A masterpiece of mordant wit and cruel accuracy, Sorel’s Nixon is less a human face than a poisonous pastry. It is a misshapen dough-face with beady eyes as dead as rancid prunes, a heavy black beard that could just as easily be poppy-seeds as rat turds, and a thrusting, penis-shaped batard of a nose. It not only looks like Nixon, but it also looks like Nixon’s unspeakable soul.
Alas, we don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.
Sorel’s new book, Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, is an odd miscellanea inspired by the author’s lifelong enthusiasm for a particular film star and a long-forgotten court case over custody of Mary Astor’s only daughter. “For half a century I promised myself that someday I would do a book about the Astor trial,” Sorel writes, “but deadlines always got in the way. Then magazines stopped having much use for illustration. I have plenty of time now.”
It’s a shame. For years I’ve scoured eBay for back issues of Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and Esquire containing his work and purchased multiple copies of George V. Higgins’s collected articles on Watergate, The Friends of Richard Nixon, just because Sorel did the cover art. The wraparound illustration shows the president and his co-conspirators as a dead-end group of florid alcoholics and criminal lowlifes, dressed like 1930s bank robbers, à la Pretty Boy Floyd, holed up in a cheap hotel, sporting fedoras and Thompson machine guns, taunting the G-Men to come and get ’em.
As a fan, then, I confess that reading Sorel’s new book makes one wish he would spend his time portraying the new president rather than reaching back to old movie stars. Could any inhabitant of the White House be more inspiring to the caricaturist than the Orange Crush?
It is unfair to criticize an author for the book that he didn’t write. Each writer is entitled to his subject, however obscure, and, to his credit, Sorel admits his subject is both obscure and random.
In 1965, while renovating a New York apartment, Sorel discovered a trove of 1936 newspapers detailing the child custody trial involving the Astor’s only child. Every generation thinks it invented sex and, by extension, the sex scandal.
For weeks, the nation was transfixed by the case. Astor’s ex-husband used Mary Astor’s own diary to portray her as an unfit mother. The press paid special attention to Mary Astor’s graphic descriptions of her affair with playwright George Kaufman.
“After I read her memoirs and realized she had a gift for writing, I really fell for her,” Sorel writes. “I decided to become her champion just as — if you’ll forgive my presumption — Felix Mendelssohn had become the champion of J. S. Bach and rescued the Baroque composer from relative obscurity. I felt driven to do the same for Mary.”
If you can forgive the presumption — or, better yet, if you share Sorel’s love of Mary Astor — the book is a strange, idiosyncratic treat about the silliness of the United States’s prudish fascination with adultery, the bumbling ways of Hollywood studio fixers, and the not nearly as bright as she thought she was tragic-comic heroine of the story.
It is filled with Sorel’s color illustrations of the highs and lows of Astor’s career: her childhood with an awful, domineering father; her first love affair — with John Barrymore, no less — the many marriages and bad movies that followed; and the court proceeding. Each Sorel illustration is rich with the artist’s indulgent line and ironic use of shadow, which conveys the complexity of human foibles better than almost anybody.
If, however, you have a hard time caring about Mary Astor or her sexual escapades, the book is a slog. Sorel may adore her, but his illustrations convey exactly what a big, unattractive, lumpy woman she was. What his pictures can’t convey is Astor’s campy, over-the-top, breathy delivery of lines, or her ursine lack of grace, or the fact that she combined the warmth of a prison matron with the been-there-done-that ennui of an especially hungover Tallulah Bankhead.
You think Kim Novak was mannish? Mary Astor made Margaret Dumont look sexy. She is best known for her role as the femme fatale in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, a great film that she almost single-handedly managed to derail with a performance so wooden it makes the statue referred to in the title charismatic by comparison.
In the book, Sam Spade is torn up about having to give up Astor’s character over to the police. In the film, Humphrey Bogart looks almost gleeful to send her across the river.
“Inspiration demands the active cooperation of the intellect joined with enthusiasm,” Giorgi Vasari wrote. “And it is under such conditions that marvelous conceptions, with all that is excellent and divine, come into being.”
Except when it doesn’t.
Art is not math. Inspiration plus cooperation plus enthusiasm does not always equal the marvelous, excellent, or divine. Sorel’s book contains a number of personal asides about his relationships with members of his family and the opposite sex. The result is a strange hybrid: a graphic dual biography of Astor and the author, in which the author even claims to have channeled the spirit of the deceased actress through the efforts of an unidentified monsignor.
Like Sorel, I love old movies and have my own screen crushes (Lizabeth Scott, Walter Slezak), but I keep them to myself.
Sorel believes Astor should be on a postage stamp and provides examples of what it should look like in the book. It’s a free country. He can lobby for anything he wants. Unlike Visari, I don’t want to know about the lives of the great artists.
At a time when the nation needs our greatest political satirists and cartoonists to afflict the powerful, it is a shame to see Sorel expending his gifts on this bagatelle of a book.
If he wants to write about the past, let him look to his greatest creation. We don’t have Nixon, but we are still burdened with Nixon fans. They harbor a twisted belief that the disgraced president was somehow better than we remembered: a damaged but brilliant political savant. Echoes of Nixonian politics can be heard in Trump’s appeal to the silent majority of nativists, America Firsters, and the rest of the anti-intellectuals who make American politics such a freak show.
Just recently, there was a woefully under-reported discovery in H. R. Haldeman’s declassified phone logs that Nixon did, indeed, work to undermine President Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 peace efforts to end the Vietnam War. The logs prove beyond all doubt that long after leaving the White House, Nixon continued to lie when he denied sabotaging treaty negotiations. And he lied for the very good reason that he did not want to admit that he had placed his own ambitions before the good of his country, at the cost of thousands of American and tens of thousands of Vietnamese lives.
Would Sorel but give us just one image of Nixon in Hell trying to wash that blood off his hands he would do the nation a great service by reminding the uninformed, misinformed, and willfully moronic defenders of Nixon what a reprehensible villain he was.
Now that he’s gotten this Mary Astor nonsense out of his system, maybe he will.
Jonathan Shapiro is the author of Deadly Force: A Lizzie Scott Novel, and the co-creator and executive producer of Goliath on Amazon Prime.