Born Florence Annie Bridgwood in Hamilton, Ontario, she was the child of Charlotte Bridgwood, a vaudeville actress who went by the name Lotta Lawrence. Florence's surname was changed at age four to her mother's stage name. She was one of several Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood who made their way to Hollywood, attracted by the rapid growth of the fledgling motion picture business. In 1907, at twenty-one years of age, she made her first motion picture. The next year, she appeared in 38 movies for the Vitagraph film company.
During these formative years in Hollywood, silent screen actors were just faces because studio owners refused to list the names of the film's cast members, fearing that fame might lead to demands for higher wages. D.W. Griffith, the head of Biograph Studios, saw one of Vitagraph's films with a beautiful blonde-haired girl whose screen presence captured his interest. Because the film's actors received no mention, Griffith had to make discreet enquiries to learn she was Florence Lawrence and a meeting was arranged. With the Vitagraph Company, she had been earning $20 a week but over and above acting, she was required to work as a costume seamstress. Griffith offered her a job acting only and with a raise to $25 a week that Florence jumped at.
Ms. Lawrence quickly gained much popularity but because her name was never publicized, fans began writing the studio asking for her name. But, even when her "anonymous" face had gained wide recognition, particularly after starring in the highly successful Resurrection, Biograph Studios only labeled her as "The Biograph Girl."
In 1910, Carl Laemmle, who later founded Universal Pictures, started his own motion picture company. Needing a star, he lured Lawrence away from Biograph by promising to give her a marquee, making her the first performer to be identified by name on screen and in film advertising. First though, Carl 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 included a photo of Ms. Lawrence, declaring she was alive and well and was making The Broken Oath, a new movie for his IMP Film Company to be directed by Harry Solter.
Laemmle then had Ms. Lawrence make a personal appearance in St. Louis, Missouri with her leading man to show her fans that she was very much alive. As a result of Laemmle's ingenuity, the "star system" was born and before long, Florence Lawrence became a household name. However, her fame was such that the studio executives who had concerns over wage demands soon had their fears proved correct. By late 1910, Lawrence left IMP to work for Lubin Studios, advising her fellow young Canadian, the 16-year-old Mary Pickford, to take her place as IMP's star.
During her lifetime, Lawrence appeared in more than 270 films for various motion picture companies. Nicknamed "The Girl of a Thousand Faces", at the height of her career, she was earning a great deal of money and could afford an automobile, something that at the time was still a luxury for most people. Born with a curious mind, she invented the first turn signal, a device attached to a motor vehicle's rear fender. Dubbed as the "auto signaling arm", when a driver pressed a button, an arm raised or lowered, with a sign attached indicating the direction of the intended turn. Following this, she developed a brake signal based on the same concept where an arm with a sign reading "STOP" was raised up whenever the driver stepped on the brake pedal. However, Ms. Lawrence's inventions were not patented, and others in the rapidly expanding auto industry developed their own versions.
In 1915, she was badly burned in a studio fire after an attempt to rescue someone from the flames. Although still only 29 years old, after her recovery, she never regained her stature as a leading film star. In 1908, she had married Harry Solter, the director of her first film at IMP Studios, but he died in 1920. The following year she married Charles Byrne Woodring, but he died in 1930, and in 1933 she married for the third time to Henry Bolton but this union lasted less than a year.
When Lawrence's mother died in 1929, she had an expensive bust sculpted for her mother's tomb. By then, in her mid-forties, demand for her in films had long since disappeared and the stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression saw Ms. Lawrence's fortune decline. Alone, discouraged, and suffering with chronic pain from a rare bone marrow disease, she committed suicide in Beverly Hills, California.
Just nine years after she had paid for an expensive memorial for her mother, Florence Lawrence was interred in an unmarked grave not far from her mother in the Hollywood Forever Memorial Park Cemetery in Hollywood, California.
She remained forgotten until 1991, when an unnamed benefactor donated the funds for a proper memorial to be erected to her memory that reads: "The First Movie Star".
In 1999 a biography written by Kelly R. Brown was published under the title Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America's First Movie Star (ISBN 0786406275)
See also: Other Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood