She was the bad girl for Bogie. The villain to Bette Davis. The mother to Judy Garland. The lover to John Barrymore. She was, in short, one of the most versatile stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to add that in the long career of Mary Astor, the notion that infidelity has its rewards rushes to the surface.
Picture this. Astor’s second husband, one Dr. Franklin Thorpe, casually opens a dresser drawer one evening, 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 29 at the time, and Kaufman (then 36) was quite the man for her.
She not only refused to break off the affair (which prompted Thorpe to exit the union in 1935) but continued to write about it in intimate detail. The courtroom battles attending the final split transfixed Depression-era Hollywood.
By this time, the former Lucille Langhanke — born in 1906, the daughter of a German immigrants in Quincy, Illinois — had been making movies in Hollywood for 14 years.
She began appearing in silents, and moved on into “talkies” with 1930’s Ladies Love Brutes. It was during her silent movie period when she appeared in 1926’s Don Juan opposite John Barrymore, and decided to become the actor’s young mistress.
Also appearing in Don Juan was a young actress by the name of Hedda Hopper, who also fancied Barrymore. She, of course, much later became the powerful Hollywood columnist and adversary to sister columnist Louella Parsons.
The sensational breakup of Astor’s marriage and her affair with Kaufman actually resulted in a career boost. The actress’ best work from 1936 to the late Forties included her unforgettable turn as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. Also, she appeared in William Wyler’s Dodsworth and played a deviously self-sacrificing mother in the Bette Davis starring vehicle, 1941’s The Great Lie, for which Astor won a best supporting actress Oscar.
As British author-critic David Thomson notes, Astor had her best chances playing polite bitches or demure snakes in the grass. Still she was superb in motherly roles in 1944’s Meet Me In St. Louis with Garland, and in 1949’s Little Women.
Astor’s fast-lane life (four husbands, various lovers, alcoholism, many visits to a psychiatrist) took its toll. By the early Fifties, her star status had slipped to supporting part player. Her last movie was Robert Aldrich’s Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte in 1964 after which she exploited her talent as a fiction writer.
May Astor died 1987 at the age of 87. A memorable actress and, certainly, a most literate mistress.