Florence Lawrence

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Florence Lawrence
Florence Lawrence 1908.jpg
Lawrence in 1908
Florence Annie Bridgwood

(1886-01-02)2 January 1886
Died28 December 1938(1938-12-28) (aged 52)
Resting placeHollywood Forever Cemetery
Other namesThe Biograph Girl
The Imp Girl
(m. 1908; died 1920)

Charles Woodring
(m. 1921; div. 1932)

Henry Bolton
(m. 1933; div. 1934)

Florence Lawrence (born Florence Annie Bridgwood; January 2, 1886 – December 28, 1938) was a Canadian-American stage performer and film actress. She is often referred to as the "first movie star", and was long thought to be the first film actor to be named publicly[1] until evidence published in 2019 indicated that the first named film star was French actor Max Linder.[2] At the height of her fame in the 1910s, she was known as the "Biograph Girl" for work as one of the leading ladies in silent films from the Biograph Company. She appeared in almost 300 films for various motion picture companies throughout her career.

Early life[edit]

Born Florence Annie Bridgwood in Hamilton, Ontario, she was youngest of three children of George Bridgwood, an English-born carriage builder and Charlotte "Lotta" Bridgwood (née Dunn), a vaudeville actress.[3] Charlotte Bridgwood had emigrated to Canada from Ireland after the Great Famine with her family as a child.[4] She was known professionally as Lotta Lawrence and was the leading lady and director of the Lawrence Dramatic Company.[3] At the age of three, Lawrence made her debut onstage with her mother in a song and dance routine. When she was old enough to memorize lines of dialogue, she performed with her mother and other members of the Lawrence Dramatic Company in dramatic plays. After performing tear-jerking dramas like Dora Thorne and East Lynne began to depress Lawrence, her mother dropped them from the company's repertoire. While Lawrence performed on stage at the behest of her mother, she recalled that she enjoyed the work but did not like the traveling that all vaudeville performers were required to do.[5] By the age of six, Lawrence had earned the nickname "Baby Flo, the Child Wonder".[6]

On February 18, 1898, George Bridgwood died from accidental coal gas poisoning at his home in Hamilton (Lawrence's parents had been separated since she was four years old). Lotta Lawrence moved the family from Hamilton to Buffalo, New York to live with her mother Ann Dunn. She chose to stop bringing her children along for stage performances and for the first time, Florence was enrolled in school.[4] After graduating, Lawrence rejoined her mother's dramatic company. However, her mother disbanded the Lawrence Dramatic Company shortly thereafter; the two moved to New York City around 1906.[7]

Early career: film and stage[edit]

Portrait of Lawrence by Frank C. Bangs Studio, c. 1908

Lawrence was one of several Canadian pioneers in the film industry who were attracted by the rapid growth of the fledgling motion picture business. In 1906, she appeared in her first motion picture. The next year, she appeared in 38 movies for the Vitagraph film company. During the spring and summer of 1906, Lawrence auditioned for a number of Broadway productions, but she did not have success. However, on December 27, 1906, she was hired by the Edison Manufacturing Company to play Daniel Boone's daughter in Daniel Boone; or, Pioneer Days in America. She got the part because she knew how to ride a horse. Both she and her mother received parts and were paid five dollars per day for two weeks of outdoor filming in freezing weather.

In 1907, she went to work for the Vitagraph Company in Brooklyn, New York, acting as Moya, an Irish peasant girl in a one-reel version of Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun. She returned briefly to stage acting, playing the leading role in a road show production of Melville B. Raymond's Seminary Girls. Her mother played her last role in this production. After touring with the roadshow for a year, Lawrence resolved that she would "never again lead that gypsy life". In 1908, she returned to Vitagraph where she played the lead role in The Dispatch Beare. Largely as a result of her equestrian skills, she received parts in 11 films in the next five months.

Biograph Studios[edit]

Also at Vitagraph was a young actor, Harry Solter, who was looking for "a young, beautiful equestrian girl" to star in a film to be produced by the Biograph Studios under the direction of D. W. Griffith. Griffith, the most prominent producer-director at Biograph Studios, had noticed the beautiful blonde-haired woman in one of Vitagraph's films. Because the film's actors received no mention, Griffith had to make discreet inquiries to learn she was Florence Lawrence and to arrange a meeting. Griffith had intended to give the part to Florence Turner, Biograph's leading lady, but Lawrence managed to convince Solter and Griffith that she was the best suited for the starring role in The Girl and the Outlaw. With the Vitagraph Company, she had been earning $20 per week, working also as a costume seamstress over and above acting. Griffith offered her a job, acting only, for $25 per week.

