Risky Facts About Florence Lawrence, The First Movie Starlet

Nat Gomori

She was silent, but the crowds were desperate to hear more. Florence Lawrence earned the enchanting title of “The First Movie Star” during the early 1900s, where actors were largely uncredited, due to her impressive performances and ability to win over hearts. Nonetheless, this shining star’s light would flare out with tragic marriages, infamous fumbles, and a terrible, bitter end.  

Florence Lawrence Facts

1. She Had Theatrical Beginnings

Florence Lawrence was born “Florence Annie Bridgwood” on January 2, 1886, in Hamilton, Ontario. And right from the beginning, she was destined for stardom. While her father George was a carriage builder, her mother Charlotte was a vaudeville actress. Naturally then, Florence went traveling with her mother in stage shows when she was still in diapers. As it turns out, this is one bizarre education for a young girl. 

2. She Was An Attention Hog

Little Florence was a natural at acting, and she appeared on stage with her mother when she was only three years old. Cleverly, she would purposefully “wander” on during performances, seemingly lost, and the audience would chuckle at the supposed mistake. Later, she would then join in with her mother’s act seamlessly, which had the crowd curling over with laughter. Yep, three years old and already cunning…and the little girl had more up her sleeve. 

3. She Made A Smart Career Move

Being memorable is hard in show business, so to help their “wow” factor, the mother-daughter duo had their names changed. “Charlotte and Florence Bridgwood” didn’t have much of a ring to it, so her mother became professionally known as “Lotta Lawrence,” while Florence became “Florence Lawrence.” But her new identity came at a high price. 

4. Acting Took An Enormous Toll On Her

The laughter of the crowds wasn’t enough—Florence’s mother wanted more. Once she was old enough to memorize lines, Charlotte pushed her six-year-old daughter to join her in serious dramas under the name “Baby Flo, the Child Wonder.” However, these tear-jerking plays troubled Florence so much that she’d cry herself to sleep, worried she had hurt her audience. Yet from these tragic fictions, Florence went into an even harsher reality.

5. She Lost Her Father

On February 18, 1898, little Florence received news that would tear her family apart. Back home, her father George had succumbed to accidental coal gas poisoning. Although Florence had seen precious little of her father while touring with her mother, now she would never get the chance. Without him, the little star began to grow up quickly. Too quickly.

6. She Pushed Herself Too Much

Even when she enrolled in school, Lawrence couldn’t seem to kick the cunning habits she had developed as a toddler. Everything was devoted to her future stardom, not her future happiness: She even took up horseback riding almost solely because of the experience it would give her in filming Wild West productions. Spoiler: This was both the best and the worst decision she ever made.

7. She Made The Big Time

Lawrence quickly tired of her normal-paced life at school and went out to seek her fortune and fame in New York City. Of course, her mother Charlotte came along with her, and the mother and daughter pair teamed up once more to find work in the burgeoning film industry on the east coast. But for all her hard work, Florence wasn’t prepared for her next phase of stardom. 

8. She Had The Look

Oh, things started well enough for Lawrence. After all, she had the look of a star: Barely in her 20s, Lawrence had developed into a beautiful, bow-lipped blonde with a charming cleft chin. The Edison Manufacturing Company (yes, headed by that Edison) immediately snatched her up for their cinema division and cast her in the upcoming Daniel Boone to play the title character’s daughter. But that’s exactly where it all started to fall apart. 

9. Her First Film Was Harrowing

Filming Daniel Boone was no glamorous experience for the budding star; although her horseback riding lessons served her well on set, they filmed in freezing weather outside, or else on the roof of the studio on a single set. In an age where there simply weren’t any movie stars yet, Lawrence had to push herself to the limit to get any recognition. And when she saw herself on screen, it only got worse.

10. She Was A Perfectionist

Lawrence was nothing if not a perfectionist, so when she caught a glimpse of her frontier character on celluloid, one small detail enraged her. The production had kept her high heel shoes in the frame, despite the fashion items being hugely anachronistic for the time. Still, within months, Lawrence would learn the hard way how to appreciate whatever roles she got.

11. She Worked Hard For The Money

After auditioning everywhere following Daniel Boone, Lawrence finally found a place at Vitagraph Studios, who just so happened to be in competition with her old studio. Still, this too had its pitfalls. Parts were scarce, and Lawrence had to sew costumes and paint backdrops when she wasn’t in front of the camera. As for when she was…well, she nearly died. 

