The Mysterious Death of Olive Thomas Paris, France
A whirlwind Hollywood romance with a tragic end. Tabloids at the time couldn’t get enough of the young couple – but was the pressure too much for them? With endless access to drugs and booze, this tragic end in a wistful foreign city sounds like a movie itself... but what is to blame for the mysterious death of Olive Thomas? Was just another Hollywood overdose tale? Or an attempted suicide to escape the talons of fame… or a cheating husband? Or is there more to the story than meets the eye?
I’m your host Ansley and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved... I hope you all had a great holiday season! I know mine was a bit hectic, but now that we are back – let’s dive into the second half of Season 1 of Hollywoodland: Unsolved.
We all know that Hollywood families have a tendency to be interconnected – think the Kardashian’s and the OJ Simpson case… and in last episode we dove into the murder of William Desmond Taylor – the uber famous director and the man known for being Hollywood’s first murder.
Now, this case involves Jack Pickford – the younger brother of mega star actress, Mary Pickford – who was known for collaborating with William Desmond Taylor on a number of high profile projects – including originating the role of Tom Sawyers in Desmond Taylor’s film. Oh, and he is the the main suspect in this puzzling tale.
Pickford’s young wife – Olive Thomas – died a mysterious death in Paris while on a second honeymoon with Jack…. To this day… no one really knows what happened to her. This epic love adventure would end in tragedy for the couple. Olive Thomas would never make it back to Los Angeles from their trip to Paris, and Jack Pickford’s life would never be the same.
So let’s dive into this mysterious death of Olive Thomas.
On the night of September 5th 1920, Olive and Jack went out for a night on the town in Paris. They went to a number of Persian hot spots and night clubs and ended the night at the wee hours of the morning in their hotel where Olive ingested MercuriBichlorid tablets with alcohol. The concoction burned through her esophagus and after 4 agonizing days, the young starlet passed away in an American hospital in Paris.
So what happened? Was it an accidental death? A suicide? A murder? Well let’s take a look at the young celebrity couple… there might be more there than meets the eye.
Let’s start with Jack – he was the younger brother of the widely famous Mary Pickford. The Jennifer Lawrence of her time. And part of the Pickford family that was considered Hollywood royalty.
Jack Pickford was born on August 18th 1895 in Toronto, Canada. When he was 13, his older sister, Mary Pickford who was known at the time as “America’s Sweetheart (http://imdb.to/2h0c4mg) helped him transition from the stage to the screen.
He was most known for originating the role of Tom Sawyer – which he worked on with William Desmond Taylor and according to his IMDb page, he racked up a total of 134 acting credits spanning from 1909 to 1930. That’s quite a killer career if you ask me.
Jack was well-love throughout Hollywood and had fans both inside of the industry and out.
“The actor/director team of Jack Pickford and William Desmond Taylor were considered one of Paramount's best and they collaborated on seven films.” A source stated.
Think if a Kennedy was also an actor and had an entertainment based family. Jack Pickford was a well-known Hollywood party boy with killer looks and charm for days. But he always felt the weight of his older sister’s celebrity. He is quoted having said that he thought that people were only nice to him because they were sucking up to Mary. A close friend of Jack, Louella Parsons was quoted saying “Being the brother of one of the world’s most famous women gave Jack an inferiority complex.”
All of that fame did have its perks though – Jack had everything he wanted right at his fingertips.
He loved the ladies and had a reputation for being “Mr. Syphilis” – the STD was incredibly common at that time and treated by using MercuryBichloried as a topical treatment.
Jack met Olive Thomas at a chance encounter at the Santa Monica Pier….
Olivia Elaine Duffy was born to modest parents in Pennsylvania on Oct. 20, 1894. Her father, a steel worker, died of a work related accident when she was just 12 years old and she left home shortly after that to start a life of her own.
According to reports QUOTE “At age 15, she left school to sell gingham in Joseph Horne's department store, earning $2.75 weekly. At age 16, she married mill worker Bernard Krugh Thomas and lived with his family in McKees Rocks.”
But according to reports, she was miserable in the marriage after just two years, the couple split.
Olivia made her way to New York after the split and was quickly cast in the widely popular Ziegfeld Follies. She changed her name to Olive Thomas and never looked back.
