Olive Thomas was born Oliveretta Duffy on October 20, 1894 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania. After her father was killed in a work-related accident, Olive left school and got a job at a department store to help support her mother and two brothers. At the age of 16, she married Bernard Krug Thomas.
After two years, Olive fled her marriage and Pennsylvania for a life in the Big Apple. There, she won a contest for the most beautiful girl in New York City. Olive’s violet blue eyes and luxurious golden brown locks made her a favorite with artists, and she modeled for the likes of Howard Chandler Christy and Harrison Fisher. Shortly afterwards, she landed a role in the biggest show on Broadway, The Ziegfeld Follies (and the more risqué after show, The Midnight Frolic). Olive grew restless though and left the stage in 1916 to try her hand at moving pictures. Staring in an episode (Play Ball) of the serial Beatrix Fairfax, Olive was soon playing leading roles and signed with Triangle Pictures. She would make 22 films during her career.
Olive had been wined and dined by millionaires and even reportedly an ambassador, but when she met actor Jack Pickford in 1916 she fell madly in love. Jack was the younger brother of America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, and an established star. The two eloped later that year but their careers kept them separated for most of their marriage.
By 1918, Olive was becoming a star when she signed with the newly created Selznick Pictures where she popularized the baby vamp role. In 1920, she made film history when she played the lead in The Flapper, the first time the word was used in American cinema. Although bobbed hair and short skirts were to come later in the decade, Olive’s character, Ginger King, has all the makings of what we now associate with the flapper spirit.
In August 1920, Olive and Jack decided to have a second honeymoon and sailed to France. After partying in the nightclubs of Paris, the fun turned into a nightmare when on the night of September 5, Jack woke to his wife’s screams. Olive had ingested bichloride of mercury. She died five days later. There was a police investigation and the final ruling was accidental poisoning. The scandalous death of the young screen star rocked the Hollywood community and press reports were rife with rumors and accusations.
A distraught Jack accompanied Olive’s body home and confessed later that he had contemplated suicide while on board ship. Her funeral was held on September 28, 1920 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City. At the conclusion of the service, crowds surged toward the coffin; women fainted and men had their hats crushed before the police arrived and brought order to the scene. Olive was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx in a mausoleum with the name Pickford carved above the door.