Mary Astor

Hollywood Stardom and Scandals

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Academy Award winning actress Mary Astor’s Hollywood career spanned four decades and she was valued by critics and audiences alike. To quote director Lindsay Anderson: when “two or three who love the cinema are gathered together, the name of Mary Astor always comes up, and everybody agrees that she was an actress of special attraction, whose qualities of depth and reality always seemed to illuminate the parts she played.”

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Beginnings

Mary Astor was actually born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke on May 3, 1906 in Quincy, Illinois. Her father was from Berlin, Germany and her mother, who was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, had Portuguese roots. While her father was teaching German until the start of WW I, her mother had always wanted to be an actress and taught drama and elocution. 

At the tender age of 13, Astor sent a photograph of hers to a beauty contest of Motion Picture Magazine and became a semi-finalist.The next year , she would participate in another beauty contest by the magazine, became a finalist and then runner-up in the national contest. 

Her father, who always supported her artistic endeavors and had encouraged her to play the piano, moved the family to New York City to enable his daughter to make it in motion pictures. Her discovery though came through the lens of Manhattan photographer Charles Albin. Albin asked her to pose for him and those photos caught the yes of Famous Players-Lasky’s Harry Durant and subsequently Astor was signed on a six-month contract with Paramount. Her birth name was changed to Mary Astor by Jesse Lasky, Walter Wanger and Louella Parsons during a joint conference. 

Start in the movies

So, 14 year-old Mary Astor started in the movie business with a screen-test directed by none other than Lilian Gish, who was greatly impressed by Astor. Her movie debut then was in the 1921 silent film Sentimental Tommy, but, in the end, her role would end up on the cutting room floor. Subsequently Paramount did not renew her contract and Astor would instead appear in some shorts and two-reelers as well as her first feature length film John Smith in 1922 and The Man Who Played God. Finally, in 1923, the family moved to Hollywood – following the movie industry to the West Coast. 

Working for several studios in larger roles, she finally received another contract from Paramount – this time for a year at $500/ week. None other than famed actor John Barrymore saw a picture of Mary Astor in a magazine and cast her for his upcoming 1924 movie Beau Brummel for which she was loaned to Warner Bros. When her contract with Paramount ended, she was then signed by Warner Bros. and appeared in several movies, including Don Juan opposite John Barrymore in 1926. On loan to Fox Film Corporation, she filmed the highly successful 1926 movies Dressed to Kill and Dry Martini, Mary Astor said about these movies: I  “absorbed and assumed something of the atmosphere and emotional climate of the picture.” It offered “a new and exciting point of view; with its specious doctrine of self-indulgence, it rushed into the vacuum of my moral sense and captivated me completely.” Those two movies eventually led to her being signed by Fox once her Warner Bros. contract ended earning her $3,750/week. With sound taking over Hollywood, Mary Astor did a sound test and was deemed unfit for the new medium because of her deep voice. Thus, Fox released her from her contract and Astor was out of work for a straight eight months. 

Sound movies

When being out of work due to a seemingly too deep voice in 1929, Astor would make use of the time, train with a vocal coach and take singing lessons. Her friend Florence Eldridge, wife of Frederic March and an actress in her own right, helped Astor get a role at the Majestic Theatre in Downtown LA. The reviews lauded her performance as much as her low and vibrant voice. She then made her sound debut in the 1930 movie Ladies Love Brutes before she suffered a nervous breakdown over her first husband’s death. Smart Woman followed in 1931 before Astor would take on her most memorable role in MGM’s 1932 movie Red Dust opposite Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. In 1933, she would finally take the female lead role in The Kennel Murder Case opposite William Powell as detective Philo Vance. The movie was deemed a masterpiece by film critics. 

In 1937, Mary Astor went back to the stage and started to make regular radio appearances. And she starred in several movies, with the most important role of her career as temptress Brigid O’Shaugnessey in The Maltese Falcon opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1941. That same year she played a supporting role in The Great Lie and received an Academy Award for her performance. It was Bette Davis who cast her for the role after seeing Astor play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 – thanks to her father insisting Mary Astor should learn piano, she had become a prolific piano player. Davis also engaged Astor to help her rewrite the script that she deemed only mediocre. And, to make things even more interesting, Astor would sport bobbed hair for the role. 

