Mary Astor and Her Dirty Diary

I learned about blow jobs from Charlie Chaplin. (Yes, that Charlie Chaplin.) I was about 12 and with my babysitting earnings I bought the book Hollywood Babylon. As a passionate old movie fan, and an adolescent girl with a filthy mind and an even filthier curiosity, a book like Hollywood Babylon was a dream come true. The book dealt with various Tinsel Town scandals, and while I now know that much of the book is just blatantly untrue and much is just based on gossip, at the time it was my bible, and I don’t use that term loosely.

(What does all this have to do with Mary Astor? Don’t worry, I’m getting to it. Just allow yourself to be bored by stories of celebrity blow jobs for now. Somehow try and muddle through.)THE_DIARY_of_MARY_ASTOR__35190

Hollywood Babylon was my bible because in addition to giving me all kinds of titillating secret stories about famous movie stars, it solidified a world view that had haunted little-girl-me for several years. Unfortunate and unseemly circumstances in my little-girl-life (which you can read about here, if you choose) had given me an unsettling perspective on the world, namely that all is not what it seems. I’m not talking about merely a there-is-no-Santa-Claus way; this was more in a Santa-Claus-ties-up-little-girls-at-the-North-Pole-and-lets-the-elves-do-horrible-things-to-them-with-candy-canes way. I loved my old movies and worshipped my movie stars and to read that this lovely ingénue did this, and this dapper gentleman liked to do that, well, it showed me all was not as nice, and a helluva a lot more lurid, than it seemed.

Which brings us to Mary Astor. (See, I told you.) The book had a whole chapter on Mary’s 1930s custody battle and the infamous diary entries that came to light. If you aren’t sure who Mary Astor is, she’s most famous as Bogie’s co-star in The Maltese Falcon and for roles in lots of classic films like Midnight, Dodsworth, The Palm Beach Story, The Great Lie, and Meet Me in St. Louis. She’s also famous to me for being deflowered at age 15 by John Barrymore, but then that’s because I read books like Hollywood Babylon as a child.

Mary was divorcing her second husband  (a doctor she’d met when he treated her widow willies after her first husband died in a plane crash).  In 1936 a custody battle over their young daughter ensued, and to help his case Dr. Thorpe busted out his wife’s diary to show the court (And America when he leaked it to the press) that this Mary was no saint. Hollywood Babylon’s tough investigative journalism brought to light these diary snippets:

His first initial is G, and I fell like a ton of bricks. I met him Friday. Saturday he called for me at the Ambassador and we went to the Casino for lunch and had a very gay time! Monday—we ducked out of the boring party. It was very hot so we got a cab and drove around the park a few times and the park was, well, the park, and he held my hand and said he’d like to kiss me but didn’t.

Tuesday night we had a dinner at ‘21’ and on the way to see Run Little Chillun he did kiss me—and I don’t think either of us remember much what the show was about. We played kneesies during the first two acts, my hand wasn’t in my own lap during the third. It’s been years since I’ve felt up a man in public, but I just got carried away.

The public was dying to know to what “G man” this theatre-going lap belonged. Turned out the lap was none other than George S. Kaufman’s.  If you aren’t sure who George S. Kaufman is, he’s a kick ass writer, humorist, and member of the Algonquin Round Table.  He’s most famous for writing for the Marx Brothers and such classic plays as The Man Who Came to Dinner, Dinner at Eight, Stage Door and Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take It With You. (He also wrote several screenplays including the 1954  A Star is Born and Academy Award-winning Gentleman’s Agreement.) A hilarious introverted Jewish misanthrope (gee, what are the odds?), George S. was known to be a sort of “morose and intimidating figure uncomfortable with expressions of affection between human beings.”  Still, he was pretty successful with the ladies. (My favorite random factoid: In the 40s he had a big affair with Natalie “Lovey Howell” Schafer.) This may be a clue as to why G. was such a hit:

Afterwards we had a drink someplace and then went to a little flat in 73rd Street where we could be alone, and it was all very thrilling and beautiful. Once George lays down his glasses, he is quite a different man. His powers of recuperation are amazing, and we made love all night long. It all worked perfectly, and we shared our fourth climax at dawn. I didn’t see much of anybody else the rest of the time—we saw every show in town, had grand fun together and went frequently to 73rd Street where he fucked the living daylights out of me.

