Tuesday 2 February 2016

The Senseless Death of Olive Thomas - New York’s Most Beautiful Girl


Olive Thomas burst onto the scene at the age of eighteen, a violet-eyed brunette with delicate looks and a zest for life. She won New York’s Most Beautiful Girl Contest and from there joined Ziegfeld’s Follies. Olive was by all accounts sweet, funny, and a natural bon vivant. She married Jack Pickford, Mary Pickford’s brother, and the two endured a brief, though turbulent marriage.

            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.

F. Scott Fitzgerald - Jazz Age

 I have been enamoured with the era of the flapper and silent film, what F. Scott Fitzgerald lovingly dubbed the “Jazz Age.” It’s not merely for the fashions of that time, as I’ve never been a clothes hound, but for the carefree, luminous atmosphere in which women bobbed their hair and danced till dawn with dapper men. Resplendent actors mingled with writers like Fitzgerald, Wilson, and Glyn. Music was metamorphosing into something called jazz, no longer stuffy or sedate with echoes of long ago battles or lovers dead, but rhythmic and wild and ebullient.  Music that was sad was sexy and exploration, touching on emotions that people had beforehand experienced, but were too repressed to admit. These passions were no longer to shame them before themselves, but to positively wallow in.

                I recently finished The Great Gatsby and while I was largely unimpressed with the story itself, excepting the pitifulness of Jay Gatsby and his dream unfulfilled, Fitzgerald’s writing struck me as beautiful and unique. He had an original spirit and I’d never encountered a writer capable of surprising me with such stunning prose. Ask an average man to describe a summer picnic and he’ll say that it was nice because the sun was out and there were good things to eat. Ask Fitzgerald and he’d tell you so many different things and see a million beautiful intricacies in people’s faces and the surrounding scenery. Not only would he tell you about details you’d never notice yourself, but he’d describe them such a way you’d feel you were not imagining a commonplace event, but something elevated or spiritual. Just beautiful writing!

                Since Gatsby, I’ve been eating my way through Fitzgerald’s short stories. Most are from Flapper Magazine. Some of them deal with commonplace subjects, but all are wonderfully composed. I assume he wrote these more to support his family and less to create literary triumphs, but they’re entertaining and lovely. I’ve just procured two of his novels, The Last Tycoon and This Side of Paradise. I plan to tear into these as soon as I’ve finished his short stories.

                Some writers don’t infuse their writing with pieces of themselves. They prefer to create imagined situations or characters. Fitzgerald seems to have put so much of himself into what he wrote, his ideals and passions and hang-ups. Echoes of his relationship with his wife, Zelda, are apparent in one story, Head and Shoulders. I imagine she touched even The Great Gatsby, though it’s obvious Daisy Buchanan was based largely on a first love from his college years, a girl who turned down his marriage proposal with the words “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys.” This heartache stung Fitzgerald, but he took it and polished and reworked it to the benefit of millions of readers. It’s his romance that touches me most of all, the adoring reverence with which he wrote of women and love, his unabashed surrender to his feelings. He was a woman’s man and men often disliked him, but he found indelible pleasure in the glow of feminine company.

                One delightful story, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, was written in response to his younger sister, who wanted advice on attracting boys. Bernice is a pretty, but boring girl who is visiting a popular cousin. Her cousin instructs her in how to appeal to men, and one of Bernice’s methods of teasing the boys is to hint at having her hair “bobbed.” This was something only wild, free-living women did at the time (flappers!) and the story culminates in the unfortunate Bernice being coerced into the barbershop for a cut. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’ll say that it put a smile on my face.

                Fitzgerald once said, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” Fitzgerald was a hero of the literary world and wrote his own tragedy through a series of bad decisions. He lost his popularity and marketability due to alcoholism. He lost his wife to insanity. He alienated and frightened associates, friends, and lovers with his increasingly erratic behaviour. Gin was never far from his side. He worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood for a time, but never gained prominence in that role. People who saw him remarked that he was the pale, quiet, and forlorn man in the corner, sadly nursing a soda in lieu of gin. He tried to curb his drinking while in Hollywood, but to little avail. Fitzgerald had lost his perfect world with the Crash of 1929 and it’s as though he moved through the remaining years of his life as a ghost, a stranger in a world in which he couldn't function. In 1940, he suffered a sudden heart attack and died at the age of 44, forgotten and uncelebrated.
                I've been immensely touched not just by his writing, but by the beauty and elegance of his person. Here was a beautiful person who wrote beautifully. There are old stories about fairy children who mistakenly wander from fairyland into the human world, and unable to find succor languish until death. Fitzgerald wandered into a new world following 1929, the bright lights and laughter of the free-wheeling flappers lost behind him, and tried dazedly to gather his bearings. He wasted slowly, but died untimely.