By Elizabeth Perry
Silent film star Olive Thomas, who hailed from McKees Rocks, died on September 10, 1920, in a Paris hotel room after ingesting poison while her husband said he lay sleeping.
The 25-year-old's death kicked off a flurry of speculation which further tarnished her famous husband’s already sinking reputation and left lasting questions about her death.
Thomas is known for being the first person to portray a flapper on film, being the subject of one of Hollywood's earliest scandals and it's said her spirit still haunts The Amsterdam Theatre in New York City where she used to perform.
Rise to fame
Thomas was born in Charleroi, Pa. on Oct. 20, 1894. After her father's death, according to the U.S. Census, her family was living in McKees Rocks circa 1910. Thomas left school at age 14 to work full time to help support her family by selling gingham fabric at the Hornes Department Store as detailed in the biography written by Michele Vogel. At age 16, she married 21-year-old Bernard Krug Thomas. A year later, she moved to New York without her husband. In 1914 she entered a contest and won the title of Most Beautiful Girl in New York. From there she became an illustrator's model.
She joined the Ziegfeld Follies in 1915, a dance review known for featuring beautiful female dancers and lavish musical reviews. A favorite of Florenz Ziegfield, she was quickly promoted to the primary star of the Midnight Frolic, a risque night show catering to the ultra-rich. Thomas and the other dancers would perform over clear platforms on the rooftop garden of the New Amsterdam Theatre while wealthy patrons looked up at them from below.
The women wore costumes made of balloons, and the men were encouraged to pop them with the tips of their lit cigars--an idea that's as whimsical and sexy as it is menacing.
Thomas worked there for a year, then began working in the movies. Throughout her career, she sent money home to her family in McKees Rocks. She secretly wed Jack Pickford, brother of Mary Pickford who was then the most famous actress in the world. Jack Pickford and Thomas lived on separate coasts, each concentrating on their film careers.
Jack Pickford was implicated in a graft scandal in 1919, when it came out he participated in a scheme during World War I to help rich soldiers avoid dangerous assignments for payoffs. The Chicago Tribune called them "slackers" who were seeking "bomb-proof" assignments.
Jack Pickford and Thomas were said to have a rocky relationship, marked with fights, break-ups and then lavish gifts to make up. In September of 1920, the two set out on a "second honeymoon," to Paris in order to rekindle their relationship.
Accounts differ about what happened on the night Thomas swallowed poison. By Pickford's own account, the two went out to several Montemarte night spots together where they drank and danced. Jack Pickford said he went to bed between 3 and 4 a.m., but Thomas was restless. She started writing a letter to her mother.
The light was keeping him up, so he asked her to shut it off.
Thomas went into the bathroom. Jack Pickford told authorities he believed she was intending to either mix up a draught for a sleeping powder or mix up a draught of aspirin, which came in a powdered form at that time.
Instead, she drank a mixture of bichloride of mercury. In that era, bichloride of mercury was used as a topical medicine to treat illnesses like Syphilis and it was also used as a cleaning solution. Rumors about Jack Pickford having Syphilis circulated after the poisoning, but he denied those. Mary Pickford maintained in her autobiography the mercury was a cleaning solution. Either way, there were reasons for the poison to be in the bathroom.
Thomas was brought to the American Hospital at Neuilly on Sunday. She lingered on until Friday. The New York Times reported she slipped into a coma that Monday and never regained consciousness. Contemporary newspapers speculated that the death may have been a suicide attempt and accounts of the evening varied wildly. Some reports said there were friends in the room with them when she went in the bathroom, other reports said Thomas was suffering from a nervous breakdown and still others said the couple fought.
In the Eagle River Review, the report stated Thomas had been out partying alone while her husband seethed in anger, and that she must have killed herself because he was upset with her.
"She was warned several times to abandon her frequent visits to the tango palaces and restaurants which offer daring costumes, dances and unlimited champagne in exchange for enormous sums, but she refused to quit her friends, among whom are several screen personalities."