12. She Was A Daredevil  

The new studio, Vitagraph, really pushed the envelope—keep in mind that early filmmakers had no rules to follow. They were especially adventurous with Lawrence, who had won most of her roles because of those in-demand riding skills. Indeed, the studio expected her to perform death-defying stunts on the regular, and one day, Lawrence nearly slammed into a tree while filming a scene for the drama The Despatch Bearer. Lucky for her, though, her boldness attracted an admiring onlooker.

13. Her Co-Worker Seduced Her

Despite the many men vying for Lawrence’s attention, it was a co-worker who found his way into her heart. Harry Solter was currently filming Romeo and Juliet for Vitagraph when he met Lawrence and fell in love. A full 13 years older than the ingenue, Solter already had an established career—and he also had a big ulterior motive when it came to Lawrence.

14. Her Lover Used Her

Harry Solter was far from a Vitagraph regular; his allegiance actually lay with famed silent director D.W. Griffith, who worked for the rival Biograph studios. Indeed, when Solter first met Lawrence, he was on a mission from Griffith to find “a young, beautiful equestrian girl” for Griffith’s next film The Girl and the Outlaw. And the intrigue doesn’t end there.

15. A Famous Director Hand-Picked Her

Although Griffith wanted his buddy Harry Solter to be on the lookout for any girl who fit the bill, he actually had his sights set on Lawrence the whole time…he just didn’t know it. You see, filmmaking was so new at the time that production companies didn’t even publish the names of their actors. Nonetheless, Griffith had seen the anonymous Lawrence in a previous Vitagraph film and had been trying to track her down.

Although this makes the romance between Solter and Lawrence so much grosser, it did give her a big break. Uh, or so she thought.

16. She Had Stiff Competition

Desperately in love with Solter and desperate to prove herself, Lawrence met with D.W. Griffith to show him she was The One. Unbeknownst to her, though, she had stiff competition. Despite finding his mystery equestrian girl at last, Griffith was still strongly considering using his regular leading actress, Florence Turner, for the job.

Once more, Lawrence had to work overtime to make her mark…but when Griffith finally caved and cast her, she more than proved herself.

17. She Was An Overnight Success

After starring in The Girl and the Outlaw, Lawrence became an absolute sensation, and installed herself as one of Biograph’s regular leading ladies, going on to make Betrayed by a Handprint and Behind the Scenes to much acclaim from the public. She became so important to D.W. Griffith himself, in fact, that she had some part in almost all of his movies. So it stung all the more when Griffith dealt her a cruel betrayal.

18. Her Director Betrayed Her

While working at Biograph, Lawrence’s star rose further and faster than she could have ever imagined—and as it turned out, those nearest and dearest to her didn’t think she could handle it. One day, a furious Lawrence discovered that Griffith and her lover Harry Solter had been discussing her career prospects in private tete-a-tetes without her. When the dust settled, she wrested control back in a strange way. 

19. She Sealed The Deal With Her Lover

In 1908, just as her star was cresting, Lawrence decided to make it official with Harry Solter, and they tied the knot before the year was up in the humble town of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Sure, this made it so that Solter had some legal obligations to discuss her own career with her personally, but their union was still more than a little suspect.

20. She Had A Secret Marriage

Far from shouting their love from the rooftops, Lawrence and Solter kept their marriage hush-hush. Of course, this was a common practice for many actors of the era, and even D.W. Griffith kept his own union with actress Linda Arvidson an on-set secret. All the same, it separated Lawrence even more from real life…and prepared the groundwork for her rude awakening.

21. She Was Anonymous

Stars at the time didn’t just keep their romance a secret, they kept their whole lives a secret. Again, no productions ever publicized the names of the actors, which meant that Lawrence’s growing legions of fans had no idea who the woman they were falling in love with on screen even was. As a result, they started flooding Biograph with requests for her name. Oh, but they had other, more scandalous requests as well.

22. She Pushed A Man Into A Breakdown

With Lawrence’s face now appearing in movie magazines, she couldn’t keep on top of the piles and piles of mail that were coming her way. Indeed, her mailman literally suffered a breakdown from the number of letters he was delivering to her, many of which contained proclamations of love and even proposals besides more innocent queries about her identitiy. Biograph’s response to this, however, was chilling.

23. Her Identity Was A Studio Secret

After Lawrence starred in the wildly popular film Resurrection in 1909, her fans went truly wild, and put even more pressure on Biograph to release her name. Biograph…didn’t. They staunchly refused to publicize who she was. Why? They didn’t want their actors to have too much power, and they didn’t yet realize the benefits of a star system. Instead, they tried a different tactic.

