Men’s Hairstyles: Why I Avoid the Subject in my Mysteries

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino

I don’t go into men’s hairstyles much in my mysteries, because the subject is such a turn-off to today’s reader. Why? Because men usually parted their hair or combed it back in a pompadour, or both, and to hold this look, they used liberal amounts of hair oil, Brilliantine, or Vaseline. Yuck! 


Here are some examples: 

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Jack Pickford

Jack Pickford


Mary Pickford’s Birthday

220px-Mary_Pickford_1916April 8 is Mary Pickford’s 122nd birthday. Born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Canada, she lost her father, an alcoholic, at an early age. She and her younger sister and brother were raised by their mother, Charlotte, a fiercely determined woman who pushed all three of her children onto the stage and into silent pictures. Mary’s siblings, Lottie and Jack, became stars on her coattails–she was the international superstar of her era, the best known and best loved female face in the world. Yet she was not “just” an actress. She was a producer and the co-founder of United Artists–at a time when everyone thought actors didn’t have the brains to run a business. It was said that she had “a man’s head on her shoulders”–a rare compliment in that highly sexist era.

pickford-mary-roseIn my upcoming mystery, SILENT MURDERS, the setting moves from vaudeville to silent pictures. It is 1925, the height of the silent film era, and my protagonist, Jessie Beckett, finds a job as a lowly assistant script girl at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, one of the better known but studios in Hollywood but not one of the largest. I introduce Mary Pickford, who is about 33 then and still playing children in her movies; Jack and Lottie play supporting roles in my story as well. I learned a lot about Mary Pickford–and her family–from reading a couple biographies and her own autobiography. And after writing her into several mysteries, I feel as if I know her quite well. Isn’t she pretty? But she was not just a pretty face; she was a genuinely kind person, a tough boss but always kind to her employees. She used to say that no one worked for her, they all worked with  her. 

So Happy Birthday, Mary Pickford!

Antique Poison for Sale!

An alert reader pointed out this item for sale on eBay–an unopened bottle of mercury bichloride in tablet form. (Can you read the label, I hope?) This was the poison that killed Olive Thomas (Jack Pickford’s wife) in Paris, although her case involved a liquid version. It was used all too often in the Roaring Twenties for suicides. Note that it says For External Use Only. How do you use a pill for external use only? Dissolve in water. This drug was commonly used as treatment for syphilis. 

I wanted to buy the bottle for my collection of Twenties memorabilia that I’m planning to take with me when I do book signings for THE IMPERSONATOR, but I didn’t handle the eBay bidding correctly and missed my chance. Someone else got it for $10! I’d have paid more than that. Oh well, maybe another bottle will surface before I need it. The mystery doesn’t come out until fall of next year, 2013, so I have plenty of time to add to my collection. 

Published in: on August 25, 2012 at 8:11 am  Comments (2)  
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The Jack Pickford Scandals #2

     In 1916, Mary Pickford’s little brother Jack married Olive Thomas, a beautiful Ziegfield girl who had transitioned successfully from stage to silent film. Here is Olive in her famous Vargas calendar pose.  And here’s how a contemporary described them: “Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway,” wrote Frances Marion, a prominent Hollywood scriptwriter who knew them well. “Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.” Both were also alcoholics, cocaine addicts, promiscuous, and infected with syphilis.

     Though publicists sketched lives of blissful love and devotion, Olive and Jack had way too many issues for a successful marriage. In Paris in 1920 for what was billed as a second honeymoon, the couple stayed at the Ritz and frequented the popular nightspots. Back at the hotel after a wild night that was rumored to have included plenty of cocaine and alcohol (remember—no Prohibition in France), Olive drank a large amount of bichloride of mercury, something often prescribed for syphilis and meant to be applied topically. She died a gruesome death a couple days later in a French hospital.

     Contradicting stories abound. A police investigation and autopsy ruled the death accidental and Jack and the body were quickly shipped back to America. But some thought Olive had committed suicide, others thought Jack had poisoned her, still others believed she had intended to poison Jack but made a mistake.  

     Here’s the New York Times headlines from that day.


