Day By Day

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Star Falls to Earth

It’s an old, familiar story — a talented youngster gets a break in show business and rises to fame and fortune only to crash and burn, leaving bewildered fans to wonder “Why? He/she had everything.”

Robert Avrech at Seraphic Secret remembers the life and career of Hollywood’s first major case of celebrity burnout — see if it doesn’t sound familiar.

Her name was Olive Thomas [nee Duffy]. She was born in 1894 in Charleroi, a small industrial town near Pittsburgh. Her early life was a mess. At age fourteen, with her family’s approval, she was working locally as a nude model. At sixteen years of age in a bid for respectability she married a guy from McKees Rocks and took a job as a clerk at Kaufman’s department store. That didn’t last long. Two years later she left her husband and moved to New York where she won a beauty contest and began a career as an artist’s model.

She was the first Vargas girl. You can see his portrait of her here [warning, not work or child safe]. She also posed for a famous painting, “Between Poses” by Penrhyn Stanlaws [here – same warning applies].

Modeling brought her to the attention of Flo Ziegfeld, the Broadway producer. In 1915 she became his mistress [after securing a divorce from her husband] and starred in his famous “Follies” as well as his “Midnight Frolics” [the after-hours shows where the girls appeared nude]. Ziegfeld made the mistake of introducing her to Jack Pickford, brother of Hollywood super-star Mary Pickford, and young Jack was smitten. He and Olive eloped in 1916.

This brought her to the attention of Hollywood and soon she was appearing in motion pictures. Despite limited acting ability and poor work habits her beauty made her an overnight success. She was featured in all the fan mags and worked with the most famous directors and producers in the early film industry. By 1920 she was earning $3,000 a week. Her most famous film, “The Flapper” set a national trend. She and Jack were the toast of two continents. She had it all.

She also had contracted syphilis from her husband and was rumored to have alcohol and drug dependencies as well as numerous extramarital affairs. In the summer of 1920 she and Jack sailed for Paris. There she ingested a large dose of cocaine and bichloride of mercury [prescribed to Jack as a cure for syphilis] and was found dead in their hotel room.

Hollywood covered up the story, claiming that hers was an “accidental” death, but the rumors swirled and were reprinted in the American and European press. Her death, like her life, fascinated millions of people on two continents. In her day she was as famous as Marilyn Monroe would be to a later generation.

Today Olive Thomas is almost completely forgotten, but her story resonates in the lives and careers of far too many of the young and beautiful today.

Interestingly, film scholars note that the public image that made her famous was that of a beautiful young girl, sexually available, but still innocent. Remind you of anyone?

The things people will do to get out of Pittsburgh!

Hat tip: Dirty Harry at Libertas.