Monthly Archives: April 2012

Tragic Beauty – Olive Thomas


Olive Thomas

The ethereal Olive Thomas is the inspiration for one of the secondary characters in my novel, Grace in the Wings, the first book in a mystery series that is currently being shopped by my agent for purchase.

Sophia Michelle is the older sister of my protagonist, Grace.  Orphaned at 15, Sophia vowed that she and Grace would always have a roof over their heads, never go hungry and never live in an orphanage.  She relied on the only asset she possessed at the time, her captivating beauty. She spent many nights “out” but always provided for her sister until she was discovered by the famous show-man, Florenz Ziegfeld, who took the girls under his wing and made Sophia a star.


Olive Thomas was born Olivia R. Duffy, October 20, 1894, to a working class Irish American family in Pennsylvania. At 15 years of age she was forced to leave school and help support the family.  At 16 she married Bernard Krush Thomas. The marriage lasted two years. After her divorce she moved to New York City, lived with a family member, and worked in a Harlem department store. In 1914, she won “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest and landed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Having caught the public’s attention, and the eye of the famous Florenz Ziegfeld, Olive was hired to perform in his wildly popular Ziegfeld Follies. It wasn’t long before Olive had star billing in the Midnight Frolic, a show at one of Ziegfeld’s favored venues, the Roof Top Theater of the New Amsterdam Hotel. The Frolic catered primarily to well-known male patrons. The girls’ costumes, often just a few strategically arranged balloons, allowed amusement for the gentlemen who would pop the balloons with their cigars. The beauty of Olive Thomas became legendary and she was pursued by a number of wealthy men. She is said to have had “lovely violet-blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes that seemed darker because of the translucent pallor of her skin.”

Known for her beauty, Olive was also known for her wild ways. That free spiritedness became more pronounced when she became involved with Jack Pickford of the famous Pickford family. Alcohol and cocaine became part of her partying repertoire and it proved to be reckless. She had three automobile accidents in one year. After that, she hired a chauffeur.

Jack Pickford & Olive Thomas
Broadway Scene

Screenwriter Frances Marion later 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.”

The marriage to Pickford caused much trouble for both parties. For Jack, his high-brow famous family did not approve of Olive’s work in the Frolics, and for Olive, her employer Florenz Ziegfeld accused Jack of taking her away from his entertainment dynasty. There were rumors that Flo and Olive were also romantically involved.

The relationship with Pickford could even have been said to contribute to her sudden death in 1920.  After a long night of dancing, drinking and drugs, Olive and Jack went back to their hotel room. Suddenly, from the bathroom, Jack heard Olive scream, “Oh God!”  According to Jack’s account, Olive had accidentally drunk from a bottle of something marked “poison”.  After a trip to the hospital and having her stomach pumped three times to no avail, Olive Thomas died. The autopsy stated that she died of a mixture of mercury bichloride and alcohol. Mercury bichloride was the prescribed tonic for Jack’s persistant and cronic syphyllis.

Olive Thomas had a short, but successful career. She worked for the Ziegfeld Follies and Midnight Frolic and she starred in over twenty motion pictures. She was also one of the first actresses to be termed “a flapper,” along with Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford.

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. – It’s Show Time

The next series of blog posts I will write will be about the real life personalities from the Ziegfeld Follies who inspired my characters for Saving Grace.  The first is about Franz Sigrid, my antagonist, who was inspired by the All-Time Greatest Showman on Earth, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.

Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., (Flo)  born of a German father and Belgian mother in Chicago, March 1867, was one of the first and ultimately most successful Broadway producers of his time.  Known for “the Ziegfeld Touch” he was an expert at turning plebian dramas and comedies into art without losing their mass appeal.

Many have said that Ziegfeld Jr. was foolish, extravagant, and cruel, which may be true, but, above all, he was an artist driven by the pursuit of beauty.

His career started in 1893 with a vaudeville act headlining German strongman Eugene Sandow.  Sandow, a perfect male specimen, would perform daring feats of strength .  He would set a man on the palm of his hand and lift him up, wrestle three men at one time, and once let three horses walk across a plank on his chest.  He was wildly popular with the women in the audience and Flo would charge money for them to come backstage and feel Sandow’s muscles.

Ziegfeld’s career was long and varied and produced many stars such as Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Marion Davies, Irene Dunn,  W.C. Fields and Olive Thomas among others.  He hired some of the most talented musicians and composers for his musical scores, among them George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

Flo had extravagant tastes and would often shower his stars with expensive baubles and gifts.  With some shows, he would amass a fortune, only to spend it all on women or the gaming tables.   There were times in his career that he would be so in debt, the banks would no longer lend him money, but he always found it somewhere.  He was extremely adept at publicity and would often orchestrate elaborate ruses to get his name and his stars names in the papers.  The beauty and grandeur of his shows never suffered.

Ziegfeld was married twice, first to the beautiful French actress Anna Held.   It is said that they never were actually married but were together long enough to constitute a common law arrangement.  She left him years later because of his affair with starlet Lillian Lorraine.  He then married actress Billie Burke of Wizard of OZ fame (Glenda the Witch of the North) and was with her until his death in 1932.

