Florence Lawrence

The Biograph Girl Commits Suicide (Headline, 1938)

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Florence Lawrence contemplates suicide

In December 1938, Florence Lawrence lived alone in a small apartment in Hollywood. She was a minor actress at MGM, making $75 a week; few people knew that, in the early 1900s, she was the biggest movie star in America. In those early days, the movies ran without credits. The newspapers and the public, not knowing her name, referred to her using the name of the studio that released her films. They called her the “Biograph Girl.”

Her movie career, for the most part, ended in 1916, and she had struggled since then. So she was grateful that Louis B. Mayer had, two years previously, reached out to her and other silent film stars and offered small contracts. Still, Christmas had just passed, she was alone in her small apartment, and she was physically frail. She called MGM and said that she would not be in that day. Her doctor had previously diagnosed a “bone disease that produces anemia and depression.” Well, Florence was definitely depressed. She spent the morning walking around her apartment, reviewing her life and trying to work up the courage to kill herself.

Florence had been married three times but had had no children, so when she wrote a suicide note, she addressed it to her housemate Bob. She wrote, “I am tired. Hope this works.” Then she opened a jar of Kellogg’s Ant Paste which, when prepared, was a thick brown liquid with the color and viscosity of molasses. Three weeks earlier, in what the newspapers called the “Breakfast of Death,” a father in Encino had mistakenly killed his 4-year old child after pouring an ant paste mixture on pancakes. Florence scraped some ant paste into a glass and added some cough syrup, hoping to mask the taste of the poison. She sniffed at the glass, then set it down and continued to pace around her apartment.

Florence begins her career, becomes famous, gets fired

Florence’s first movie role was in 1907, in an Edison picture called Pioneer Days in America. Soon after, Vitagraph hired her on a contract basis, for $15 a week. For that $15, she was also required to make costumes and paint backdrops. Florence was short and cute and she could ride a horse. Florence was equally adept at comedy and drama, having mastered the histrionic style of acting that was popular then, and she starred in every type of movie that Vitagraph churned out, including the occasional one-reeler adaptation of a Dickens novel or a Shakespeare play. She was the first actress ever to portray Juliet in a movie.

Florence LawrenceBiograph snagged her away from Vitagraph in 1908, with the offer of $25 per week. Plus, she would not have to make costumes or paint backdrops. Florence accepted, of course.

It was at Biograph that she earned her greatest fame, though still no one knew her name. Fan letters arrived at the Biograph offices, addressed to the “Biograph Girl.” Newspaper columnists noticed the phenomenon and wrote articles about the unnamed but easily recognized actress.

Around this time, she married Harry Soulter, an assistant to D.W. Griffith. Harry had ambitions of his own, and Florence went along with his plans. Harry approached another studio and offered himself and Florence as a package—he would direct and she would star. Word of Soulter’s plan got back to Biograph. Florence and Harry were both fired.

Florence Lawrence becomes a star

Florence Lawrence in Moving Picture WeeklyInternational Moving Pictures, or IMP, was next. Carl Laemmle, its upstart owner and future founder of Universal Studios, was based in Chicago and was an outsider to the movie business. He needed a way to break through. He hired Florence, and then he actually promoted her, using her real name. A promotional appearance in St. Louis, where fans could meet her in person for the first time, was a sensation. She was no longer the “Biograph Girl,” or even the “IMP Girl.” She was Florence Lawrence, the movie star.

The amazing story of Florence’s debut as a movie star in St. Louis is here.

Florence’s career fades

The short-sighted decision of the other movie studios to keep the stars nameless was becoming harder to maintain, and all of the studios eventually followed Carl Laemmle’s lead. Bigger stars than Florence followed. Mary Pickford succeeded Florence as the Biograph Girl; later she was a co-founder of United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. Lillian Gish’s timing was better than Florence Lawrence or even Mary Pickford. She was the Biograph Girl in 1915 and 1916, when D. W. Griffith made his greatest films: Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

For Florence, the joy of her new-found fame was short-lived. She continued to act, but her marriage was failing and the grind of making so many movies each year was tiring. She injured her back during one picture and was slow in recovering. In 1915, she dropped out of sight completely. In 1916, she tried to make a comeback, but the industry had passed her by. D.W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which clocked in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, and suddenly the movies that Florence was famous for seemed small and old-fashioned. She made one film in 1916, Elusive Isabel, which did mediocre business. And with that failure, she was pretty much done.

The final act

The next 22 years consisted of three failed marriages, failed businesses, and the occasional bit part in a movie. She was still ambitious, but she was no longer the young and cute girl who could do it all and who had so effortlessly captivated audiences. So, at the end of 1938, as she considered her life to this point, there was little reason to hope that the future would be any better. She drank the mixture of ant paste and cough syrup, fell to the floor in convulsions, and died an hour later.

Florence Lawrence Commits Suicide

The next day, newspapers ran small stories about her life and dramatic suicide. The Motion Picture Relief Fund paid for her funeral and burial at the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery; Mary Pickford was on the Board of Directors for the Relief Fund, and she may have used her influence to ensure that a fellow “Biograph Girl” had a proper send-off.  Still, the Relief Fund did not pay for a marker or headstone; the Fund was an important source of relief for other movie folks down on their luck, and money was tight. And so it was that Florence Lawrence, the original Biograph Girl, the first movie star from America to have a name, was nameless once more.

For more stories about Florence Lawrence, you might like my posts on The Birth of Movie Stardom and We Nail A Lie.

The main source for this article was Florence Lawrence, The Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star, by Kelly R. Brown.

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