Although classic Hollywood movie stars in the Thirties and Forties were often a pretty randy lot offscreen, few had private lives that so completely eclipsed their onscreen renown than today’s subject — Mary Astor.
Mary, born Lucile Langhanke, was a leading lady in many silents and early talkies, and is best remembered, of course, for being Humphrey Bogart’s femme fatale lady in The Maltese Falcon. In the course of her 44 year career she played opposite the greatest stars of the age — John Barrymore, Gable, Bogart, Tracy, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, William Powell, Jean Harlow.
But today’s blog concerns her offscreen indiscretions, celebrated in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, published in 1975 and in last year’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, beautifully written and illustrated by Edward Sorel, a distinguished illustrator/caricaturist.
As the saying goes: if have only one classic movie book to read this year, make it Sorel’s superb volume.
He became obsessed with Astor and her spicy private life in the mid-Sixties after he accidentally discovered, in pulling up the linoleum on the kitchen floor of his Manhattan flat, faded copies of the New York City tabloids, Daily News and Daily Mirror from 1936 reporting on a sensational child custody battle in progress in Hollywood.
The trial pitted Astor and against the second of her four husbands, one Dr. Franklin Thorpe, for the custody of their daughter Marylyn. Introduced by Thorpe’s lawyer as evidence was Astor’s diary.
Picture this. Thorpe casually opens a dresser drawer one evening (before the divorce proceedings had commenced), discovers a leather-bound volume and begins to read.
…remarkable staying power. I don’t see how he does it….His powers of recuperation are amazing, and we made love all night long…It all worked perfectly, and we shared our fourth climax at dawn.
Thorpe knew immediately that the “he” was not him. It seems that George is just hard all the time…I don’t see how he does it, he is perfect.” The entry from Palm Springs went, Ah, desert night — with George’s body plunging into mine, naked under the stars.”
The “George” here is playwright George S. Kaufman, and if you’ve ever seen a picture of him you would have to question Astor’s taste in men. Well, she was 30 at the time, and Kaufman (then 47) was quite the man for her. He was separately described as a “male nymphomaniac.”
Sorel deftly conveys how big a deal that custody trial and that unfortunate diary were at the time. Astor’s private life had become a national fixation, fired by detailed reports in the tabloid press inspired by the juicy tidbits found in her memoir.
It all came to naught, pretty much. At trial’s end, the judge settled the case out of court by methodically working out a split living arrangement for daughter Marylyn. Because of this there were no photographs of Mary hugging Marylyn for the font page, writes Sorel. The Daily Mirror’s headline was: ASTOR DIARY BATTLE ENDS; Judge Locks Up Love-Book.
That infernal diary was never made public in full, and its final disposition remained a mystery for some time. In a postscript to his excellent and entertaining book, Sorel writes:
In 1952 Mary’s diary and its copy were removed by court order from the bank vault where it had sat for sixteen years, and, with a judge standing by, the pages were set aflame and turned to ashes.