On September 10, 1920, Thomas died of acute nephritis in Paris five days after consuming mercury bichloride. Although her death was ruled accidental, news of her hospitalization due to the poison and Thomas' subsequent death were the subject of media speculation. Thomas' death has been cited as one of the first heavily publicized Hollywood scandals.
She was born Olive R. Duffy in Charleroi, Pennsylvania (but often claimed her birth name was Oliveretta Elaine Duffy). She was the eldest of three children born to James and Rena Duffy, both of whom were of Irish descent. She had two brothers: James (born 1896) and William (born 1899). Thomas later helped both of her brothers to secure work in the film industry; after serving in the Marines in France during World War I, William worked as a cameraman while James worked as an assistant director. At the time of Thomas's death, both brothers were employed with Selznick Productions.
Their father James Duffy, a steelworker, died in a work related accident in 1906. After his death, the family moved to McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. Thomas and her brothers often stayed with their grandparents while her mother Rena worked in a local factory. Rena Duffy later married Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad worker Harry M. Van Kirk. The two had a daughter, Harriet, born in 1914 (Harriet was killed in a car accident in 1931).
Thomas left school at the age 15 to help support her siblings. She got a job selling gingham at Joseph Horne's department store for $2.75 per week. In April 1911, aged 16, she married Bernard Krugh Thomas in McKees Rocks, a small mill town. During the two-year marriage, she reportedly worked as a clerk in Kaufmann's, a major department store in Pittsburgh. After their separation in 1913, Thomas moved to New York City and lived with a family member. She later found work in a Harlem department store.
In 1914, Thomas entered and subsequently won "The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City" contest held by commercial artist Howard Chandler Christy. Winning the contest helped establish her career as an artists' model, and she would later pose for Harrison Fisher, Raphael Kirchner, and Haskell Coffin. She was featured on many magazine covers including the cover of Saturday Evening Post.
Fisher wrote a letter of recommendation to Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., resulting in Thomas' being hired for the Ziegfeld Follies. However, Thomas later disputed this, claiming she walked right up and asked for the job. She made her stage debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915 on June 21, 1915. Thomas' popularity in the Follies led to her being cast in Ziegfeld's more risqué Midnight Frolic show. The Frolic was staged after hours in the roof garden of the New Amsterdam Theatre. It was primarily a show for famous male patrons who had plenty of money to bestow on the young and beautiful female performers. Thomas received expensive gifts from her admirers; it was rumored that German Ambassador Albrecht von Bernstorff had given her a $10,000 string of pearls.
During her time in The Follies, Thomas began an affair with Florenz Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld, who was married to actress Billie Burke, had affairs with other Ziegfeld girls, including Lillian Lorraine and Marilyn Miller (who would later marry Thomas' widower Jack Pickford). Thomas ended the affair with Ziegfeld after he refused to leave Burke to marry her.
Thomas continued modeling while appearing in the Follies. She became the first "Vargas Girl" after she posed for a portrait painted by Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas. The portrait, titled Memories of Olive, features Thomas nude from the waist up while clutching a rose. The portrait was reportedly commissioned by Florenz Ziegfeld but Vargas later denied this claim. Ziegfeld purchased and hung the portrait in his office at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Vargas, who called Thomas "one of the most beautiful brunettes that Ziegfeld ever glorified," kept a copy of the painting for his personal collection.
In July 1916, Thomas signed with International Film Company. She made her on-screen debut in "Episode 10" of Beatrice Fairfax, a film serial. In 1917, she made her full-length feature debut in A Girl Like That for Paramount Pictures.
In 1917, Thomas signed with Triangle Pictures. Shortly after, news broke of her engagement to actor Jack Pickford, whom she had married a year prior. Thomas and Pickford, who was the younger brother of Mary Pickford, kept the marriage secret because Thomas did not want people to think her success in film was due to her association with the Pickfords. Her first film for Triangle, Madcap Madge, was released in June 1917. Thomas' popularity at Triangle grew with performances in Indiscreet Corrine (1917) and Limousine Life (1918). In 1919, she portrayed a French girl who poses as a boy in Toton the Apache. Thomas later said that she felt her work in Toton was "the first real thing I've ever done." She made her final film for Triangle, The Follies Girl, that same year.
After leaving Triangle, Thomas signed with Myron Selznick's Selznick Pictures Company in December 1918 for a salary of $2,500 a week. She hoped for more serious roles, believing that with her husband signed to the same company, she would have more influence. Her first film for Selznick, Upstairs and Down (1919), proved to be successful and established her image as a "baby vamp." She followed with roles in Love's Prisoner and Out Yonder, both in 1919. In 1920, Thomas played a teenage schoolgirl The Flapper, who yearns for excitement beyond her small Florida town. Thomas was the first actress to portray a lead character who was a flapper and the film was the first of its kind to portray the flapper lifestyle. Frances Marion, who wrote the scenario, was responsible for bringing the term into the American vernacular. The Flapper proved to be popular and became one of Thomas' most successful films.
