Here is Part III of You Don’t Know Jack, my take on the much misunderstood and much maligned Jack Pickford. Parts I and II may be found by clicking on their links. This post is much longer than I intended but the death of Jack’s first wife Olive Thomas was not only Hollywood’s first big scandal, it was the most significant event in the life of Jack Pickford. Therefore, there is much ground to cover here and I am having trouble getting my high horse to climb off my soap box. As you will see I have some rather strong opinions on the subject!
Two innocent-looking childen, [Jack and Olive] 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.
– Frances Marion
Now, we come to the event that has both defined and destroyed Jack’s image and reputation today – the tragic death of his wife Olive Thomas while the pair were on a vacation in Paris in 1920. This event was a tragedy indeed, but over the years it has turned into a travesty for both poor Olive and Jack, with an appalling amount of irresponsible writing taking the wildest unsubstantiated speculation, outrageous rumors and downright gossip and magically, without any actual proof, distilling it as a FACT. And the saddest part is few ever seem to question it. Olive and/or Jack were heroin addicts and/or cocaine fiends. Olive and/or Jack had syphilis. Olive killed herself. Jack murdered Olive. These aren’t facts. They are just speculation, gossip and rumor that have been sold as facts and it looks like most people bought them. Only two people were in that bathroom at the Ritz that night – Jack Pickford and Olive Thomas – and only they knew the truth. Olive couldn’t tell her story, but Jack could and did. No one today, however, apparently wants to believe him because it isn’t sexy or lurid enough. They also do not want to believe the official ruling in the case made by the French authorities that declared it to be an unfortunate accident. Oh no, they must have been bribed. The public apparently will accept nothing short of gore, sleaze, sex, sinister intent, suicide and murder. Interesting? Certainly. But true? How dull the truth can be.
When I first began reading up on Hollywood history I too accepted these stories about Olive’s death as outright fact, but when I started doing my own research I began to notice things that troubled me. Some things were just not adding up. I began to notice holes in some of these FACTS and over time found so many that I am now convinced that a great disservice has been done to Olive and Jack and to history itself by the unquestioned acceptance of what seems to me as pure speculation as rock solid fact. Naturally, I came up with a few of my own theories in the process and, naturally, they could be just as off base as the ones I’m decrying. But I want to offer them to you in the hopes you will see this infamous old tale in a new light and give Jack and Olive a “Second Take.”
Have you ever heard of the principle of Occam’s Razor? It is most commonly defined as being “the simplest explanation is often the correct one.” This rule has apparently never been applied to Olive Thomas’ tragic death. But, for a moment, put yourself on a jury. How would you weigh the evidence presented? As Olive and Jack’s self appointed attorney I would like to present you with a different point of view by challenging the most troubling FACTS in this story. See what you think.
On August 12, 1920, Jack Pickford and his wife Olive Thomas, a very bright young film star with Selznick Pictures, boarded the Cunard liner the R.M.S. Imperator in New York Harbor for what Jack declared to be a “Second Honeymoon” (They had been married since 1918). By all accounts, the beautiful young Olive was Jack’s female twin. They were both fun-loving, wildly impulsive kids who loved to party and have sex with a great deal of passion and maybe not so much brains. As the Los Angeles Times noted in 1917 “Miss Thomas…has a reputation for seeking action and plenty of it.” Same could be said for Jack. The couple had a highly tempestuous relationship of passionate fights followed by passionate reconciliations and then more passionate fights, more passionate reconcilations…and so on and so on with many expensive gifts exchanged between the two as part of the game. It is interesting to note how so many newspaper and magazine accounts of the day liked to paint the pair in almost childlike terms, treating them like a couple of school kids playing house. Their actions were not always what one could call mature, but maybe that’s because they weren’t mature. They were still practically kids with Jack just turning 24 on the boat over to Paris and Olive a whopping 25.
It was a rather unconventional marriage with the couple spending as much time apart as together with Olive and Jack seemingly always on opposite coasts shooting pictures for their respective studios. They never seemed to be on the same coast at the same time except for an all too brief period in 1919. This inevitably led to suspicions and rumors of infidelity on both parts, which inevitably led in turn to passionate fights, passionate reconciliations and…well, you know the drill, a fascinating pattern that Jack followed in all three of his marriages. For some reason, this kind of relationship felt comfortable for Jack and for Olive too apparently. Perhaps they both liked the longing. Perhaps they both liked the freedom. Perhaps they had an “open” marriage.
