DECEMBER 31, 2016
AT 87, EDWARD SOREL has been drawing cartoons and illustrations for most of his life. His satirical illustrations have been appearing in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and other prestigious publications for half a century. Sorel’s signature style is haphazard pen and ink, full of color and bobble-headed caricatures. Cultural icons of the ’30s and ’40s, from Tennessee Williams to Joe Louis, frequently people Sorel’s drawings. One assumes that this fondness for the past is what inspired Sorel to illustrate — and write — a hybrid nonfiction book about golden age Hollywood actress Mary Astor. As an enthusiast of Hollywood Babylon–style gossip, it’s hard for me to resist anything with “Sex Scandal of 1936” in the subtitle, and so when I heard about the project I was — in spite of the fact that Sorel is not a professional biographer — eager to dive in.
Mary Astor was an auburn-haired, bug-eyed beauty whose on-screen comportment matched her regal sounding name. A Hollywood star since her teen years, she spoke with trim, dulcet tones that suggested a vaguely aristocratic upbringing. All of this belied the fact that she was born to a Midwestern family of German descent, from whom she received the name Lucile Langhanke. Like so many personas of the studio-era movie industry, her modest origins were recreated and transformed — Cinderella-like — into something altogether more glamorous.
Nowadays, Astor is largely remembered for her role as the insidious Brigid in The Maltese Falcon, in which she starred alongside Humphrey Bogart. But her range was impressive — she was convincing whether she was playing a simmering, buttoned-down wife of an engineer on a French Indochinese rubber plantation in Red Dust; an independent divorcée in Dodsworth; or a graceful matriarch in Meet Me in St. Louis. Her later career turn as an aging prostitute in Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence only further proved her flexibility as a performer.
The trouble with Mary, though, was that she never really cared much for her profession. Her domineering, money-hungry parents had pushed her into show business at 16, leeching nearly every cent of her earnings until she was in her mid-20s. Yet the star would outlast their ill treatment, showing talent and longevity in a Hollywood career that occasionally resembled a bucking bronco, forever on the verge of flinging her into the abyss.
The greatest obstacle Astor faced during that long career is the subject of Sorel’s new book, and it’s all in the title. Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 is Sorel’s pithy but compassionate account of his lifelong fascination with the actress, organized around the dreadful marital bind that Astor found herself in, and the humiliating and sordid public scandal that did much to damage her patrician reputation.
Desperately unhappy in her marriage, Astor had been pursuing a dalliance with wedded playwright George S. Kaufman, and keeping a diary about it. Her grasping husband, Franklyn Thorpe, first used the diary to blackmail Mary, then as evidence during a custody battle over their young daughter.
Sorel describes how, while living in a fixer-upper apartment in ’60s Manhattan, he first learned about this old-timey tabloid fodder. He’d been redoing his flooring when he began to peel old newspapers from beneath the linoleum, and the racy headlines caught his attention. He illustrates this auspicious discovery, and fills the book with animated, tongue-in-cheek caricatures of the various players, including himself. He explains that he “wanted to be Mary’s champion,” to rescue her from obscurity. Having first discovered her dramatic ordeal beneath his floorboards, he felt he was somehow “fated” to tell her story.
Sorel’s writing is simultaneously candid in recounting the events of Mary’s life, and unabashedly biased in favor of the woman for whom he has developed a deep admiration. He gives special attention to her authoritarian father and the litany of wheedling romantic partners who bullied and manipulated Mary for much of her life. He depicts her character as forged in the fires of adversity — specifically, the adversity of constant male bullying. Astor was hedonistic and headstrong, but also susceptible to weakness in love — a trait that would come back to haunt her more than once.
During her trial, hamstrung and fearing for both her livelihood and her family, Astor faced public ridicule for her sexual antics. Fearing bad publicity, a group of the most powerful men in Hollywood — Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and a bevy of other equally adulterous studio heads — pressed the actress to abandon her custody battle. She ardently refused, and went on to win custody of her daughter Marylyn. In fact, she made one of her most celebrated films, Dodsworth, while the trial was taking place — appearing tired-eyed on the witness stand after long days on the set.
Thankfully for Mary, the same powerful men who encouraged her to capitulate protected her from further disgrace. The movie industry had a vested interest in seeing Astor’s diary expunged from the public record. The Catholic Legion of Decency had threatened a boycott of all of her films if the diary went public, and miraculously, it never did. It was unlocked from its vault and set alight in front of a judge in the ’50s, never seeing the light of day.
Sorel’s odd but deep identification with Astor constitutes a kind of shadow subject of his book. He cites a fractured relationship with his father and a legal name change as things he shares in common with the star. Throughout the book, he offers personal conjecture and even a tongue-in-cheek imagined conversation with the actress’s ghost. These elements are amusing when they relate to the star, but come off less well when Sorel tells anecdotes from his own life. As he discusses his career, his atheism, and his first meeting with his wife, it becomes increasingly unclear what Sorel’s deeper affinity for the actress is about. Why Astor? What deeper fascination does she hold for him? The connections between author and subject seem superficial, and as such might have better been left out of the book.
Sorel also seems to subscribe to the idea that Astor’s private life was more interesting than her film work, which he mentions nearly as an afterthought. More than three quarters of the way into the book, he says, “I haven’t talked much about her films. Some are worth a few words.” He then devotes a handful of pages to her most celebrated roles — alongside Bette Davis in The Great Lie and in the film noir that would define her, The Maltese Falcon.
Surely the remarkable performances of this never-quite-leading actress deserve more attention? Sorel reports that the scandal seemed to have a positive effect on Astor’s audiences, and that she enjoyed a surge of popularity and acclaim following the events of 1936. Her tenacity was impressive, but the strain she underwent still had its consequences: Mary became a functioning alcoholic. By 1949, she was committed to a sanitarium.
One of the most flummoxing choices of Mary’s career has to be her decision to twice reject studio contracts for starring roles. She seemed to prefer the idea of remaining a supporting player. Sorel pauses to share his thoughts on this: “I still cannot fathom her desire to simply play the bourgeois wifey and breed. Did she really have no ambition? No respect for her talent?”
But Sorel never actually seeks to find out what lay behind Astor’s frequent dismissals of her own work. The book provides hints — her hellish upbringing, her meek demeanor in romance, her endless consumption of booze — but they never congeal into a straightforward account. Although Sorel excels at describing Astor’s bearing and outward characteristics, her interior life remains something of a mystery. The portrait we get of the star is fascinating, but also scattershot, relying more on sensationalism and tangential musings than true insight.
Sorel’s book is lively with colorful sketches of Astor’s dramatic life. It’s clear that the author adores and admires the long-dead actress, and his many illustrations of her defiantly jutting chin and large, sensitive eyes are the greatest strength of his book. It’s a shame, though, that the woman at the center of it all — complicated, steely-nerved, and sensuous, fighting tooth and nail against a barrage of men who sought to shame her — comes off here as unknowable in all the worst ways.