Fundraiser for Charleroi group to toast silent film star Olive Thomas

May 26, 2014
Image description
National Library of Congress photo
Charleroi native Olive Thomas is shown around 1915, when she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl in New York.
Image description
National Library of Congress photo
Charleroi native Olive Thomas is shown around 1915, when she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl in New York.
Image description
Olive Thomas, circa 1920

Silent screen sensation Olive Thomas was worshiped for her beauty, only to end her young life in a 1920 scandal, the likes of which had never before hit Hollywood.

A century later, she will be celebrated at a gala to raise money for a nonprofit organization in Charleroi, where she was born Olive R. Duffy on Oct. 20, 1894.

“I am excited to feature Olive Thomas and celebrate her astounding beauty and charm which took her all the way from Charleroi to New York City where she became a favorite as the mascot of the New York Yankees and a Ziegfeld Follies (girl),” said Melanie Patterson, chairman of the first Olive Thomas Flapper Fête, which will be held Aug. 1 in The Willow Room off Route 51 in Rostraver Township.

Thomas died Sept. 10, 1920, from ingesting poison following a night of partying in wild Parisian cabarets, leaving behind one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in movie history.

She was born to Mike and Rena Duffy, according to her birth record at the Washington County Courthouse. Mike Duffy’s occupation was listed there as mason.

Thomas’ mother and two brothers relocated to McKees Rocks following the death of her father in 1906. She dropped out of school at age 15 and went to work as one of the youngest saleswomen at the time at Joseph Horne’s department store in Pittsburgh, where she dreamed of becoming a Ziegfeld girl, according to various accounts of her life story.

At age 16, she married Bernard Krug Thomas, but quickly realized the union was a mistake and grew depressed from the monotony of work and Pittsburgh’s smoky skies.

That combination drove her in 1913 to New York, where she landed another department store job, only to become “the toast of Broadway” within two years, according to the book “Olive Thomas, the Life and Death of a Silent Film Beauty,” by Michelle Vogel.

Her career caught fire after she won a contest, “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York,” which earned her modeling gigs and the publishing of her portrait in a newspaper.

Thomas claimed she was soon hired as a Ziegfeld Follies girl after simply asking for a job in the shows in the New Amsterdam Theater in 1915.

Men were lavishing her with gifts of jewelry and, Vogel states in her book, the young actress had an affair with follies owner Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. She divorced Thomas in 1915, kept his last name, and two years later married Jack Pickford, brother of silent screen star Mary Pickford.

Thomas made her first feature-length film in 1917 and went on to star in more than 20 others before traveling in August 1920 to Paris with her husband for an overdue honeymoon. She was best known for the movie “The Flapper.”

A scandal quickly took shape after Thomas went blind and slipped into a coma from the effects of the poison she took. She died in American Hospital in Paris Sept. 20, 1920, five days after consuming alcohol-based bichloride of mercury in the couple’s room in the Ritz hotel.

The news accounts varied. One report stated that Thomas, after consuming a large amount of alcohol and cocaine, committed suicide at the thought of having to stay in her marriage. Another listed her death as an accident from drinking poison she believed was water mixed with sleeping pills.

A wire report on her autopsy findings did not include a ruling on whether the death resulted from an accident or suicide.

Pickford would tell police three days after her death the only things his wife had on her mind while in Paris were buying dresses, returning to Hollywood to complete her film contracts and settling down to raise a family.

He also said the poisoning was an accident, one that was “too terrible to talk about,” a news report said.

Back in New York, police were shocked at the mobs and near rioting that broke out at her funeral in St. Thomas Episcopal Church at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street. Women fainted as fans plucked anything they could take as a souvenir, Vogel wrote in her book.

“Her death was a tragic one and, of course, it adds to the historic value of the story,” said Nikki Sheppick, chairman of Charleroi Area Historical Society.

“This is where it all started.”

The fundraiser will feature a screening of “The Flapper,” a cocktail reception, hors d’oeuvres, champagne bar, raffles, auctions, flapper fashions and flapper music from 7 to 11 p.m. For information, email Melanie Patterson at or call 724-331-3654.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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