To put things in perspective for a moment, Olive is definitely the better remembered today as she not only died young, but died under mysterious circumstances. This has elevated her to a certain “cult” status, which she probably would not have attained had she lived a full life. At the time, however, it was Jack who was the superstar of the two. Olive’s marriage into the House of Pickford was, in fact, a huge step up for the promising young actress and it resulted in the same sort of response experienced by another rising young star, Joan Crawford, when she married into the same family a decade later. Olive had married a prince of the Hollywood realm and his family, Charlotte and Mary that is, was none too keen on it. It was to them a Morganatic marriage and they let Jack and Olive both know their feelings in direct and indirect ways.
Regardless of what Charlotte and Mary thought, the union between young Jack and young Olive lasted for more than two years, culminating in the “Second Honeymoon” in Paris of August/September 1920. Arriving in Paris on the 20th after their overseas crossing, the couple checked into a luxurious suite at the world-famous Hotel Ritz. For the next few weeks there appeared nothing out of the ordinary as they engaged in a steady round of clothes shopping, sightseeing and nightclubbing until the early morning hours of September 5, 1920 when something bizarre happened, something terribly tragic that remains a mystery to this very day. That’s about as far as one can get with the facts before everything devolves into a melee between various writers over what happened next, who was to blame and why. To be sure, there were many conflicting and confusing reports coming out of Paris following the incident with the flames of rumor and innuendo being fanned into a full conflagration by the sensation-seeking press, something they would never do today (!), but responsible writers should know the difference between innuendo and rumor and a hard provable direct source fact. Not that there really were many in this case. Let’s look at what we have to work with. Remember now, you’re the jury here.
On the fateful evening of Saturday, September 4, 1920 Jack and Olive went out nightclubbing with a small group of friends, visiting the mysteriously exotic dives of the Montmartre including one establishment with the charming name of Le Rat Mort. This trip to the Montmartre has, in light of subsequent events, been given a most sinister patina with visions of Jack and Olive wallowing in wanton depravity from dusk till dawn. Drugs. Alcohol. (Perverted) SEX. What else could they have possibly gone to that den of inequity for? Well, maybe dinner? Some cocktails? A show? Some dancing? In actuality, “doing” the Montmartre would have been de regueur for any tourist, particularly adventure-seeking young ones like the Pickfords. Yes, you most certainly could get drugs, alcohol and sex there, but you could get that in Peoria if you looked hard enough. By the time of their visit, the Montmartre was world-famous as Paris’ Bohemia, a charming and exciting artist’s colony where such figures as Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, Picasso and others had gathered. The Montmartre was something akin to the Las Vegas of its day and people went there for the same reasons they go to Las Vegas today. There were many famous and popular “dives” in the Montmartre including Cafe D’L’Enfer (Hell), Le Chat Noir (with that poster everyone has in their kitchen today), the Moulin Rouge and others. Believe me, if you were visiting Paris in 1920 you would have gone to the Montmartre too. If not, why are you in Paris? You should have stayed in Peoria.
Their logic = There were some risqué entertainments in the Montmartre, even “depraved” entertainments where champagne flowed like water and people had intimate relations without the benefit of clergy. Jack and Olive went to the Montmartre. Ergo they were depraved. Case closed.
Now, here please do not get the impression I’m trying to convince you they went to the Montmartre that night to pray at the Sacre Coeur. Maybe Jack and Olive did go to satisfy their unholy desires for wanton depravity from dusk till dawn. They certainly drank, Jack admitted as much. A “little” he said. (Jack, who are you kidding?!). He also said they went dancing. Did they do drugs? Possibly. In fact, I would be surprised if such a party hardy couple as Jack Pickford and Olive Thomas hadn’t at least tried or even used cocaine or some other recreational drug from time to time. But were they drug addicts? There is a big difference between recreational use and drooling dope fiend and it is simply stunning how people write with such presumed authority that Olive and/or Jack were heroin/cocaine addicts without bothering to offer any proof other than lurid tabloid newspaper accounts or books by writers making the same outrageous and unsubstantiated claims as they do. Everyone says so. Really? Well, that’s not proof. If you happen to have any actual proof of any drug use at all, let alone abuse, by either Olive or Jack, please let’s see it.
