Posted Sunday morning, January 1, 2017.
Life is so unfair. I tore up the old linoleum in a grungy apartment I rented years ago and found under it only schmutz, hardened chewing gum and a torn ticket stub to “Moose Murders.” Ed Sorel tears up the old linoleum in his apartment and finds yellowing newspapers with headlines screaming about a scandal that gave him material for a terrific book. Not only does he then write a terrific book, but he illustrates it with his wonderful caricature drawings. Who would figure that Mary Astor’s life would provide such entertaining reading, but in Sorel’s colloquial, eccentric style, the tale he tells is juicy, funny and, in the end, touching.
But why Mary Astor? Just because she happened to be under his linoleum? I mean I liked Mary Astor. I enjoyed seeing her up on the screen, but I never lost my heart to her the way Sorel has, and if it had been my linoleum she surfaced from, I wouldn’t have felt driven to research all the interesting details that have mesmerized the author. To me, Mary Astor was a very good, solid actress but not the exciting equal of, say, Bette Davis or Vivien Leigh. (Who was the equal of Vivien Leigh?) And when Bogart, in “The Maltese Falcon,” says his murdered partner was too smart a detective to follow a man he was shadowing up a blind alley but then tells Astor, “But he’d have gone up there with you, angel. . . . He’d have looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone, grinning from ear to ear,” I give this appraisal a lukewarm nod.
The truth is I can think of a dozen other femmes fatales I’d prefer to be lured up a dark alley with to enjoy a beating or violent death.
I have the same lukewarm reaction to Mary Astor as Woody’s every time I watch The Maltese Falcon although in my case I think a lot of it due to her hair style. Unflattering and too severe for a femme fatale. More headmistress-ish than femme fatale-ish. But I suppose it’s part of her disguise as a good woman in distress. Spade falls for her because she doesn’t look like the women he’s used to dealing with in his line of work.
But while it’s always worth considering giving The Maltese Falcon a hundreth re-watch, what I’ve now considered and decided upon is reading Edward Sorel’s “terrific” book with his “wonderful caricature drawings.” Allen’s reaction is not lukewarm to that. He makes Mary Astor’s Purple Diary sound like even more fun than what he mildly says it is, “entertaining reading.” Actually, Woody’s review is entertaining reading in itself and a reminder I should consider re-reading more of his prose, but to get back to the matter at hand. Who knew Mary Astor, who played Judy Garland’s mother in Meet Me in Saint Louis, was a “foul-mouthed, sex-hungry carouser” and that she was at the center of one of the most scandalous and sexiest child custody trials in Hollywood history? Well, probably lots of classic movie fans. But I didn’t. The sex, by the way, was provided by the introduction of Astor’s diary into evidence by her estranged husband’s attorneys as proof she was an unfit mother. The key passages of the diary detailed her enthusiastic and mutually satisfying lovemaking with the married playwright George Kaufman.
Can you believe this woman committed those four-times-a-night workouts with Kaufman to print and, worse, her husband has somehow secured said raunchy volume? In it are graphic accounts of the sex between this married mother and another woman’s spouse. Yes, Kaufman too was a married man, and as the first accounts of their purple canoodling hit the tabloids, the court fight turns into a blood bath. Of course it must be said Kaufman and his wife Beatrice had an open marriage, which meant both were free to explore their own romantic adventures without threat to the household. While these ground rules make cheating a nonissue for Kaufman, the public embarrassment of having one’s every fondle logged rhapsodically, even with an A-plus report card, can make a man somewhat self-conscious entering a restaurant.
Fun and edifying as it was to the general reading public, the trial was a headache for Samuel Goldwyn, the head of MGM, where Astor was under contract and in the middle of making the movie Dodsworth, the general reading public being then as now a pack of sanctimonious hypocrites who reveal their prurience in their Puritanical zeal to see punished those who’ve aroused their libidos.
Now imagine you’re Sam Goldwyn sitting on top of his liability with half a movie in the can and one of the stars is suddenly famously wicked. What would you do? Goldwyn did what any businessman in crisis mode would do. He called a meeting. Should they fire Mary, eat the money already spent filming half a movie, recast and begin again? Do they scrap the whole project altogether and flush away production costs plus the numerous bucks they shelled out to buy the rights? Meanwhile, as the tabloids ran excerpts from the portion of the diary allowed in evidence, many a celebrity sweated audibly over the nightmare that he might wind up doing a walk-on part in the next installment of Astor’s caloric hanky-panky. Fortunately for all, the judge on the case was into the studio heads for several career favors, and at this point I will bail and refer you to Sorel’s book for an account of how things turned out, which he does much better than I ever could.
And here’s where I bail on this post to go see about laying my hands on a copy of Sorel’s book. Sounds like after I do I will write another post recommending you do the same, but in the meantime I think you’ll enjoy reading the whole of Woody’s review, Woody Allen Reviews a Graphic Tale of a Scandalous Starlet, at the New York Times.
And if that makes you want to read Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, it’s available in hardcover and for kindle at Amazon.
Note: The trial was held in 1936. The Maltese Falcon came out in ‘41. Astor’s reputation and box office appeal had survived but I wonder if her hair style in The Maltese Falcon had something to do with it. Her character Brigid O’Shaughnessy is trying not to look like a femme fatale. Maybe the studio wanted to make sure Astor didn’t look like the Mary Astor who appeared in the tabloids and her own diary.
Here’s Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, with Barton McLane and Ward Bond as the bad cop and good cop, respectively, in The Maltese Falcon.