QUOTE “In 1915, Ms. Thomas joined the showgirls in Flo Ziegfeld's Follies with its stunning art deco sets at the New Amsterdam Theater, where she captivated New York theater critics, audiences and Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., with whom she had an affair. (Though married to actress Billie Burke of "Glenda the Good Witch" fame, Mr. Ziegfeld kept a picture of Ms. Thomas on his office wall for years.)” That same account continues with QUOTE “Ms. Thomas, who earned a salary of about $4,000 a week in today's dollars, also starred in Ziegfeld's risqué "Midnight Frolic," a revue with scantily clad showgirls who wore balloons in strategic spots; cigar-smoking men enjoyed popping them. Security guards and stagehands report that her ghost haunts the theater; actors still say hello and goodbye to a picture of her there.” End Quote – definitely on my bucket list to go.
Which where QUOTE “The Ziegfeld Follies were a series of elaborate theatrical revue productions on Broadway in New York City from 1907 through 1931, with renewals in 1934 and 1936. They became a radio program in 1932 and 1936 as The Ziegfeld Follies of the Air” End quote
Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford eloped on October 25th 1916 in New Jersey. The couple kept the nuptials private and only had one guest in attendance. and the duo continued to keep their romance a secret for almost a year because Thomas didn’t want her marriage to affect her career. She wanted to make it on her own. When the pickford’s found out, they were less than thrilled. Jack’s mother and super famous sister Mary that Olive was nothing more than a poor chorus girl using Jack for his fame, money and connections. Even though she built her career herself, her continued success didn’t mean much to the already established royalty that was the Pickford family. At that time, most actresses were tied to studio contracts… But Olive was interested in much more than that – with plans to direct and maybe build an empire of her own, Olive didn’t want to be tied down. She held that true to all aspects of her work. QUOTE "Olive didn't really give a damn about being tied to a studio or establishing any kind of relationship like that. ... That didn't change until Myron Selznick came along and he created Selznick Pictures around Olive. Usually, stars created their own production studio." - Sarah Baker, a North Carolina writer who co-wrote and co-produced the documentary "Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart" Said. Despite the disapproval from the Pickford family, the two were widely in love. Screenwriter Frances Marion said "...I had seen her [Thomas] often at the Pickford home, for she was engaged to Mary's brother, Jack. Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway. Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers." Olive was a free spirit of sort and didn’t pushed the envelope whenever she felt it necessary.
"She was extremely comfortable with her body, never objected to posing nude and did so frequently. She was not as outrageous as Louise Brooks, but she kind of paved the way for Louise Brooks and Clara Bow," Sarah Baker said, a North Carolina writer who co-wrote and co-produced the documentary "Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart."
As the Los Angeles Times noted in 1917 “Miss Thomas…has a reputation for seeking action and plenty of it.”
The duo were stars in the Hollywood scene – both on camera and off - and passion was their default setting– passionate love and passionate fights. The pair had quite a tumultuous relationship – riding the rollercoasters of their romance daily caused a stir in both their private and public lives. But it was a game to them – each fight lead to a passionate makeup and lavish gifts – the pair had it down to a science.
Both being young stars, Jack was a mere 24 years old and Olive only 25 – spent a great deal of time apart: they both had contracts with large studios, but they were based on opposite coasts. Not quite an idea situation for young marriage marriage. And with perks of young stardom, speculation, lust, passion and infidelity rumors swirled around the duo.
One account states “The couple had a highly tempestuous relationship of passionate fights followed by passionate reconciliations and then more passionate fights, more passionate reconciliations…and so on and so on with many expensive gifts exchanged between the two as part of the game. It is interesting to note how so many newspaper and magazine accounts of the day liked to paint the pair in almost childlike terms, treating them like a couple of school kids playing house. Their actions were not always what one could call mature, but maybe that’s because they weren’t mature. They were still practically kids with Jack just turning 24 on the boat over to Paris and Olive a whopping 25.”
As it turned out, marrying into the Pickford family was a good career move for Olive. It is stated that his star shined brighter in Hollywood during their lives, but her untimely and mysterious demise has launched her into immortality that she might not have otherwise had.
Their marriage was unconventional though – with Jack shooting most of his films on location and Olive traveling for her own career, the duo had some difficulty keeping up the romance while apart. The young starlets had all of the luxuries of fame at their fingertips and at least one of them gave into it all… During one of these breaks apart, Jack contracted syphilis… and allegedly hid it from Olive.
With their relationship on the rocks, Olive and Jack decided to take a second honeymoon to Paris to try to get things back on track. While on the multiple day ship ride across the sea, Olive threw jack a birthday party aboard the ship and celebrated among many of their famous Hollywood friends who were taking the trip with them.
Upon arriving in Paris, the two gallivanted around the city and had a wild night of drinking. They were said to have gone to some of Paris’ most notorious hot spots and favorites of the locals including
Upon arriving home, Olive ingested a cocktail of alcohol and mercury bichloride tablets. Within minutes Jack heard Olive screaming on the bathroom floor. He called for an ambulance and by the time the authorizes arrived Olive was blind and the concoction had burned holes in her esophagus and she could hardly breathe and wasn’t able to talk.
