Book Review: Edward Sorel

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Mary Astor’s Purple Diary
The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936
By Edward Sorel
WW Norton & Company
£17.99 paperback

Fans of old movies, and old scandals, will love this wee, wonderfully illustrated love letter to actress Mary Astor, who captured artist Edward Sorel’s heart when he was 36. It proved an enduring love.

Newly into his second marriage, feathering his marital nest, Sorel ripped up some lino and discovered issues of the New York Daily News and the Daily Mirror dating from 1936. In them, he read about Nancy Astor’s messy divorce and a child custody case that hinged upon her fitness as a parent. Astor had kept a diary of her marital indiscretions, rating her lovers. As you do.

The Astor scandal isn’t news if, like me, you have read and reread Hollywood Babylon. That doesn’t make it any less entertaining, nor does it diminish the delight in Sorel’s book, which is as much a potted memoir of his own life and times, as it is a look at Astor’s biography and  romantic escapades. Throughout it is peppered with his distinctive, caricaturish line drawings, which are a delicious addition to the tale.

Sorel lays out the facts of Astor’s upbringing, which tell a sad story. Like many young, beautiful girls, she was exploited mercilessly by her family. Her father, Otto, who’d emigrated from Berlin in 1889, “carried with him the Old World belief that all children are obliged to provide for their parents.” Her mother was no better. Mary wasn’t allowed friends but was allowed to be taken to New York in pursuit of movie stardom — albeit just as the industry was moving to the west coast.

Little Lucille Vasconcellos Langhanke was discovered by Jesse Lasky, transformed into Mary Astor, and the rest, as they say…was a take. Cut and print. Mary worked regularly, her parents spending her salary  as fast as she earned it. (After her mother’s death Mary found her diary and discovered how much Helen had hated her.)

Cast opposite John Barrymore, Mary fell in love and they embarked on a clandestine relationship — she was a teenager, he was 41. And married. Though they spoke of marriage, Barrymore eventually, inevitably dropped her from a great height.

As part of a difficult disengagement from her parents, Astor married aspiring director Ken Hawks, in 1928. He avoided sexual congress, she had an affair — and an abortion. Ken was killed filming aerial shots for a never released film.

The twenty-three-year-old widow married Dr Franklyn Thorpe, who was older, shorter, and less talented at his job than Mary was at hers. But he had his uses, forcing Mary to confront her parents about cutting off financial support. The better to support HIM. In 1932 the couple had a daughter, Marylyn.

Unhappily married for the second time, Mary was ripe for the, er, plucking. Ahead of a trip to NYC, a friend set Mary up with letters of introduction to Bennet Cerf and George S Kaufman, assuring her that they were both up for it, and discrete.

She had a steamy fling with Kaufman (who enjoyed an open marriage), and wrote all about it in her diary. ALL about it. Trouble ensued when, back in LA, she asked her husband for a divorce. He revealed that he’d read every saucy word, threatened to ruin her, and insisted on custody of their daughter.

The couple wound up in court while Astor was filming Dodsworth, directed by the great William Wyler.

The papers got hold of transcripts of Astor’s diary. The shit hit the fan. Kaufman was subpoenaed to testify and went into hiding, reportedly telling Moss Hart, “After this trial nobody will remember anything I’ve done — only that I screwed Mary Astor.”

Not true, though her delight in his size and stamina do have sticking power.

The cavalry rocked up, eventually, when the court heard that Astor’s diary had been partially mislaid (apart from photocopied pages), and on the basis of evidence tampering, its introduction was disallowed in court. (It was eventually destroyed.) Sorel cites Astor’s memoir when he explains that she got through the trial by pretending she really was Edith Cortright, the self-confident, self-reliant paragon she was playing so elegantly in Dodsworth. She won primary custody of Marylyn.

Sorel whizzes through the remainder of Astor’s life — a conversion to Christianity, subsequent films, including The Maltese Falcon, more marriages, alcoholism, and an old age plagued by health problems that confined her to care homes and hospitals until her death in 1987.

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