MARY ASTORSixth-grade-me was more astonished that “People in the 30s cussed!’ than by Kaufman’s stamina. But it’s what didn’t astonish me that was telling. I wasn’t the least bit surprised by Mary’s randy recollections. In Mary’s performances I could always sense the wild animal seething under that cool exterior. Whether she was the prim, repressed doctor’s wife in Red Dust, the wholesome femme d’un certain âge in Dodsworth, or the composed noir shady lady with the horrible matronly ‘do in The Maltese Falcon, I felt there was always this horny hunger and super raring-to-go-ness just under the surface. (And this was at a tender age when, if asked to describe what would constitute horny hunger, I wouldn’t really have the vaguest idea what I was talking about. Maybe something along the lines of, “She really likes to kiss and make out” or “She looks like she goes to third base” – not having the slightest clue what third base was either.)

Turns out I was pretty on the money. Mary was a talented, successful actress but off-set she dealt with quite a few demons. She was an abused child, and she contended with widowhood, divorce and scandal all while still in her 20s. According to her daughter, Marylyn (the little girl that launched those steamy diary snippets), Mary attempted suicide at least 3 times, and she was not only a heavy drinker, “she did her share of heavy everything.”

Some of her pain and experience she put on paper; in addition to two memoirs, Astor wrote novels with relatively lurid subject matter for the time. (For example, in A Place Called Saturday, a woman is raped, conceives a child, and refuses to have an abortion.) I prefer her memoirs, Mary Astor: My Story and A Life on Film, which are very readable and were best-sellers for a time. (The latter book has a chapter entitled, “What It’s Like to Kiss Clark Gable” – so I mean, come on.)MARY ASTOR & HAT

But instead of her drinking and her diary, I remember Mary Astor as a remarkable actress who always made every part real and believable.  Preternaturally mature-looking and sounding, she went pretty quickly from the ethereal long-haired ingénue who captured John Barrymore’s, um, heart, to soignée ladies who knew what the wanted. She was touching in Dodsworth, hilarious in The Palm Beach Story, and hit just the right note as The Maltese Falcon’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a woman with many layers and most of them phoney. I prefer to remember poor Mary as the divorcee in that last scene in Dodsworth, where she raises her arm up, up in unbridled joy. I felt that joy, and I only wish she could have, too.

Postscript: Mary claimed the diary entries leaked to the tabloids had been inaccurate. We’ll never know; in 1952 a judge ordered the infamous journal burned.

Post-postscript: Yes, thanks to Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon I learned that Charlie Chaplin’s teenage bride, Lita Ford, used her fella’s requests for fellatio as grounds for divorce.  She, and by she I mean her mother, wanted the world to know that the Little Tramp’s wife was no tramp. (No, just a pure, innocent gold-digging nymphet.)

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11 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    Hi, Dixie.

    I read “Hollywood Babylon”, as well. And have never been able to look at Mary Astor the same way since.

    Just watched “Red Dust” again on Turner Classic Movies. And like you said, you get the sense of that ‘wild animal’ underneath her prim exterior in this one, and in many others.

    The image of GSK and “Lovie” is a hard one to conjure.

    Excellent write-up.

  2. David Cohn says:

    Dix-Never knew that H.B. wasn’t totally truth-ridden. I always treated it as the gospel and as reliable as anything to come from Louella.
    Now you tell me.

    • Dixie Laite says:

      David, thanks so much for posting on my blog! I, too, treated Hollywood Babylon as the gospel truth as a youngin. But no — turns out Clara Bow did NOT sleep with the entire football team. Who knew?

  3. Dave says:

    I stumbled across your post because I just picked up Mary Astor’s first memoir, and it obliquely referenced the scandalous diary in the opening chapter. Presumably everybody knew this story when the book was published, but I didn’t, so I Googled and found this. Interesting; that’s all I need to know for the moment. Not that I’m not curious about the juicy stuff, but I’ll try to stay focused on the big picture. (I only heard of Hollywood Babylon later in life, already knowing it was unreliable. Figured I’d better not read it, lest it fill my head with non-facts.)

    Lately I’ve been picking up some Hollywood memoirs. I respect the ideal of telling one’s own tale, and trying to make sense of life. But then, vanity and the culture demands a certain posture, so I wonder how much is true. I ready Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir, and it’s a wonderful narrative; the sort of story we want to believe. Then I read her sister June’s first memoir (“Early Havoc”, written in response to “Gypsy”), and it’s somewhat different. Then I read her sister’s second memoir (“More Havoc”, written after both her mother and Gypsy had passed on), and it’s different from the other two. And I see Gypsy’s son has written a memoir as well. Haven’t read that yet. Where is the truth?

