that is, she experienced a daughter’s worst nightmare.
In 1906, Thomas’s father James Duffy, a steelworker, perished in a brutal workplace accident. Thomas was just 12 years old, and she and her siblings were now fatherless. Scrambling to make ends meet, her mother Rena uprooted the family to McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. While there, the matriarch worked long hours in a factory, and Thomas mostly grew up with her grandparents. Still, it wasn’t enough; soon Thomas had to sacrifice even more.
Almost as soon as she turned 15, Thomas dropped out of school to take up a full-time job and help support her family. Although the young girl may have dreamed of stardom even then, her jobs weren’t nearly as glamorous as her fantasies, and she often worked for pennies a day selling fabric out of department stores. But as it happened, this was a date with destiny.
From a young age, Olive Thomas was an absolute looker. As one of her friends later noted, "The beauty of Olive Thomas is legendary". The soon-to-be starlet had "the loveliest violet-blue eyes" framed by famously long and dark eyelashes, and set off by her pale skin. In other words, it didn’t take long for men to start noticing Olive…it was just that they were often the wrong men.
The same year she quit school, the 15-year-old Olive met Bernard Krug Thomas, a local resident of McKees Rocks. They were young, eager, and they made an extremely stupid decision. Thinking herself in love and desperately sick of going it alone, Olive married Bernard in 1911 when she was just 16. Need I say this ended in disaster?
The newlyweds were so green and inexperienced, they actually spent their first days of marriage living with Bernard’s parents, although they did eventually move into their own apartment. For a while, Olive was happy as Bernard went off to work for a car company and she mostly stayed back and took care of the home. Then, in the blink of an eye, it all went sour.
The teenage Olive might have thought she knew what she wanted when she first married Bernard, but it quickly became apparent that the life of a housewife would never satisfy her. Her response was swift and brutal. She up and left Bernard, moving to New York in 1913 to try her hand at being a model. Only, she hadn't heard the last of him…
It took up until 1915 for Olive to obtain a divorce from Bernard, and time hadn’t made either of the ex-lovers any kinder to each other. Bernard’s grounds for divorce were desertion and cruelty, and he later all but called Olive a gold digger who was too concerned with "luxury" and "improving her station" to save their marriage. Ouch. But you know what? Olive went off and proved him right.
In 1914, just after moving to New York, Olive made a scandalous name for herself. Not only did she get her brand out there after winning the "Most Beautiful Girl in New York" contest, but she also started working as an artist’s model, posing for the likes of Raphael Kirchner and Penrhyn Stanlaws…mostly in her birthday suit. Oh, but that wasn’t all.
After barely a year in the Big Apple, Thomas really hit the big time, earning a spot in the Ziegfeld Follies. The Follies, which were the brainchild of the powerful impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, showcased bevies of beautiful women in luxurious theatrical revues. In other words, it was everything Thomas knew she deserved—and she got the job in a downright ballsy way.
Although some accounts insist that Olive Thomas won her part in the Follies after one of her artist employers wrote Florenz Ziegfeld a letter of recommendation, Thomas told a much spicier story. Instead of a traditional route to stardom, she claimed that she nabbed a role because she "walked right up and asked for the job". Either way, this is where Thomas’s notoriety started to truly take right off.
Thomas was such a hit at the Ziegfeld Follies that her boss decided to put her into his "Midnight Frolic" show too. If that sounds even more naughty, that’s because it was. The "Frolic" took place after hours and away from prying eyes on the rooftop of the New Amsterdam theatre. Featuring only the most beautiful Ziegfeld girls in their scantiest outfits, the "Frolic" turned Thomas from an innocent babe into a downright bad girl.
What happened in the Midnight Frolic didn’t exactly stay in the Midnight Frolic, and we now have hair-raising details from these bawdy nights. Thomas became infamous for wearing only balloons, which men would try to pop. Besides that, the clientele were distinctly upscale, and she, er, "entertained" some of the richest and most famous men in New York and around the world. One day, she found herself a very famous admirer indeed.
