Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A monster to devour me

Mary Astor, a Hollywood star of many films but best known for her role in The Maltese Falcon, was also a writer of some talent. However, her habit of keeping of a diary, with details of many affairs, led to a huge scandal in the 1930s, and nearly ruined her life. Liveright has just published a cute paperback about the scandal - Mary Astor’s Purple Diary - humorously written and lavishly illustrated by the well-known American cartoonist Edward Sorel. The book’s title might lead one to believe it contains Astor’s diary, but, in fact, there are very few verbatim extracts: after causing such a scandal, the diary was locked up, and later destroyed. Astor, herself, wrote of the diary that it had become ‘a monster that threatened to devour me.’

Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke was born in Quincy, Illinois, in 1906. Her German-born father was a teacher of German, and her mother, with a Portuguese background, was a drama teacher. As a teenager, Lucile sent photographs of herself to magazine beauty contests; and, aged 15, her father moved the family to New York City in the hope of finding work for Lucile in the moving pictures. She was taken on by Harry Durant of Famous Players-Lasky, her named changed to Mary Astor by Lasky himself, and a contract with Paramount Pictures secured. She played several small roles, and then with her parents, moved to Hollywood.

Astor was spotted by John Barrymore, and was loaned to Warner Bros, to star with him in Beau Brummell. The two became involved, though they found it difficult to further their relationship given how strictly Astor’s parents controlled her movements and her income. Indeed, Astor’s father was so physically and psychologically abusive that she tried running away from home when 19, a move which resulted in her winning some freedoms and her own bank account. When her Paramount contract ended, she moved to Warner, and then to Fox, where she earned nearly $4,000 a week. In 1928, she married the director Kenneth Hawks and the couple moved into a house above Beverley Hills.

With voice training and singing lessons, Astor managed the transition from silent movies to talkies, but when Hawks was killed in a plane crash in 1930, she suffered a serious depression. She was treated by Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, whom she married in June 1931. In August the following year, Astor gave birth to a daughter, Marylyn (in Honolulu). She starred with Clarke and Jean Harlow in MGM’s Red Dust, before signing again with Warner. In 1933, she took a break from the film world and travelled to New York, where she met, and fell in love with, the playwright George S. Kaufman.

In 1935, Astor was drawn into a nasty dispute with her husband. Thorpe had found her diary - with details of many affairs - and threatened to ruin her career with it unless she agreed to a divorce under his terms, including handing over their house and most of her money, and giving him legal custody over their daughter (although mother and daughter remained living together). However, once divorced, Astor decided to sue for custody. Astor’s lawyer managed to get the diary excluded from court, but, nevertheless, Thorpe leaked parts (exaggerating some) to the media which created a public frenzy embroiling anyone referred to in the quoted extracts. The case was settled out of court, with custody of Marilyn being awarded to her mother in school months, and to her father for weekends and vacations. The diary was sealed away - declared pornography by the court - under the terms of the settlement, and, many years, later destroyed.

The scandal caused little harm to Astor’s career. She went on making many films, though, as time wore on, she was given less substantial roles. She married twice more, to Manuel de Campo (with whom she had a son) and Thomas Wheelock, divorcing after five years each time. She had always drunk a lot, but, by the late 1940s, was sometimes admitting herself to sanitariums for alcoholics, and, at other times, seeking religious salvation. She debuted for television in the early 1950s, and took on more theatre work. In 1959, she published My Story: An Autobiography which became a bestseller. A decade later, she wrote another successful autobiographical work, and then turned her hand to a few novels. After travelling around the world in 1964, she filmed a last scene with her friend Bette Davis - making a total of 109 movies during a 45 year career. She died in 1987. See Wikipedia, IMDB, The New York Times obituary or Encyclopaedia Britannica for further biographical information.

Much of Astor’s story is detailed in a new paperback from Liveright called Mary Astor’s Purple Diary by Edward Sorel. Sorel is well known in the US as a cartoonist and illustrator. Now in his late 80s, he confesses, he has had a near-lifelong affair with Astor, or at least Astor’s story. He had just married for the second time, and moved into an apartment in Manhattan, when he found, under the old linoleum, newspapers dating from 1936 with sensational headlines about the Astor diary scandal. For half a century, he promised himself that he would write a book about Astor, but ‘deadlines always got in the way’.

