Woody Allen Reviews a Graphic Tale of a Scandalous Starlet

he Great American Sex Scandal of 1936
By Edward Sorel
Illustrated. 167 pp. Liveright Publishing. $25.95.

Life is so unfair. I tore up the old linoleum in a grungy apartment I rented years ago and found under it only schmutz, hardened chewing gum and a torn ticket stub to “Moose Murders.” Ed Sorel tears up the old linoleum in his apartment and finds yellowing newspapers with headlines screaming about a scandal that gave him material for a terrific book. Not only does he then write a terrific book, but he illustrates it with his wonderful caricature drawings. Who would figure that Mary Astor’s life would provide such entertaining reading, but in Sorel’s colloquial, eccentric style, the tale he tells is juicy, funny and, in the end, touching.

But why Mary Astor? Just because she happened to be under his linoleum? I mean I liked Mary Astor. I enjoyed seeing her up on the screen, but I never lost my heart to her the way Sorel has, and if it had been my linoleum she surfaced from, I wouldn’t have felt driven to research all the interesting details that have mesmerized the author. To me, Mary Astor was a very good, solid actress but not the exciting equal of, say, Bette Davis or Vivien Leigh. (Who was the equal of Vivien Leigh?) And when Bogart, in “The Maltese Falcon,” says his murdered partner was too smart a detective to follow a man he was shadowing up a blind alley but then tells Astor, “But he’d have gone up there with you, angel. . . . He’d have looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone, grinning from ear to ear,” I give this appraisal a lukewarm nod.

The truth is I can think of a dozen other femmes fatales I’d prefer to be lured up a dark alley with to enjoy a beating or violent death. Even Sorel, who is so smitten with this movie star that he wants to see her put on a postage stamp, agrees she never achieved the sensual humidity of Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe. So what did Mary Astor have that such a good book could be written about her? Well, for one thing, she had a major scandal — and a torrid one at that. And while she may not have projected sex appeal, she did reek of aristocracy, or at least her name, Astor, smacked of the manor. Of course she was in no way related to the richest man who went down on the Titanic. Astor wasn’t her real name. She was born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, a name that would probably never even fit on the average movie marquee.

And as we study Sorel’s text, we are surprised to learn that the woman who played the warm, wise mother of daughters Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the maternal presence who sang with her spouse in the film’s Victorian parlor was in fact a foulmouthed, hard-drinking, sex-hungry carouser. Born to awful parents, a mother who never seemed to like her and a father who exploited her success financially, she developed acting aspirations early and was fortunately blessed not just with talent but great beauty. Just after turning 17, despite her pair of helicopter parents, she was already having a major affair with John Barrymore, who was hugely older than she, infinitely more experienced, a big league boozer and one of the greatest actors on the American stage. A partnering like theirs required clandestine meetings and stolen moments of passion; they met in hotel rooms, they made love. The affair, with its close calls and heavy breathing, is chronicled by Sorel with pace and humor.

I used the word eccentric before to describe his storytelling style, and it includes delightful digressions into his own life experiences. He will suddenly leave the main shenanigans to describe personal anecdotes that somehow seem to add to and not distract from his narrative. In the midst of everything, he suddenly channels the departed Mary from the beyond and converses with her as she candidly reveals personal feelings in a novel interview.

Barrymore’s offer of private “acting lessons” kicked off a drama-filled career.CreditFrom “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary”

At first, Lucile Langhanke was doing some small acting, being noticed mainly for her looks. She soon winds up in the film capital and captures the imagination of Jesse Lasky, a studio big who wants to sign her for pictures. Lasky changes her unwieldy Teutonic birth name, and suddenly she is transmogrified by this Hollywood god into Mary Astor. At first she does small parts in undistinguished celluloid nonsense, but eventually she gains some traction and finds herself a promising actress running with the West Coast party set. As the affair with Barrymore has petered out, she dates, and takes up with a benign character named Glass, who held her interest for a while much to the consternation of her parents, whose influence she has trouble shaking. She drops Glass and meets Ken Hawks, the brother of the great director Howard Hawks. Him she marries, and while he proves companionable as a husband, from the get-go she notices a certain sluggish quality to his libido. Red-blooded herself, young Mary begins an affair with a producer who impregnates her. She doesn’t want the baby, but an abortion would be a career meltdown given prevalent Catholic pressures. She enters some tricked-out joint that advertises what they call “therapeutic treatment” but in fact is a cover for the necessary surgery to send her home appropriately pristine. Cut back to Ken Hawks, her amiable milchidik bedmate who is directing an airplane epic, and wouldn’t you know it, while shooting a flying scene, his own plane crashes and Mary is a widow. Devastated, she is helped in her grief by movie colony friends like Fredric March and Florence Eldridge, by Edward Everett Horton and other familiar onscreen faces because she is by now a regular working actress in the movie community.

All the above and the lurid drama about to unfold are recounted by Sorel in much livelier fashion than my own little sketch-in of events, and his drawings beef up the flavor of the environment he depicts. Mary is sad, she drinks, she works, and eventually meets a doctor named Franklyn Thorpe. Thorpe is a jazzy L.A. medic, in fact, doctor to the stars with a celebrated clientele. He and Mary marry, and in time, although they have a child together, Dr. Thorpe apparently fails the trial by mattress that seems to trip up certain men in Mary’s life. Sorel notes she makes bad choices, and Thorpe is one of them. But while married life between the percales is again humdrum and the relationship is deteriorating, her career is now ascending, and she lands a choice part in the film version of the hit Broadway play “Dodsworth.” One of the stars is the wonderful Walter Huston, and playing his wife is Ruth Chatterton. Mary is the third of the illustrious cast, a prestige score for her. At this point she would really like to be rid of her husband, and who can blame her? His practice has fallen off, and he is dependent on Mary’s fame and fortune for status, much the same as her parasite father was. Dr. Thorpe does not relish the idea of a divorce, and the pair drone on in limbo, paralyzed by those twin gods of failing matrimony, Fear and Inertia. Then comes a trip to New York for Mary, away from her husband. Her hormones tintinnabulating as usual, one senses the critical mass for playing around has been reached.

