Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

  • By Edward Sorel
  • Liveright
  • 176 pp.

The legendary illustrator delivers a rip-roaring fan bio that reminds us coitus isn't a recent invention.

Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

Edward Sorel fell in love with Mary Astor while peeling up linoleum in his New York City apartment. The year was 1965, and under the layers he found a trove of newspapers from 1936. He never does say how the new kitchen turned out, but once he started reading those screaming headlines — ASTOR DIARY “ECSTASY,” ASTOR’S BABY TO BE JUDGE — he was hooked on the starlet.

It took the much-lauded cartoonist/caricaturist/illustrator another 50 years to get around to capturing that story in words and his inimitable illustrations. When he finally did, the project expanded beyond the diary scandal to become a more complete biography, Mary Astor’s Purple Diary. (Sorel notes that, oddly, for a pretty big star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, one had not been written on Astor before.) What’s even better is that he peppers Astor’s story with snippets from his own life, which gives the book its relatable center and the reader a two-for-one memoir.

Sorel leads us on a rollicking tour through scads of cads and scandal in Old Hollywood, of which Mary Astor was a packaged, commoditized product. Beginning her career in the silent movies of the 1920s, she had the face of an angel, the diction of a queen, and, apparently, the language of a longshoreman. Born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Illinois to a rapacious set of parents who used her as a meal ticket, she got her first movie contract and her new name when she was 14.

By 17, still very much under her parents’ thumb, Mary nonetheless was able to undertake an affair with dashing alcoholic superstar John Barrymore. According to her autobiography, My Story, he was the great love of her life, but her unwillingness to cut ties with her tyrannical parents led him to find a replacement. His memorable break-up line to her: “Dear Goopher, I’m just a son of a bitch.”

Generally, the rest of her men, especially husbands, were no better to her or for her, and often seemed chosen at random. Her lifelong habit of keeping a diary got her into trouble with her second husband, Franklyn Thorpe, a black-hearted gynecologist who thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle that Mary’s salary purchased, but who treated her with contempt.

When, after their divorce, Mary tried to change the custody terms for their daughter, Marylyn, Thorpe made good on his pre-divorce threat to use her explicit diary as proof she was an unfit mother.

Thus, what should have been a quiet custody hearing turned into a protracted, salacious, media-frenzy of a trial that took place in the evenings to allow Mary to continue to work on the film “Dodsworth.” Thorpe kept leaking purported sections of the diary to the press, many of them fabricated, to feed the frenzy.

Stakes were high for Mary, since Samuel Goldwyn could easily fire her on a morals clause and kill her career. Stakes were equally high for those discussed in the “purple” diary, most notably playwright George S. Kaufman, whose sexual prowess and stamina gave her much to write about. But because of a faulty chain of custody and clear evidence that it had been tampered with, not to mention overwhelming pressure on the judge to bury it, the diary was rendered inadmissible.

The details of the behind-the-scenes machinations of studio bosses and other power-wielding folks like morals boss William Hays are fascinating, while Mary’s continual poor choices in men and career are both maddening and saddening.

But the reason to read this book — in hardcopy form, please — is to enjoy what may be 87-year-old Sorel’s last collection of original artwork. The two-page reclining nude of Mary that graces the book’s end-paper, surrounded as she is by the defining elements of her celebrity, is by itself worth the purchase price.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle, and reviews regularly for both the Independent and the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society. She is serving as chair of the 2017 and 2018 Books Alive! writers’ conference, and is president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association.

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