On October 4, 1920, Thomas' final film, Everybody's Sweetheart, was released.
Thomas' first marriage was to Bernard Krug Thomas, a man she met at age 15 while living in McKees Rocks. They married on April 1, 1911, and lived with his parents in McKees Rocks for the first six months of their marriage. The couple later moved into their own apartment. Krug Thomas worked as a clerk at the Pressed Steel Car Company while Olive took care of the home. In 1913, the couple separated and Olive moved to New York City to pursue a career as a model. She was granted a divorce on September 25, 1915, on the grounds of desertion and cruelty. In 1931, Bernard Krug Thomas gave an interview to The Pittsburg Press, detailing his marriage to Olive.
In late 1916, Thomas met actor Jack Pickford, brother of one of the most successful silent stars, Mary Pickford, at a beach cafe on the Santa Monica Pier. Both Thomas and Pickford were known for their partying. Screenwriter Frances Marion remarked, "I had seen her 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." Thomas eloped with Pickford on October 25, 1916, in New Jersey. None of their family was present, with only actor Thomas Meighan as their witness. The couple never had children of their own. In 1920, they adopted Thomas' six-year-old nephew when his mother died.
By most accounts, Thomas was the love of Pickford's life. However, the marriage was tumultuous and filled with highly charged conflict, followed by lavish making up through the exchange of expensive gifts. Pickford's family did not always approve of Thomas though most of the family did attend her funeral. In Mary Pickford's 1955 autobiography Sunshine and Shadow, she wrote:
I regret to say that none of us approved of the marriage at that time. Mother thought Jack was too young, and Lottie and I felt that Olive, being in musical comedy, belonged to an alien world. Ollie had all the rich, eligible men of the social world at her feet. She had been deluged with proposals from her own world of the theater as well. Which was not at all surprising. The beauty of Olive Thomas is legendary. The girl had the loveliest violet-blue eyes I have ever seen. They were fringed with long dark lashes that seemed darker because of the delicate translucent pallor of her skin. I could understand why Florenz Ziegfeld never forgave Jack for taking her away from the Follies. She and Jack were madly in love with one another but I always thought of them as a couple of children playing together.
For many years, Thomas and Pickford had intended to vacation together. Both were constantly traveling and had little time to spend together. With their marriage on the rocks, the couple decided to take a second honeymoon. In August 1920, the pair headed for Paris, hoping to combine a vacation with some film preparations.
On the night of September 5, 1920, the couple went out for a night of entertainment and partying at the famous bistros in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris. Returning to their room in the Hotel Ritz around 3 a.m., Pickford either fell asleep or was outside the room. An intoxicated and tired Thomas ingested mercury bichloride liquid solution. It had been prescribed to Pickford to topically treat sores caused by his chronic syphilis.
Thomas had either thought the flask contained drinking water or sleeping pills; accounts vary. The label was in French, which may have added to her confusion. After drinking the liquid she screamed, "Oh, my God!" and Pickford ran to pick her up. She was taken to the American Hospital in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where Pickford and his former brother-in-law Owen Moore, remained at her side until she died five days later.
While Thomas lay in the American Hospital dying, the press began reporting on the various rumors that began to arise about the circumstances of the incident. Some papers reported that Thomas had attempted suicide after having a fight with Pickford over his alleged infidelities, while others said she attempted suicide after discovering Pickford had given her syphilis. There were rumors that Thomas was plagued by a drug addiction, that she and Pickford had been involved in "champagne and cocaine orgies," or that Pickford tricked her into drinking poison in an attempt to murder her to collect her insurance money. Owen Moore, who accompanied Pickford and Thomas in Paris, denied the rumors, saying that Thomas was not suicidal and that she and Pickford had not fought that evening. Jack Pickford also denied the rumors, stating, "Olive and I were the greatest pals on Earth. Her death is a ghastly mistake."
On September 13, 1920, Pickford gave his account of that night to the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner:
We arrived back at the Ritz hotel at about 3 o'clock in the morning. I had already booked airplane seats for London. We were going Sunday morning. Both of us were tired out. We both had been drinking a little. I insisted that we had better not pack then, but rather get up early before our trip and do it then. I went to bed immediately. She fussed around and wrote a note to her mother. ... She was in the bathroom.
Suddenly she shrieked: 'My God.' I jumped out of bed, rushed toward her and caught her in my arms. She cried to me to find out what was in the bottle. I picked it up and read: 'Poison.' It was a toilet solution and the label was in French. I realized what she had done and sent for the doctor. Meanwhile, I forced her to drink water in order to make her vomit. She screamed, 'O, my God, I'm poisoned.' I forced the whites of eggs down her throat, hoping to offset the poison. The doctor came. He pumped her stomach three times while I held Olive.