In New York she is introduced by Bennett Cerf to George S. Kaufman, the most successful comic playwright on Broadway. As much as I love Kaufman and grew up idolizing his inspiration and craftsmanship, I would not rank him Adonis-wise with, say, Clark Gable or Gary Cooper. Despite his brilliant mind and directorial skills, I have to say he was basically a nerdy-looking, professorial type of Jew, complete with standard tribal hooter and the natural blessing of wit common to his people. Behind his long, gloomy face and spectacles this man could never be mistaken for a boudoir mechanic. In fact, Kaufman was a terrified germophobe, and here we see how deep kissing with a hot partner always trumps bacteria. Kaufman swept Mary off her feet. In addition to taking her to empyrean heights in bed, he took her to the theater, to the opera, to “21” and the fabled Algonquin Round Table for lunches alongside Woollcott, Benchley and viper-sharp Dorothy Parker. Another pleasure of the book that Sorel treated me to is a quote of Dorothy Parker’s I never came across before, and I am a devoted Algonquin fan. Apparently disgusted with the trash the Hollywood studios turned out, Miss Parker quipped that MGM stood for “Metro-Goldwyn-Merde.” He also quotes Lillian Hellman’s great description of a vacuous actress: “Her face is unclouded by thought.” So here is our heroine, miserably unhappy in her marriage, doing New York with Groucho Marx’s favorite comedy writer, and that’s saying a lot for Kaufman. When the clock strikes midnight and she must return to California, she presses her husband for that divorce but Thorpe remains intransigent. Opposing lawyers take up arms, and a custody fight ensues for the Thorpes’ only child. The doctor uses the daughter as a weapon to prevent Mary from leaving him. He claims she is unfit as a mother to have possession of their child, and as proof, he says she is a flagrant adulteress. To bear that out, he offers up her diary. Oy vey, there’s a diary.

CreditFrom “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary”

Can you believe this woman committed those four-times-a-night workouts with Kaufman to print and, worse, her husband has somehow secured said raunchy volume? In it are graphic accounts of the sex between this married mother and another woman’s spouse. Yes, Kaufman too was a married man, and as the first accounts of their purple canoodling hit the tabloids, the court fight turns into a blood bath. Of course it must be said Kaufman and his wife Beatrice had an open marriage, which meant both were free to explore their own romantic adventures without threat to the household. While these ground rules make cheating a nonissue for Kaufman, the public embarrassment of having one’s every fondle logged rhapsodically, even with an A-plus report card, can make a man somewhat self-conscious entering a restaurant.

Also the level of sophistication required to appreciate Kaufman’s type of free-loving arrangement with his wife reads like Swahili to Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch, and the Porches were precisely who kept the nation’s motion picture industry solvent. Many a Beverly Hills swimming pool was dependent on popcorn sold in the Bible Belt. On top of this, our heroine was still in the middle of filming “Dodsworth,” her big opportunity to move up in class. Suddenly the studio looks around and realizes they have a very heavy financial investment in a movie featuring a tabloid adulteress doing a laundry list of abominations with a libertine New York husband whose ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh, if you get my meaning. The panicky moguls hear certain church fathers float the word boycott. They begin to smell box office leprosy. After all, the American public was at that time such a clean public, such a naïve nation of holier-than-thou prudes. Think about how demonstrably upset even in much more liberal years people were during the making of “Cleopatra” when Richard Burton was fooling around on the set with succulent Liz Taylor while she was still married.

Now imagine you’re Sam Goldwyn sitting on top of his liability with half a movie in the can and one of the stars is suddenly famously wicked. What would you do? Goldwyn did what any businessman in crisis mode would do. He called a meeting. Should they fire Mary, eat the money already spent filming half a movie, recast and begin again? Do they scrap the whole project altogether and flush away production costs plus the numerous bucks they shelled out to buy the rights? Meanwhile, as the tabloids ran excerpts from the portion of the diary allowed in evidence, many a celebrity sweated audibly over the nightmare that he might wind up doing a walk-on part in the next installment of Astor’s caloric hanky-panky. Fortunately for all, the judge on the case was into the studio heads for several career favors, and at this point I will bail and refer you to Sorel’s book for an account of how things turned out, which he does much better than I ever could.

It is, of course, common knowledge that Mary did go on eventually to do “The Maltese Falcon” and “Meet Me in St. Louis,” two great American movies, and she was quite effective in the disparate roles. She continued to act, she retired, wrote books that hit the best-seller lists and in a moving finale to this whole mishegas, she gets done in by the demon rum, the ravages of age and the toll of a life lived on an emotional trampoline. Her last days are spent in an actors’ retirement home, a very lovely one with individual cottages. There is much good companionship available there, but she mostly chooses to dine alone and to be by herself. She dies in bed peacefully, leaving behind a legacy of fine movie performances. I believe it was Sartre who said all lives were of equal value and who am I to argue the point, but some lives are so much more fun to read about than others, and Sorel has told Astor’s story with great flair and energy. I hope he gets his wish and over time Mary winds up commemorated on a postage stamp. Until then, I’m going to have another look under my linoleum. Maybe among all that schmutz there’s an idea I could take to the bank.