Here’s something to think about: Did you know that when Will H. Hays was brought to Hollywood in 1922 to “clean up,” the movie colony’s lax morality it was said there was a “Doom Book” containing a list of actors and actresses who were known drug addicts who were to be banned from the screen? If Jack was, in fact, such a hopeless “hop head” as has been sworn to by those who claim they know (Olive’s biographer breathlessly declares Jack was “without question” an addict. Without question.), wouldn’t his name have been in that book? I’d certainly think so. Wouldn’t you? Well, guess where Jack’s name did wind up vis-a-vis Will Hays – On the official greeting committee welcoming him to Hollywood.
Their logic = Some Hollywood movie stars did drugs. Jack and Olive were Hollywood movie stars. You could get drugs in the Montmartre. Jack and Olive went to the Montmartre. Ergo Jack and Olive were drug addicts. Case closed.
The point is, no one really knows if Jack and Olive did drugs that night or any other for that matter. No one is even sure what they even did that night at all after 10PM. The full whereabouts of the couple throughout the evening are in dispute past that point and even whether they returned to the hotel together or not is a subject of heated debate. Regardless, they were in their suite together around 3AM. According to Jack, the only living witness, he was exhausted (drunk) and went to bed, but Olive was restless (drunk) and stayed up writing a letter to her mother. At some point, Olive went into the bathroom. The next thing Jack knew his wife was screaming in agony. He rushed in and found her writhing in pain having swallowed poison.
Now here in that bathroom at the Ritz we find not only the end of poor hapless Olive, but really Jack as well. It took her five days to die. It took him a dozen years, but he surely died as a result of what transpired on that long ago night just as assuredly as did Olive. What could have happened? And why? Well, it was learned later that Olive had walked into the bathroom and swallowed approximately 8 grams of a truly horrible concoction known as Bichloride of Mercury, a dangerous and highly toxic corrosive. What on earth was such a ghastly thing doing in the Pickford’s bathroom at the Hotel Ritz in the first place? Why, syphilis, of course. What else could it have been? After all, everyone knows Jack was “Mr. Syphilis.” It’s an Internet FACT! And Mercury Bichloride was the best known treatment for it at the time. In FACT we even know the exact year when Jack contracted the disease. It was 1917, at least that’s what Olive Thomas’ biographer tells us. (What, no month?) Now, where she got this very, very specific FACT makes one wonder. Did Jack tell her himself? Did she see it in his medical records? Did she even see his medical records? Did he put it in his Christmas letter? Guess what I got this year? Where on earth would you get such an intimate and closely guarded piece of information? Where did anyone who claims Jack had syphilis get that information?
Their logic = Jack Pickford liked to have sex. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. Mercury Bichloride was a treatment for syphilis. Mercury Bichloride was in Jack Pickford’s bathroom. Ergo Jack Pickford had syphilis. Case closed.
Would you like to know something interesting about Mercury Bichloride? It’s true that in Jack’s day it was a common treatment for syphilis, but it was much more commonly used as a household antiseptic and disinfectant, sort of a Lysol of its day, used to disinfect such things as – bathrooms. And it was sold over-the-counter, an extremely common household item. A very dangerous one, but nonetheless common, something that would have been in many bathrooms and kitchens of the day, including a bathroom of a hotel in Paris, which according to the Ritz it was. Hmmm. And, now here’s some more food for thought. It was also in common use in cosmetics at the time of Olive’s death and many years thereafter being a very effective blemish remover and skin lightener. Although banned today in the United States for obvious reasons, it is apparently still finding use in cosmetics in other parts of the world. Check out the informative citation at Cosmetics and Skin here. Now then, are we still absolutely certain beyond reasonable doubt the Mercury Bichloride was in that bathroom because Jack was “Mr. Syphilis” and that there couldn’t possibly be any other plausible explanation as to why it would have been there otherwise such as a cleaning aid or a beauty aid for a very pretty and no doubt very vain movie star?