After her success in this role, she appeared as a society belle in Betrayed by a Handprint and as an Indian in The Red Girl. In total, she had parts in most of the 60 films directed by Griffith in 1908. Toward the end of 1908, Lawrence married Harry Solter. Lawrence gained much popularity, but because her name never was publicized, fans began writing to the studio asking to know her identity. Even after she had gained wide recognition, particularly after starring in the highly successful Resurrection, Biograph Studios refused to publicly announce her name and fans simply called her the "Biograph Girl".[8] During cinema's formative years, silent screen actors were not named because studio owners feared that fame might lead to demands for higher wages and because many actors were embarrassed to be performing pantomime in motion pictures. She continued to work for Biograph in 1909. Her demand to be paid by the week rather than daily was met, and she received double the normal rate.

She achieved great popularity in the "Jones" series, film's first comedy series, in which she played Mrs. Jones in around a dozen films, with John R. Cumpson as Mr. Jones. More popular still were the dramatic love stories in which she co-starred with Arthur Johnson: The two played husband and wife in The Ingrate, and the adulterous lovers in Resurrection. Lawrence and Solter began to look elsewhere for work, writing to the Essanay Company to offer their services as leading lady and director. Rather than accepting this offer, however, Essanay reported the offer to Biograph's head office, and they promptly were fired.[citation needed]

Independent Moving Pictures Company[edit]

Carl Laemmle's promotion of The Broken Oath starring Lawrence (Billboard 1910)

Finding themselves 'at liberty', Lawrence and Solter in 1909 were able to join the Independent Moving Pictures Company of America (IMP). The company, founded by Carl Laemmle, the owner of a film exchange (who later absorbed IMP into Universal Pictures, of which he was founder and president), was looking for experienced filmmakers and actors. Needing a star, he lured Lawrence away from Biograph by promising to give her a marquee. First, Laemmle organized a publicity stunt by starting a rumor that Lawrence had been killed by a street car in New York City. Then, after gaining much media attention, he placed ads in the newspapers that announced "We nail a lie" and included a photo of Lawrence. The ad declared she is alive and well and making The Broken Oath, a new movie for his IMP Film Company to be directed by Solter.

Laemmle had Lawrence make a personal appearance in St. Louis, Missouri in March 1910 with her leading man to show her fans that she was very much alive, making her one of the early performers not already famous in another medium to be identified by name by her studio.[9]

The fans in St. Louis were so thrilled to see Lawrence alive that they grabbed at her and popped the buttons off her coat. Laemmle used this to generate further attention by falsely claiming that Lawrence's St. Louis fans rushed her in a frenzy and tore her clothes off. Partially due to Laemmle's ingenuity, the "star system" was born, and before long, Florence Lawrence became a household name. However, her fame also proved that the studio executives who had concerns over wage demands soon had their fears proved correct. Laemmle managed to lure William V. Ranous, one of Vitagraph's better directors, over to IMP. Ranous introduced Laemmle to Lawrence and Solter, and they began to work together. Lawrence and Solter worked for IMP for 11 months, making 50 films. After this, they went on vacation in Europe.[citation needed]

When they returned to the United States, they joined a film company headed by Siegmund Lubin, described as the "wisest and most democratic film producer in history". She once again teamed with Arthur Johnson, and the pair made 48 films together under Lubin's direction. At the time, the film industry was controlled by the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), a trust formed by the major film companies. IMP was not a member of the MPPC, and hence operated outside its distribution system. Theaters found showing IMP films lost the right to screen MPPC films. IMP, therefore, had powerful enemies in the film industry. It managed to survive largely due to Lawrence's popularity.[citation needed]

Lubin Studios[edit]

By late 1910, Lawrence left IMP to work for Lubin Studios, advising her fellow Canadian, the 18-year-old Mary Pickford, to take her place as IMP's star.[8]

Victor Film Company[edit]

Scene of Lawrence (far right) in 1912 Victor production After All; other cast are (from left) Owen Moore, Victory Bateman on step, and Gladden James.

In 1912, Lawrence and Solter made a deal with Carl Laemmle, forming their own company. Laemmle gave them complete artistic freedom in the company, named Victor Film Company, and paid Lawrence $500 per week as the leading lady, and Solter $200 per week as director. They established a film studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey and made a number of films starring Lawrence and Owen Moore, then sold to the Universal Pictures in 1913. With this new prosperity, Florence was able to realize a 'lifelong dream,' buying a 50-acre (20 ha) estate in River Vale, New Jersey.[10][11] In August 1912, she had a fight with her husband, in which he "made cruel remarks about his mother-in-law". He left and went to Europe. However, he wrote "sad" letters to her every day, telling her of his plans to commit suicide. His letters "softened her feelings", and they were re-united in November 1912. Lawrence announced her intention to retire.