24. She Had A Bold Nickname

In many ways, Lawrence’s time at Biograph was the very beginnings of Hollywood studio meddling, before there even was a Hollywood. Rather than release their starlet’s name, the studio decided to brand her “The Biograph Girl” to get some free publicity of their own out of the frenzy. Real cool, guys. Maybe it’s no wonder Lawrence was already planning her next move…

25. She Was A Backstabber

After starring in Resurrection, both Lawrence and Harry Solter felt a little too big for their britches, and they tried to hatch an escape plot out of Biograph. This had disastrous consequences. The pair wrote to the Essanay Company and promoted their “services” as lead actors, if only the studio would think of hiring them on. Well, this backfired big time.

26. She Got Caught Red-Handed

Instead of taking Lawrence and Solter up on their offer, Essanay did the “Company Man” thing and went right back to Biograph to tattle on the studio’s two rogue actors. Losing no time, Biograph’s head office overlooked everything Lawrence and Solter had ever done for them, and immediately and unceremoniously fired them. Then the knife really got twisted in.

27. Her Studio Spat Her Out

At this point, Lawrence found out just how replaceable she could be. Although she had spent years on top, the down-and-out starlet now had to watch as her fellow Canadian Mary Pickford swooped in to take her place in the public consciousness, becoming the new star on the scene. Then again, not everybody forgot about her…

28. She Disappeared

The loyal audience of Biograph Studios missed their “Biograph Girl.” They wrote letters asking where their favorite star had gone, disappointed again and again after not seeing Lawrence in their pictures. However, the truth was more than they could handle. After her faux-pas, Lawrence found herself virtually blacklisted, with precious few studios wanting to work with an actor who—gasp—had a sense of self and individuality beyond the studio system.

Lawrence had to do something to stay relevant, but it would take drastic measures.

29. She Humbled Herself

After months of scraping and begging, Lawrence finally got the bold, independent producer Carl Laemmle to accept her into his Independent Moving Picture studios. Sure, IMP didn’t have a lot of money….or costumes….or props, but Lawrence herself didn’t have a lot of options. Unfortunately, Laemmle seemed to know this, and he took horrific advantage of her.

30. She Staged A Publicity Stunt

In 1909, Laemmle put Lawrence back in the limelight in a shocking way. He purposefully spread a rumor that his new leading lady had died in a tragic car accident in the middle of New York City. Moviegoers bought this publicity stunt hook, line, and sinker, and suddenly Lawrence’s “tragic” name was on everyone’s mouths. But the truth will out…

31. She Made A Big Confession

Once the rumor of Lawrence’s passing gained enough media attention, Laemmle posted ads in the newspapers titled “WE NAIL A LIE,” announcing that Lawrence was—surprise!—very much alive. Oh, and wouldn’t you know it? The announcement also contained an ad for her upcoming film, The Broken Oath. All’s well that ends well, I guess….only Lawrence wasn’t out of the woods yet.

32. Her Fans Mobbed Her

When Lawrence made an appearance in St. Louis following the announcement that she was actually alive, her fans nearly ended her life after all. Her audience was so ecstatic to see their favorite starlet intact and in the flesh, they mobbed her with such violence that they tore her hat and clothing. As the months wore on, this frenzy only grew.

33. She Was The First

At this point, Lawrence’s fame changed the game forever. She was now a bona fide star, and her name mattered. Studios began regularly producing lobby cards to advertise their actors, including not only their photographs but also their names. Still, it was Lawrence who rose to the top once more, becoming one of the highest-paid actors of her time and earning the new nickname “The Girl of a Thousand Faces.” Yet what goes up, must come down…

34. Her Husband Was Jealous

Lawrence’s marriage to Harry Solter had not weathered these highs and lows of stardom very well. For one, Solter was jealous of her success, and he became needier and needier as her starpower grew. Eventually, this transformed into a dark desire. Despite his best intentions, Solter seemed to want to sabotage his wife’s precarious success, giving her bad advice and holding her back from sound business decisions. One day, he succeeded all too easily.

35. She Had A Nasty Breakup

In 1910, Lawrence followed Solter’s advice and broke with Carl Laemmle’s studio, though she did install the 18-year-old Mary Pickford as her replacement. Despite this consideration, it was not an amicable split; Laemmle quickly sued her for breach of contract, digging into Lawrence’s all-too-shallow funds in the process. This all served as a bad omen for what was to come.

