The Rise and Fall of Florence Lawrence, the World’s First Movie Star
What makes a movie star? Today we’ve got the general
recipe down: mix bankable films with broad popularity. Add a healthy social media following
and sauté in critical acclaim. Garnish with head-turning red carpet appearances. And if you’re
very, very lucky, pair with a performance of your blockbuster movie’s Oscar-winning theme song
But in 1909 no one knew.
The concept of stardom didn't exist because early movie
studios didn’t want anyone to know. The thinking went like this: the more popular and
“known” actors became, the more money they would demand. Studios kept their performers
anonymous—no acting credits were listed—so that if a particular actor became too demanding
or difficult, he or she was more easily replaced. Disposability served the bottom line.
Then Florence Lawrence came along, and all hell broke
She was attractive, but no more so than many other
actresses of her day, such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, both of whom would go on to be
far more successful and well-remembered. What Florence was, besides anonymously popular,
was prolific. From 1908 through the middle of 1909, she was featured in over 100 films
produced by Biograph, one of the world’s top studios at the time. Lawrence was soon dubbed
“The Biograph Girl” by the fans who wrote to the studio about her. They were desperate to
know her real name because through her films, they felt they knew her.
Unlike stage actors whose faces were obscured by the
distance between the seats and the stage, movie actors seemed as if they were only inches
away. For the first time, fans could see every shy smile, every tear trickling down a cheek.
Through the magic of the close-up, mastered by Flo’s director, the famous D.W. Griffith, they’d
seen her emotions in intimate detail. She was a regular woman with regular feelings, just like
them. They felt she could be one of them, a friend.
This delicious sense of familiarity with someone they had
never—and would never—meet, was entirely brand new, and it stoked the flames of fandom
like nothing before. They wanted to know everything about her … starting with her name.
She was born Florence Annie Bridgwood in 1886 to a
vaudeville performer mother with the stage name Lotta Lawrence. Florence grew up backstage
and, inevitably, onstage. At 20, she made her way to New York and found work in the fledgling
film industry. In a few short years, she’d become one of Griffith’s favorite actresses, with roles
in most of the 60 films he directed in 1908. 1909 was stacking up to be no different. Except
for the significant increase in her fan mail.
Caught trying to cut a more lucrative deal with rival Essanay
Studios, Lawrence suddenly found herself unemployed. Within a few months, she was working
for Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP). “Uncle Carl” as he was
called, had the remarkable foresight to understand that while a “star” might command better
wages, the public would more than compensate for that loss by paying to see her far more
The publicity stunt he concocted was bold and
unprecedented. He began innocently enough with an ad in Moving Picture World magazine:
her photo with the caption “She’s an IMP!” No name, just her new association with his film
studio. In February 1910, an obituary mysteriously appeared, no doubt submitted by Laemmle,
claiming that she had been fatally run down by a streetcar. In March, he took out a full-page
ad with the headline “WE NAIL A LIE,” insinuating that the false obituary was a ploy by
competitors to ruin her career.
To amp up the drama even more, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch then ran a front-page article on the hoax and notified the public that the very-much-
alive Florence Lawrence would soon be making a personal appearance in St. Louis. The public
could finally see their darling of the silver screen in the flesh.
The public, as it turns out, was ecstatic about this. The mob
that awaited her train was whipped into such a frenzy that buttons were torn from her clothing
and she was barely able to make it to the car. Uncle Carl’s gamble—that naming Florence
Lawrence and increasing her wage was a small price compared to the money he’d make—had
paid off exponentially.
It worked out quite well for Flo, too … at first. She was a
household name. She became one of the first women to start her own studio, the Victor
Company, and her salary soared to $500 per week, a vast sum at the time. By 1912, her small
studio was pumping out a “one-reeler” (about 15 minutes in length) each week.
Before long, however, her luck began to turn and her life
slowly morphed into a cautionary tale on the price of fame. The Victor Company ran aground
with difficulties getting its films distributed to theatres. With Hollywood-worthy histrionics, Flo
“retired.” Her marriage failed. She had plastic surgery on her nose and tried to reclaim her
former glory, but had trouble landing starring roles. She started a Hollywood cosmetics
company with husband number two. That marriage failed. A third husband beat her and she
divorced him with five months. By 1936 the former star—the original star—was earning $75 a
week as an uncredited extra with MGM.
Just after Christmas 1938, Florence Lawrence, age 52,
decided she was done. “I’m tired,” she wrote in her final note, and then consumed enough ant
paste to end her life. Her name—once so sought after by countless adoring fans—is all but
lost to history.
Flo’s legacy, however, is incalculable. She taught us star
worship, and we practice it to this day. The morning after this year’s Oscars, I went for a walk
with a friend—a sensible and happily married friend.
Her first words to me were, “I’m in love with Bradley
Juliette Fay—“one of the best authors of women’s fiction” (Library Journal)—
transports us back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and the raucous Roaring Twenties, as
three friends struggle to earn their places among the stars of the silent screen—perfect for
fans of La La Land and Rules of Civility.
It’s July 1921, “flickers” are all the rage, and Irene Van Beck has just declared her own
independence by jumping off a moving train to escape her fate in a traveling burlesque show.
When her friends, fellow dancer Millie Martin and comedian Henry Weiss, leap after her, the
trio finds their way to the bright lights of Hollywood with hopes of making it big in the
burgeoning silent film industry.
At first glance, Hollywood in the 1920s is like no other place on earth—iridescent, scandalous,
and utterly exhilarating—and the three friends yearn for a life they could only have dreamed of
before. But despite the glamour and seduction of Tinseltown, success doesn’t come easy, and
nothing can prepare Irene, Millie, and Henry for the poverty, temptation, and heartbreak that
lie ahead. With their ambitions challenged by both the men above them and the prejudice
surrounding them, their friendship is the only constant through desperate times, as each
struggles to find their true calling in an uncertain world. What begins as a quest for fame and
fortune soon becomes a collective search for love, acceptance, and fulfillment as they
navigate the backlots and stage sets where the illusions of the silver screen are brought to
With her “trademark wit and grace” (Randy Susan Meyers, author of The Murderer’s
Daughters), Juliette Fay crafts another radiant and fascinating historical novel as thrilling
as the bygone era of Hollywood itself.
Women's Fiction Historical [Gallery Books, On
Sale: April 16, 2019, Trade Size / e-Book, ISBN: 9781501192937 / eISBN:
dream of finding fame in Hollywood
bachelor's degree from Boston College and a master's degree from Harvard
University. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and four children.
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