One of Thomas’s regular customers at The Midnight Frolic was the German ambassador Albrecht von Bernstorff, an intellectual and diplomat who would later form part of the resistance against the Third Reich. For now, though, his main concern was keeping Olive Thomas in luxury; people whispered that he had once given his favorite girl a string of pearls worth $10,000.
Obviously, this kind of lifestyle was bound to get Thomas into trouble…and boy, did she ever.
During her time in the Follies, Thomas committed an illicit act. She began sleeping with her own boss, Florenz Ziegfeld, even though the money man was very much married to the angelic actress Billie Burke—the woman who would go on to play Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Not that bad girl Olive seemed to care about that…
Wrapped up in Florenz Ziegfeld’s power and influence, Thomas became desperate to stop sneaking around in the shadows with him. Sure, she knew he had a string of mistresses plucked right from his chorus lines, but day after day, Thomas needled him to divorce Billie Burke and make things official with her. She was in for one rude awakening.
For once in her life, Olive Thomas didn’t get her way. Florenz Ziegfeld had absolutely no intention of breaking things off with Burke and going through a nasty divorce to marry another woman, especially when he’d been having his cake and eating it too for so long. To be fair to Thomas, she had self-respect out the wazoo—so when Ziegfeld shut her down, she walked right out of his life. Then she got a beautiful revenge.
If the best revenge is looking good, Olive Thomas had them all beat. Right around her breakup with Ziegfeld, she became the very first "Vargas Girl" when she posed for Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas, whose stylized pin-up girls were about to take over the art world. In his now-famous portrait Memories of Olive, Thomas stands undressed from the waist up, sensually smelling a flower. When Ziegfeld saw the portrait, his reaction was…very odd.
Although Alberto Vargas refuted the persistent and creepy rumor that Florenz Ziegfeld was the one who initially commissioned the risqué painting, Ziegfeld did something much weirder with it. He bought it outright and hung Thomas’s bare-all likeness in his office in the New Amsterdam theatre. Alright, seems like someone regrets the breakup. Olive, on the other hand, was totally over it. She was on to the next.
In 1916, Thomas was finally free from her previous romantic entanglements when she met the strapping actor Jack Pickford while lolling about a beach café on the Santa Monica pier. It was practically the definition of a Hollywood meet-cute, but it gets even more Tinseltown than this. After all, Jack had some friends in very high places…
Jack’s last name, "Pickford," might not sound familiar to you, but you can bet it was familiar to Olive Thomas. That’s because Jack’s sister was none other than Mary Pickford, one of the most bankable stars of her day and the original "America’s Sweetheart". Well, Thomas always did love people with powerful connections, and their love story ramped up hard and fast.
Jack Pickford and Olive Thomas started with a scandal. With her new relationship blooming, Thomas became much more interested in Jack’s cinematic line of work and less interested in her Broadway baby dreams with the Follies. She soon quit the stage show, and as Mary Pickford later revealed, Florenz Ziegfeld "never forgave" Jack for stealing Thomas away.
Hoping to complete her break away from the chorus line and onto the silver screen, Thomas signed on with the International Film Company. After a debut in the film serial Beatrice Fairfax, Thomas’s career took off, and the next year she made her first full-length feature, A Girl Like That, and signed on with a new studio, Triangle Pictures. Then the bottom dropped out.
All Olive Thomas ever wanted was the security of money, fame, and power—but with those glittering dreams came scrutiny and notoriety. The minute Thomas’s star started rising, the media began digging around her personal life, and it wasn’t long before the journalists discovered the one secret that Jack Pickford and Olive Thomas were trying to keep to themselves…
See, almost the minute that Thomas met Pickford, she knew she was wild about him and that the feeling was mutual. So, in typical Thomas fashion, she made a very rash decision. Just weeks after meeting in late 1916, the pair eloped in October, but had kept it hush-hush from the public because Thomas didn’t want anyone to think she was riding into stardom solely on the famous Pickford name.
Well, the secret didn’t last long, and their relationship became common knowledge. But behind the scenes, they were hiding much more scandalous behavior.
Thomas and Pickford likely thought their hasty wedding was the epitome of windswept romance, but that day had a darker side. They newlyweds didn’t just keep the wedding a secret from the press, they also didn’t even tell their families, and the only person present that day was fellow actor Thomas Meighan, who needed to be their witness. Why the cloak-and-dagger operation? Well, they had good reason.