36. Her Luck Ran Out

Grasping at straws about how to get some quick cash, Lawrence thought it would be smart to invest in real estate. It spiraled out of control immediately. In an enormous rash of bad luck, the home she bought caught fire and the contractor ran off with her money. Lawrence was left with almost nothing but her unhappy marriage, but she still hadn’t quite learned her lesson. 

37. She Clung To Her Husband

Instead of distancing herself from Solter after these misfortunes, Lawrence only tied herself to him more tightly. The pair even established their own studio, The Victor Film Company, in 1912. In one way, it was a triumph, as Lawrence became the first woman to own her own studio. But in terms of her personal life, it was an utter disaster. 

38. Her Husband Was Cruel

Although Lawrence got to be the leading lady of the Victor Film Company, the movies didn’t receive much acclaim, and the stress caused further strain on her marriage to Solter. One emotional outburst was the final straw for Lawrence. One fight in the summer of August 1912 saw Solter making “cruel remarks about her mother-in-law,” and the reaction was explosive.

39. Her Marriage Got Dark

After that fateful night, Solter ended up storming off to Europe to give the fiery couple some distance from each other. Well, that was the plan, anyway. In practice, the possessive, jealous Solter couldn’t loosen his grip on his little starlet, and he started writing her letters from abroad. If that sounds sweet to you, just wait until you hear the awful words that were in them.

40. Her Husband Manipulated Her

In these supposedly apologetic missives, Solter went on and on about how sad he was to be apart from Lawrence…but he also continually threatened to take his life they couldn’t patch things up. And that’s not even the worst part. According to Lawrence, these manipulative tactics “softened” her to Solter once more, and she took him back a couple of months later with a promise to retire from filmmaking. Sadly, a more dire turn of events was on the horizon.

41. Her Studio Forced Her Into A Dangerous Stunt

Lawrence never could quit the spotlight, and in 1915 she was coaxed back into work on the Universal flick Pawns of Destiny. She would live to regret it. In one scene, the petite Lawrence had to carry her full-grown co-star Matt Moore down a flight of stairs for three different takes, all while the house set burned around them. It ended in a horror show.

42. She Received A Brutal Injury

Within moments, the flames on set raged out of control, and Lawrence caught fire. Not only did the fire singe her hair to a crisp, but she also took a hard fall in the pandemonium and fractured her spine. She was bedridden for months after the severe accident, but even this couldn’t stop her. As soon as she could move, she went back to finish filming. And what did she get as thanks? More betrayal.  

43. Her Company Abandoned Her

Lawrence drove herself to the brink to complete Pawns of Destiny, and in the meantime, Universal Studios refused to pay a single penny of her medical bills. Now, Lawrence was used to rough treatment from studios, and she was certainly used to suffering in silence, but this hurt her deeply and she never quite forgave them. Yet as always, Lawrence was her own worst enemy…

44. She Relapsed Horrifically

Ever the work-a-holic, Lawrence went crawling back to Universal Studios just like she had let Harry Solter crawl back to her. In 1916, she complete Elusive Isabel with the studio—and met a shocking downfall. After wrapping filming, her back condition relapsed and she found herself paralyzed for four agonizing and terrifying months. It was the beginning of the end.

45. She Had Serious Rivals

While Lawrence was recovering from this second injury, film evolved without her. Movies went west to Hollywood, and new faces were taking her spot. In particular, her old protege Mary Pickford was now officially stealing Lawrence’s thunder with the whole girl-next-door-vibe, and alternative audiences were beginning to seek more sensual, dangerous actresses like Theda Bara.

Eventually, nearly all her parts dried up. Her love life, however, was still as stormy as ever. 

46. She Had A Whirlwind Romance

In 1920, Harry Solter died while he was (somehow) still married to Lawrence—not that the former ingenue mourned him long. The very next year, she traded in her widow’s weeds for another bridal gown, marrying car salesman Charles Woodring. In fact, everything about their romance was quick; she had only known Woodring for a paltry five days before saying “I do.” And Lawrence’s rashest decisions were still to come.

47. She Went Under The Knife

With a new man on her arm and no roles in her future, Lawrence took an extreme route to stay relevant. After lying about her age for a while, she finally turned to plastic surgery and a nose job to get parts—not exactly a tried and true procedure in 1924. Unfortunately, it didn’t even work, and her shooting schedule stayed empty. Then, as if she couldn’t get any more down, devastation knocked once more at her door.