She was persuaded to return to work in 1914 for her company (Victor Film Company), which had been acquired by Universal Studios. During the filming of Pawns of Destiny in 1915, a staged fire got out of control. Lawrence was burned, her hair was singed, and she suffered a serious fall which fractured her spine.[6] She went into shock for months. She returned to work, but collapsed after the film was completed. To add to her problems, Universal refused to pay her medical expenses, leaving Lawrence feeling betrayed. In mid-1916, she returned to work for Universal and completed Elusive Isabel. However, the strain of working took its toll on her, and she suffered a serious relapse. She was completely paralyzed for four months. In 1921, she traveled to Hollywood to attempt a comeback, but had little success. She received a leading role in a minor melodrama (The Unfoldment), and then two supporting roles. All her film work after 1924 was in uncredited bit parts.

Personal life[edit]

Lawrence was married three times and had no children. Her first marriage was to actor, screenwriter and director Harry Solter in 1908. They remained married until Solter's death in 1920.[12] She then married automobile salesman Charles Byrne Woodring in 1921.[13] They separated in 1929; Lawrence was granted an interlocutory divorce in February 1931, which was finalized the following year.[12][14][15] During the 1920s, Lawrence and Woodring opened a cosmetics store in Los Angeles called Hollywood Cosmetics. The store sold theatrical makeup and also sold a line of cosmetics that Lawrence developed. They continued their partnership after their separation in 1929, but the store was forced to close in 1931.[15][16]

In 1933, Lawrence wed for the third and final time, to Henry Bolton, who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic and beat her severely.[12] The union lasted five months.[13]

Besides her film career, Lawrence is credited with designing the first "auto signaling arm", a predecessor of the modern turn signal, along with the first mechanical brake signal. She did not patent these inventions, however, and as a result she received no credit for, nor profit from, either one.[17][18]

Later years[edit]

By the late 1920s, Lawrence's popularity had declined and she suffered several personal losses. She was devastated when her mother, to whom she was close, died suddenly in August 1929. Four months later, she separated from her second husband, Charles Woodring.[15] While Lawrence earned a small fortune during her film career, she made many poor business decisions. She lost much of her fortune after the stock market crash in October 1929 and ensuing Great Depression. The cosmetics store that she and her second husband opened in Los Angeles also lost business because of the Depression, and the couple was forced to close its doors in 1931.

By the early 1930s, Lawrence's acting career consisted solely of extra and bit parts which were often uncredited. In 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio head Louis B. Mayer began giving extra and bit parts to former silent film actors for $75 per week.[19] Lawrence, along with other "old timers" from the silent era whose careers had all but ended when sound films replaced silent films, signed with M-G-M. Lawrence remained with the studio until her death.[20]

In mid-1937, Lawrence was diagnosed with what her doctor described as "a bone disease which produces anemia and depression."[20] The disease was likely myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow disease, or agnogenic myeloid metaplasia, both of which were incurable at the time. Due to her poor health and chronic pain, Lawrence became depressed but attempted to keep working. Around this time she moved into a home on Westbourne Drive in West Hollywood, with a studio worker named Robert "Bob" Brinlow and his sister.[21]


At 1 p.m. on December 28, 1938, Lawrence phoned the offices of M-G-M where she was to report to work that afternoon, claiming that she was ill. Sometime later in the afternoon, Lawrence ingested ant poison and cough syrup[22] at her home in West Hollywood. Accounts differ as to how Lawrence was discovered; some media reports stated her neighbor Marian Menzer heard her screams, while others say that Lawrence called Menzer stating that she poisoned herself. Menzer called an ambulance, and Lawrence was rushed to Beverly Hills Emergency Hospital. Doctors were unable to save Lawrence, who died at 2:45 p.m.[23] Lawrence left a suicide note in her home addressed to her housemate Bob Brinlow stating:

Dear Bob,

Call Dr. Wilson. I am tired. Hope this works. Good bye, my darling. They can't cure me, so let it go at that.
Lovingly, Florence – P.S. You've all been swell guys. Everything is yours.[24]
Lawrence's gravestone, Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Lawrence's death was ruled a "probable suicide" owing to her "ill health".[23] The Motion Picture & Television Fund paid for Lawrence's funeral, held on December 30, and for her unmarked grave in the Hollywood Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery) in Hollywood. Her grave remained unmarked until 1991, when an anonymous British actor paid for a memorial marker for her.[23][25][A] It reads: "The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star".[23] The date of birth on Lawrence's headstone is given as 1890.[27] This inaccuracy was also stated on her death certificate filled out by the coroner. Lawrence's biographer, Kelly R. Brown, owed this mistake to "Lawrence's own brand of fiction" as she routinely subtracted years off her age. The mistake was repeated by the Pierce Brothers Mortuary, where Lawrence's funeral was held, although most obituaries printed her correct year of birth: 1886.[23]