The story did not name any sources for this statement.
Police suspected Thomas had accidentally taken poison in the dark bathroom after a long night of drinking. The bottles containing medicine and poison looked very similar and the labels were in French.
On Sept. 14, 1920, the results of the autopsy were released finding she died of accidental mercury poisoning and there didn't appear to be evidence of "violence," according to the Allentown Morning Call.
Thomas' death was blamed on Paris nightlife, and articles took a particularly parental tone toward women abroad.
An openly racist article in the San Francisco Examiner, entitled, "What Olive Thomas saw in the early morning hours before she killed herself," claims that every restaurant in Paris had young women selling bouquets of flowers sprinkled with cocaine, which was how unsuspecting American girls got addicted to the drug.
Part of that paternalistic tenor could have been backlash against the 19th Amendment, which was ratified a month before. The amendment granted women the right to vote.
On the same page, lamenting Thomas' death in the New York Daily News ran a blurb about how suffragists across the country were gathering teams of lawyers to protect the amendment from legal challenges as well as a short story about how women would have to divulge their actual, real ages if they wanted to exercise their right to vote.
Thomas' death was also used to rail against Prohibition, which had just passed into law in the United States.
Wisconsin paper the Eagle River Review quoted a man named Cortland Bishop whom they described as former president of the Aero Club of America and one of the best-known Americans in Paris. He said, "A dry America is responsible for the orgies of certain Americans in Paris. Unable to obtain champagne in America, they indulge violently as soon as they leave American ports."
Historian and podcaster Karina Longworth weighed in on her episode covering Thomas' death, and said the Pickford family was powerful enough to shift media coverage away from Jack's tumultuous relationship with Olive and push it squarely on the city where the tragedy occurred.
Thomas' most famous film – "The Flapper" –became a hit in the wake of her death. It also showed the dichotomy expected of women at the time. Thomas plays an innocent teenage girl who pretends to have an elaborate romantic past in order to interest an older man.
A contemporary review which ran in the Los Angeles Times read; “Miss Thomas’s girlish beauty never shone more brightly than in the part of this little boarding school miss who passes across the surface of grimey depths without brushing any of the stardust from her wings.”
It's ironic Thomas got famous playing young girls, because circumstances robbed her of much of her childhood. By the time she died at 25, she'd been married twice and had an affair with the married Ziegfeld. She was rumored to have a vast jewelry collection which was given to her by wealthy men who saw her perform at the Follies.
From a very young age Thomas had to get by on her looks and sexuality in a time when that was all women had to push them past the economic limits of their social class. We'll never know how Thomas felt about that; we do know that she chose not to change her last name to Pickford and kept her relationship with Jack Pickford secret for a time, implying that she didn't want to cash in on their connection.
Olive Thomas' story hasn't ended with her death. In 1920, Alberto Vargas painted a famous portrait of the actress in his trademark style, entitled "Memories of Olive.” In death she became a "Vargas girl," with most people not realizing she was much more famous than he was at the time of the painting's release.
A novel has been written about Thomas, as well as a musical and several documentaries have been made about her life. Most of that attention came after the Disney Corporation renovated the New Amsterdam Theatre and with it, Thomas’ memory.
Dana Amendola, the VP of Operations for Disney Theatrical at the time, is featured in a promotional video for the theater, discussing Olive Thomas. He relayed a story from 1997, in which a security guard saw a woman in a beaded gown holding a bottle. According to Amendola, Olive blew the man a kiss, then walked through the wall.
"To this day, every exit and entrance to this building has a photo of Olive Thomas," Amendola said.
He claimed Olive only appeared to males and was very "flirtatious."
It doesn't really matter that she died more than a hundred years ago – Thomas' sexuality is still being used in marketing materials for the place where she used to work.
Maybe that’s always been the true “cost of fame;” not guaranteed death after a night of opulence in the nightclubs of Paris, but a perpetual exploitation of one’s body long after it’s turned to dust.