48. Her Story Turned Tragic

When Lawrence thought it couldn’t get any worse, it really, really could. During the summer of 1929, Lawrence’s beloved mother died suddenly, throwing the struggling actress into a tailspin she couldn’t get out of. That same year, she and her second husband Woodring separated, with Lawrence receiving an official divorce in 1931. But in between then came the worst month of her life. 

49. She Lost Everything

Ever since her days with Harry Solter, Lawrence had a reputation for making bad business decisions, and in October 1929, karma finally came back to bite her. The infamous stock market crash on Black Tuesday saw most of her fortune vanish, undoing decades of hard work nearly overnight. At her most vulnerable, she was an easy target for a vicious man.

50. Her Third Marriage Was Her Worst

In 1933, Lawrence met and married the shady Henry Bolton for what would be her third and final marriage. Before long, Lawrence discovered that Bolton had a heavy drinking problem, and he would often beat her when he was in his cups. Thankfully, Lawrence finally knew how to stand up for herself, and she split from him after only five months.

51. Her Career Took A Surprising Turn

By the time Lawrence was 45, talkies had arrived in Hollywood. Surprisingly, unlike many silent film stars of her time, Lawrence had a clear speaking voice, and she was able to land a role in The Hard Hombre. This collaboration, although it was an uncredited part, led to a series of uncredited roles in 1930s films that, while humble, paid her bills and kept her busy. Until that is, illness stopped her in her tracks. 

52. She Invented A Famous Item

Lawrence had a hidden talent most people don’t know about: She was also an inventor. She created the “auto-signaling arm” for the car industry, which was a precursor to the turn signal we all know and love today. But, in a crummy business move that was oh-so-Florence, Lawrence didn’t patent her invention and never got proper credit for her genius during her lifetime.

53. She Was Work-A-Holic

The number of films Lawrence made for Vitagraph in 1907 alone might make you gasp in disbelief: Incredibly, she made a total of 38 in just one year. Where did she get the time, you ask? Well, to be fair, most of these were “one-reelers.” These silent films are only 15 minutes long and tend to contain only one plot element. Still, it’s certainly nothing to sniff at. 

54. Her Health Was On The Decline

In 1937, Lawrence got some of the last bad news of her life. After a visit to a clinic, doctors diagnosed her with a rare and incurable bone disease. Barely in her 50s, the film star knew she didn’t have long to live, and she was emotionally destroyed. Perhaps even more tragically, she dealt with this turmoil by trying to continue to work…which led to her harrowing final moments.

55. She Made A Final Phone Call

On December 28, 1938, at 1:00 in the afternoon, Florence Lawrence made a fateful phone call to MGM studios, saying she was too sick to come onto the set that day to work in one of her regular bit parts. The next moments of her life are shrouded in mystery, but one thing is certain: Sometime after, Lawrence drank a lethal combination of ant poison and cough syrup. The rest unraveled from there.

56. Her Neighbor Found Her Body

According to one account, Lawrence’s neighbor Marian Menzer heard the actress’s blood-curdling screams and came over to her home to investigate; according to another , Lawrence called Menzer herself and confessed that she had poisoned herself. Either way, Menzer ended up calling an ambulance to try to save Lawrence….and either way, it was too late.

In the end, Lawrence completed her attempt and passed soon after she arrived at the hospital. But she did have some chilling last words.

57. She Wrote A Chilling Goodbye Letter

Lawrence wasn’t one to go silently into that goodnight, and she wrote a letter addressed to her roommate Bob Brinlow. Its contents were heartbreaking. “Dear Bob,” she began, “Call Dr. Wilson. I am tired. Hope this works. Good bye, my darling. They can’t cure me, so let it go at that Lovingly, Florence – P.S. You’ve all been swell guys. Everything is yours.”

58. She Still Has Fans

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery is Lawrence’s final resting spot, but for years she had an unmarked grave. It took until 1991 for an anonymous British actor to pay for her tombstone, which they had read “The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star.” Finally, Lawrence received the recognition she deserved. But there was just one issue with her gravesite…

59. She Was Forever Young

In true movie star fashion, the date of birth on Lawrence’s gravestone was incorrect because of how many times the starlet lied about her age throughout her life. In fact, even the coroner got the year wrong on her death certificate, proving just how convincing Lawrence was when she wanted to turn on her charms. Both items list her year of birth as 1890, a full four years after her actual birthdate of 1886. 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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