Olive Thomas


“I think that you die when your time comes and not until then. I feel the same about other things as I do about death. I don’t think you can change anything that is going to happen to you any more than you can change anything that has happened to you. That’s why I never worry, and that is why I don’t think people should get conceited and think themselves better than others.” –Olive Thomas.

While many stars enjoyed success in their lives, some of these lives were tragically cut short. Olive Thomas, a silent film actress and model, showed great promise during her life until it all came to an abrupt end because of her untimely passing at age 25.

Oliva R. Duffy was born to James and Rena Duffy on October 20, 1894, in Charleroi, Pennsylvania. Her father was a steelworker. Duffy was the oldest of three children, with two brothers named Michael James and William. When her father died in a work accident, the family moved to McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, often living with their grandparents while their mother worked in a factory. Rena would remarry and have another daughter named Harriet, who would also pass at an early age because of a car accident.

In an effort to support her family, Duffy ended her education at age 15. She found a job selling fabric at a department store and was married by age 16 to Bernard Krug Thomas. The couple separated two years later in 1913. Olive, now Olive Thomas, moved to New York City and found another job at a department store in Harlem.

After winning a beauty contest in 1914, Thomas began a modeling career. Dubbed “Most Beautiful Girl in New York City,” she posed frequently for artists and graced numerous magazine covers. She also attracted the attention of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., later performing as part of the Ziegfeld Follies and other Ziegfeld productions. Though Ziegfeld was married to Billie Burke, he frequently had affairs, with Thomas being one of his romantic pursuits.

Thomas would continue her modeling career while working for Ziegfeld, becoming the first “Vargas Girl.” In the portrait, “Memories of Olive,” she was portrayed nude from the waist up, holding a rose. A copy of the portrait hung in Ziegfeld’s office at the New Amsterdam Theatre.

When it became clear that Ziegfeld would not marry her, Thomas ended the relationship and pursued work in films. She signed a contract with the International Film Company in 1916, making her silent film debut in the tenth episode of Beatrice Fairfax (1916). Her feature film debut would occur in A Girl Like That (1917) for Paramount Pictures.

In 1916, she signed a contract with Triangle Pictures, soon becoming engaged to Jack Pickford, brother of film star Mary Pickford. In an effort to dissuade audiences from thinking that her success stemmed from associations with the Pickford family, the marriage was initially kept secret. As her films for Triangle Pictures were released, she grew in popularity. There, films like Madcap Madge (1917), Indiscreet Corrine (1917), Toton the Apache (1919)and The Follies Girl (1919) became part of her filmography.

Later, Thomas signed with the Selznick Pictures Company in hopes of securing more challenging roles. Her appearance in Upstairs and Down (1919) was the first of her hits for the Selznick Pictures Company. She would also be the first actress to play a flapper in a film–aptly titled The Flapper (1920)–which would be one of her most celebrated films. Her final film role would be in Everybody’s Sweetheart (1920).

Behind the scenes, Thomas’s relationship with Pickford was one of deep love and tumult as well as many parties. The two developed a reputation for their hard-partying and preference to live life intensely. Pickford’s family did not completely approve of Thomas and did not support the marriage.

Eventually, the marriage became strained. In an effort to try and save their relationship, they decided to travel to Paris for a second honeymoon. Typical of their lifestyle, they actively sought out entertainment and parties while abroad.

On September 5th, 1920, their night on the town took a dark turn. The couple retired to their suite at the Hotel Ritz where they planned to rest after a busy evening out. Though accounts are varied, it is believed that Thomas accidentally ingested Pickford’s prescription of mercury bichloride used to treat his chronic syphilis. Thomas likely took the medicine thinking it was either water or medicine that would allow her to sleep. To complicate matters, the writing on the label was in French, likely adding to her puzzlement. She began to react negatively to the dosage and was transported to a nearby hospital, realizing that she had poisoned herself.

Thomas would die five days later with Pickford and his former brother-in-law Owen Moore (Mary Pickford’s first husband) at her side. Though conscious and speaking, her kidneys eventually failed. She was 25 years old.

During that five-day period, the press circulated a wide variety of rumors, ranging from suspecting that Thomas committed suicide to her being plagued by addiction. Though her death was ruled accidental, she was still the first big celebrity tragedy to occur at the height of her fame and popularity. Her death was shocking to her loved ones and fans, in addition to being one of Hollywood’s earliest scandals.

Thomas’s funeral was held in New York City at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Police escorts were present at the service, as the many actors in attendance drew major crowds. She was interred in a small mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, with the Pickford name gracing the small structure. Her property was auctioned in an estate sale while her estate was divided between her mother, brother, and Pickford. Pickford gave his share to her mother. Though the Pickford mausoleum at which Thomas is at rest was built to occupy two, Pickford was buried in his family’s plot at Forest Lawn Memorial Park–Glendale upon his passing–just 13 years after Thomas.

Pickford, in the meantime, was shattered at the loss of his wife. Though their relationship had its challenges, she was considered the love of his life. En route to America, Pickford even contemplated suicide. Even though he would marry twice more after the loss of Thomas–with both future wives being Ziegfeld girls–he would still call out to Thomas while intoxicated.

Today, there are few physical tributes to Thomas, though some places of relevance to her life remain.

In 1900, Thomas resided on Prospect St. in Charleroi, Pennsylvania. Today, Prospect Avenue exists in town but her original home is long gone.

By 1910, Thomas’s mother had remarried. At that point, Thomas lived at 110 Patterson St. in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. The home has been razed.

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The Hotel Ritz, where Thomas took her fatal dose, remains at 15 Place Vendôme in Paris, France.

She passed away at the American Hospital at 44 Rue Chauveau in Neuilly-sur-Seine. The hospital remains today, though it has been renovated significantly.

According to the paperwork pertaining to her death, Pickford and Thomas maintained an address at 116 W 59th St. in New York City, New York. This is the location today:

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Thomas’s final film, Everybody’s Sweetheart, was released after her passing. Today, only fragments of the film survive. Moreover, legend has it that Thomas’s ghost haunts the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York.

Though Thomas’s story is tragic, she continues to inspire a variety of books and documentaries relating to her life. Several books about her have been published and she is the subject of several films, including the current documentary project, Olive & Jack. 

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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