    I recently read Moss Hart’s memoir, where he describes meeting and working with George S. Kaufman. Would seem likely from that description that Kaufman wouldn’t have the time or inclination to be a male nymphomaniac. He did come across as substantially eccentric, but a lot of overachievers are that way. But Kaufman may prefer a pleasing narrative to a truthful one.

    Elia Kazan’s memoir is very powerful, and seems to be brutally honest. It’s fascinating. Recommended reading! But is it completely true?

    Along these lines, the film “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” is recommended, if you haven’t seen it yet. (You probably have.)

    We are such messy, complicated creatures. I believe in the ideal of God, of good and evil. I believe that human beings necessarily fall short, and the best we can do is hold fast to our ideals and not abandon them because we can’t quite meet them. (I’d say the old-style posturing of innocence, as phony as it was, had something to be said for it. As opposed to the modern cynical posture. There’s a line, perhaps G.K. Chesterton, something about how in the old days, we lived under a more sincere form of hypocrisy.)

    Dunno why I’m writing this, but there you are. Carry on!

    • Dixie Laite says:

      David, thanks for your comment! I loved your insights (and yes, I have seen “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle”) 🙂

      As for memoirs and the truth, I think the answer to “Where is the truth?” is a sort of read between the lines and use your judgement. I’m not saying people are liars, but everyone has his or her truth, and it’s not always the same. It’s like “Rashomon”. My truth may be different than someone else’s, but it’s still MY truth, and is valid within those confines. My truth — my perceptions shaped me, shape my choices, my life. So the same is true with conflicting memoirs and bios I think. There are multiple truths, and the objective truth, if there is such a thing, may be somewhere in the middle.

      Xo
      Dixie

  4. jean says:

    Just read this post. I also found Hollywood Babylon as a younger teen. loved it and anything scandalous about early Hollywood.the Fatty Arbuckle scandal always was strange to me until I grew up and understood how she was violated. 😉
    I also read an interesting book at a babysitting job I had once, all about the interesting peccadillos of famous people. Hitler had a lot of them.
    Part of what skewed my world view was finding the book Story of Opera when I was in junior high, sitting innocently on an older cousin’s bookshelf, one summer in Texas.

  5. Susan Reynolds says:

    This is great….I am always excited to read informed and thoughtful material about Mary Astor, so intelligent and complex on screen, but seemingly so tortured and unhappy off. She fascinates me, and I continue to hope for a well researched and written bio of her life and work. Thanks so much!

  6. Carol says:

    Probably very truthful, but since a lawsuit was where her Diary was exposed, maybe fiction was the only way to spare the guilty as well as innocent. Burning the proof only means someone had enough clout to get it wiped off the books so it couldn’t be used as blackmail again.

  7. Carol says:

    I love Mary Astor, but never really checked out the scandals, but knew there were scandals to be exposed because in the Broadway Show LITTLE ME, there is a line in one of the songs that says, MARY ASTOR MEET YOUR MASTER…and it was very telling in the life story of Patrick Dennis, who was the little boy in the story about Auntie Mame. Mary Astor’s performances were always wonderful. You loved to hate her, you loved to love her…I liked her as the mother in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS with Judy Garland, and the mother in the movie LITTLE WOMEN, and let’s not forget the Maltese Falcon. She might have had a troubled private life, but her on screen performances were fabulous. How many other actresses had sordid private lives while working their way around Hollywood stardom? Quite a few. Men and Women alike hid things from the public to get ahead, I don’t look at Mary Astor any other way, but a fabulous actress. I hope you try and watch some of her movies and regain your love of her talent. By the way, I wouldn’t give up on any of Marilyn Monroe’s movies because her private life was filled with sadness and scandals too, but she was one fabulous actress the short time she was entertaining us on the big screen.

  8. Elguapo102 says:

    I have always Loved Mary Astor as an actress with real fire and life in all of her movies. I don’t doubt that she had a tough childhood and developed into a steamy, lovely, flower of a lady which showed through all of her films. I will always have fond memories of Mary Astor and salute the wonderful character depictions she has left us to enjoy time and time again in the movies of those early years of film.

  9. Elguapo102 says:

    I have always Loved Mary Astor as an actress with real fire and life in all of her movies. I don’t doubt that she had a tough childhood and developed into a steamy, lovely, flower of a lady which showed through all of her films. I will always have fond memories of Mary Astor and salute the wonderful character depictions she has left us to enjoy time and time again in the movies of those early years of film.

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