Laini Giles was born in Austin, Texas and lives in Edmonton, Alberta with her husband and three cats. An early devotion to Nancy Drew, and her discovery of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, spurred a lifelong interest in mysteries and scandals. She blogs about history, books and movies at Sepia Stories.
In her debut novel, Love Lies Bleeding (2013), a detective investigates the death of his great-aunt, a high society debutante torn between two lovers. Published on August 1, 2015, The Forgotten Flapper is based on the true story of one of Hollywood’s first stars, Olive Thomas. With only one full-length biography to date (by Michelle Vogel), Laini conducted her own extensive research, and was inspired by Loving Frank, Nancy Horan’s novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, to approach her subject from a fictional perspective.
Olivia Duffy was born in Charleroi, near Pittsburgh in 1894. Her father, a brick-mason of Irish descent, died when she was twelve. She married a clerk, Krug Thomas, at sixteen, but wasn’t ready to settle down. Two years later, she left him to live with her aunt in New York. While working as a shopgirl, she entered – and won – a contest to find ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in New York.’
Olive Thomas, as she was now known, modelled for commercial artists and graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Artist Harrison Fisher wrote a letter of recommendation to Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, and in 1915, she joined the Ziegfeld Follies. She quickly graduated to a more risqué after-show, The Midnight Frolic, staged for the wealthiest patrons on the roof garden of the New Amsterdam Theatre.
For a time, Olive became Ziegfeld’s mistress – but was disillusioned when he refused to leave his wife, actress Billie Burke. She decided to try her luck in Hollywood, where she met her future husband, Jack Pickford – the dissolute brother of ‘America’s Sweetheart’, Mary Pickford.
In 1917, Olive made her first feature-length movie, A Girl Like That, and was signed to Triangle Pictures, where she starred in Madcap Madge, the first in a string of hits. She left Triangle for Myron Selznick’s fledgling company in 1918, establishing her ‘baby vamp’ persona in films such as The Flapper (1920.)
In The Forgotten Flapper, Laini Giles retells Olive’s story in her own voice, and the ingénue with the mischievous smirk comes back to life. She was a quick learner, impulsive and generous. On camera and on location, she was a risk-taker, one of the pioneering talents who made Hollywood the world’s film-making capital. The hazardous nature of her job – in an era of unregulated creativity – is illustrated in several ‘on location’ episodes.
To establish herself as a motion picture actress, Olive needed to build a more durable persona. In partnership with screenwriter Frances Marion, she became the prime exemplar of the ‘baby vamp’: “modelled after the vamp characters like Theda Bara, but they were younger and more innocent. They lured men into bad situations by flirting and manipulation … breaking rules and carving out a new, more liberated niche in society.”
Aware that her stardom might not last, Olive learned every aspect of the business – even directing a few scenes of An Even Break (1917) after petitioning her bosses. “I wondered if I’d chosen the wrong profession, that maybe I should consider directing instead,” she muses. “If for no other reason than to torture the people I didn’t like.”
Unfortunately, Olive’s ambitions were often derailed by her chaotic love life. In retrospect, her marriage to Jack Pickford was doomed from the start. His alcoholic binges and drug addiction, rampant infidelity and insatiable appetite for trouble made him less than an ideal partner. No saint herself, Olive’s immaturity led her to take him back again and again.
She remained loyal to her family in Pittsburgh, and the contrast between her brothers’ integrity and Jack’s lassitude is striking. The novel also deals with the social background of the era, including America’s entry into World War I. Whereas Jack became involved in a scheme which allowed rich young men to bribe their way out of military service, and used his family connections to escape an dishonorable discharge, Olive’s brother fought for his country selflessly. Olive later found work for him in the film industry, and cared for his son after his beloved wife died.
Nonetheless, both Mary Pickford and her mother, Charlotte, both strongly disapproved of Olive, believing she had married Jack to further her career. In turn, Olive was sympathetic towards Jack’s sister Lottie – the black sheep of the family – and Mary’s first husband, Irish-born actor Owen Moore, whom she spurned for that other great star of the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks.
While Jack may have been Hollywood’s original bad boy, and their marriage was marred by immaturity, the other men in Olive’s life were little better. From Ziegfeld, who treated her as a plaything, to Myron Selznick – who both indulged, and exploited her – Olive was repeatedly let down by her lovers. But though her romances may have ended in tears, they were filled with passion and adventure.
In August 1920, Olive and Jack attempted to reconcile and set sail for a European vacation. On September 5, after a boozy night out in Paris, the couple returned to their suite at the Ritz Hotel. After Jack went to bed, Olive ingested a mercury solution prescribed to Jack to relieve the sores caused by his recently-diagnosed chronic syphilis.
Five days later, Olive Thomas was dead at twenty-five. Rumours circulated that she had committed suicide, or that Jack had tricked her into drinking poison to collect her life insurance money. Although much of this was mere speculation, Olive’s tragic death was one of many Hollywood scandals that would trigger the instigation of ‘morals clauses’ and censorship as the studio system took hold.
She would never enjoy that decade known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’, and her fame was quickly supplanted by a new generation of ‘flappers’, that youthful phenomenon she had shrewdly anticipated. Had she lived, Olive Thomas might have realised her dream to become of Hollywood’s first female directors.
The Forgotten Flapper is a racy, action-packed read. It is beautifully designed, with each chapter beginning in a different setting, and sections divided into ‘intermissions’ and ‘reprises’, befitting a real-life ‘flicker’. Reflecting the legend that Olive’s ghost haunts the New Amsterdam Theatre, the novel begins and ends with two amusing, and bittersweet chapters, as told from ‘beyond the grave’. The rest is effectively a fictional memoir, but I would have liked to hear more from the spectral Olive Thomas.
The book also includes an extract from Laini Giles’ next project, The It Girl and Me, chronicling the rise and fall of Clara Bow from the perspective of Daisy DeVoe, the secretary who befriended and ultimately betrayed the star, in one of the last great scandals of early Hollywood.