Love and Venom: the Life and Death of Olive Thomas
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
A few days ago, I started tinkering with the idea of a short art book, something inspired by the lives of actresses like Olive Thomas and Evelyn Nesbit, but maybe with a story ending a little less tragically than theirs.
Burlesque at the turn of the last century seems to have been a career with mixed messages for women of the time. On the one hand, they were allowed to show their bodies as they were, with risqué performances to sold out crowds. On the other hand, these women were vilified by much of society. Even when their careers took off, so much of that profit never made its way into feminine hands. Men exploited their beauty and their abilities just as they have for centuries.
Born in 1894, Olive Thomas came from a struggling working class family in Pennsylvania. She left school at 15 to help support them after the tragic early death of her father. By 16, she was married. By 18, she was divorced. In 1913, she began to make money off her beauty. She started in Ziegfeld Follies in 1915, followed shortly by work in their Midnight Frolic shows (she reputedly even had an affair with Florenz Ziegfeld but broke it off when he refused to leave his wife Billie Burke).
In 1916, she moved on to the film industry, completing her first silent feature in 1917, "A Girl Like That". She married Jack Pickford the younger brother of the very successful silent film actress, Mary Pickford.
It would seem that everything was falling beautifully into place for the lovely young actress. Her relationship with Jack Pickford had its ups and downs so in 1920 they headed to Paris together to reconnect and rekindle their connection.
On the night of September 5th, 1920, Olive Thomas somehow inadvertently swallowed a bottle containing a mercury bichloride solution, a topical medication that had been prescribed to Jack to treat sores caused by his chronic syphilis. She suffered horribly over the next five days before succumbing to the poisonous effects of the toxic medication.
She was young. She was beautiful. She was successful. She was married to the man she'd called the love of her life. What happened that night?
Did she think the bottle contained water or a sleeping draught? Was she suicidal after discovering Jack had given her syphilis? Did Jack Pickford trick her into drinking the solution to collect on life insurance in a scheme to pay off his debts?
Ultimately, her death was ruled accidental. It's a tragic story of a horrible and unlikely death of a young actress who used her beauty to her advantage, with no qualms about nudity in her performances.
It feels like some sort of made up morality tale of what becomes of those who lead lives outside the norms of society. The story of Evelyn Nesbit follows a similar path of early success followed by a twist of tragedy.
Olive Thomas deserved a better ending to her life and her story. Gone far too young when she was only just beginning to truly live.