This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.
Olive Thomas (née Oliva R. Duffy) (20 October 1894–10 September 1920) was born in Charlerol, Pennsylvania, the first of James and Rena Duffy’s three kids. When her steelworker dad was killed in a work accident in 1906, the family moved to nearby McKees Rocks.
Olive and her brothers were largely raised by their grandparents, and their mother worked in a factory. Later, they acquired a stepfather, Harry M. Van Kirk, who worked on the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad. Their halfsister Harriet was born in 1914.
At fifteen, Olive dropped out of school to help with supporting her family. She found a job selling gingham at Pittsburgh’s famed Joseph Horne’s department store (which merged with Lazarus in 1994, and then was gobbled up by Macy’s in 2005). Olive made $2.75 a week ($73.95 in 2018).
At sixteen, in April 1911, she married 21-year-old Bernard Krug Thomas, a Pressed Steel Car Company clerk. During her marriage, Olive was a clerk at Kaufmann’s, another famed Pittsburgh department store (which Macy’s also gobbled up in 2006, and later closed and sold).
After separating from Bernard in 1913, Olive moved to New York and moved in with a relative. She began working in a Harlem department store. Her long-burning dream of becoming famous began taking shape when she won artist Howard Chandler Christy’s Most Beautiful Girl in New York City contest in 1914.
Olive became an artists’ model, posing for many famous artists of the day, and was frequently featured on magazine covers. Her star rose further when she joined The Ziegfeld Follies of 1915, followed by Ziegfeld’s very risqué Midnight Frolic.
Olive continued modelling during this time. Among the artists she sat for was Alberto Vargas. She was the first Vargas Girl (i.e., a partially-naked pinup girl).
Olive’s affair with Florenz Ziegfeld ended when he refused to divorce Billie Burke. Her own marriage legally ended 25 September 1915.
In July 1916, Olive signed a contract with International Film Company. Her screen début was in the tenth episode of the Beatrix Fairfax serial. Later that year, she met actor Jack Pickford (Mary’s little brother). They eloped on 25 October.
Olive’s first feature was Paramount’s A Girl Like That (1917), after which she signed with Triangle Pictures. Her relationship with Jack became public knowledge soon afterwards.
Olive’s popularity steadily grew while she was at Triangle, but she left in 1918. That December, she signed with Selznick Pictures, Jack’s company. Not only did she desire more serious films, she also felt she’d have more influence on her projects at her husband’s company.
The move paid off, as Olive became more and more popular, with roles very much to her liking. Olive networked her brothers into Selznick jobs too. William became a cameraman, and James an assistant director.
She became the first actor to portray a flapper lead character, in the first film depicting the flapper lifestyle. (Big surprise, this 1920 film is called The Flapper!)
Olive was at the pinnacle of success when she and Jack took a second honeymoon to Paris. Tragedy struck when a tired, inebriated Olive, in a darkened bathroom of the Hotel Ritz, mistook a bottle of mercury bichloride for aspirin or sleeping pills.
Jack rushed to Olive’s side when he heard her screaming, and frantically did everything he knew how until the ambulance arrived. He stayed by her bedside at the American Hospital of Paris until she passed away five days later.
Olive was only 25 years old.
Rumours persist about Olive’s tragic death, but a rational look at the evidence makes it obvious this was a heartbreaking accident, and that Jack behaved the exact opposite of maliciously.
Mercury bichloride, while a common syphilis medicine, was also a very common disinfectant, often found in bathrooms. It was also used as a blemish remover and skin lightener.
Olive was one of hundreds upon hundreds of people who died from accidental mercury bichloride poisoning every year in that era.
Had Olive lived, she may have become a superstar and eventually transitioned well into the sound era. Poor Jack also may not have had so many personal problems and his own early grave if he hadn’t lost the love of his life.