After 4 agonizing days in the hospital, Olive passed away from acute nephrosis with Jack by her side.
Authorities ruled the death accidental…. But is there more to the story? Why would a young starlet with a blossoming career and a dashing new husband kill herself? Was she really that careless?
It’s all really strange if you ask me…
While this might not be a direct murder – but it very well could be – this case is definitely and interesting one because no one but Olive herself could account for what caused her untimely demise. Was it suicide because she found her husband cheating? Was she poisoned because Jack wanted to get rid of her? Or – was it an accident?
Let’s look at some of the theories as to what could have been the caused Olive’s death
The first is that is really was an accident. This case is tricky – Thomas died from ingesting Mercury Bichloride, which was at the time used for treating Syphilis. Funny enough – her husband was so graciously known throughout the Hollywood circuits as “Mr. Syphilis” so it is really no surprise that they would have a bottle of it in their bathroom.
The issue with this product is that at that time it had so many uses…. But it was also poison. Mercury Bichloride was used to treat diseases, cleaning, and for cosmetic reasons… but it was ultimately deemed unsafe and outlawed in the United States.
However, this product was also known for its disinfecting properties – consider it a modern day Clorox – and known to clean bathrooms and kitchens in American’s homes at the time. Thank goodness we’ve moved on from that – the substance was banned in the US not long after Thomas’ (and hundreds of others) deaths.
Another use for the substance was to clear and lighten the skin – sounds safe right? But this might have been a common product for the young and probably appearance-drive young starlet.
Quite a product to just have lying around, right?
To make matters worse, Aspirin came in a similar looking bottle – to that of Mercury Bichloried. AND at that time, but Aspirin and Mercury Bichloried came in both powder and pill form. So in a dark bathroom after a night of drinking, the two could be strikingly similar.
Another theory is that Olive committed suicide.
In her drunken state, her and Jack had (yet another) fight and in her despair over her broken relationship – and the news that her husband has syphilis and she might have contracted it herself – she killed herself. She might have done it out of shame, or a broken heart, or rage, or a cocktail of them all.
Another theory is that Jack poisoned his wife as a way to get out of the marriage without the shame of divorce.
This theory seems a bit far-fetched to me… but then again in Hollywood, anything is possible. Maybe jack was over being married and wanted to live out his 20’s as a young Hollywood hotshot before settling down? Yeah, I even feel like I’m reaching with that justification.
The weird this about that is that Jack never really talked about Olive’s death… and by the time she was taken to the hospital, her vocal cords were so burned she could barely talk to the authorities. Jack is the only person who really knew what happened that night and he never told a soul.
So what really happened that night?
My theory is that is really is an accidental death. I think that Olive meant to take aspirin to prevent a hangover from her night gallivanting around Paris. I believe that she ingested the mercury bichloride by mistake and upon taking the first few sips of the concoction, stopped herself. Which is why it took her so long to pass away. I believe that the reason that Jack hardly spoke of Olive’s death is because he felt responsible. He felt that if he didn’t have the mercury bichloride in their bathroom that night, that Olive would have lived a full and long life.
Another sad death of the couple’s story – Jack Pickford passed at the young age of 36 dues to multiple neuritis… in, yep you guessed it – in the same hospital in Paris, that Olive passed away in.
I think that the reason the death of Olive Thomas goes down in Hollywood history as a mysterious death is because it was the first scandal to break in Hollywood. I think that the press – being their slightly unethical selves – took what little information they got and ran with it (Amanda Knox, anyone). But at the end of the day, this does appear to be an accidental death.
Olive spoke on the subject of death… Quote
“I think that you die when your time comes and not until then. I feel the same about other things as I do about death. I don't think you can change anything that is going to happen to you any more than you can change anything that has happened to you. That's why I never worry, and that is why I don't think people should get conceited and think themselves better than others” – Olive Thomas
So what really happened to Olive Thomas that night in Hollywood? The world may never know.
Next time on Hollywoodland: Unsolved… In the wee hours of September 5th, 1932, the body of MGM studio executive Paul Bern was found drenched in his wife’s perfume and shot in the head in front of her bathroom mirror. The police ruled the death a suicide… but is there more to the story that meets the eye?
As always, I’ve included a complete reference list of all of my research in the show notes as well as links to the accounts I quotes in this episode. Please feel free to check them out for more information on the mysterious death of Olive Thomas and those involved.
There is no map or addresses for this episode because it takes place outside of Hollywood. But trust me – next episode, you’re in for a doozy!