Book Review: Mary Astor's Purple Diary

Apr 4, 2017

Toward the end of his adoring tribute to Mary Astor, the villainess star of The Maltese Falcon, the famous cartoonist Edward Sorel explains his half-century infatuation with Mary as just another odd couple. “Why did Frederik Chopin fall for a woman who smoked cigars?” he asks. And “Why would Donald Trump, who prides himself on his good taste, fall in love with Donald Trump?” In other words, don’t ask.  

As to why Sorel was obsessed and why he wrote this beautifully illustrated little book, Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, his answer is twofold. Accidental discovery of old newspapers about his beloved and admiration of her work.

A struggling 36-year-old artist in 1965, Sorel was pulling up an old kitchen floor one day when lo! He found newspaper clippings reporting on a sensational custody trial that involved Mary’s attempt to gain control of her young daughter after divorcing her doctor husband. Mary’s exploitative ex, however, the second of four money-grubbing husbands, pushed back, claiming Mary was an adulteress. His evidence? Her 200-page diary that he somehow got hold of. And what a diary it was – the media and the general public couldn’t get enough, especially as they chronicled Mary’s liaison with the most successful Broadway playwright of the time. The married George S. Kaufman was the love of Mary’s life. A man of limited commitments and unlimited sexual appetite, as Sorel notes, Kaufman would never marry her, she knew. After all, he was the wit who suggested that Irving Berlin’s “I’ll be loving you, always” be changed to “I’ll be loving you Thursday.”

Mary consented to be his Thursday girl, just as a few years earlier at the age of 17 she became John Barrymore’s ingenue. His name, too, appeared in the diary.

Mary Astor had always fascinated Sorel, but what fascinates the reader is what Sorel’s narrative reveals about the different worlds of theatre and movies, intellectual New York, “craven” Hollywood. But Sorel’s story also fascinates for what it reveals about Mary – her smarts, her courage, especially when the court transcript showed how cool she could be under “fierce and unrelenting” cross examination. Sorel believes that Mary kept her cool by extending into the courtroom her role as the lively and independent heroine of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth, which she was filming at the time.  

Sorel sympathizes with the aristocratic-looking star, born Lucile Vasconcellos Landhanke, seeing in her tyrannical father a parallel to his own. In fact, among the many delights of this book are Sorel’s digressions about his own life – political, professional, marital. He, too, changed his name – from Schwartz to Sorel, courtesy of Julien Sorel, the ambiguous protagonist of Stendhal’s 1830 novel The Red and the Black. But Sorel never changed his mind about his adored icon. Like Mendelssohn rescuing Bach from obscurity, he “champions” Mary, “fated” to do so he’s convinced by his newspaper discovery.

She had a “gift for writing,” he says. So does he.