Thursday, September 18, 2008

Olive Thomas: The Most Beautiful Ghost in New York

"At the beautifully restored New Amsterdam Theater, Olive Thomas -- 'The Most Beautiful Girl in the World-- still takes center stage as she did when this was the home of the glamorous Ziegfeld Follies. In her hand, she clutches the small blue bottle which was the last thing she saw in life."

I leafed through Ghosts of New York,by Susan Blackhall, earlier today and discovered Olive Thomas.
After rising to fame as a Zigfield girl, Olive starred in fifteen silent movies and married Jack, the brother of star Mary Pickford.
Olive died at the Ritz in Paris, on her second honeymoon, after ingesting bichloride of mercury which was commonly used to medicate syphilis. The book says that her husband claimed to have found her dead on the bathroom floor in the morning, but that information is incorrect.
Just a bit of digging around turned up that she died days later in a hospital. An article in the New York Times from September 10, 1920 reports that the Paris police were investigating "rumors of cocaine orgies intermingled with champagne dinners into the early hours of the morning."
Thirty years later, Olive's sister-in-law Mary wrote about her brother's account of the death, in her memoirs.

"He was awakened, by a crash and a scream. Ollie was standing in the darkened bathroom. Jack rushed to her side.
" Quick, Jack," she said, "turn the light on and see if the bottle with the bichloride of mercury tablets is in the cabinet?"
Jack looked and said, "No, Ollie; only the aspirin bottle is here."
Ollie gave another scream. "Then I've taken poison!"

This matches the information reported by the LA Examiner on September 13th. Though in that article Jack claimed the mercury was used as toilet cleaner, presumably to spare himself and his dead wife the humiliation of admitting syphilis. Despite talk of suicide or possible murder, the death was ruled an accident. I believed that, but wondered just how many aspirin she'd meant to take; perhaps any more than one mercury pill was a toxic dose? Later reports of the medical examiner's findings indicate she'd taken the entire bottle.
Olive has appeared in ghostly form in both a white dress, and in the green beaded dress and headpiece she wore to perform. She accessorizes both outfits with that deadly little blue bottle. You can read some good accounts of Olive sightings on Playbill. At left is a portrait of Olive by Vargas, done shortly before her death. She is said to most often appear after productions have ended, often to maintenance and security staff. So when you go there to see Mary Poppins, linger awhile.

Updated to add:

Only a few of you know this about me, but I love ghosts as much as I love outdated beauty advice. I am afraid of ghosts almost every day in a very tiny way. I will spend the night in a country house alone, or go down to a basement to change a fuse, but I do it knowing ghosts are watching. My apartment is big and old, with a long, dim, creaky hall, crowded with possible, wispy, lingering people. I've only recently come out about this, and it is important to note that I have never seen or been contacted by a ghost. But every time my cat stops mid-bath, foot frozen in a ludicrous position, and stares intently at something across the room, I know with certainty that it is a ghost, beautiful or otherwise. Well, you win Internet, now I'm blogging about my cat.