Introducing Florence Lawrence, Hollywood’s Forgotten First Movie Star

The forgotten woman buried at Section 2W, Space 300, in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery has 302 acting credits and was once known as “The Girl of a Thousand Faces.” Yet somehow, her grave went unmarked from 1938 to 1991. Her name was Florence Lawrence. In 1991, 53 years after Lawrence’s death, actor and film-history buff Roddy McDowell sprang for a headstone that marked the departed’s singular place in cinematic history. Lawrence began her acting career without fanfare in 1906. She remained anonymous while working for Thomas Edison’s studio and then D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Company. Even by 1909, after she had appeared in 50-plus films, Lawrence was known to her adoring public not by her name, but as “the Biograph Girl.” She was paid just $25 a week by cigar-chewing moguls who feared that notoriety would embolden actors to demand more money. In 1910, Lawrence became the very first actor to receive a film credit, and by 1912 she was pulling down $500 a week ($15,000 a week today). Her mailman suffered a breakdown from toting her copious fan mail, and finally Lawrence’s name-brand fame was bankable. By 1924, Lawrence was working on “poverty row” — a term for B movies. By 1927, talkies forever changed cinema, and soundless faces like Lawrence’s faded away. On Dec. 28, 1938, Lawrence committed suicide by eating ant paste with a cough syrup chaser. She died broke, and even though she now has a grave marker, she remains largely unknown.