But, despite this success, Mary Astor refused to become a top-billing A-lister and would even refuse offers to do so. She apparently felt much more comfortable not carrying the success or failure of a movie on her shoulders. Thus, she would continue to mostly appear in supporting roles and was reunited with Humphrey Bogart in John Huston’s Across the Pacific in 1942. 

Also in 1942, Astor was signed by MGM, which proved to be a bad move. MGM kept her busy with boring, underdeveloped and interchangeable roles. Astor herself later dubbed this type of roles „Mothers for Metro“. With only one or two exceptions, she played these roles and opted not to renew her contract with MGM in 1949. 

Stage and TV

After making an impressive Broadway debut in 1945 in Many Happy Returns, Astor was cast in the lead role of the 1952 play The Time of the Cuckoo, toured with it and stayed in New York after the tour’s end. Here she worked in the theater and on television. 

Her TV debut was in 1954 for Kraft Television Theater in The Missing Years and she would appear on many television shows throughout the years, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Rawhide, Justice, Thriller, Dr. Kildare, Burke’s Law, Ben Casy and The United States Steel Hour. 

After the Broadway failure The Starcross Story in 1954, she went on a successful theatre tour with the play Don Juan in Hell, which was directed by none other than Agnes Moorehead and co-starred Ricardo Montalban. 

During the late 1950s, Astor would resume work in the movies and made a memorable comeback in Return to Peyton Place in 1961 when Astor was already 55 years old. Her final film would be collaboration with her friend Bette Davis in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte in 1964 – the sequel to What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? in which Joan Crawford refused to star. It was her final movie appearance after 109 movies she had filmed in 45 years. 

Family Troubles

In 1925, Mary Astor’s parents bought the Moorcrest estate in Hollywood, which had been built by the Theosophical Society in 1912 and had served as home to Charlie Chaplin before Astor’s parents bought the lot. Moorcrest would become something of a prison to then 18-year old Astor. She was not allowed to leave the premises alone and only got a $5 allowance (and that was after negotiating it), although she earned up to $2,500/week. On top of that Astor was constantly abused physically and psychologically. The next year, when she was 19 years old, Astor would climb from her bedroom window and flee to a hotel. Astor eventually returned to the family home when getting the freedom to come and go as she pleased and a savings account. But, her paychecks would still be sent directly her father, who would live with servants and chauffeurs like a king in the grand mansion, with Mary just seeing a part of her salary. This would continue even after her first marriage to Ken Hawks. The cheques would continue to be sent to Moorcrest whilst Mary Astor and her husband would live off of his salary alone. It would be another seven years until she gained full control of her salary at the age of 26. Of course, then, her parents would sue her for financial support and Astor agreed to pay them $100/month. Whilst her parents spent Astor’s money lavishly before she gained control, and still when she already was in control, they would now try to invest in the stock market, which more often than not ended in losses. Moorcrest itself was expensive to keep and Astor actually had to turn to the Motion Picture Relief Fund in 1933 to pay her bills thanks to her parents lifestyle and bad financial decisions.

Her father Otto Langhanke died in 1943 from a heart attack complicated by influenza, Both Mary as well as her mother were by his side. Mary’s mother Helen Langhanke died three years later of a heart ailment. Astor, again, was at her side, but, sadly, the experience was quite traumatizing for Astor as her mother was delirious and would tell her all about terrible selfish Lucile, which was Astor’s birth name. Astor also read her mother’s diary and discovered that her mother really hated her.

Health and Death

Mary Astor was a heavy alcoholic and had admitted to it already in the 1930s, but by the late 1940’s it slowly spiraled out of control. In 1949, she went to a sanatorium for alcoholics. 