My character, Franz Sigrid is the antagonist in Saving Grace.  While possessing the same charm and brilliance with his artistry and publicity stunts as Flo Ziegfeld, Franz is a bit more humble, but a lot more devious!  His affairs and money problems are exacerbated by his constant strive for publicity and the limelight for his stars.  I hope you enjoy him as much as I did!

Bathing Beauties 1919

My current work in progress Saving Grace takes place in New York City and Santa Barbara, California in 1918-1919.  In the novel, I have a scene where Grace and famous broadway star Kiki Sands drink in the sun and share conversation at the pool. I had to research what they would  wear and and learned a lot about the progression of the woman’s voice in society.

The early 1900’s was a tumultuous time for the world with the Great War and the Spanish Flu Pandemic.  Motion pictures started to take rise, and so did the women’s suffrage movement.  In addition to fighting for their right to vote, women were also making a statement with fahion.

The corset was not completely irradicated, but they were modified to give women more freedom of movement.  This is the Spirella Corset which offered greater flexibility and was to promote better, overall health.  The older corsets were  so tight and rigid, they often compressed a woman’s internal organs, causing a variety of health problems

Women were also becoming more physically active and participated in golf, skiing and swimming.  Once thought to be a therapeutic treatment, “bathing” became recreational and women didn’t want to be left out!

The first swim suits were cumbersome and heavy.  Usually made of wool, they consisted of a tunic or dress, bloomers and black stockings.

By the early 1900’s, bathing suits were becoming a fashion statement and relied on the woman’s “fashionable” figure.  More and more skin was exposed.

   In 1907, Australian “Underwater Ballerina”Annette Kellerman visited the United States.  She caused a fashion commotion when she was arrested for her bathing attire; a loose, one piece suit, showing arms, legs and the neck.  She altered the suit by adding full length arms, legs and a collar, but made the fit tighter, revealing her shape underneath.  Two years later, the tides turned and swimsuits became lighter and offered more freedom.  Bathing costumes became more suited for swimming and less concerned with modesty. Women were allowed to swim competivtively in the Olympics by 1912.

After suffering World War I and the devestation of the Spanish Flu Pandemic, attitudes in the world changed. With the loss of so many lives, people began to live more “in the moment.”  A new appreciation of recreation and leisure time was born.  And, as with most historic social and political events, fashion reflected this attitude. Women had gone to work during the war as nurses, munitions factory workers, seamstresses and spies. They wanted more freedom in their lives, the power of the vote and they wanted their clothing and swimwear to provide more comfort and practicality.

Since then, “bathing attire” has become smaller and smaller!  What do you think that means in relation to women’s empowerment? I’d love to read your comments.

Writer’s Weekend in the Woods

 Last weekend I participated in a four day Master Immersion class in Deep Editing with Margie Lawson in Golden, Colorado.  Four of us converged on Margie’s home for four days of Deep Edits, Manuscript Analysis, Dramatic scene editing and empowered conversation about writing.

Day One started at 4:30 pm when we all met at our log cabin hotel, the Eldora Lodge , conveniently located next door to Margie’s home. After we freshened up, we reconvened at Margie’s to get busy with work – and to have a scrumptious dinner prepared by Carole, one of our fellow Immersioners.

First on the agenda was a Cognitive Style Quiz.  What we learned from this test was which side of our brains was more dominant.  It also allowed Margie to see how we learn and the best way to utilize our talents.  Then we took a Style Survey, which again, zeroed in on our personalities and how we interact with the world around us.  The survey depicted our personality “colors.”  Red: competitive, directing, self-certain and adventurous.  Green: emotional, impulsive, optimistic and enthusiastic.  Blue: accommodating, stabilizing, deliberate and patient.  And last but not least, Yellow:  Precise, perfectionist, analytical and logical.  All of us had predominately GREEN styles – including Margie.  We named ourselves the Blonde Enthusiasts. As you can see from the photo, we are all blonde.  But that wasn’t the end of our commonalities.  There are too many to mention.  I am just dumb-founded about how four people from all over the US can come together and be so much alike.  It was one of those serendipitous events!

The next three days were long but productive ones!  From 8 am to 9:30 pm or later we learned about the Deep Edits System, created by Margie, to analyze your manuscript in terms of dialogue, setting, visceral response, internalization and tension.  Rhetorical devices for Fiction Writers to really add punch to our stories.  Writing Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist – dialogue cues share subtext.  They inform the reader of non-verbal communication.  We also learned how to Power Up Emotion: The four levels for Writing Success: Basic, Complex, Empowered and Super Empowered. And Writing Body Language Like a Psychologist.  93% of communication is non-verbal.  Learning how to use body language in your novels is a valuable tool to build your characters.  It’s also not easy to do!

When I signed up for the class I was concerned about a number of things.  Would I be able to keep up?  Would I be able to work all day and still have some brain power by 5 pm?  Would I be able to be around people for 13 hours every day?  Would we take breaks? To my surprise and relief, I was able to deal with all of the aforementioned.  We ate well, slept well and all got along famously!  We took hiking breaks in the beautiful Colorado mountains (the weather was perfect!) and we even got to go into Boulder for shopping and a terrific dinner at the Russian Tea room.  It was a tremendous experience.

If you ever have the opportunity to be “Immersed” in learning what you love, I highly recommend it!