Well, we know what she took. The next thing we must address is why and here’s where things get really fun. The mysterious and convoluted circumstances of the event have brought out just about every crackpot theory imaginable generally sworn by the postulator as being the one “true” story. Which one sounds most plausible to you? (1) Olive took the poison on purpose committing suicide because: (A) She discovered Jack was cheating on her with another woman/man and she couldn’t live with it. (B) Jack was leaving her for said woman/man and she couldn’t live with it. (C) Jack had contracted syphilis from another woman/man and had now given it to her and she couldn’t live with it (Well, she had been living with it since 1917 apparently). (D) Jack yelled at Olive for coming back on her own (Gosh, they never fought before) and she couldn’t live with it. (E) Jack was a hopeless drug addict and Olive had failed in her attempts to score him heroin and she couldn’t live with it (The Hollywood Babylon version. BTW, Kenneth Anger was so far off he didn’t even have Jack in Paris that night. He even got the hotel wrong! Take it from there.) (2) Jack murdered Olive because (A) One or both were having affairs with other women/men and he was insanely jealous over her women/men and/or she was insanely intolerant of his women/men. (B) It wasn’t anything personal it’s just that Jack was broke and needed the insurance money (Jack’s 1919 Federal Income Tax Return shows him earning some $66,000, today’s equivalent of about $877,000. Plus, even if he had already spent it all (and knowing Jack he might have), don’t forget he had unlimited credit at a bank called Charlotte and Mary Pickford). By the way, the records show that Jack’s desperate attempts to save his stricken wife were nothing short of heroic. He did absolutely everything within human power to save his dying wife, feverishly working on her until the ambulance came. Some murderer. (3) It was an accident. Olive went into the bathroom for sleeping pills or aspirin and mistook the bottle of Mercury Bichloride for sleeping pills/aspirin and swallowed it instead.
Amazingly, it is Theory (3) that is so readily dismissed by many as being the least logical. People find suicide and murder so much more plausible than a mere accident. After all, what idiot (and let’s face it, Olive was a lovely girl but not a member of MENSA) could have possibly mistaken a hideous corrosive powder for aspirin tablets? And the powder had been mixed with alcohol before it was ingested. How could that have been accidental? Well, let’s look at a few things here. (1) Start by figuring Olive was pretty drunk or at least very tired upon entering the bathroom. Don’t forget, she’d been out debauching in depravity for hours and it was now after 3AM. (2) She may have entered with the lights off so as not to further bother her husband with more light after writing her letter. (3) The two preparations were not as dissimilar as people may believe. People readily assume Olive was reaching for aspirin tablets. Have you ever heard the old expression “Take a powder?” Well, aspirin was commonly distributed in powder form as well as tablets in those days. In fact, you can still get it that way if you look hard enough. Most people would mix the powder in water and drink it. Olive, being Olive, may have jazzed her aspirin up with a bit of bubbly. The cause and the cure of a headache all in one glass! And Mercury Bichloride was found in both tablet and powder form too. It should be further noted that Jack claimed the label on the fatal bottle was written in French and (in her bleary-eyed state) Olive apparently confused it with something else. Is that so incredibly hard to imagine? Apparently so to a lot of people.
If indeed Olive Thomas had accidentally ingested Mercury Bichloride she most certainly would not have been alone. It was reported that accidental death by poisoning from the chemical was alarmingly common with at least one source claiming “hundreds and hundreds” were dying from it annually, which is why it was ultimately banned by the U.S. Government.
So from that horrific tragedy of long ago I believe a terrible injustice has been done to both Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford, particularly to Jack. The death of a beautiful young person in a stupid, but ghastly accident and the antics of a couple of immature, party-loving kids has been twisted into a cesspool of depravity by people who weren’t there and without an iota of hard evidence, but only speculation, rumors and gossip to back them up, have found them guilty and damned them to hell without a trial. Jack and Olive can’t defend themselves against these scurrilous charges and what is saddest of all, for me at least, is just how blindly people have swallowed this bill of goods with nary a finger of doubt raised on their behalf for years now. What a sad and cruel thing to do.
Please stay tuned for Part IV, the conclusion of You Don’t Know Jack, which I can assure you, will be much, much shorter. Well…at least shorter.