Book Review--The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s


The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s
Joseph Egan
Diversion Books, 2016

In 1936, Mary Astor was in the process of filming what was arguably her best performance in the William Wyler-directed drama Dodsworth (1936). She was a few years away from her Academy Award win and the role for which she would be most famous. She had been twice married, once widowed and once divorced. She had had many love affairs; all a part of her continuous quest for romantic sensation to compensate for a lack of emotional maturity.

Astor also had a four-year-old daughter named Marylyn and the actress's battle that year to win custody of her from ex-husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe was front page news. This was because the Dr. had swiped Mary's candid, and steamy private diaries and hoped to use them as evidence against her. In a new book, Joseph Egan explores this explosive trial and the events surrounding it.

It has certainly been the year of the Purple Diary. Back in September I reviewed artist Edward Sorel's saucy, heavily-illustrated take on the trial.  His is a more personal, playful perspective. Of the two books, Sorel's is dancing around with a lampshade for a hat; Egan's is sitting by the fireside, with a strong cocktail in hand. I love both, but if you're looking for details, the latter is where you'll find them.

Egan takes Mary's story from the beginning, which makes sense, because in understanding her life, it is easy to see how she ended up on a witness stand begging for her child. The actress didn't have a strong family foundation. Her father was overbearing and abusive; her mother cold. Once they realized they could make money off of their pretty daughter, they pushed her into the movies and lived richly off her salary.

An affair with Beau Brummel (1924) costar John Barrymore introduced Astor to sex as a way to fulfill her emotional needs. The actor could not tear her away from her overbearing parents, but he planted a seed and eventually she freed herself, sneaking away in the middle of the night and eventually greatly reducing the amount they skimmed from her paycheck. Many affairs would follow, and eventually a sexually bland marriage to director Kenneth Hawkes, who died in a plan crash after two years of marriage.

Astor's second marriage, to Thorpe, would ultimately be even less satisfying, with both relying on affairs with others to satisfy their needs. Turned off by her husband's cruelty and dependence on her salary, the actress found solace in a steamy romance with playwright George S. Kaufman. She shared her experiences and emotions in detailed diary entries, written in brown ink that would look like purple from a distance, hence the name it got in the press.

Astor with baby Marylyn
After months of fighting, threatening divorce and relenting, Astor finally decided she had to be free. Thorpe didn't take it well. He stole the diary, hypocritically threatened to expose her affairs and bullied her into giving him full custody of their daughter Marylyn. Due to a busy studio schedule, Mary had little time to spend with her child, but she loved her desperately and was heartbroken to lose control of her upbringing, despite the fact the Dr. gave her extensive physical custody.

Astor bided her time, and a year after the divorce she decided to go to court. She was aware that the potential exposure of her diaries could ruin her career, but she didn't care. The actress wanted her daughter more than anything else.

Astor with Marylyn and son Tono (from her marriage to playboy Manuel del Campo) in 1944
Egan tells Astor's story with smooth efficiency. He captures important nuances, facts and emotions, but he doesn't weigh his narrative down with unnecessary details. The players in this drama are fleshed out like characters in a play, among them the angry Dr.; the brave, but emotionally damaged Astor; her Dodsworth co-star Ruth Chatterton, who risked her own reputation to sit near her in support at the trial; and Mary's clever lawyer Roland Rich Woolley, who read people so well they could never tell he was manipulating them until it was too late.

The trial and the surrounding drama makes up the bulk of the book, and it is exhausting in its twists and turns. It is astounding to think that for most of the trial Astor was working on Dodsworth during the day and in the courtroom in the evening. No wonder she looks so weary in photos from that time.

Egan takes you into that courtroom, describing the spectators so determined to keep their seats that they would bring lunches to eat on breaks, the expressions of Thorpe, Mary and those who supported them as revelations were made and the exasperation of presiding Judge Knight, who felt the whole thing undignified, overextended and an enduring threat to the sanity of young Marylyn. He writes about Mary's friends sitting with her, Ruth Chatterton chewing gum and Florence Eldridge (wife of Fredric March) smoking a cigarette and you really get a sense of how it felt to be in that room.

I also loved the way the photos in the book were arranged for maximum enhancement of the text. Often when I'm reading, I find myself going online to find images to clarify the text. I never had to do that while reading this book. Every time I wondered what somebody looked like, or even how they looked in a certain moment, I'd flip the page and find the image I wanted. When visuals are approached effectively, they can increase the power of a book exponentially.

This was an interesting read, revealing as much about the people involved as the trial they endured. And Astor did endure. In a few years she played her most memorable role as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in the Maltese Falcon (1941), she'd win an Academy Award for The Great Lie (1941) and there were several years of movie and television roles to come. She tried marriage two more times, and emotionally she would always struggle, never completely finding her way to true human warmth and affection, but she knew how to take care of herself and ultimately came to a graceful end.

I understand and respect Mary Astor a lot more than I did before.

Many thanks to Diversion Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

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