First in their Field: Florence Lawrence

One of the most famous faces in America during the early 1900s yet it took a while for people to know her name.

Born in Ontioro in the late 1800s, Florence Lawrence is considered to be the world’s first movie star. As a child, Lawrence performed on stage with her mother, Lotta Lawrence, a Vaudeville actress. As a child performer, she was billed as “Baby Flo, the Child Wonder Whistler”.

3522_1454051775.jpgLawrence starred in her first silent film in 1906, and over the course of the year she starred in a total of 38 films. She worked with pioneering director D. W. Griffith on dozens of films, including his first movie The Adventures of Dollie. She became to be known as the “Biograph Girl” for her leading roles in Biograph Studio films. Movies did not yet put actors names in credits so the public was unaware of Lawrence’s name but she was one of the most famous faces in America.

That changed in 1910 when Lawrence became the first actor to be publicly credited for a film.

250px-IMPstarpromotion.jpgAs part of a marketing scheme, movie executive Carl Laemmle planted a fake news story that the famous Biograph Girl had died in a streetcar accident. He then took out an advertisement in a newspaper to debunk his own fake story, “We Nail a Lie” he wrote in the ad. He blamed rival studios for the fake story and said not only is Lawrence still alive, but she will be starring in his studio’s next film. That marketing ploy made Florence Lawrence’s name known to the public for the first time and the first actor to have their name used to gain interest for a film project.

She became a media sensation, traveling the country to promote films and pioneer the “star system” of Hollywood. One time, she traveled to St. Louis to promote a project and the crowd was said to have rivaled the one that greeted President William Howard Taft on his last visit to the city.  In an interview with the St. Louis Times, the actress was shocked and overwhelmed that so many people had come to see her, “I had no idea that so many people were interested in me. It seems so strange that so many people would gather at the train to welcome one they had never seen, only in pictures.”

Lawrence appeared in almost 300 films but had an unfortunate setback in her career in 1915 after a fire on set caused her to be bedridden for months.

Lawrence, after failing at a comeback in the 1920s and 30s, committed suicide in 1938. Her grave remained unmarked until 1991 when an anonymous actor arranged for a gravestone that declared Lawrence as “The First Movie Star”.3522_1029607240.jpg

Melissa Jones, Women’s Museum of California

Learn about more women who were first in their fields with our online exhibit

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