Tragic Beauty – Olive Thomas

The ethereal Olive Thomas was the inspiration for my tortured character, Sophia Michelle. Sophia is the older sister of my protagonist, Grace.  Orphaned at 15, Sophia vowed that she and Grace would always have a roof over their heads, never go hungry and never live in an orphanage.  She relied on the only asset she possessed at the time, her captivating beauty. She spent many nights “out” but always provided for her sister until she was discovered by the famous show-man, Franz Sigrid, who took the girls under his wing and made Sophia a star.

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Olive Thomas was born Olivia R. Duffy, October 20, 1894 to a working class Irish American family in Pennsylvania.  At 15 years of age she was forced to leave school and help support the family.  At 16 she married Bernard Krugh Thomas and the marriage lasted two years.  After her divorce she moved to New York City, lived with a family member, and worked in a Harlem department store.  In 1914, she won “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest and landed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Having caught the public’s attention, she was soon hired by Florenz Ziegfeld to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies. It wasn’t long before she had star billing in the Midnight Frolic, one of Ziegfeld’s venues, the Roof Top Theater of the New Amsterdam Hotel.  The Frolic was primarily a show for famous male patrons.  The girls’ costumes were often just a few strategically arranged balloons and the men would amuse themselves by popping the balloons with their cigars.  It wasn’t long before Olive was being pursued by a number of wealthy and powerful men. The beauty of Olive Thomas was legendary. She is said to have had “lovely violet-blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes that seemed darker because of the translucent pallor of her skin.”

Known for her beauty, she was also known for her wild ways and they only increased when she became involved with Jack Pickford of the famous Pickford family.  Alcohol and cocaine became part of her partying repertoire and it proved to be reckless.  She had three automobile accidents in one year. After that, she hired a chauffeur.

Screenwriter Frances Marion later remarked, “…I had seen her often at the Pickford home, for she was engaged to Mary’s brother, Jack. Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway. Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.”

The marriage to Pickford caused much trouble for both parties.  For Jack, his high-brow famous family did not approve of Olive’s work in the Frolics, and for Olive, her employer Florenz Ziegfeld accused Jack of taking her away from his entertainment dynasty.  There were rumors that Flo and Olive were also romantically involved.

The relationship could even have been said to contribute to her sudden death in 1920.  After a long night of partying, Olive and Jack went back to their hotel room.  Suddenly, from the bathroom, Jack heard Olive scream, “Oh God!”  According to Jack’s account, Olive had accidentally drunk from a bottle of something marked “poison”.  After a trip to the hospital and having her stomach pumped three times to no avail, Olive Thomas died.  The autopsy stated that she had died of a mixture of mercury bichloride and alcohol. Mercury bichloride was the prescribed tonic for Jack’s persistant and cronic syphyllis.

Olive Thomas had a short, but successful career.  She worked for the Ziegfeld Follies and Midnight Frolic and she starred in over twenty motion pictures.  She was also one of the first actresses to be termed “a flapper,” along with Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford.

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