Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Poisoning of a Flapper Girl

by Deborah Blum

First, this is the story of a beautiful young actress, the adventure-loving heroine of hit films such as Madcap Madge and the Flapper. But second, and perhaps important, it is the cautionary tale of her death by poison at the age of 25, just as she was making the move from starlet to full-fledged star.

The actress, Olive Thomas, had the look of a charming child - a shining bob of dark, curly hair, big violet-blue eyes, and a pale, heart-shaped face. It was a look that launched her career, starting in 1914 when she’d won a “Most Beautiful Girl in New York City" contest. She went on to become a featured Ziegfield Follies dancer, a graceful waif drifting in a zephyr of scarves. The pin-up artist, Alberto Vargas, painted her wearing only a red rose and a wisp of lacy black satin. Within a few years, she was making films for Selznick Studios.

In the way of people who seem to own charmed lives, Thomas soon married a member of Hollywood’s inner circle, Jack Pickford – younger brother of screen star Mary Pickford. The couple rapidly developed a reputation for wild behavior, intense partying, intense quarreling, usually over his numerous side affairs – he’d developed syphilis as a result of one of them. They separated, reunited, separated, tried again, ever delighting the gossip magazines. “She and Jack were madly in love with one another, but I always thought of them as a couple of children playing together…” Mary Pickford wrote sadly in her autobiography many years later.

In early September 1920, the couple sailed away to Paris, reportedly on a reconciliation holiday. They checked into the Hotel Ritz and whirled off to enjoy time in a Prohibition-free city, drinking and dancing at the Left Bank bistros until the early morning. At the end one particularly drunken spree, Pickford and Thomas staggered into their hotel room at nearly three in the morning. Jack, barely standing, simply fell into the bed. His wife, still restless, still energized by the evening, puttered around the room, wrote a letter, and finally tiring, went into the bathroom to get ready for sleep.

As Pickford told the police, he was floating in a whiskeyed haze when Olive began screaming, over and over, “Oh my God, my God.” He stumbled into the dimly lit bathroom, where she was leaning against the counter. Mistaking it for her sleeping medicine, she had picked up a bottle of the bichloride of mercury antiseptic lotion that he rubbed on the painful sores caused by syphilis, poured a dose, and chugged it down.

Also known by the rather awful name of corrosive sublimate, the compound is acutely poisonous; it kills by attacking the digestive track and eventually destroying the kidneys. As the name implies, corrosive sublimate is extremely caustic. As it burned down her throat, she had a moment to realize her mistake. He caught her up and carried her back to the bed, grabbing the phone and calling for an ambulance. “Oh my God,” she repeated, “I’m poisoned.”
As the story broke, as Thomas lingered in the hospital for three more days, the newspapers repeated every rumor smoking around them – his infidelities had driven her to suicide; Pickford had wished to get rid of her and tricked his wife into taking the poison; as the days passed, he became more evil, she more saintly. So many people flocked to Thomas’s funeral in Paris that women fainted in the crush and the streets became carpeted with countless hats, knocked off and trampled.

The police launched an investigation, including an autopsy, and concluded that it was, as Pickford had said, just a terrible accident. In an interview with The Los Angeles Examiner after his return to California, Pickford couldn’t stop dwelling on how much his wife had wanted to live: “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.”

Olive Thomas’s death by bichloride of mercury wasn’t the first, wasn’t the only, and wouldn’t be the last. In New York City, the medical examiner’s office calculated that the compound caused about 20 deaths a year, mostly suicides. But Thomas definitely gave the poison a new star status, and her death still serves as one of many reminders – not always appreciated – that mercury has made a poisonous path through far too much of human history.


Cathy Scott said...

Really interesting, Deborah -- fascinating too. Nice post!

Deborah Blum said...

Thanks, Cathy! I really do like telling stories from our past that are mostly forgotten but still worth hearing.

cheryl said...

She must have been REALLY drunk.
Not to look at a label, just going to the medicine cab and chugging down something with "corrosive" on the label.

TNelson said...

I have really enjoyed the women in crime ink blog since I discovered it accidentally. This was a great story - like one of the other posters I especially like these historical types of stories. Keep them coming!

Blogger said...

Sprinter - Function One