Cultural references[edit]

In William J. Mann's novel The Biograph Girl (2000), Mann blends the facts of Lawrence's life with fiction. Instead of fading into oblivion and committing suicide, Lawrence, with the help of a doctor, fools the public into thinking she committed suicide. A journalist discovers Lawrence at the nursing home where she has lived secretly, and he decides to write a biography of her.[28]


Short subject[edit]


See also[edit]



  1. ^ Some sources name Roddy McDowall as the anonymous donor.[26]


  1. ^ William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade, Warner Books 1984 p.6.
  2. ^ Hutchinson, Pamela (November 22, 2019). "Fame at last – was this the world's first film star?". The Guardian. Retrieved November 24, 2019.
  3. ^ a b Brown 1999, p. 2.
  4. ^ a b Brown 1999, p. 5.
  5. ^ Brown 1999, p. 4.
  6. ^ a b "Former Film Star Dies: Florence Lawrence, Who Is Known as 'Biograph Girl', Takes Poison". The Reading Eagle. December 29, 1983. p. 11. Retrieved April 6, 2014.
  7. ^ Brown 1999, p. 7.
  8. ^ a b Basinger, Jeanine (1999). Silent Stars. Alfred A. Knopf. p. 7. ISBN 0-679-43840-8.
  9. ^ Florence Lawrence and Florence Turner of Vitagraph were publicized by name by their studios to the general public in March 1910, making them the first true "movie stars". Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915, University of California Press, 1994, pp. 112–13; ISBN 978-0-520-08534-3.
  10. ^ Florence Lawrence, Women Film Pioneers Project; accessed September 23, 2015. "Florence Lawrence intended her last Victor photoplay to be her second two-reel film The Lady Leone (1912), and after its completion, she and Solter retired to their home in River Vale, New Jersey."
  11. ^ PHS Answer Girl & Curator Archived February 4, 2015, at the Wayback Machine, Pascack Historical Society; accessed September 23, 2015; "Florence Lawrence was America's first movie star according to movie historians. She lived at 565 Rivervale Road in River Vale from 1913 through 1916."
  12. ^ a b c Forster, Merna (2011). 100 More Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. Dundurn. p. 221. ISBN 978-1-459-70085-7.
  13. ^ a b "Silent Film Stars Drinks Poison, Dies". St. Petersburg Times. December 29, 1938. p. 1. Retrieved April 6, 2014.
  14. ^ "Florence Lawrence Wins Divorce Decree". The Pittsburg Press. February 12, 1931. p. 25. Retrieved April 6, 2014.
  15. ^ a b c Brown 1999, p. 135.
  16. ^ "Divorced Pair to Continue as Partners", Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1931, p. A1.
  17. ^ Gross, Jessica (July 14, 2013). "Who Made That?: Who Made That Turn Signal?". The New York Times Magazine.
  18. ^ Paul, John (March 23, 2016). "Florence Lawrence: Automotive Inventor and the 'World's First Movie Star'". Historic Vehicle Association.
  19. ^ Eyman, Scott (2008). Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. Simon & Schuster. p. 335. ISBN 978-1-439-10791-1.
  20. ^ a b Brown 1999, p. 144.
  21. ^ Brown 1999, pp. 144–145.
  22. ^ "Florence Lawrence – Women Film Pioneers Project". wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu. Retrieved April 27, 2019.
  23. ^ a b c d e Brown 1999, pp. 146–147.
  24. ^ "Florence Lawrence, Star of Silent Films, Suicide". The Lewiston Daily Sun. December 29, 1938. p. 7. Retrieved April 6, 2014.
  25. ^ Wilson, Scott (2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (3rd ed.). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. p. 429. ISBN 978-0-7864-7992-4.
  26. ^ Margaret Heidenry (2018) "Introducing Florence Lawrence, Hollywood’s Forgotten First Movie Star" Vanity Fair, May 25, 2018. Accessed February 23, 2021.
  27. ^ Brown 1999, p. 148.
  28. ^ "The Biograph Girl". publishersweekly.com. May 29, 2000.


  • Bailey, Thomas Melville (1992). Dictionary of Hamilton Biography. Vol. III, 1925–1939. W.L. Griffin Ltd. pp. 106–108.
  • Brown, Kelly R. (1999). Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America's First Movie Star. McFarland. ISBN 0-786-43089-3.

External links[edit]