Thelma Hill ~ The Tragic Bathing Beauty

Thelma Hill

Thelma Hill was a bathing beauty and comedic actress who struggled with alcoholism and died young.

She was born Thelma Floy Hillerman in Emporia, Kansas on December 12, 1904 (other sources claim she was born in 1906). Her father Clifford Hillerman was a railroad worker and her mother Gussie was a housewife. When she was an infant her parents divorced and her mother was given full custody. Sadly her father passed away in 1914 after a tragic work accident. Thelma and her mother moved to Los Angeles, California where they opened a cafe. They lived just a few blocks from the Mack Sennett studios. Thelma dreamed of becoming an actress and hung around by the studio gates trying to getting noticed. During the Spring of 1919 she was working in her mother's restaurant when comedian Fatty Arbuckle came in. Thelma accidentally spilled soup in Fatty's lap. Instead of getting angry he helped her get a screen test with Mack Sennett.

Thelma Hill 1919
Thelma in 1919

Thelma HillThelma Hill

Fourteen year old Thelma started working as an extra at Sennett's studio. She had bit parts in dozens of movies including The Hollywood Kid, Yukon Jake, and Picking Peaches. Thelma was very popular at the studio where she was nicknamed "Pee Wee".  She befriended actress Marie Prevost who taught her how to do make-up and became her mentor. When Thelma wasn't making movies she worked as Mabel Normand's stand-in. She had a fabulous figure and in 1924 she was chosen to be one of Sennett's famous bathing beauties. After posing in a mah jongg themed bathing suit she became known as the "Mah Jongg Bathing Girl". By 1926 she was getting featured roles in comedies like The Divorce Dodger and Hoboken To Hollywood. She starred alongside Ben Turpin in The Prodigal Bridegroom and The Pride Of Pikeville.

Thelma Hill

Thelma Hill Bathing BeautyThelma Hill

Thelma also had a supporting role in the 1927 comedy The Fair Co-Ed with Marion Davies. Then she was cast in a series of short films based on the comic strip Toots And Casper. Mack Sennett signed her to a new long term contract in 1929. Thelma said "I am all enthused over what the next two years may bring me. I was scared to death the first time I faced a microphone but I have made three talkies now and feel just as home as I did when we only had cameras to face. I am taking dance lessons now too and if I ever get sufficient courage I am going to taking singing lessons as I think both will be necessary with sound films now in vogue." She costarred with Andy Clyde in the comedies The Old Barn and The Golfers. Thelma seemed destined for stardom but her film career stalled. She fell in love with writer St. Elmo Boyce and the couple planned to get married. Unfortunately he was an alcoholic and during their romance Thelma started drinking.

Thelma HillThelma Hill

Thelma Hill

Tragically on September 30, 1930 St. Elmo Boyce committed suicide. Thelma was devastated by his death. In 1932 she had a small role in Frank Capra's drama The Miracle Woman. Her final film was the 1934 Hal Roach comedy Mixed Nuts. Thelma married Johnny Sinclair, an actor and writer for W.C. Fields. They moved into a modest home in Los Angeles and she tried to start a new life as a housewife. Unfortunately she and her husband were both alcoholics. Thelma suffered a nervous breakdown in December 1937 and entered a sanitarium in Santa Monica. She was suffering from chronic alcoholism and pellagra, a severe vitamin deficiency. Sadly Thelma died from a cerebral hemorrhage on May 11, 1938. She was only thirty-three years old. Her body was cremated and a small funeral was held in Los Angeles. Unfortunately her were ashes were never buried. Today Thelma's remains are being kept in a storage closet at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California


Thelma Hill ObituaryThelma Hill

Thelma Hill