Through the book, Sorel interweaves, often humorously, some elements of his own story believing they resonate with Astor’s life, or because, at least, they go some way to explaining his mild obsession with the film star. Nevertheless, the book’s focus is very much on the trial and the way Astor’s diary was used, and misused. The work is richly illustrated throughout with Sorel’s own full-colour cartoons (‘
ribald and rapturous art’ according to the publisher’s blurb). Despite the title, there are very few verbatim extracts from the diary. Although some of the few extracts are taken from My Story: An Autobiography (Doubleday, 1959 - see here for a copy online), it is far from clear where the rest of Sorel’s information comes from (no references, no bibliography).

For example, here, in the following paragraph (found on page 84), it seems Sorel has good access to the diary’s contents: ‘Mary’s diary entries describing her days and nights with George during the first year of their affair read like the breathless gushing of a teenager who has run away from home. At some point even Mary seemed to tumble to the silliness of her romantic certainties. In a later moment of rueful self-analysis she wrote, “How I’ve ever been able to write all those things I don’t know. . .  ‘Love of My Life’ - ‘Enduring,’ ‘Sense of Something Important’ - Piffle! Could write in detail about this last trip and seeing George - about the ecstasy contained in a few beautiful hours, but if I did I’d laugh myself sick - I’ve said it all before - I’ve felt it all before. . . Does this happen over and over and over again? If it does it’s all a lousy trick. Am I going to keep on forever thinking this is it? What the hell is it and what do I want?”

Presumably, Sorel culled much of his information about the diary, including extracts, from contemporaneous newspaper reports (such as those he’d once found under the lino), and possibly from Kenneth Anger’s infamous Hollywood Babylon. This latter was first published in French in 1959. Its first US edition in 1965 was banned, and not republished for ten years. It contained details of many sordid scandals, as well as a chapter on Mary Astor (Diary in Blue) with extracts from her diary (a few pages can be viewed online at Amazon, and see also this blog).

Here, though, are most of the rest of the very few extracts from Astor’s diary that Sorel quotes verbatim.

5 May 1926
‘We seem like a tinder to flame up any moment.’

June 1931
‘It’s a beautiful June night, with the moon riding high - and the bridegroom never said a word.’

1 October 1933
‘I am still in a haze - nice rosy glow. It is beautiful, glorious - and I hope it’s my last love - can’t top it with anything in my experience - nor do I want to.’

January 1934
‘I did meet a man, professional,, somewhat older and rather well-to-do, only his first initial is G. and I fell like a ton of bricks - as only I can fall - it was just one of those things. . .  that was six months ago and it’s still good - we write to each other often, about every two weeks - flowers and telegrams for Christmas and New Years; once when Franklyn was away he called me long distance and we talked for half an hour - his last letter finished with “Think of me my darling, because I certainly think of you.” ’

And, finally, here are two paragraphs from Astor’s autobiography in which she writes about her diary keeping habit: ‘I had kept a diary for years and I had realized for some time that it might be used in a divorce action. The diary revealed not only all the details of my own life from the period of Russell Bradbury to the present, but it also revealed much that I knew about other people. The lives of many people would be affected. I finally decided that the best thing to do was to submit to divorce on Franklyn’s terms. Marylyn and I moved to Tower Road - Franklyn wanted only her legal custody and he got an uncontested divorce in 1935.

When people asked me, “Why on earth did you keep a diary? How could you be so foolish?” it was much too complicated and too simple to explain. I’m not sure I could have explained it even to myself then. But now I think I can better understand my motives. I kept a diary because my mother had kept one in identical ledger volumes. I wanted to talk about my own activities and my opinions of other people and the things they did. I wanted the assurance of individuality and reality and substance that the diary gave me. The diary was a consolation and a reassurance. But when it was no longer in my possession it was suddenly transformed into a monster that threatened to devour me and my friends, and, worst of all, Marylyn.’

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