For all that Jack Pickford was madly in love with Thomas, his family were less than impressed with the up-and-coming actress, and alarmed at how intensely the pair got together. Jack’s famous sister Mary Pickford, though somewhat sympathetic to the girl, admitted, "I always thought of them as a couple of children playing together". Still, even rambunctious children couldn’t get as wild as Jack and Olive…
These enfants terribles became infamous around Hollywood for their untamed love, as well as their untamed love of partying, even by Tinseltown standards. Rumors swirled that Thomas became addicted to illicit substances, and that she and her new husband participated in wild, bacchanalian parties filled with champagne and aforementioned illicit substances in their spare time. That is, when they weren’t making up and breaking up every other day. Simply rumors? Maybe. But there are also eyewitness accounts.
Thanks to Mary Pickford and her equally powerfully husband Douglas Fairbanks, Olive Thomas had access to the notorious "Pickfair," the couple’s enormous party pad estate. Screenwriter Frances Marion often saw Olive and Jack over at the family home, and described them as "the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway".
Although Marion noted their talent and undeniable love for one other, she also noted that they "were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers". Unfortunately for Thomas, she eventually made the wrong gamble in this roulette, and the consequences were utterly devastating.
For all that Olive and Jack were deeply in love, their marriage hid a cruel problem behind bedroom doors. Namely, that Jack Pickford had been unfaithful even in the short years they had been married. Now, there’s nothing to say Olive didn’t enjoy a few sinful pleasures herself somewhere on the Pickfair Estate, but Jack’s infidelities caught up with him, big time.
Karma certainly is a witch, and sometime in the years between 1916 and 1920, one of Jack Pickford’s illicit affairs ended with him catching syphilis. This diagnosis did nothing to help his volatile relationship with Thomas, especially when both their acting schedules led to them being apart for long stretches of time. By 1920, their marriage was officially crumbling, and they came up with a last-ditch effort to save it.
In the summer of 1920, Olive and Jack decided to take a "second honeymoon" to Paris in order to rekindle their marriage and restore its foundations. Little did they know, it would end in infamy. From the very beginning, it had all the hallmarks of their old habits: While staying at the luxurious Ritz Hotel, the two often went out drinking and partying in the bohemian Montparnasse district until the wee hours of the morning. Then one night, disaster struck.
The next—and final—moments of Olive Thomas’s life are shrouded in mystery and steeped in horror. At three in the morning on September 6, 1920, she and Pickford staggered into their hotel to grab some sleep before starting it all over tomorrow. But while Pickford went straight to bed, Thomas stayed up for a while longer. It would be her doom.
Out of nowhere, Thomas’s husband awoke to a blood-curdling sound. From the bathroom, the whiskey-soaked Pickford heard Olive screeching "Oh my God!" and he rushed inside to see what was the matter. The still-tipsy and upset Thomas begged her husband to "find out what was in the bottle" she had just partaken from. As Pickford recalled, "I picked it up and read: 'Poison.'" Then the details began to fall into place.
While ambling around the hotel room, Thomas had gone to the bathroom cabinet and tried to drink either water or a sleeping tonic. Instead, in a cruel irony, she had picked up Pickford’s external medication that he was supposed to apply on his painful syphilis sores and ingested it. The mercury bichloride solution was potentially fatal—and in an instant, Olive Thomas’s world spun and exploded.
As soon as Jack Pickford got a grip on what was going on, he rushed his wife to the American Hospital in a suburb of Paris, and then he got to praying. For nearly a week, Thomas stayed in the hospital and fought for her life as the mercury ravaged through her body. Yet outside the hospital walls, a different and perhaps more scandalous battle was raging.
Every newspaper in America and beyond fixated on Olive Thomas and the circumstances around her poisoning. Some of the theories were incredibly dark. Many publications suggested Thomas had tried to harm herself after finding out about another of Pickford’s infidelities, while others claimed the attempt was because Pickford had given her syphilis. But there was one more disturbing possibility.