In 1951, her third suicide attempt was recorded by the police. Astor herself had called her doctor admitting to have taken too many sleeping pills. Although this time Astor explained it as an accident. That same year she joined Alcoholics and Anonymous and converted to Roman Catholicism. It was actually a priest who was also a psychologist that Astor credited for helping her. He encouraged Astor to write down her past experiences, which would later become her autobiography „My Story: An Autobiography“, which was published in 1959. The book health exclusively with her private life, her parents, her childhood, her marriages, her scandals and her alcoholism, but it did not touch on her professional life and Hollywood. Instead, Astor would publish another book, called „A Life on Film“, in which she discussed her career in detail. Bitten by the writing bug, Astor would pen five more books, all novels, published between 1960 and 1968.  

In the late 1960s, Astor moved to Fountain Valley, California, to be near her son but eventually settled in a cottage at the Motion Picture & Television Country House, Hollywood’s retirement facility. She died there in the hospital ward on September 25, 1987 at age 81 and was interred in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.  

Relationships

John Barrymore – Mary Astor met John Barrymore when he cast her based on photographs in a magazine for his movie Beau Brummel in1924. At that time, John Barrymore was 40 years old, Mary Astor was only 17. Barrymore pursued Astor and the attraction was reciprocated – but Astor’s parents were unhappy about the blooming romance as Astor was still legally underage. But, more so, they did not want Mary to get involved with anyone as she was their meal ticket and brought in the money. 

They would only be able to spend time together when Barrymore convinced Astor’s parents that he could only provide acting lessons for Mary if they could work privately. They slept together and Barrymore asked her more than once to marry him during their 17 months together. 

But the romance ended because of the heavy interference by Astor’s parents and the unwillingness or inability of Mary to take a stance and separate herself from her family. Barrymore would lose his interest and also respect for Mary as he realized she would be tied to her parents for ever or at least for a long time. Later, Barrymore would fall in love with Dolores Costello when she was cast for one of his next movies, for which Astor had actually been planned. They would go on to get married and have children. One of their grandchildren would be Drew Barrymore. 

Kenneth Hawks (husband #1) – In 1928, 22 year-old Mary Astor married 30 year-old Kenneth Neil Hawks, brother of famed director Howard Hawks, at her family home Moorcrest. Subsequently, the two moved to their own new home on Lookout Mountain above Beverly Hills. It was the first time that Astor was truly away from her parents. Astor’s paychecks would go directly to her father and the two would live off of Hawks’ paycheck alone. Hawks had been the real love of Mary Astor’s life. With him she felt loved for who she was, an equal treated with respect and love – not like a money machine as her parents did, nor like a student that still needed to learn so much of the world as with Barrymore. The only challenge was Hawks’ low libido as Astor had been sexually initiated by John Barrymore and was very much focused on the physical expression of love, which Hawks could not give her. Thus, she started an affair to satisfy her need for physical love. When Hawks got news of it, he turned to alcohol and became desperate. When Astor realized how much pain she inflicted on her beloved husband, she came to terms with the situation and rather accepted Hawks’ shortcomings instead of losing him.  

Unfortunately, Hawks was killed in an airplane crash in 1930, Astor got the news right after a matinee performance and went home with her friend Florence Eldridge whilst her understudy took over for the day. Astor would return to work quite too soon, resuming her schedule and making her successful sound debut in Ladies Love Brutes which she followed up with a number of other movies until she suffered a delayed shock over Hawks’ death an had a nervous breakdown. 

Dr. Franklyn Thorpe (husband #2) – Whilst Mary Astor recovered from her nervous breakdown she was tended to by Dr. Franklyn Thrope with whom Astor would become romantically involved. Mary Astor desperately wanted to be in love and basically forced him into marriage. They married in 1931. Just one year later, the couple bought a yacht and travelled to Hawaii where their daughter Marlyn Hauoli Thrope was born. But already by 1933, Astor was asking for a divorce as Thorpe had a short temper and had the habit of listing Astor’s faults. They divorced in 1935 and a bitter custody battle erupted over their then 4 year-old daughter. 

