Olive Thomas – One of Hollywood’s First Big Scandals

Olive Thomas was a young starlet in the 1910s. She was married to Jack Pickford, the younger brother of ‘America’s Sweetheart’ Mary Pickford, who was one of the most famous and beloved actresses of the time (Pickford’s marriage to Douglas Fairbanks in 1920 essentially made them the King and Queen of Hollywood). Olive (Mary Pickford too for that matter) also had those gorgeous big curls that were in style in the 1910s.

Olive was just getting started with her career (at this point she only had 22 films made), and seemingly had her whole life in front of her. Unfortunately this was not the case for her. Olive died suddenly on September 10th 1920 in France, where she was on her second honeymoon with her husband Jack. She was only 25 years old. It is only natural to have a morbid fascination with the famous that have died young, I think we all have a little bit of that.

Olive Thomas (1918)
Olive Thomas (1918)

Hollywood had endured scandals before Olive’s untimely death, such as the Evelyn Nesbit debacle in 1906 and the not-so-Hollywood but still very scandalous Black Sox Scandal of 1919. Still though, the best were yet to come. Olive’s death prefaced a lot of scandal to come in the 20s and early 30s such as:  William Desmond Taylor, Fatty Arbuckle’s trial, Mabel NormandWallace Reid, Thomas Ince, Paul Bern etc.

Olive’s husband Jack had syphilis, allegedly. To know how (or if) he got that would be a scandal in it of itself but alas I don’t have such information. Anyhoo, the two were in France perhaps enjoying themselves–perhaps not, apparently they fought constantly. The treatment for syphilis in those times was bichloride of mercury which is bad times if not diluted correctly. Yeah. The medicine is supposed to be applied topically too, not to actually ingest it. Doing so would disintegrate one’s insides. No doubt an extremely painful way to die.

The next part of the story we will never fully know, but what we do know is this: very very late on September 9th the two came back to their hotel room. They were most likely partying beforehand and getting ready to go to bed now. Jack headed to bed and Olive was up, and for some reason or another she actually ingested Jack’s syphilis medication. Jack found her and immediately called for a doctor but it was too late, she was dying. From my perspective (if this is truly what happened) I would imagine that she just thought it was booze or sleeping medication or something or another, because by all accounts it seems she was getting ready for bed. The label of the bottle she took it from was in French too, which might make a case for her mistaking it for something else.

Of course, the other rumors are that she deliberately did that to commit suicide after information on Pickford’s infidelities and/or him giving her syphilis was revealed to her. Her death was eventually ruled accidental, so no charges were ever put against Jack. I guess we’ll never know what really happened.

Another interesting thing to note, that makes the story above a tad unbelievable is that this bichloride of mercury concoction is actually more like a Vaseline type of consistency called then the Blue Ointment. So who knows really what happened. The chances that the ‘took Jack’s syphilis meds and died’ story was just a rumor conjured up by a hurt friend or the press is pretty high. It is the story that has stuck around though, so that has to count for something.

If it did happen though, I’d like to believe it an accident because it sounds too cruel a thing to put oneself through.

Some of Olive’s films are out there although unfortunately not too many of them are. Had she come around 10 years later she would have more films surviving, maybe even some talkies. The Flapper (1920) is up on Youtube. Both that and her last completed film which was released posthumously, Everybody’s Sweetheart (1920) are on a Olive Thomas DVD collection which you can find on Amazon. This is a great little short (it is part of a serial series called BEAUTRICE FAIRFAX) that features Olive.

I’m going to try to try to celebrate her birthday this year (Oct 20) by watching a double feature of her films. I hope you’ll do the same with her (or another star) 🙂

Thank you for reading and happy watching!

Olive Thomas Olive Thomas


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