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Florence Lawrence launched the modern celebrity era when she became the first film actor to be credited by name for her performances. Studios in the early silent era cloaked their stars in anonymity, fearing that salary demands would get out of hand. So audiences initially knew Lawrence only as “the Biograph Girl”—a cast regular in 62 Biograph Company films in 1909 alone. She jumped ship a year later to the Independent Motion Picture Company, which pulled off a clever publicity stunt by surreptitiously planting stories that the Biograph Girl had been killed in a streetcar accident and then announcing that she was alive and would have star billing under her own name in The Broken Oath. Lawrence started the Victor Film Company with her husband in 1912, but her tempestuous home life and a serious injury sustained on the set in 1914 sent her career into freefall. After several attempted comebacks and a few bit parts, she committed suicide in 1938.


Originally published in the December 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here