The central piece during the battle was Astor’s diary. In it she had documented her short, but intense affair with playwright George S. Kaufman that she enjoyed whilst being in New York to get her mind off of her marriage troubles and to socialize. But it was not only Kaufman’s story in the diary – there were some other affairs documented as well. The background for this behavior lies in the emotional predispositions as well as the romantic experiences of Mary Astor. Circling back to her upbringing, she never saw a loving marriage as her parents were distant with one another and towards Mary only interested in the money flowing in. They never educated her daughter in the physical nor the emotional realm of love, romance and marriage. Furthermore, Mary never had much contact with people her age and no experience with boys, lest men. Thus, Mary who had been pursued by the manliest and liveliest man in Hollywood, John Barrymore, and had had her first sexual encounter with him, equated sex with love. And after her initial desire towards Thorpe had vanished, she asked for a divorce, which was already nine months after the birth of her daughter. But Thorpe did not want a divorce and Astor waited in hopes of things getting better – which they didn’t. So, she went to New York and enjoyed some social time and affairs – as with Kaufman who was a notorious ladies man. Whilst Astor conducted the affair with Kaufman, her still-husband Thorpe had one with Lilian Miles. Basically, they had an open marriage. What was a problem though was the fact that people started talking about Astor and Kaufmann, when Kaufman came to Hollywood and the two would go out together. Thorpe confronted Kaufman and threatened that he would name him as co-respondend in a divorce case. Then, Kaufman confronted Astor and then Astor confronted Thorpe and the whole thing blew up. That was in early 1925. 

One of the servants to Thorpe and Astor found her diary, in which she had talked about her plan to leave Thorpe with her baby. Subsequently, Thorpe took the diary from Astor to blackmail her into giving him full custody for their daughter. His lawyers would not present the evidence as such but allude to its contents. As Thorpe had tempered with it, erasing pages about him and adding new fabricated content, the judge ordered the diary sealed and impounded. It would be in a bank vault for 16 years until 1952, when it was retrieved and subsequently destroyed. They managed to come to a 50/50 custody agreement. But when she realized that Thorpe was hitting the baby and undermining her authority as a mother, Astor filed a petition to regain custody and would eventually win. Luckily, the scandal did not damage Astor’s career and she was able to continue her scheduled performances afterwards. 

Manuel del Campo (husband #3) – 32 year-old Mary Astor and aspiring actor and diplomat’s son Manuel del Campo, who was seven years Mary’s junior, married in secret in 1938, away from the press and family. They had one son, Anthony Paul del Campo, who was called „Tono“. During WW II, del Campo served in the Army and the couple drifted apart. They divorced amicably in 1941, and stayed on good terms. After the war ended, del Campo stayed in the UK and would hardly ever contact Mary or their son. He went on to marry two more times and work as an editor in London. 

Thomas Wheelock (husband #4) – Mary Astor and stockbroker Thomas Wheelock married on Christmas Day 1945. Wheelock would work with Astor’s money and squandered it away with bad investments, he also encouraged her rampant alcoholism drinking with her. They separated in 1951, but divorced only in 1955. 

Friendships

Florence Eldridge & Frederic March, Irving Thalberg & Norma Shearer – Once Mary Astor was daring enough to get away from her parents and to create a life of her own, she became part of a circle of friends including Florence Eldridge & Frederic March, Irving Thalberg & Norma Shearer. Florence Eldridge was the closest friend and would inform her of the death of her first husband and stay by her side for most of the time. And with Norma Shearer being the sister in-law of Ken Hawks due to his marriage to Shearer’s older sister Athole, it is quite probably that Astor met Kenneth Hawks through this connection.  

Bette Davis – Bette Davis cast Mary Astor in The Great Lie and rewrote the script with her. Astor thanked Bette Davis in her Oscar acceptance speech as Bette Davis allowed Astor to shine in her scenes. They would become life-long friends and be reunited on the screen in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte. 

Ruth Chatterton – Ruth Chatterton was Mary Astor’s co-star in 19XX’S Dodsworth. This was the time of Astor’s custody battle with husband #2, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe. Astor was filming during the day and attended court at night. And Ruth Chatterton was by her side every day throughout the ordeal. That is real and lasting friendship. 

With all my love!

xx

Kate

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