Nine o'clock in the morning I got her to the Neuilly Hospital, where Doctors Choate and Wharton took charge of her. They told me she had swallowed bichloride of mercury in an alcoholic solution, which is ten times worse than tablets. She didn't want to die. She took the poison by mistake. We both loved each other since the day we married. The fact that we were separated months at a time made no difference in our affection for each other. She even was conscious enough the day before she died to ask the nurse to come to America with her until she had fully recovered, having no thought she would die.
She kept continually calling for me. I was beside her day and night until her death. The physicians held out hope for her until the last moment, until they found her kidneys paralyzed. Then they lost hope. But the doctors told me she had fought harder than any patient they ever had. She held onto her life as only one case in fifty. She seemed stronger the last two days. She was conscious, and said she would get better and go home to her mother. 'It's all a mistake, darling Jack,' she said. But I knew she was dying.
She was kept alive only by hypodermic injections during the last twelve hours. I was the last one she recognized. I watched her eyes glaze and realized she was dying. I asked her how she was feeling and she answered: 'Pretty weak, but I'll be all right in a little while, don't worry, darling.' Those were her last words. I held her in my arms and she died an hour later. Owen Moore was at her bedside. All stories and rumors of wild parties and cocaine and domestic fights since we left New York are untrue.
After Thomas' death, the police initiated an investigation and an autopsy was performed. Thomas' death was attributed to acute nephritis caused by mercury bichloride absorption. On September 13, 1920, her death was ruled accidental by the Paris physician who conducted her autopsy.
Jack Pickford brought Thomas' body back to the United States. Several accounts stated that Pickford tried to commit suicide en route but was talked out of it. According to Mary Pickford's autobiography, "Jack crossed the ocean with Ollie's body. It wasn't until several years later that he confessed to Mother how one night during the voyage back he put on his trousers and jacket over his pajamas, went up on deck, and was climbing over the rail when something inside him said: 'You can't do this to your mother and sisters. It would be a cowardly act. You must live and face the future.'"
On September 29, 1920, an Episcopal funeral service was held at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York for Thomas. According to The New York Times, a police escort was needed, and the entire church was jammed. Several women fainted at the ceremony, and several men had their hats crushed in the rush to view the casket. Thomas is interred in a crypt at the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.
Thomas did not leave a will upon her death. Her estate, which was later valued at $27,644, was split between her mother, her two brothers, and husband Jack Pickford. Adjusted for inflation, that amount would be equivalent to $359,012.99 in 2013. Pickford later relinquished the rights to his share choosing to give it to Thomas' mother.
On November 22, 1920, Thomas' effects were sold off in an estate sale. The sale netted approximately $30,000. Lewis Selznick bought Thomas' town car for an undisclosed sum. Mabel Normand bought a 20-piece toilet set, a 14 karat gold cigarette case, and three pieces of jewelry, including a sapphire pin.
The press coverage of Olive Thomas' death was one of the first examples of the media sensationalism related to a major Hollywood star. Her death has been cited as one of the first major Hollywood scandals.
Other scandals including the Fatty Arbuckle trial in 1921, the murder of William Desmond Taylor in 1922, and the drug-related death of Wallace Reid caused many religious and morality groups to label Hollywood as "immoral." The public outcry prompted Hollywood studios to begin writing contracts with "morality clauses" or "moral turpitude clauses," allowing the dismissal of contractees who breached them.A legend that Thomas's ghost haunts the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City arose in the years following her death.
In 2004, with funding from Timeline Films, and with the help of Hugh Hefner and his film preservation organization, Sarah J. Baker premiered her documentary on Olive Thomas' life, titled Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart.
In 2007, Michelle Vogel wrote a biography titled, Olive Thomas: The Life and Death of a Silent Film Beauty, published by McFarland Publishing Company.
Ghostlight, a musical about the life of Olive Thomas, was written by Matthew Martin and Tim Realbuto. Ghostlight opened in New York City at the Signature Theatre on September 26, 2011, and was presented by the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It starred Drama Desk Award winner Rachel York as Billie Burke, Tony nominee Michael Hayden as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., Tony Award winner Daisy Eagan as Molly Cook, Kimberly Faye Greenberg as Fanny Brice, Matt Leisy as Jack Pickford, and newcomer Rachael Fogle in the leading role of Olive Thomas.
In 2015, novelist Laini Giles released a fictionalized biography of Olive called The Forgotten Flapper. Based completely on factual information, it goes from her poor roots in Pennsylvania to her death, and is narrated by her ghost, now haunting the New Amsterdam Theatre.