 Police Seek Evidence on Rumors of Drug and Champagne Orgies


Former American Officer, Sentenced for Selling Cocaine, One of Those Questioned


Police Have Not Yet Obtained His Story of How the Actress Drank Poison

     Read the whole article at

     Jack married two more times, each time to a pretty Ziegfield showgirl, and each time, the marriage ended in divorce or separation with rumors of infidelity, physical abuse, and substance abuse. Like Olive, Jack died young and in a hospital, a victim of his lifestyle and various addictions.

The Jack Pickford Scandals #1

       Jack Pickford was the younger brother of the silent film industry’s most famous actress, Mary Pickford. Throughout his short life–he died at 36–he traded on his sister’s name. An actor of modest talents, Jack relied on Mary for roles in movies, directing jobs, money, and help extracating himself from a steady stream of scandal.

       Early in 1918, right after the United States joined World War I, playboy Jack enlisted in the Navy. Lord knows why. He was already addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and women (he had contracted siphilis and would spread it to many), and was not the sort to take advice, let alone orders, from anyone. Once in the Navy, he quickly became involved in a scheme to accept bribes from rich men who wanted to avoid dangerous assignments and for procuring women for officers. Facing a military trial, Jack managed to wriggle out with a “general discharge.” Some said his sister was responsible for persuading the authorities to give Jack a medical discharge in exchange for testifying against the others, but there was never any proof. His compatriots in the scheme got prison sentences and dishonorable discharges. Jack went back to Hollywood to resume his wild life.

Next” Scandal #2

Published in: on February 27, 2010 at 10:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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       You can’t talk about the Roaring Twenties without mentioning “flappers,” those modern young women who wore their skirts short, their hair bobbed, and their lips red, who smoked cigarettes, danced in jazz clubs, flattened their breasts, went out unchaperoned, and flouted the Prohibition laws by swilling martinis in speakeasies. I got to wondering, just what—and when—did the word “flapper” come into play?

       Turns out, its origins are British. A flapper was what one called a young bird learning to fly, flapping its wings. At some point—and the earliest known use seems to have been in 1912—it started to mean an impetuous teenage girl. (And in some circles, it was slang for prostitute.) It had nothing to do, as yet, with the Roaring Twenties behavior.

        In 1920, the term crossed the Atlantic in the form of a movie titled “The Flapper.” It starred Olive Thomas, a beautiful silent movie actress and the wife of Jack Pickford who died of poisoning in Paris under suspicious circumstances. (See  for details.) In this comedy, Olive plays a 16-year-old girl who runs away from boarding school and gets into a world of trouble. So it seems to me, in 1920, the word still held its British meaning: impetuous teenage girl.

       It quickly slipped into a new meaning as the Roaring Twenties progressed; by the early 1920s the word referred to a particular sort of young woman, those who adopted the clothing fashions and behavior described above.

The Name Game

       Silent film actors often gave themselves a new name, something more memorable, more alliterative, more modern than the one bestowed upon them by their parents. For example, one casting director advised a handsome young extra named Frank Cooper to change to a first name that sounded tougher. She suggested Gary after her rough-and-tumble hometown of Gary, Indiana. “Coop” took her advice. When little Gladys Smith got her first part in a David Belasco play, the famous New York director insisted she change her humdrum name. Together they settled on Mary Pickford. She became one of the country’s most famous film actresses, known all over the world as “Little Mary” or “Our Mary.” Her siblings were all too happy to piggyback on Big Sis’s fame. They change their names as well, from the almost comically boring John Smith to Jack Pickford, and from Charlotte Smith to Lottie Pickford.

       Foreign-born actors needed something less—well, less foreign, so that American audiences could pronounce and remember their names. So Greta Lovisa Gustafsson became Greta Garbo, the famous vamp. Wong Liu Tsong became Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American film star. My favorite? Get a load of this: Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi who became Rudolph Valentino, the Latin Lover.  Here are a few more silent movie name changes:

 Mary Astor – Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

Joan Crawford – Lucille Lesueur

Lon Chaney – Leonidas Chaney

Douglas Fairbanks – Douglas Elton Ullman

W. C. Fields – William Claude Dunkinfield

Buster Keaton – Joseph Frank Keaton

Stan Laurel – Arthur Stanley Jefferson