Movie star couplings were oftentimes stormy. Despite the puritanical atmosphere in America during the early 20th century, stars led wild and debauched lifestyles. Popular leading man Wally Reid battled a morphine addiction. Fatty Arbuckle hosted alcohol-fueled orgies, one of which led to the death of actress Virginia Rappe and a highly-sensationalized murder trial for Fatty. Chaplin married nymphettes; Garbo was rumored to sport with other women. William Randolph Hearst shot a man on his yacht over Marion Davies. For all the propriety and decorum of the silent film, the realities behind the camera were shocking.
Jack and Olive fought constantly. Jack himself was rumored to have a heroin addiction and Olive certainly had her own demons. She was an alcoholic who loved to cavort with other stars at parties and events. She nearly killed a child with her automobile and survived several other wrecks, but wised up enough to hire a chauffeur. Despite their epic tangles, Jack and Olive loved one another fiercely. They were described as gay and wild “brats,” two beautiful youths who made up as passionately as they came to blows. They licked one another’s wounds with lavish and magnificent presents. Olive was making at least $3,000 dollars a week from her contract with Selznick, and life was good. Or so it seemed until the alcohol wore off, the party was over, and Olive grappled with career dissatisfaction.
The problem was that Olive felt she didn’t fit in as other starlets did. She despaired of not having a “type,” and worried about her future marketability. In those days, most actors played a certain type of role film after film. Jack’s sister, Mary Pickford, was known for playing young girls. Pola Negri was a vamp, sexy and sultry. Jack himself played affable young boys. Olive didn’t feel she fit into a type. In today’s acting world, this would be somewhat of a gift. Back then, it was important to have a type. Olive’s fears may or may not have been unfounded, but she didn’t live long enough for the world to find out.
Olive and Jack felt they’d never had a decent honeymoon, so in August of 1920 the two headed for Paris. Some accounts, such as Ken Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, maintain that Jack wasn’t even there when Olive died. He was finishing work on a film and planned to follow Olive, who’d gone ahead to shop and explore Paris, when his work was accomplished. Other accounts maintain that Jack was in Paris with her. Whatever happened, Olive spent her time in Paris partying and living it up. She visited bistros and cafes, shopped to her little heart’s content, and on the night of September 5th, accidentally or purposely ingested mercury bichloride. This liquid was a topical treatment for chronic syphilis, with which Jack suffered, and thereby supports the theory that Jack was present at the time.
The label on the bottle was in French, Olive was exhausted from a long day, and it’s believed she assumed the bottle contained a sleeping aid. She was taken to a hospital where she died several days later, Jack and actor Owen Moore at her side. Olive was 25 years old. Jack never recovered from her death and considered her to have been the love of his life. He remarried several times following Olive’s death, but passed away in 1933, an emaciated and ruined man.
Olive never attained enduring stardom. She’s one of the lesser known silent film stars, but she was one of the first starlets associated with the term flapper. Olive was high-spirited, gorgeous, and generous. She adored a good time and lavished love, attention, and gifts on her friends and lovers. She stood out onscreen and could have been a great talent of the era.
The tragedy in this case is not that someone “great” passed away so senselessly, but that someone passed away before any potential greatness in them had an opportunity to unfold. Olive Thomas was a victim of her lifestyle, as well as the directors, producers, and other moguls of the entertainment industry. These vampires created a beautiful, romantic facade for the public, but they built it on the life’s blood of their stars. They offered these gifted, attractive people what was so scarce in an average American life of that time, the illusion of comfort, security, and love. “You’re gonna be a big star, baby, they’ll love you! You’ll never worry about anything again!” Needless to say, there was a lot of compulsory sex in those times, though thankfully this has long since died out.
These puppet masters smothered the talent with drugs, liquor, and sex. Many of the early film stars came from impoverished or lower-class families, like Olive Thomas. Some of them were foreigners ushered into a country of which they knew little, Rudy Valentino and Pola Negri as two examples. Still others came from parents with stark mental problems, like Clara Bow. They stumbled into a world of beautiful people, cosmopolitan fashions, and a gushing stream of money that lasted only as long as their sanity, popularity, and looks held out.
The death of Olive Thomas was senseless, but not extraordinary in an industry that sold dreams and illusions to a soul-starved public.