According to some articles, Thomas hadn’t tried to kill herself; Pickford had done that for her. In this version of events, the philandering actor had tricked the young starlet into drinking the poison so he could get a grab at her insurance money. This suggestion, in particular, kicked the case into overdrive, and Pickford had to respond somehow.
While Olive Thomas grew weaker in her bed, she had officially become one of the first Hollywood scandals, and Jack Pickford was under the public’s intense microscope. For his part, Pickford always claimed the accusations against him were nothing but lies, and that "Olive and I were the greatest pals on Earth". Not that Thomas had long on that Earth.
It’s hard to convey just how much people—men in particular—revered Olive Thomas in her time. Alberto Vargas, the artist who turned her into a "Vargas Girl" with his portrait, called Thomas "one of the most beautiful brunettes that Ziegfeld ever glorified". More than that, he dealt Thomas an intensely personal compliment, keeping a copy of his portrait of her in his own collection.
At the beginning, doctors hoped beyond hope that the actress would make a miraculous recovery, and she was alert and awake for most of her stay in the hospital. According to Pickford himself, his wife kept calling for him, and he never left her bedside if he could help it. Yet even as Thomas fought harder than she ever had in her life, the medics suspected the end was near.
As the hours turned into days, Olive Thomas took a heartbreaking turn. Although she was conscious, the mercury was nonetheless destroying her internal organs all the while, and eventually, the doctors discovered that the poison had paralyzed her kidneys. It was the end for the beautiful Olive Thomas, and it was as ugly as it was tragic.
In some of what would be her final moments, Olive Thomas was still trying to plan for the future and bargain with fate. She asked her nurse to come back to America with her, and kept talking about convalescing and going home to see her mother. All Jack Pickford could do was smile and try to keep her spirits up while trying not to break down himself.
During the last 12 hours that Thomas was alive, she survived only by hypodermic injections, yet never had an epiphany about her mortality. Watching from her bedside, Pickford said he knew the exact moment she was slipping away, but the actress’s last words were gut-wrenching. When Pickford asked how she was feeling, Thomas only replied, "Pretty weak, but I'll be all right in a little while, don't worry, darling".
An hour later, she passed on, leaving devastation in her wake.
Jack Pickford had held his wife in his arms as she passed, and he wasn’t ready to let her go by any means. When he brought her body back to America by boat, he was in such a wild, desperate state of mind that he tried to kill himself right then and there, going up on deck with a plan to throw himself over the railing and into the ocean.
According to his sister Mary, the only thing that stopped him was a voice inside him saying, "You can't do this to your mother and sisters. It would be a cowardly act. You must live and face the future". Instead, Jack had to endure his last goodbye to Olive.
Olive Thomas’s funeral took place on September 29, 1920, at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City. As one of the first Old Hollywood stars to meet a shocking end, Thomas’s funeral was pandemonium. Officers had to accompany her casket, several women fainted at the ceremony, and there was a rush of people trying to get to the front of the service to bid Thomas’s body adieu. However, there was one particularly touching tribute.
Although Jack Pickford’s family had never felt completely comfortable with his marriage to Thomas, even they couldn’t fail to feel pity for her tragic passing. Indeed, most of them attended the funeral to pay their respects and to support their grieving son. Still, their tenderness would have better served Thomas when she was still alive.
In the end, Jack Pickford finally got vindication around the scandal of Thomas’s passing. Before her burial, the medical examiner ruled her passing from acute nephritis and mercury poisoning as "accidental," clearing Pickford’s name in the courts, if not in the court of public opinion. But that didn’t mean the young man got off scot-free.
Jack Pickford and Olive Thomas’s romance was volatile and even harmful to both of them, but they were undoubtedly the love of each other’s lives. Although Pickford married two more times—once to one of Thomas’s fellow Ziegfeld girls—he never got over Thomas, and turned more and more to substance use. In 1933, when he was just 36 years old, he passed in the same Paris hospital as his long-lost love.
Today we’ve all but forgotten the furor caused by Olive Thomas’s shocking end, all while Hollywood scandals continue to hit the newspapers. Even so, Olive Thomas may not have forgotten us: Legend has it that, a fame-seeker until the bitter end, her ghost still treads the boards of Ziegfeld’s New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City.
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