Olive Duffy Thomas, born October 20, 1894, was an American silent film actress who was probably better known for the scandal surrounding her death than for her work. She was born into a working class, Irish family and had two younger brothers. Her father died in 1906 and although her mother remarried, she quit school at 15 in order to help support her brothers and a younger half-sister.
At the age of 16, Olive married Bernard Thomas, but the marriage was short lived and they separated in 1913. After her separation, she moved to New York City where she lived with a family member and worked in a department store. Her break into the entertainment industry came in 1914 when she won “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York” contest. As a result of winning the contest, she worked for notable artists and appeared on numerous magazine covers including the “Saturday Evening Post.”
On June 15, 1915, Thomas debuted in the “Ziegfeld Follies” and soon began working in Ziegfeld’s risqué “Midnight Frolic Show.” Over the next several years she made films for International Film Company, Paramount Pictures and Triangle Pictures, where her popularity as an actress began to grow. In 1920, she was selected for what would become one of her most famous roles, that of the lead character in “The Flapper”, the film which popularized the term in America.
During this time she secretly married Jack Pickford, Mary Pickford’s younger brother, keeping the relationship secret because she didn’t want people to think that her growing popularity was due to her connection to the Pickford family. They eloped on October 25, 1916; the Pickford family wasn’t in attendance and didn’t approve of the marriage. Both Olive and Jack were known for partying. Screenwriter Frances Marion called them “the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway,” and Mary Pickford wrote in her autobiography that she “always thought of them as a couple of children playing together.
Olive’s marriage with Jack was tumultuous and they both traveled frequently for filming, so in 1920 they decided to take a second honeymoon in Paris. On September 5, 1920 after a night out on the town, they returned to the hotel planning to leave for London the next day. By Pickford’s account, Olive had stayed up to pack and write a note to her mother, while he went on to bed. He woke up when Olive cried out after realizing that she had ingested mercury bichloride in solution, which had been prescribed for Jack for topical treatment of sores resulting from syphilis. Rushed to the hospital, she lingered for five days before dying on September 10th.
The rumors of suicide or a murder attempt began while she was in the hospital. Both Jack and Owen Moore, Mary Pickford’s ex-husband who was with them in Paris, denied the rumors. Nevertheless, an autopsy was performed and the police investigated. Three days later, the results of the autopsy gave her cause of death as nephritis brought about by absorption of mercury bichloride. It was ruled an accidental death. Jack returned with her body to New York City where she was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.
Find out what else happened on October 20 in Women’s History.