The Rise and Fall of Florence Lawrence, the Worldâ€™s First Movie Star
What makes a movie star? Today weâ€™ve got the general
recipe down: mix bankable films with broad popularity. Add a healthy social
and sautĂ© in critical acclaim. Garnish with head-turning red carpet
appearances. And if youâ€™re
very, very lucky, pair with a performance of your blockbuster movieâ€™s
Oscar-winning theme song
But in 1909 no one knew.
The concept of stardom didn't exist because early movie
studios didnâ€™t want anyone to know. The thinking went like this: the
more popular and
â€śknownâ€ť actors became, the more money they would demand. Studios kept their
anonymousâ€”no acting credits were listedâ€”so that if a particular actor became
or difficult, he or she was more easily replaced. Disposability served the
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
was prolific. From 1908 through the middle of 1909, she was featured in over
produced by Biograph, one of the worldâ€™s top studios at the time. Lawrence was
â€śThe Biograph Girlâ€ť by the fans who wrote to the studio about her. They were
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
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 Floâ€™s director, the famous D.W.
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
neverâ€”and would neverâ€”meet, was entirely brand new, and it stoked the flames
like nothing before. They wanted to know everything about her â€¦ starting with
She was born Florence Annie Bridgwood in 1886 to a
vaudeville performer mother with the stage name Lotta Lawrence. Florence grew
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, sheâ€™d become one of Griffithâ€™s favorite
actresses, with roles
in most of the 60 films he directed in 1908. 1909 was stacking up to be no
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
for Carl Laemmleâ€™s Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP). â€śUncle Carlâ€ť as
called, had the remarkable foresight to understand that while a â€śstarâ€ť might
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
her photo with the caption â€śSheâ€™s an IMP!â€ť 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 â€śWE NAIL A LIE,â€ť 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 Carlâ€™s gambleâ€”that naming
Lawrence and increasing her wage was a small price compared to the money heâ€™d
paid off exponentially.
It worked out quite well for Flo, too â€¦ at first. She was a
household name. She became one of the first women to start her own studio, the
Company, and her salary soared to $500 per week, a vast sum at the time. By
1912, her small
studio was pumping out a â€śone-reelerâ€ť (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
with difficulties getting its films distributed to theatres. With Hollywood-
worthy histrionics, Flo
â€śretired.â€ť 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
company with husband number two. That marriage failed. A third husband beat
her and she
divorced him with five months. By 1936 the former starâ€”the original
starâ€”was earning $75 a
week as an uncredited extra with MGM.
Just after Christmas 1938, Florence Lawrence, age 52,
decided she was done. â€śIâ€™m tired,â€ť she wrote in her final note, and then
consumed enough ant
paste to end her life. Her nameâ€”once so sought after by countless adoring fans
â€”is all but
lost to history.
Floâ€™s legacy, however, is incalculable. She taught us star
worship, and we practice it to this day. The morning after this yearâ€™s Oscars,
I went for a walk
with a friendâ€”a sensible and happily married friend.
Her first words to me were, â€śIâ€™m in love with Bradley
Juliette Fayâ€”â€śone of the best authors of womenâ€™s fictionâ€ť (Library
transports us back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and the raucous Roaring
three friends struggle to earn their places among the stars of the silent
fans of La La Land andÂ Rules of Civility.
Itâ€™s July 1921, â€śflickersâ€ť 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
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 earthâ€”
and utterly exhilaratingâ€”and the three friends yearn for a life they could
only have dreamed of
before. But despite the glamour and seduction of Tinseltown, success doesnâ€™t
come easy, and
nothing can prepare Irene, Millie, and Henry for the poverty, temptation, and
lie ahead. With their ambitions challenged by both the men above them and the
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
navigate the backlots and stage sets where the illusions of the silver screen
are brought to
With her â€śtrademark wit and graceâ€ť (Randy Susan Meyers, author of The
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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